“Are we rolling? Sorry, I was waiting for Action.”
So begins the 14-minute music video/short film Valentine, featuring the sibling pop group Haim and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s understandable that one of the Haim sisters (Este, Danielle, Alana) is looking for a formal cue for action at the start—this video is, after all, being directed by perhaps the greatest American film-maker of his generation.
Valentine is the opposite of a high-concept video; Anderson simply shoots the band recording Right Now, Something To Tell You and Nothing’s Wrong in the studio. Yet, it’s executed with the sort of unobtrusive mastery that could make a neophyte weep.
Just as he matched the jittery hand-held camera to the raw sound of Junun, his 2015 music documentary with Jonny Greenwood, Anderson now finds the appropriate visual metaphor for a band recording live. Almost the whole of Right Now is shot in an unbroken take that goes on for over 4 minutes, snaking around the studio as the Haim sisters play various instruments while simultaneously singing lead or back-up (it’s thrilling to watch Alana and Este put down guitar and bass and launch into the drums at the end). In Something To Tell You, a similar shot goes on for almost two-and-a-half minutes. The uptempo Nothing’s Wrong is more conventionally shot, with short glimpses of each band member. Throughout, the studio glints with a hard blue light that seems intuitively right for Haim’s Fleetwood Mac-like pop-rock sound.
Anderson has been directing music videos intermittently since 1997. In 2016, he collaborated on three lovely bare-bones videos with Radiohead. The year before that, he directed two videos for Joanna Newsom and made Junun, essentially an hour-long music video shot in Rajasthan. He has also collaborated with Fiona Apple (experimenting with slow-motion in Across The Universe), Jon Brion (Here We Go, using out-takes from his film Punch-Drunk Love) and Michael Penn (Try, a complicated single take).
Ad films, shorts, videos: These are useful ways for directors to try out new techniques between film projects. Some start with music videos, and have continued to dabble in the form: Spike Jonze (R.E.M.’s Crush With Eyeliner, Beastie Boys’ Sabotage), Michel Gondry (The White Stripes’ Fell In Love With A Girl), David Fincher (Madonna’s Express Yourself). Gondry and Jonze could conceivably vie for the title of greatest video-turned-feature director. Even they would be hard-pressed, though, to come up with something as effortlessly striking as Valentine.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.