Daniels – The Short Films – Part 1

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Swingers (2009)

Daniels have mentioned the absurdist comedy of Tim & Eric as an influence on their style and Swingers is a strong example of that. The directors star in the film but are billed as Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, the lead actors from the 1996 indie film Swingers. That seems to be the end of any sort of connection between the two works. Daniel Scheinert swings while Kwan pushes him. Reality is suddenly broken when Scheinert becomes suspended in mid-air. Kwan investigates only to have momentum restored and Scheinert is slammed into him. The result is a very primitive digital face swap and the two characters devolving into screaming nonsense. Every element of the short film is very reminiscent of Tim & Eric’s twisted deconstruction of comedy into its “stupidest” elements.

 

Happy Holidays (2010)

Here we have a  twisted video Christmas card that tells a complete story. A young boy eagerly descends the stairs to begin tearing into his presents from under the tree. However, the presents are living being and he is leading a genocide. Presents run screaming from his grasp as his parents smiling dotingly over him. What makes this video particularly in line with the tropes of Daniels is the twist at the point you might think the video has ended. The presents rebel and begin violently attacking the family. There are some very dynamic uses of focus zoom in the opening and animation effect of the presents is done very well.

 

Dogboarding (2011)

This short film is yet another a collaboration between Daniels and Foster the People (It won’t be the last). It also plays with the idea of a living thing being used an inanimate object. In this instance, that is dogs as skateboards and inline skates. This feels much more experimental and a test of special effects. No plot or story, just people skating on dogs.

 

Puppets (2011)

This short starts out as a fairly cliche date scene between a man and a woman. Then we get the reveal that they are people puppets Daniels are operating to film a scene with. From there it devolves into a special effects slapstick fight. There is the trademark escalation into cartoon style violence and the reveal of layers of reality beneath the surface. Like Dogboarding, this feels more like playing with special effects than an actual story.

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Daniels – Selected Music Videos Part 2

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Foster the People – “Houdini” (2011)

Daniels seem to have a very positive working relationship with the band Foster the People, with this being their second video together. Here the band plays themselves getting killed second into the video. They are turned into elaborate puppets controlled by the music studio. Very quickly they turn into a late 90s style boy band and everyone involved in the production couldn’t be happier.The marionette motif would turn up again in Swiss Army Man as part of Paul Dano’s education on life to Daniel Radcliffe.

The human body is a durable and pliable object. Slow motion is mixed with explosions and violent movement by the human body. The narrative is not overly complex but does have a clear structure. It should be noted Daniels are characters in the video but played by actors.

The Shins – “Simple Song” (2012)

Very overtly comedic with some sentimentality woven through it, Simple Song is probably the most complex video and my personal favorite of Daniels. Once again, the band are characters in the fiction of the video. A family gathers to watch the video of their deceased patriarch played by band frontman James Mercer. The story cuts between present day, where the adult children violently search the house for a deed, and the past, where we learn why these children have such a strong hatred of their late father. The line between past and present is blurred and eventually characters meet their past and present selves. In some moments the past is represented through home video footage, which I believe is standard film footage digitally filtered to appear like the older style of media complete with tracking line and static.

As always, and becoming more frequent and honed in their work, are the explosions of debris and dust with bodies flailing through the air. We briefly glimpse a singing corpse, tying back to the animation of the dead in “Houdini” and looking forward to Swiss Army Man. The video’s themes are heavily influenced by the work of director Wes Anderson, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited.

Tenacious D – “Rize of the Fenix” (2012)

While there are the touches of Daniels’ personal style in this video, it is more heavily influenced by Tenacious D’s established comedic tone which was developed alongside their longtime collaborator, Liam Lynch. The premise of the video is that of a rough cut, not intended for public viewing yet. The video starts out normal enough but about a minute in we begin to see unfinished special effects, placeholder effects & art, and exposed green screen. Some images even have their stock photo watermarks stamped on them. Digital crowds of fans are obviously cut and pasted.

The lyrics and visuals of the video emphasize the slight negative aftermath of The Pick of Destiny’s poor performance at the box office. Tenacious D, having a very good sense of humor about themselves, don’t shy away from playing it up as if they are desperate for a comeback. The grand finale of the video where finished effects begin to return reminded me strongly of the work of digital animator Cyriak Harris. A music video where Daniels bring together technique and narrative in perfect synthesis.

Passion Pit – “Cry Like a Ghost” (2013)

Return to the woods and the nightmare of the aftermath of the party. The female protagonist exhibits spontaneous dance and movement. Reality blurs as the intensity of the party increases. Much darker, very little humor in this video. The focus is balanced between the dance of the character and the tragic story around her.

Right away the tone of this video stands in stark contrast to the majority of Daniels work at the time. It seems to go back to pieces like “Underwear” and “Pigeons”, but with more refined technique. Thematically the video deals with the dark side of the late night party atmosphere. A young woman has somehow ended up in the woods and reflects back on what brought her here. She engages in a series of meaningless one-night stands and consumption of alcohol. Her emotions are volatile and erratic. The exact chronology of her encounters becomes more blurred as the video progresses. Daniels never seem to pass judgment over her and the ending of the video leaves her next steps a bit ambiguous.

The story of the video is expressed through two modes. First, the central figure is overwhelmed with the sense of dance and gives into her body’s commands. She dances through scene after scene which is the second element. Through both practical and digital effects, the bars, clubs, and bedrooms erupt from all directions and form around the dancing young woman. Eventually, it culminates with three of her encounters acting as backup dancers to her central performance.

DJ Snake + Lil Jon – “Turn Down For What” (2014)

Likely the most iconic and well known Daniels music video. Here we have the core elements of what most viewers associate with the duo: Powerful and destructive human bodies, sexuality as a dangerous weapon, and lots and lots of dance. The central figure is operating outside societal norms and people react with real terror. However, they become infected with the same frenzy. The dark humor of the video places it as a funnier compliment to Daniels exploration of the dark side of the party scene.

Joywave ft. Kopps – “Tongues” (2014)

Daniels inverts some of their tropes in this NSFW video. We return to the woods where a group of people shed their clothes and dance about in the woods. They are stalked by hunters whose weapons launch clothes onto their victims. The nude revelers manage to turn the tide and begin stripping down their assailants. There’s even a star-crossed romance between a hunter and a nudist which turns into a B-horror film to bring the video to a close. A very interesting divergence from Daniels’ work up to this point. However, the explosion of clothes harkens back to the performance of Daniel Kwan in “Underwear”.

The Daniels – Selected Music Videos Part 1

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While not a comprehensive look at the music video of work of Daniels, my attempt is to touch on the key points in an effort to show the common themes and ideas that pop up throughout their work. In particular, I am looking at what led to Swiss Army Man, both from themes and technique.

 

FM Belfast – “Underwear”(2010)

This early Daniels video is very simplistic in its setting, characters, and concept but is already seeding the larger ideas and themes that will populate their work up to this date. In an interview with Motionographer, the duo explains their emphasis on casting “people who didn’t mind being ugly”. The video is lit very dimly with a harsh spotlight/flashlight shone on the central figure in each scene, with the light levels oversaturated. This creates a very creepy home movie feel. It looks like the characters are being filmed by some unscrupulous figure off camera. There is also the presences of dust particles floating throughout every scene. In the interview, Daniels explained this effect was from smacking a dusty shoe and an old copy of The Godfather. That footage of dust was then overlaid on the footage of the characters dancing.

One particular effect stands out as something Daniels won’t return to and they even hint is a bit amateurish. The bartender character goes through sequences where his legs become like rubber, bending back and forth. The directors explain that this is called Slit-Scan Photography, an old school effect made easier with modern filters and technology. This effect will not appear in this way for the remainder of the videos and it signals an effort to push for more advanced and complicated special effects.Stop motion technique is used in the sequence where Daniel Kwan violently thrusts the clothes off of his body and onto the wall.

The key effect that will come up again and again in these videos will be Daniels’ use of zoom focus. This is the instance where we begin to zoom in on the figure while shifting the camera in multiple directions. This is typically a signal that the figure is about to lose control of their body in an even more extreme way.

Thematically, we have the loss of control of the body. An unseen force appears to possess each figure on camera and they look with shock, and sometimes acceptance, as they perform convulsive like dancing. Characters appear to be visibly uncomfortable or not at ease with where they are. The movements that overtake them definitely have a sexual nature and most of the figures eventually give into this uncontrollable force. The scenes have a distinct after hours motif and convey a sense of the discomfort “after the party is over”.

 

The Hundred in the Hands – “Pigeons” (2010)

The techniques are refined a bit more in this video than the former. We still have the after-hours setting. Claustrophobia is induced with tight close up of our female protagonist squashed between partygoers. The young woman is teetering between her enjoyment of the party and collapse. The video kicks in with her suddenly vomiting, transitioning into an explosion of sparkler fire from her mouth. Daniels will not shy away from bodily fluids or functions in their work and here the expulsion is turned into something beautiful, subverting our expectations from experience and the look on the central figure.

Here we have a character losing control in front of other and the crowd reacts with realism. Screaming and clearing out space. Our protagonist flees the party but finds the laws of reality falling apart. Here dancing is forced by the very frame of the video twisting and turning, and her body following the movements. At first, she fights against this, but over the course of the video she finds herself in sync with the world’s movements around her and appears to almost feel euphoria.

 

Manchester Orchestra – “Simple Math” (2011)

Unlike the previous two videos, here we have a full-blown narrative. The techniques continue the mix of practical and digital effects and reminded me a lot of the practical work of Michel Gondry. The premise is essentially a man’s life flashing before his eyes after swerving to avoid a deer in the road. The video uses a series of symbols to link moments from his past to this moment in the present. Reality crumbles even further than the previous two videos in some clever ways. It’s the most introspective music video so far. Also important to note that this moves Daniels into a rural, wooded environment instead of an urban one.

Again we have more distortions in time and space as the protagonist moves from his accident in his car, back to his childhood, and then into a mishmash of past and present. There is also the body as a force of destruction when the protagonist as a child tears through trees and people with an explosive fury.

 

Chromeo – “When the Night Falls” ft Solange Knowles

This is the first of the overtly comedic videos. While previous videos listed had funny moments, the entire premise of “When the Night Falls” hinges on a ludicrous concept. As the band plays, the power of their music impregnates the women in the audience. The tone of this video feels very much like a cross of A Hard Day’s Night and Michael Jackson productions of the 1980s. There is also a lot of power in these women. They become pregnant with such force they explode tables in the bar. They are an unstoppable force. The reveal at the end that this is the nightmare of an apprehensive new father feels a touch maudlin for Daniels other work.

 

Battles – “My Machines” ft. Gary Numan (2011)

Returning to a more simplistic setup, the action in “My Machines” is confined to two shots of a mall escalator that track from the first mark to second mark then concluding with the first mark. There’s much less narrative here and more technique on display. In an interview with Pitchfork, Daniels explained the idea came from as simple inspiration as possible: they thought the music sounded like a man falling down an escalator.

They expand on this, though. Daniels refer to the experience of the protagonist as a nightmare and that part of the nightmare is that while people are all around him, no one helps. Kwan stated, “That’s one of the grossest things about malls– everybody gets together and buys things and doesn’t talk to each other. It’s what makes malls so scary.”

 

Foster the People – “Don’t Stop” (2011)

This video has more in common with Daniels work on “When the Night Falls”. A very light narrative that incorporates the band into the story. Zoom focus plays a critical role in establishing character mindset. The video begins with fairly standard camera shots, but when the action begins we have a zoom focus on the protagonists as a nod that the energy of the video is about to explode. There’re more plays with reality, more concrete and grounded. The driving instructor wears a fake mustache, the driving student is apparently a bank robber. We also have a character getting bloodied and banged up as seen in “My Machines”. The biggest change to Daniels work is the addition of small scale car stunt work.

The video was originally made to be viewed on the Nintendo 3DS. Inspired by Jackass The Movie, Daniels filled the video with stunts and action. In an interview with The Creators Project, they discussed the difficulty of filming with two cameras in sync and need to keep both stabilized and focused together. In this interview, they address the melding of humor and violence that permeates their work.

“[…] we’re pessimistic romantics. We are lighthearted fun-loving guys who think the world is pretty fucked up and crazy. And there’s a philosophy under that. Learn to laugh at life, ‘cause then you can stare life’s challenges in the face more objectively without crying as much. Making movies is our therapy. Sorry, you guys have to watch it all. And we’re very sorry to the folks we’ve tricked into paying for it.”

Movie Review – Swiss Army Man

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Swiss Army Man (2016)
Written & Directed by Daniels

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This is the film that had people walking out of its Sundance screening. This is the film about the farting corpse with superpowers. This is also a musical. If you’re still there, let’s go a little more in depth with very unique film.

Hank is stranded on a desert island about to hang himself when he glimpses a body washed up on the shore. Hank names the corpse Manny and discovers that his new friend has an array of superpowers, from using his farts to act as a jet-ski to becoming a human water fountain and more. The duo begin an odyssey to return to civilization and reclaim the love they think is there’s. And things get even stranger.

Continue reading “Movie Review – Swiss Army Man”