For a medium that has played a vastly influential role in pop culture for 25 years, the music video has yielded surprisingly few widely acknowledged masters. High atop the pantheon of great music-video auteurs sit Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, and possibly Nathaniel Hornblower. Everyone else lies far below, and the situation's unlikely to change with the disappointing second batch of Palm's Directors Label DVDs, a series of discs compiling prominent music-video directors' videos, commercials, short films, documentaries, and other ephemera.
Anton Corbijn boasts arguably the most instantly recognizable visual style in music video for a simple and depressing reason: His videos tend to look and feel the same, stranding glowering, iconic figures in barren landscapes in grainy black and white or lurid, oversaturated color. Corbijn's videos boast a one-size-fits-all gloominess that invariably reflects his personality more than the musician he's directing. As evidenced by his Director's Label compilation, Corbijn boasts the remarkable ability to transform any artists he works with into clones of his muses and frequent collaborators in Depeche Mode, a group whose sensibility has become indistinguishable from Corbijn's own. On record, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, U2, and The Killers boast strong, wildly divergent personalities, but damned if Corbijn's videos don't turn them into dead ringers for Dave Gahan and company. Corbijn's maddeningly similar clips illustrate what happens when a strong, consistent vision stops being a strength and becomes a creative straitjacket.
Master craftsman Mark Romanek is pretty much Corbijn's creative opposite. He's a slick, stylistic chameleon whose style changes to suit whatever artist and song he's adapting, whether it's the pervy kiddie-porn voyeurism of Fiona Apple's "Criminal," the grindhouse horror-show surrealism of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," or the haunted Americana of Johnny Cash's "Hurt." Romanek's videos flatter the artist he's working with, while trafficking in the kind of kinetic, high-energy flashiness that commands the attention of weary couch potatoes. The ubiquity of many of the videos on Romanek's disc suggests he may be the most commercially successful video director of all time. But he's also a victim of his own success, since anyone who's had cable over the last 15 years is likely to be tired of many of the videos included here. Is anyone dying for another chance to see Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way" or En Vogue's "Free Your Mind"? Similarly, Stèphane Sednaoui's videos are full of striking compositions, hyper-intense colors, rapid cuts, and furious energy, but those aren't in short supply on music-video channels these days. Sednaoui's clips for Björk or Massive Attack are exciting in three-and-a-half-minute installments, but they become deadening in a 90-minute block.
It's an unexpected virtue, then, that the collection of work by the droll Jonathan Glazer boasts far fewer videos and a much briefer run time. At best, Glazer's evocative, Kubrick-esque clips for acts like Radiohead and Blur suggest fragments from dreams, though it's a little disconcerting that Glazer's wildly imaginative commercials are just as entertaining as his videos. Glazer's loopy, self-deprecating banter serves as a welcome antidote to the gushing reverence found on the documentaries accompanying the other discs, on sets that repeatedly brush up against both mediums' limitations and shortcomings.