One of my favorite pieces of film writing of any kind is Willow Maclay’s essay on the music videos of Kate Bush, which places Bush’s mostly danced-through videos in the pantheon next to Maya Deren’s dance films, both combinations of choreography and camera that have rarely been matched since. Dance is storytelling for Bush and Deren, but only if the camera accurately reflects the perspective of the dancing body. They shot their films almost exclusively in extended medium and wide shots because to do otherwise would be presenting a half-story, or it would just be disrespectful to the amazing fluidity of the female body. Bush cycled through many different kinds of dance throughout her career, starting with vaudevillian theatricality and ending with something much more elegant and graceful, but all of her modes were backed by the same level of cinematic excellence (whether directed by her or her early collaborator “Keef”), where, as Maclay puts it, Bush “immerses her entire body” into the lexicon of cinema.
Bush and Deren’s mastery of filmic dance was a rare commodity when they were active and even moreso now, especially as the music video medium has gotten progressively more irrelevant. Zia Anger is one of the few homegrown music-video auteurs remaining, covering a range of almost exclusively female indie-pop and -rock artists and directing them all in a series of dance films, some more conventional than others. Like Deren and Bush, she has tremendous respect with how she films the female body, letting its movements dictate the tone and style of her videos rather than enforcing her stylistic whims on it. The difference between Anger and her forebears is that she follows the female body to extremes of aggression and sexuality that could’ve only been subtextual for Deren or Bush. Her most famous videos are with Mitski, who she has skate the thin line between interpretative dance and nervous breakdown, groveling and flailing and passionately making out with her hand. And she loves to explore the most off-putting sides of female sexuality, the camera getting up close and personal with braless jogging, struggling with tight dresses, and close-up shaving in her video for frequent collaborator Jenny Hval’s “Innocence is Kinky” (this video’s not merely not suitable for work, but the least suitable for work). Her four videos with indie-pop star Maggie Rogers aren’t quite that confrontational, they just parcel out their confrontations in what are otherwise some of the most purely pleasurable music videos of this century. They are Anger’s magnum opuses because, like Bush before her, they marry her technical and thematic genius to the best bubblegum you’ve ever tasted.
Anger got in on the ground floor with Rogers, shooting the video for her breakthrough single “Alaska”. Like many of Anger’s videos and shorts, this is shot by Ashley Connor, the immensely talented cinematographer and director whose work with Anger and Josephine Decker (among others) sees her using the camera as a tool of extreme subjectivity, pushing the naturally-lit and handheld conventions of “indie” filmmaking so far that they become representations of a troubled mind. This video isn’t Madeline’s Madeline, it’s ultimately just about how much fun it would be to have a big party in the woods with your friends, but Rogers, Anger, Connor, and choreographer Monica Mirabile work together to make this something sharper and more memorable than the average dance video.
Rogers dances in this video in a way that suggests demonic possession as much as someone having a good time, shocking spasms of movement that Rogers seems to have no control over (she doesn’t seem to mind, though). Connor’s camera follows suit, starting as a traditional tracking shot (matching the spartan production of the song) before it starts making jarring movements in lockstep with Rogers’, taking advantage of the axis-free filmmaking possible with a Steadicam to make the camera part of the choreography; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a camera move the way Connor’s does when it witnesses Rogers touching a tree. Both Rogers and the camera reach their fever pitch right before the switch to the climactic section at the forest party, Rogers’ moves becoming so frantic that the camera can only catch a glimpse of them before it too runs right into the unknown.
The early-autumn setting of “Alaska” turns into the cozy chill of late autumn in Anger’s video for “Dog Years”, where Rogers and her backup dancers tour a mostly empty campsite. Anger lets Rogers and her comfy-looking red sweater stand out against the grey skies and brown foliage much like Kate Bush did with her famous red dress in the “Wuthering Heights” video. And also like in “Wuthering Heights”, Rogers is playing a ghost here, wandering through her memories without attracting the notice of any of the people she’s serenading. I only learned the meaning of the video and song while I was writing this, that both are about Rogers’ nostalgia for her summer-camp friends, but Anger makes the air of wistful remembrance clear visually even without knowledge of the literal meaning, the misty ambiance standing in for the pleasant fog of memory.
Here we begin to see the overarching, Five Obstructions-esque project Anger has in mind for Rogers, seeing how Rogers adapts her movements to new settings, challenges, and outfits. Rogers dances like she’s taking on the characteristics of whatever fabric she’s wearing at the moment, and that means very different things if it’s her hoodie and plain white t-shirt in “Alaska” or her snug sweater here. In “Alaska”, her thin clothes could barely contain the force of her movements (note that her dancing becomes progressively more unhinged the more she removes layers), but here the sweater keeps her on a tight leash, making her movements slower and more comfortable like she’s savoring each one. Nowhere is her newfound restraint more obvious than with her hands, which provided the most expressive motions in the “Alaska” video and which Anger has taken out of the equation here by making Rogers perform with a microphone in hand the whole time. So Rogers transfers that restless energy to her head movements until the video’s triumphant climax is her finally using the microphone as a prop to play around with. The brief moments of Rogers twirling in unison with the microphone cord are the most beautiful images in all of these videos, capturing the uncomplicated, physical joy possible only through dance.
“On + Off” takes Rogers and Anger out of the woods and puts them in a soundstage, where they mount a head-spinningly elaborate mini-musical all in (seemingly) one take. The one-take dance number as a concept has been devalued by years of YouTube idiots all doing it, but Anger makes it so exhilarating she might as well be doing it for the first time. Ashley Connor returns to shoot this after sitting out “Dog Years” and she outdoes herself, using the Steadicam to create a space for movement and music without boundaries. With one 360º pan, Connor and Anger reveal the backstage preparation for the video (I’m pretty sure you can see Anger kneeling in anticipation of the dancing she’s about to witness) and leave it quickly, returning to the insulated universe of the white void where Rogers and her dancers will perform. This backdrop couldn’t have been that bit, but as Connor shoots it, exploring every plane of action within it, it seems endless; even when the camera seems to leave it, it doesn’t. Watching Spielberg’s West Side Story and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (what a double-feature!) made me realize how much I love filmmakers who can fill every conceivable bit of space in the frame with purposeful, uncluttered movement, and Anger and Connor do just that here, always finding new and exciting ways to block Rogers and her dancers within this space. It’s probably a matter of low-budget invention, making a lot out of not much, but that doesn’t matter when they make it look this expansive on-camera.
At the center of all this is Rogers, who continues the study of her in different fabrics by making three different costume changes within this one take, at one point even bouncing around in a large curtain. That freedom of dress means even more freedom of movement, with Rogers completely uninhibited and joyful in her motions; the way her legs excitedly lift up from under the curtain could merit its own essay. “On + Off” is the most “pop” of these four songs and it’s backed by a video that celebrates the tireless effort and tremendous reward of putting on a show, performance for performance’s sake as the greatest pleasure imaginable.
The Kate Bush comparison really comes into handy with Anger’s final (to date) video for Rogers, “Fallingwater”, where Rogers makes it easy for us by just wearing a red dress (a similar red dress also shows up in the “Innocence is Kinky” video, just in case you’re still doubting Anger’s case for auteurship). Perhaps this is the last collaboration between Anger and Rogers because it represents the apex of their attempts to study dance through fabric. Rogers doesn’t just dance in her dress but becomes it, the desert wind blowing the dress to hell is matched by Rogers moving as if she’s also tumbling through the wind and hanging on for dear life. In the video’s final section, Rogers returns to the t-shirt and jeans wardrobe of “Alaska” but only after she’s been drenched in water, water that seems to weigh her every movement down and leave her hunched and very angry.
As Maclay puts it for Bush, here Rogers “uses the entirety of her body as sign language to emphasize the lyrical and tonal content of the song”, and she can make her movements as theatrical or even cartoonish as Bush could (her representation of the line “tell me just what I’m supposed to say” involves head and hand movements that make more sense animated than in live-action). This is the only of the four videos not choreographed by Monica Mirabile and it’s also the closest to the aggression of Anger’s other videos, matching the song’s breakup narrative with a dance as enraged as it is liberated. The desert backdrop to Rogers’ furious motion is beautiful (especially as Rogers dances along the shadows cast by the sand dunes), but Anger isn’t just interested in beauty. This is why the video concludes with the desert in the dead of night, vague shapes of dunes in the background lit only by the strobe lights illuminating Rogers’ final dance. It becomes a vast, lonely, and maybe scary place, as weighted down by bad feelings as Rogers is while standing in it. Rogers’ telltale smile during her final dance is the only sign of what the other three videos have preached, that it is indeed possible to transcend our earthly problems through furious motion.