Last year, I talked about five great works of visual media which were almost films, but not quite. Two of those were television shows, and now we’ve got our own list of the best TV of the year. One was a short film, and this year we’re including shorts on our year-end list of the best films. So for 2015, I had to get a little bit more creative. These are works that resemble cinema in certain significant ways, but can’t ultimately be considered films in the truest sense of the word. Still, they’re not to be missed:
The Beginner’s Guide
Frankly, I don’t feel uncomfortable just straight-up calling this video game a film. It’s a totally linear audio-visual experience, it’s 90 minutes long, and it has things to say about the nature of art which are germane to cinematic discourse. Davey Wreden, one of the creators of the brilliant meta-narrative game The Stanley Parable, opens the game by introducing himself in voice-over and explaining what we’re about to play. This game, he tells us, is a collection of work from his old friend Coda, who stopped making games a few years ago. Wreden intends to take us through some of his favorite examples of Coda’s work while placing them in the context of Coda’s life, giving us a greater understanding of both the man and his games. This, he hopes, will inspire Coda to start making games again.
That’s not what The Beginner’s Guide actually is, of course, as anyone who’s played The Stanley Parable could have guessed. In practice, it’s a deconstruction of the popular notion of artistic authorship. Early on, we’re dropped into a level which consists of a very tall staircase with a door at the top. As we climb the staircase, our movement gradually slows to a crawl. At this point, Wreden pops in to explain that while Coda intended for the climb to be an endurance test, he really wants us to see what’s behind the door, so he’s giving us the option to press a button and resume normal speed. It’s not yet clear, but this is the first of many examples of Wreden altering Coda’s intention for the paradoxical purpose of helping us understand Coda’s intentions. As the game goes on and the lines blur further and further, it becomes unclear whether Coda can truly be said to be the creator of any of these games. The fact that The Beginner’s Guide is almost certainly a work of fiction raises even more conundrums. It’s a fascinating work, and I encourage even people uninterested in video games to give it a look.
Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” Music Video
I wish you could have seen my reaction to Mads Mikkelsen’s appearance in this. It was one for the ages. Anyway, this superb music video sees Rihanna take revenge on the accountant who doesn’t have her money by kidnapping his wife and murdering him with a chainsaw. Rihanna bleeds confidence and bravado in this, swaggering through life as she drags her victims behind her on a leash. The violence perpetrated against the wife, as prelude to the murder of the husband, is especially interesting. It’s as if Rihanna’s refuting any attempt to frame this song as some sort of anthem to female empowerment. The only one with the power here is Rihanna. You’d better hope you have her money.
DJ Khaled’s “Lost At Sea” Snapchat Story
For those not in the know, the smartphone app Snapchat has a feature called Snap Story, which allows a user to add photos and videos to a series in real time, which can be viewed in sequence by their followers. One recent evening, record producer DJ Khaled took his jet ski out for a ride a little too close to sunset, and before he knew it the darkness had closed in. What followed was a narrative of such impactful brevity that it would make Hemingway proud. Khaled opens with an explanation of his predicament and the promise that he’s going to check in with the viewers. The text on-screen reads, “If u know me call zay zee tell her we lost.” Khaled then uses the predicament as an opportunity to impart some wisdom to his followers. He’s been really into motivational speaking lately. We see a point-of-view shot of the pitch-blackness ahead of him, and he says, “The key is to make it! The key is to never give up!” The text on-screen is a key emoji. A few clips later, as per classic three-act structure, he’s changed his tune. “The key is not to drive your jet ski in the dark.” The text on-screen reads, “Do not.”
It’s all a little silly, but only in retrospect. Imagine viewing this story as it happened, unsure of what would happen to this celebrity as all the light around him disappeared. What if he had drowned out there, leaving this video as the last existing footage of him? Viewing the story must have carried a morbid excitement, especially since this was Khaled’s only way to call for help. As he explains in the video, taking out his jet ski so late is illegal, so he can’t exactly call the police to come and pick him up. He can only rely on the kindness and abilities of his fans. This video is everything we know to be true about internet communication (right down to the vertical aspect ratio), compressed into 90 seconds of inspirational joy.
Death Grips’ “On GP” Music Video
This one requires some exposition, so bear with me. In June of 2014, the experimental hip-hop group Death Grips posted on Facebook that they were breaking up, just a few short weeks after the release of Niggas on the Moon, the first disc of their upcoming double-length album The Powers That B. As with all things Death Grips, from albums to announcements to concert cancellations, this news appeared online without any prior warning whatsoever. The break-up note, written on a napkin, assured fans that their now-final album would be completed. This sent fans into a madness spiral which lasted for months. The group’s mysterious nature and habit of oddly abrupt releases meant that the second disc of The Powers That B, called Jenny Death, could appear at literally any time. People looked for any possible suggestion that the release was imminent. “Tonight’s a blood moon, and other releases have lined up with moon cycles, so maybe it’ll be tonight!” “Their website has been down for 12 hours, maybe they’re updating it with Jenny Death!” “It has to drop tonight, it’s New Year’s Eve, and they said the album would be out this year!” “Guys, clearly this is all a social experiment and they want US to make the album ourselves!”
In October of 2014, the album’s completion was suddenly announced on their website, along with album art, but without a release date. That December, a music video for the album’s lead single “Inanimate Sensation” went up on their YouTube page, also without warning. A month or so later, they dropped a full-length album… of instrumentals. It was called Fashion Week, and each track was called “Runway X” with a different letter in place of the X. The tracklist spelled out the phrase “JENNY DEATH WHEN,” which had become a meme among their fans. For a while there was silence, until the evening of March 12, when a video called “On GP” was uploaded to their YouTube. This was also a new song from the album, but not a music video per se. Instead, we see the group’s three members (vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin) sitting in a soundproof room with a single speaker listening to the song. At first, it doesn’t look like a video at all, because they’re all sitting so still. They all appear to be mourning the end of Death Grips. Morin seems dejected, Hill’s poses are practically religious, and Burnett seems resigned to his fate.
Those poses, combined with the song’s lyrics, terrified fans. Death Grips is known for dark and sadomasochistically violent themes, but always seemingly through the lens of a character or removed expression of rage. Things seem disturbingly personal on this track. Burnett – known for his barely-understandable growl – drops into a more comprehensible flow after the first chorus. Most upsettingly, he uses his own name for the first time ever. “Last night three thirty in the morning death on my front porch/can feel him itching to take me with him hail death fuck you waiting for/like a question no one mention he turns around hands me his weapon/he slurs ‘use at your own discretion, it’s been a pleasure Stefan.’”
Hill and Morin can’t meet Burnett’s eyes throughout the video, but he noticeably looks at them before shifting his body to move his head out of the frame. It’s as though we’re watching his friends come to terms with his death, and indeed many people thought that this video was Burnett’s literal suicide note. Jenny Death came out a few weeks after this video dropped, preceded by an uncharacteristic tweet announcing its official pre-order and release dates. Perhaps that was the only way they felt they could surprise us anymore. And “On GP” did end up having a real music video, one perfectly at odds with our expectations. It’s six minutes of a magician performing sleight-of-hand tricks. Only Death Grips could take simple cheekiness and elevate it to profundity, but the naked emotion of the first “On GP” video might be their greatest work yet.
Featured Image: Iconoclast