On the 13th of August, FKA twigs released her third EP M3LL155X (reviewed here). Possibly more interestingly, a self-directed 16½-minute promo film was released simultaneously. This short is elsewhere rightfully being discussed as a standalone work of art, but it is also interesting for what it is indicative of – art cinema’s most accessible form.
Rolling Stone compared the M3LL155X film rather reductively to the work of David Lynch, who has become a shorthand point of reference for all artists with a singular style, regardless of the accuracy of the comparison. It’s supposed to be a complimentary association; considering the critical stock of Lynch it’s high praise indeed. But Lynch was also compared to Lana Del Rey, and her videos bear little similarity to twigs’. The Del Rey/Lynch comparison is far more accurate. FKA twig’s work continues a lineage traced back, via distinctly artistic statements in popular music videos, through to the dawn of cinema.
Early films, long before the existence of cinemas, relied less on notions of narrative and storytelling and more on images, on effects, on stunts and the like, due to their short nature and newness. A language of filmmaking which used to the full the medium’s capabilities gradually receded in favour of telling stories, as happens with every new art form (video games are currently at that crisis point). These films were coined by academic Tom Gunning as ‘the cinema of attractions’, and has all but disappeared from mainstream cinema, save for occasional sequences in genre films. The cinema of attractions has resided since then in avant-garde film, video art and, most significantly, music videos.
Music videos are constructed around performance, whether that be musical, visual or physical. While of course dipping their toes into narrative waters many a time, artists, labels and viewers are surprisingly comfortable with four minute videos relying on bravura cinematography (the Chemical Brothers’ Let Forever Be), fancy footwork (that Beyoncé video everyone loves) or just a single tear (Sinead O’Connor’s iconic Nothing Compares 2 U promo). It is here then that the cinema of attraction dwells, providing an outlet to non-narrative works which have a broad audience and wide appeal.
Sight and Sound discussed the connections art cinema had to music promos 24 years ago, when the latter were cultural curios but had little lingering critical impact – before Fincher, Gondry, Jonze and Glazer retroactively legitimised the form after traversing to feature films, and before Daft Punk and Yeezy gave us bizarre music/video hybrid epics. At that time placed in the hierarchy just above commercials, music videos were unexpectedly defended through association to that equally derided visual medium by none other than Brit cinema darling Peter Greenaway, with the simple rebuttal “all art is propaganda. You can’t put up barriers between the two”.
So nowadays we’ve got this weird middle ground, where Kanye can borrow from Gaspar Noé, where Joanna Newsom and Fiona Apple are directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, but there’s more to the music video/film cross-pollination than shared participants. M3LL155X was most clearly indebted to two other feminist music icons, from different generations, each of whom exemplifies one of the two most important elements of this ‘cinema of attractions’ mode of music video.
Three decades ago, trailblazer-for-quirky-female-artists (and legitimate legend of the Brit music industry) Kate Bush broke ground in a medium which was having ground broken in every day. Throughout the music video heyday of the 1980s, Bush’s promos drew from a wealth of inspiration, both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art (Emily Brontë, classic horror, Dennis Potter, Hitchcock), in turn exhibiting myriad dance forms, visual effects and high fashion. Much of this is evident not only in M3LL155X but in all manner of contemporary videos, with Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ drawing from The Decameron and religion, and Beyoncé’s aforementioned ‘Single Ladies’ video not only built around a single routine and striking monochrome, but also strongly reminiscent of Bush’s early dance-based videos.
The other main reason FKA twigs is more directly indebted to Kate Bush is the scale of M3LL155X. In 1993 Bush released The Line the Cross and the Curve – itself liberally borrowing from earlier cinema, specifically Powell and Pressburger’ The Red Shoes (1948). In that forty minute work, multiple songs from her most recent album were interwoven with an overarching storyline (the fairy tale of The Red Shoes) which incorporated striking artwork and dance sequences. Though that film had a narrative of sorts, the significance of it was mostly irrelevant when compared to the individual ‘set-pieces’. Many of these were detached from their source and used as music videos for singles, emphasising the fragmented and sequence-focused form the film took. This short film approach to music videos is currently only utilised by artists in complete control of their craft and with a strong grasp on their public identity (see also: Kanye’s Runaway). It’s also a promising point of intersection for everyday pop culture fans to engage with more intense artistic statements.
The other music icon illuminating FKA twigs’ work is Björk. Since 1993’s disco-sprite persona, Björk’s visual component has always been cutting edge, combining her earthy natural interests with technical showcases. ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, from her sophomore album Post, placed a tightly structured burst of joy front and centre, and by 1997’s Homogenic, the concepts were merging so well with the available technology that ‘All Is Full Of Love’ was on permanent display at MoMA.
As with the works of Björk, FKA twigs possesses a strong grasp of visual language; the opening of M3LL155X strongly plays like the negative inverse of Björk’s ‘Hunter’ video. FKA twigs’ similarly employs uncomfortably frank manipulations of the female form – the ‘blow-up dolls’ of M3LL155X arrive just months after Vulnicura’s yonic artwork, which also used computer generated distortions of female bodies to subtly confrontational effect – though that’s mostly irrelevant to the point at hand.
All this then is not to take anything away from FKA twigs’ artistic achievements by pointing to her predecessors; it is simply to highlight how these earlier artists, as well as influencing her creatively, each epitomise the manner in which the music videos reveal themselves to be the primary location for the ‘cinema of attractions’ mode of filmmaking. And it is for these reasons that this mode of music video is the ideal home for the aforementioned interaction between art and mass audiences. While many with more traditional and elitist views on film may bemoan the apparent loss of aspects of filmmaking, as always, this is just not the case. In short, the way ideas and forms of filmmaking are expressed simply change with the media landscape. FKA twigs and M3LL155X are just the latest permutation of this.