Monday, August 13, 2012

The new Sigur Ros video by Chicago filmmaker Melika Bass

Posted By on 08.13.12 at 10:52 AM

Melika Bass on the set of her Sigur Ros video
  • Melika Bass on the set of her Sigur Ros video
When Icelandic band Sigur Ros released their latest album, Valtari (XL), at the end of May, they also launched a cool project to create videos for each of its songs. "The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment" asked each of a dozen filmmakers to create a video for a particular album track, providing all of them the same "modest" budget but placing no other limitations or expectations on the end result. As the band's website reads, "The idea is to bypass the usual artistic approval process and allow people utmost creative freedom."

The "mystery" part of the name comes from the fact that Sigur Ros has kept the identity of each filmmaker a secret until the video is unveiled; a new video has been going up on the band's site every two weeks since May 25, and they'll continue through November 19. Among the participating filmmakers whose work has already been revealed are Ramin Bahrani, John Cameron Mitchell, and Ryan McGinley. This morning the video for "Varðeldur" was unveiled. Chicago filmmaker Melika Bass created it.

Bass says a mutual acquaintance showed her work to Sigur Ros when they first conceived of the project, and the band first contacted her in April; over the next couple of weeks she picked some songs she felt would be good for her aesthetic. Unfortunately her original choices had already been claimed—she believes she was chosen for the project late in the game—and she eventually settled on "Varðeldur," an especially meditative and gentle song with only a touch of nonverbal vocals. As she thought about how to approach the Sigur Ros video in mid-May, she decided to call on a Croatian dancer and choreographer, Selma Banich, with whom she'd previously worked on a film called Waking Things, created in a collaboration with members of Chicago performance-based group Every House Has a Door and shot in a Masonic temple. You can watch a five-minute excerpt of that film, which has screened locally as well as in New York and Italy, on Bass's website.

After developing her concepts, Bass communicated with Banich via Skype, using metronome tracks based on the song's rhythms to choreograph movement together. The two rehearsed the basics over Skype for a couple of weeks, and then Banich flew to Chicago in early June—the cost of the flight ate up most of the video's budget. They spent several days finessing the movements and their sequence before setting up shop in the unusual space where Bass shot the video—one of the first indoor pools in the U.S., which just happens to be in Andersonville, where she lives. It was part of an underground complex of spaces reportedly used by Chicago gangsters such as Bugs Moran during Prohibition. Bass learned about the location—which she declined to name—through a neighbor, and the dank space proved perfect for her purposes. Lit only by two weak lightbulbs, it's low-ceilinged with no ventilation, and Bass says the floors and walls are marked with the most extreme sort of wear and tear. From the video it's hard to tell if the various surfaces are stained by rust or blood. When Bass and Banich and the lighting person weren't actually shooting, they all wore face masks to deal with the bad air.

Bass's own work never uses music unless it appears diegetically (simply put, this means it originates from within the reality of the film), so when she shot the Sigur Ros video she used only the metronome tracks—part of an effort to prevent the song from coloring her process too much. The results are haunting and ghostly—there's one shot where Banich appears to be floating as she climbs up a pool ladder. "Filmmaking is generally direct and literal, and for me the experience of listening to music is very internal, so I was trying to not make it a soundtrack," Bass told me. I'm as far from a dance critic as you can get, but I can't help but be moved by Banich's tense movements, which seem constantly on the brink of some kind of rupture or collapse. Below you can check out Bass's video for "Varðeldur."

Photo of Melika Bass by Jordan Schulman

Today's playlist:

Liam Sillery, Priorité (OA2)
Lenine, Chão (Universal, Brazil)
Geneviève Strosser, György Ligeti: Sonate Pour Alto (Aeon)
Gene Clark, Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers (Sundazed/Columbia)
Helmut Lachenmann, Accanto/Consolation 1/Kontrakadenz (Wergo)

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