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Eletrik Alchemy: Claire Denis Films Sonic Youth

By Daniel Stuyck

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Everything about the collaboration between Claire Denis and Sonic Youth makes sense

Claire Denis in 2002: “I have in some sense stopped at Earth, Wind and Fire. I can go and listen to Sonic Youth and I’ll like it, but my alchemy has already been cast.” Five years after the dicey chemistry pun, Denis has made five strikingly transformative videos for two Sonic Youth songs. The collaboration makes sense. Both parties thrive on a rather alchemical combination of elements in their work, cherry picking ingredients from both the experimental and mainstream. Indeed, fan postings on Sonic Youth’s message boards thought Denis’s “Incinerate” video was either a joke or some cheapie made by a roadie. It isn’t the “real” video, is it? No mass murders or motorcycles speeding through drainage canals? “WTF” indeed.

“Incinerate” is a performance video, recorded live at SY’s second warm-up show at Le Nouveau Casino in Paris prior to their 2006 tour in support of Rather Ripped, the album these videos were made to promote. The opening shot, an unidentifiable close-up languidly panning between fragments of shoulders, a fluctuating cymbal and streaking lights, is an uncluttered summary of the aesthetic Denis has been mining since US Go Home (94). Band members are almost exclusively filmed solo performing a single action—holding guitars or singing into a microphone—but never holding a guitar and singing into a microphone.

Desire, overt or ambivalent, crops up in “Incinerate” through its sense of raw, swarming presence (not to mention its subjects’ proximity to a viewer), but it’s most apparent in the four separate videos for “Jams Run Free.” Set in and around an apartment with a view recalling the rooftop opening of Friday Night (02), the first of the four begins with empty high heels and bare feet—a significant image since, to paraphrase Claude Chabrol, when you have bare feet, you have all the party you need.

The three “alternate takes” of “Jams Run Free” revolve around processions of repeating images (cats, roofing tiles, ripples in a pond, TV antennas, sequins) breaking down into their constitutive elements: shapes, forms, color, light, video noise. The fragmented and tactile qualities of recent Denis are in full effect, all the more surprising since her films are very much films. For “Incinerate” and “Jams Run Free,” she is shooting on consumer-grade digital video, with an often dissolving image resolution and fluctuating color palette, though these apparent irregularities only seem like an extension of film techniques: texture of a different kind.

The antecedent to these pieces is not so much Denis’s previous films as Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray. Conner’s 1961 short, an essential demonstration of the maxim that pop songs are teenage symphonies to God, reads like a list of chemical ingredients for any of these videos: rock and roll; erotic tension (as P. Adams Sitney is at pains to point out, Cosmic Ray predominantly features the “irreverent dance of a naked woman, which he [Conner] photographed himself”); bland images of daily life and consumer culture (Mickey Mouse, hitchhiking Indians, neon signs, the H-bomb) transformed into something surreal. In other words, a strange alchemy—an area where science and religion meet, not unlike drugs. And that ultimate drug state—ecstasy—is what Conner and Denis are ultimately fixed on: Denis’s unfocused whip pans as Sonic Youth slams into its chorus create the same sensation as Conner’s image of skulls birthing from crotches in an instant between two shots, a revelation of new meanings created by a strange combination of elements.

It’s some sort of psychic neutralization—all of this mashing of the kinetic and the static, the mundane and the bombastic, extended takes and fast beats—and it’s the register that both Sonic Youth and Denis seem to be operating at for the moment. Comparing this set of videos to something like demonlover, where Sonic Youth’s music signified the disease and trauma of global capital, these videos seem downright serene. Or at least at peace.

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