The Union Forever | Vincent Moon

Vincent Moon

The last few installments of the The Union Forever dealt with the possibility of a cinema that is purely online. Not a reproduction of the movie industry on the Internet, but an entirely different mode of creation. The medium is so similar to that of the traditional cinema that few make a distinction or even care to entertain the thought that online content, which is dominated by amateurs, can be an alternative outlet for filmmaking.

One of the most interesting developments has been the Take Away Shows on France’s La Blogotheque. Directed mostly by Vincent Moon, they have come to be a standard for indie artists to showcase their work in a unique environment. Looking further into Moon’s portfolio reveals that he is a filmmaker testing the boundaries of the online realm. He has several projects going at once, but his notoriety as the auteur of the Take Away Shows attracted Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to commission Moon to make the video for the band’s first single off their new album, Accelerate.

Most recently he released a documentary about the making of The National’s latest LP, Boxer, entitled A Skin, A Night. In this instance, it was given an online trailer, but released exclusively as a DVD with the Cherry Tree EP. I expressed some displeasure that the online world failed to be an adequate forum for the documentary and Vincent wanted to explain some things. So, last week we spoke via Skype about some things and here is what I learned.

Vincent Moon’s most immediate concern is the process of capturing images. He stressed to me many times that past events mean less to him than whatever he is doing right now and he often leaves projects completely behind once they are completed. For instance, when I asked him what it was like to be singled out by Michael Stipe as the man who would re-package R.E.M. to the music video-watching world, he mentioned his absolute disgust for music videos and said ““Supernatural Super Serious”” is the worst thing he’s done in the past two years.

R.E.M. – “Supernatural Super Serious” (You Tube)

VM: I hate music videos because they’re like TV. The whole form of the music video is not different [from television]. I didn’t want to do [Supernatural Super Serious], but they insisted so I said, ‘Let’s try and do something. Instead of one, though, let’s try to do 12 videos.’ I didn’t want one final video that everyone would see but no one could interact with. Michael [Stipe] was into giving things to people to edit. I’m not into giving things to people to edit, but I’m really into the idea of giving things to the people. Do you know what I mean?

LMB: And just letting them do whatever they want with it?

VM: Yeah, totally. I don’t care what they do with it. I’ve seen some really smart edits, though, which is cool.

Therefore, as a compromise, when you go to the website you can download all the clips and be in possession of them to do with whatever you want. The most logical thing would be to participate in the video collage the band intended it for, but for Moon, any thing you use them for is cool with him. We’ll have to check the creative commons license, but open source proponents would appreciate his efforts nonetheless.

Talking to Moon, I didn’t get the impression that associating with such a popular band to promote his own success was one of his goals. And his adamant refusal to accept any praise for the project led to responses like, “Do you have any other questions about projects I’ve done because this one really sucks,” and “It’s not an interesting product, but an interesting project, an interesting process.” But Moon was never negative or attempting to rebuke any flak he may have caught for working with such a commercial band like R.E.M. He is simply a filmmaker fully immersed in discovering how to use his gifts and tools in harmony.

His experience with R.E.M. wasn’t all bad, though. He’s happy with 6 Days, which is the edited version of 90 Nights and included as a DVD with the album. Plus, it allowed him to pinpoint his relationship to the online cinema.

The smaller the screen is, the more open the edits should be, the more open the film should be. The interaction should be more important on small screen than on the big screen. When you are at the cinema, the film is edited in a way where it’s very powerful. You don’t have your world in it [as a member of the audience]. When you’re watching it, you’re f***ing watching it. It’s physical. It goes straight into your body.

Then I asked him about The National documentary and the conversation regressed. He described the film as a failure, saying, “It’s difficult to talk about it because it’s seen as my most recent work, but it’s my oldest. That’s old. Young work for me. It’s a film about subtext. The ideas I had about why I was making it [compared to] when I was editing it, I feel like I failed. It could be great, but it doesn’t really work.”

Clip – A Skin, A Night (You Tube)

I asked him if his goals for the film changed throughout the course of the filming, and he described his perceived flaw as a commercial filmmaker: “My main problem,” he explained, “is I feel great while filming, but making the finished product is not interesting. I approached all those moments and I keep them really alive. If we leave with a video that’s cool, but the moments we lived with those people are what matters.”

I then wondered if he knew what The National thought of the film and he said, “We all felt really weird about it for a while.” He explained that even though it was his project, many other people outside of the band felt they had a say in how the finished product would look. I mean, how can you accurately argue for your vision if you have no intention of crafting the end product. His frustration is comparable to scientist receiving a condemnation for a botched hypothesis. They call them experiments for a reason, but Moon seemingly carries no grudges and everyone is at least happy to be done with the project. “It’s part of the past,” he said without a hint of regret.

I enjoyed the series of videos for each song on Beirut’s new album that Moon filmed in Brooklyn, and they seemed to be more in line with the improvised and intimate climate he thrives in, so I asked if he would do any more projects similar to Cheap Magic Inside? He acknowledged that it is “fun to fool around with these websites,” but the process of building hype really bothered him. Similar to 90 Nights, Cheap Magic Inside was equal parts marketing tool and video experiment. Each week, the website would reveal a new video with the final video coinciding with the release date of the album. “The problem with revealing something at different times for promotional purposes,” he said, “is it gets lost in the mass of information. It’s not going to stay after this. It’s going to disappear in the mass of information.”

He then went back to the R.E.M. project adding, “[Supernatural Super Serious] was done to promote an album, but 90 Nights will stay,” alluding to the notion that of the twelve squares exhibited on the website, number twelve, which is the official video and referenced in the press as basically the only component of the project, is no more important than the other eleven. He likened it to video art you would see at a gallery, noting that he enjoyed that aspect of the project.

With all his pragmatic optimism, couldn’t he just admit that the music video is a marketing tool and move on? Isn’t doing something in less than ideal situations better than doing nothing at all? There is some great video art in the form of the music video out there, no?

My position is that I don’t want that. I’m not too cool. It f***ing kills me to do this. You really are asked to give something [specific] and they will give you a lot of money cause they want something very precise. I’m not good at this. The Take Away Shows are improvised and I think I am good with this kind of situation when it is f***ed up. An experiment where we see what happens. The music video you have to be more careful, you have to write it. This is how most of the cinema world and how people think it should work. I don’t think it should work like that at all! But the main reason is because I am not good at [conventional music videos]. The interaction between images and sound is stupid. Putting images on music that are already there, already recorded. Why? So I can follow it? No, that is not exciting. I mean, no. The human experience is not there. I don’t enjoy it.

He brings up an interesting point here, that a song already conjures images, so why is there a need to materialize that image? Wouldn’t the musician have made a film if they wanted the image as a visual? Instead, we are faced with the reality that television accesses more people than radio or live performances so the music industry demands this void be filled. Maybe that’s why A Skin, A Night failed. Moon describes the film as “a movie about live music without seeing it,” adding that the title refers to rock concerts. How does one transform heard music into visual images? My guess is that Moon attempted to answer that question subconsciously knowing that it was impossible and the film’s failure was anticipated, yet the intrigue of disproving something is as useful as proving something, right? Moon’s hypothesis that lead cannot be refined into gold disappointed those who were expecting gold, yet the endeavor is admirable. We learn from our failures more than our successes, so every attempt adds to our collective knowledge.

Still, Moon wouldn’t be in Michael Stipe’s Blackberry if his portfolio were full of admirable failures. The man has a gift for controlled chaos and filming improvised moments, and the Take Away Shows are the best example of Moon’s adeptness. He references the documentary Step Across The Border as the main inspiration for them, and the film could speak for many of Moon’s other goals as a filmmaker. As homage to beat cinema, Step Across The Border is a great film for anyone who understands the void left by the corruption of jazz music into the mainstream. The improvisation of beat cinema and French New Wave cinema will be forever in our cinematic vocabulary, but the sense of freedom present then is now viewed as either carelessness or irresponsibility. Many will interpret Moon’s distaste for his industrial output as naïve, but taken in context one must appreciate the continued existence of the life that jazz once bred.

Furthermore, there is an interesting dichotomy embedded within the Take Away Shows. Moon favors intimacy and improvisation, yet watching an episode is an exercise in voyeurism. You click ‘play’ on your computer and watch something very intimate unfold, yet you are removed from interacting with the film. The viewer is able to comment through text submissions, but a video response is lacking and would be outside the moment even if present. So I ask, how does a filmmaker balance the intimate production versus the voyeuristic exhibition?

I don’t know. I don’t really watch them. There are some videos I have shot but never seen. It goes so fast. I can edit an episode and never watch it all the way through.

That’s to be expected knowing what we do about Moon’s approach to filming, but he is not ignorant of the situation he has created. He uses the Hidden Cameras episode to illustrate this very issue:

I came at end of the gig and said, ‘Lets do this thing,’ and we went outside and they played for the camera. But at some point it wasn’t for the camera, it was for the people outside [who gathered to watch]. I try to keep in mind that with the camera you start the events. I don’t try to be objective. It’s impossible. I am the one starting these ones. There is music in the street because the camera was there first, but as soon as the music started, the camera should disappear as much as possible. It is a weird position I have to find a good balance. To have enough presence to find good energy to start these things then train myself to not be too much of a presence. Just let people enjoy this.

Again, he speaks like a man still wrestling with his medium, which bodes well for his future as an artist. It is rare when someone with notoriety or popularity still questions the very core things for which people praise them. It’s also refreshing when he encourages outside collaboration from those who admire his work. He said he gets emails from people all over asking if they can make an episode of the Take Away Shows. He usually obliges the request because one of the main ideas behind the shows was to make it open source and invite submissions. But there is a fine line between collaboration and imitation: “At some point I have my own style. I hope people develop their own way of filming. I hope people aren’t going to look like Vincent Moon.”

I personally find it hard to watch a Take Away Show directed by someone other than Moon and not use Moon as a reference point. Even when the similarly themed Black Cab Sessions sprung up I thought of Moon. I mention this saturation as a possible watering down of his authorship, but he has no problems with any of it and actually counts the people behind the Black Cab Sessions as friends. That doesn’t mean he agrees with their style or form, he just agrees with the idea of an open source of ideas.

VM: They are good friends of mine. I’ve met them. I’m jealous of their project in fact. They do it for fun and it’s good to do it for fun. I don’t think it’s very interesting for the viewer. Most have been like, well, f***. Is there only, like, music fans watching Take Away Shows? Or am I too pretentious to thinking that it might also interest cinema fans?

LMB: What do you think?

VM: I think much more music fans than cinema fans. I am in a music world. I wouldn’t say music industry because that’s something I kind of hate, but I’m really deep into the music world in the last three years, but not at all into the cinema world. In fact, the unofficial cinema people, the Cannes festival thing, I am happy to not be a part of this.

LMB: What would the cinema world think of the Take Away Shows?

VM: I don’t know what they would think about this. It’s interesting because a lot of cinema ideas deal with things like long shots and single camera. [But] some [music] people don’t think it’s important. It’s the main thing! One camera. It can be edited, but one camera is it. The main point is one camera and to respect this singular thing is very important. Two cameras would kill the viewers’ experience.

The one camera set-up works for the Take Away Shows, but any good artist knows that relying on a technique to create a unique voice merely associates you most directly with that technique. Look at T-Pain and that voice thing he does. Therefore, Moon’s immediacy benefits from his editing skills, something he compares to sculpting. He films everything in the moment unconcerned with technical adjustments and then lets loose in the post-production. It allows him to revel in the moment knowing that he can make improvements to the image later. He explains how it all fits together in the digital world.

It is important to be digital. It would be ridiculous for me to go back. I never really did any films, though [laughs]. It’s nostalgic and impressive…
Some of these new cameras have so much detail that it looks terrible. I’m not trying to mimic film. I hope people don’t think that its 16mm when they see my films because that’s not at all what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create something like sculpting in post-production. Something very unique that is not film.

Knowing that he improvises most everything he does, I inquired to whether he ever does any type of pre-production such as lighting.

I never use any lighting. In fact, on my cameras all my tools like iris are always on auto. It lets me be as free as possible with the moment. I don’t want to be technical with it. You have to know how it works, but you have to use it, too.

With so much talk about being in the moment as the most important thing for Moon, I wondered how in the moment one could be with a camera in the middle of the action.

LMB: If you don’t film something do you feel you have you missed it?

VM: [laughs] It’s a very interesting question. Each night I would go to see concerts I would be filming, but now I refuse [to film concerts] and just dance. I am dancing more and more. It’s all about dancing, it’s all about rhythm. It’s about getting a groove. But I agree that you have to create an organic relationship with your tool. Whether it’s a guitar or a camera.

LMB: Can you experience “normal” without filming it?

VM: I feel weird when I see people filming musicians, I feel like I’m watching myself.

Architecture in Helsinki and Vincent Moon (You Tube)

In a weird meta-life way, it all makes sense.

Aside from filming the last of the Take Away Shows, Moon is involved in a number of projects in development. Below are some of their names and the descriptions Moon gave, although it may be unwise to predict what will actually happen until Moon is there, camera in hand.

Temporary Areas
Temporary areas is my main project. It’s a huge platform for my work which hosts all my films made all around the world. The site will be up soon, it takes so long. Next month I think. A map of the world with videos at the sites filmed. All the films linked to the places where they were shot. I am trying to escape the type of filming that I would do only in the US or Europe. I just want to travel a bit, enjoy it. I am bored sometimes.

ATP Festivals
The idea being filming the festival from my own point of view and getting gonzo and filming everything. The life around the fest, getting crazy trying to film in the worst positions. We go pretty far. You have to see it. Each time its narrated by a musician: Damo Suzuki from Can, Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors, Saul Williams. Each time it’s like a musician talking about their approach to music and life edited with all those images form the festivals.
[similar to the ATP Films series]

First Non-Music Project
It’s about people all around world changing the world in their own community. Creating stuff that is on their own level. Sustainability. New architects, new thinkers, new activsts. In their every day life. Trying to link all the people with new ways of looking. It’s my first non-music documentary approach. It’s a change and I don’t know if it will work.