" I’d let a fish lick me if it would get me out of this wheelchair "
— Betty White, Ponyo

MRQE Top Critic

November

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

Cox lives three times in November

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Palm Pictures hit paydirt when it dug into the pasts of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham. The resulting DVDs, released under The Directors Label, featured the brilliant early works of unknown talents who would later become major influences in film. The Directors Label continues to dig for hidden gems with The Work of Director Mark Romanek.

Mark Romanek is probably best known for the Nine Inch Nails video Closer, with such images as a monkey on a crucifix, a nude bald woman, and a floating, spinning Trent Reznor. But the most interesting film on this DVD is the video for Hurt, by Johnny Cash, a video that could easily bring a genuine tear to your eye.

Although Romanek is the kind of director who doesn’t repeat himself, the piece that really seems to capture the essence of his style is Faint, by Linkin Park, with an elaborate lighting rig (something he seems to love), a clever concept, and gorgeous, detailed photography.

Videos

Mark Romanek works with Nine Inch Nails and Robin Williams
Mark Romanek works with Nine Inch Nails and Robin Williams

Romanek presents his videos in reverse-chronological order, starting with 99 Problems by Jay-Z and ending with kd lang’s Constant Craving. Each video has one or two commentary tracks, one by Romanek, one by someone from the band.

The commentaries are almost all worth listening to. Romanek will almost always explain what was going on in his head when he conceived the video, and it was usually an influence from the world of art or photography. For Janet Jackson’s Got ‘til It’s Gone, Romanek drew inspiration from a South African magazine by and for blacks from the 1950s. For the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Can’t Stop, he borrowed an exhibit called One-Minute Sculptures from Austrian artist Erwin Wurm.

Unlike with most movie DVDs, not everyone interviewed for The Work of Director Mark Romanek feels obliged to praise everyone else involved. Fiona Apple and Romanek both acknowledge that she was too young to really get what Romanek was going for in Criminal, and that the concept actually backfired. Likewise, Flea and Romanek both acknowledge a big clash between Romanek and the Chili Peppers’ guitar player. Romanek himself is forced to admit that he has (or had) a temper, belied by his gentle tenor voice, that he wasn’t afraid to use.

It’s interesting, then, that Mark isn’t such a megalomaniac that he feels he has to do everything himself. He’s a delegator. He uses editors, photographers, and lighting technicians who work as a team. He’s quite happy to tell the experts what he wants and then let them figure out how to do it.

Other Stuff

Aside from the videos and their commentaries, the are only two other features. One is a documentary, made from the same interviews that made up the audio commentaries. Also included are interviews with Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Bono (Romanek made the U2 iPod commercials), and fellow Directors Label honoree Michel Gondry.

The other feature is Romankeian, a video roast of Mark Romanek with Robin Williams, whom he directed in One Hour Photo, Ben Stiller, and Chris Rock.

I’d strongly recommend watching the documentary first. It’s a good summary of the videos on the disc, and it will make you want to watch the whole thing in one sitting. That may not be possible, as there are four hours of content on this disc. But it’s not a minute too long.

Booklet

Each of these DVDs comes with a 56-page booklet. Romanek’s is filled with full-page photographs spanning his career, interspersed with an interview he gave to Spike Jonze.

The interview turns into less of an interview and more of a reminiscence between two old friends, but it’s still got some details that you won’t find on the video or audio tracks. Like Romanek’s appreciation for Stanley Kubrick when he said the words “more daring and more sincere.”

Picture and Sound

The sound quality is excellent. Watching the videos with the audio commentaries is aurally mundane. Then you switch to the full surround-sound version of the perfectly-mixed pop song and the video takes on a new life.

Picture quality is impeccable as well. Even the oldest videos still have immediacy, clarity, and rich colors. Another fine job by the good people at Palm Pictures and Directors Label.

Overall

The Work of Director Mark Romanek is an easy title to overlook if you don’t know who Romanek is. I feel fortunate to have been assigned this review because the more I learned about Romanek, the more impressed I became. Romanek is not an easy guy to pin down. He never makes the same video twice. But all of his videos have several things in common: great vision, photography, and lighting, and ultimately great aesthetic and entertainment value.