Subversive Stances in Zia Anger’s Music Videos

Live performances of a new feature in New York and Sheffield spark an appreciation of the singular videos made by filmmaker Zia Anger.
Ross McDonnell
Zia Anger works in moving images. After two 2015 short films, many music videos, and one abandoned, unreleased feature debut—the fallout from which now is reworked and performed as My First Film (2018)—Anger has made evident a rare and real iconoclasm throughout her varied work. She demonstrates an exceptional commitment to radical transparency and a willingness to share, directly and indirectly and at each point in her career, her experience as an artist within the independent film industry.The first of her 2015 films, I Remember Nothing, uses a rotation of five actors to take its viewer through the five stages of epileptic attack, and a series of flashing stimuli to simulate seizure. My Last Film is perhaps more disturbing, a surprising diptych that signals a growing disquiet that has, in the years since, become increasingly reflected in Anger’s work. Unpredictable, and unmistakably absurd, the film is neither tongue-in-cheek nor lighthearted, but gruesome and genuinely rebellious. My Last Film is palpably risky, what one might call “pastiche” or “parody” were it produced for comic effect and not, as it is here, as an indictment closely and uncomfortably aimed at its creator’s contemporaries and peers, at their rote and regurgitated styles, at the unfortunate triumph of the traditional and the obvious over the original. In both of its parts, Anger’s film is not content to do its own thing, but rather to use the language of the film industry’s favoured narratives (so pervasive and dominant as to be dogmatic) to make its own subversive stance clear: to condemn those conforming to convention and lambaste an industry that hates women. In doing both, it draws an absolute, clear connection from one to the other.
Though Anger’s self-financed short films have drawn acclaim and success (the former presented at New Directors/New Films and Locarno, the latter launched at the New York Film Festival) and have had an additional advantageous boost in being distributed online¹—through platforms such as Short of the Week and Le Cinéma Club—it remains true that is still more probable that one has encountered an example of Anger’s artistry in a music video.
In the time between My Last Film’s macabre final shot and the larger “decade of lost work” that has been reconstructed as My First Film, Anger has achieved what we might traditionally call success with a remarkable stretch of music videos, and though clicks and views are not any measure of their merit, this popular and more widely-distributed, widely-seen form is a craft that can at least be considered as worthy and deserving of attention as that which is feted by festivals.
First to discuss are certain issues of intention and authorship unique to this form, the music video being both a commercial enterprise as well as work of moving image, not a product in and of itself but promotional material that is produced to sell a product. Here and elsewhere, Anger has in fact been upfront about this economic reality, writing with a refreshing consciousness, skepticism, and self-awareness on complicity within the system, on art and commerce, financing and distribution, success, failure, and privilege.
To agonize over the musician’s or director’s authorship is probably unproductive, there being no real necessity to decide whether a music video—a medium even more collaborative than cinema—belongs to one or the other and not simply both. Though the style of Anger’s videos appropriately differs from text to text and collaborator to collaborator, there is still a selective, and uncompromising consistency, both in the musicians she works with—who write, perform, and produce their own music and are signed to independent record labels—and in her go-to crew of below-the-line technicians. The contributions made by cinematographers Ashley Connor and Mia Cioffi Henry are indeed crucial, but the direction and coordination of all elements remains Anger's, whose visuals, from music video to music video, never seem at all anonymous Moreover, in this popular form Anger seems to follow a similar pursuit as in her filmmaking, an oppositional attempt to challenge traditional narratives.
Following what might be Anger’s first professional music video—a kaleidoscopic high-contrast black-and-white portrait for Angel Olsen’s 2013 “Tiniest Seed”—she and Olsen collaborated twice more on the back-to-back “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five”: the latter especially managing to hint at a set of key motifs that will then recur throughout Anger’s later work.
In “Tiniest Seed,” a number of superimposed Olsens are obscured in the shadows of Anger’s atmospheric optical flicker, whereas the protagonist of “Hi-Five,” a more upbeat but bleak love song about loneliness, is even more completely alone.
An initial scene that slowly illuminates outwardly, Olsen is akin to a television talk show host without a guest, placed in a sea of old-timey open-faced light fixtures and dusty props and paraphernalia, sitting opposite an empty chair. Olsen’s expression relatively blank, Anger’s fascination gives focus instead to the musician’s hands. Reaching out, one hand only finds the other before together they launch into a strange sign language, into unexpected abstract and stylized movements, or into mannerisms with a mind of their own. As an interpretive dance, with some gestures maybe understandable but others certainly inscrutable, these emotional movements seem to be a symptom of the artist’s alienation—or of actual alien hand syndrome—one way or another requiring a whole other learned literacy to begin to decipher.The bizarre event begins at the fingertips but continues even when confined to the protagonist’s pockets, Olsen continues this ventriloquizing retro dance routine to the surrounding cameras, her hands moving in circles before she spins in a swivel chair beneath a disco-ball. Deadpan and sarcastic, “Hi-Five” is perhaps the closest Anger ever gets to pure pastiche, the pun in Olsen’s title and a lyric reappropriation of Hank Williams Sr.’s 1949 “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” just two initial irreverent references adapted and added to in Anger’s visualization. Even the kitschy montage dissolves prove somehow funny as the video moves towards a perfectly encapsulating final shot, Olsen lying prostrate and near-dead, defeated by multi-colored confetti. Throughout “Hi-Five” there is a high level of craftsmanship at work at every level and yet, in its final sting, Anger ends with a final poke of play, her camera pulling furthest outward to reveal those behind the production, all of the less glamorous and glittering work that has been in creating these visuals, the protagonist breaking character to laugh.
Made with musician Maggie Rogers, “On + Off” begins and ends in similarly. With music more buoyant, even euphoric, Anger directs a cool concurrence of choreography and cinematography—a more elaborate and abstract, and bright and barer redux of her and Rogers's previous video "Alaska." Opening on a blank background in an empty white, sparse soundstage, the video’s protagonist (Rogers) emerges onto the scene dressed as a daredevil stuntwoman—or perhaps Elvis—styled in a studded white jumpsuit. Though the setting makes some promise of action or special effects, what ensues is just the introduction of a handful of bold colors—vis-à-vis the outfits of Rogers’s three friends—and a simple but striking choreography designed by Monica Mirabile: movement director and one half of FlucT, a queer feminist collective who describe their “dystopian” work as a three-part process of “gaping,” “gushing,” and “glitching.”²
“On + Off” confidently reduces its resources to a few fundamentals, a configuration that integrates two of the most basic of movements—that of the camera and that of the performers in its orbit—together creating a deceptive and dense three-minute work more ingenious and innovative for its austerity and unity.
In lieu of any cuts, the rotation of the camera reveals what was previously off-set and is now brought on-screen, a purposeful pan that finds nearly everyone and everything—with the exception of the woman behind the camera—and a movement of its own that less an unplanned wandering and more a step in its very own choreography, a kind that activates action and animates the figures in front of it.
In addition to Anger’s 360 spin of the camera, the raising of a handmade, makeshift curtain announces all of this artifice once again, this brief behind-the-scenes costume change put front-and-center, offering once more a transparent take on what exactly goes into making a music video.
It would look like a mistake, as something accidental or unintentional, were the result not so harmonious and seemingly painless: a single uninterrupted shot that is not just a technical achievement not carried out (as it is so often) for its own self-imposed sake—as solicitation to marvel at an unnecessary feat of filmmaking endurance—but an all-encompassing and panoramic self-governing sweep that removes a perception or distinction between what is on-stage and off-. Anger’s camera remains rolling, circling the four performers left consolidated in a formation of a square and beneath blue-purple light. Though tempting to see “On + Off” as self-consciously low budget, or a defense of DIY filmmaking, the joy of the video does not derive from a return back to basics, and to witness its back-forth conversation between choreography and cinematography, the constant invention of something from nothing, is not just a novelty.
From the ground up, and with the rawest of materials, Anger’s visual language progresses differently. Its continuous cinematographic shot may be inherently suited to the form (music that goes from zero to one-hundred in less than 3 minutes) and may too have some resonance with ideas put forth by Maya Deren—not just a filmmaker but a film theorist, a lecturer, distributor, dancer, choreographer—that assert a moving image practice that develops not “horizontally,” according to logic, but “vertically”, according to feeling. Deren’s theory of this “poetic structure”³—an influence⁴ on Anger—is perhaps particularly apparent in Anger’s immersive, first-person visual for Beach House’s “Dark Spring,” or the symbolic sprint enacted in Mitski’s “Geyser”: a short, chorus-less song with a video in which its protagonist falls and crawls and begins to dig up the dirt and earth underneath her. In another single continuous shot that, with the exception of two subtle spins that circumscribe space, mostly takes place in one forward movement, “Geyser” progresses to a pace that perfectly echoes that of the music, and a chase that captures the eruption of emotion of its protagonist.
With a sentiment akin to Olsen’s “Hi-Five” and a scenario similar to Rogers’s “On + Off,” Anger’s premise for Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” sees the musician nowhere exactly, a place nondescript, blank and backstage, preparing for something—something else, and certainly not what is about to happen—as her handler applies hairspray. What this does develop into is not unfamiliar: a seemingly romantic exchange with a boy, whose smiles, waves and winks are soon revealed as moderately heartbreaking miscommunication. The boy-girl meet-cute is revealed as fantasy, the protagonist’s love interest no more than a co-star or an on-screen conceit, yet Anger’s video then forgoes the idea that this overture must terminate at one of only two possible outcomes. In this hypersexualized pas de deux, their erotic encounter is not with one another, the instead boy joined by another woman—whose only distinguishing feature seems to be culturally-appropriated clothes and a flower crown—and the protagonist left instead to salvage the situation and reciprocate with her left hand. To her credit, Mitski’s gesture of literal self-love is indeed jaw-dropping, audacious and absurd and as well something far more real and no less vulgar than the premise performed to this point.
In this music video gone-wrong, what was first suggestive eye contact in eyeline matches becomes a fourth-wall breaking view out to the audience.This kissing, an exhaustingly gratuitous, grotesque parade of other people's happiness, is met, even countered by Mitski—alone but alive and agentive—”them” draped in an American flag, the musician draped in her guitar. Across Anger’s videography, very few men exist—in Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” the male protagonist is literally almost erased, scratched out of its celluloid, and in a more recent Mitski collaboration (the black-and-white “Washing Machine Heart”) there is one male statue and one male performer who, though an actual living man, is silent and does not move, simply there for an otherwise alone Mitski to do with what she pleases. In “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski’s attempt to musically disarm “white boy indie rock”⁵ finds a fitting visualisation in Anger’s so heightened and exaggerated sequence of events, their comic effect just a byproduct of a more serious, more significant attempt to heretically hollow out meaning, placing the conventional at the level of caricature. By its conclusion, this point has been made—the performer notably not even waiting around finish her performance, playback of the music continuing as she simply walks away.
"My First Film" will be performed live May 11, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York and June 7 at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

1. Anger’s short film work remain available to stream for free on the artist’s Vimeo page. If you arrive there for a cathartic experience please consider a donation to the ACLU:
2. “Gaping is when you feel empty inside. We all know that feeling. You wake up in the morning, or maybe something happens to you, and you just feel unsatisfied. You’re not fulfilled, it feels like there’s nothing and it sucks… Gushing happens when you start to fill that hole. This is when capitalism comes in, because it provides us with all these tricks to fill in that hole that can’t be satisfied… With gushing, it all comes out. It’s mania, you feel crazy… Glitching is the primary movement. It’s what happens when all that information explodes, the system is losing control and your body freaks out.” Interview with Monica Mirabile, Mask Magazine,
3. “Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience, in the sense that a poet is looking at the same experience that a dramatist may be looking at. It comes out differently because they are looking at it from a different point of view, and because they are concerned with different elements in it… The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by "a poetic structure"), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a "vertical" investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned in a sense not with what is occurring, but with what it feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something which is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is what I could call the "vertical" attack, and this may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the "horizontal" attack of a drama, which is concerned with the development, let's say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling.” Maya Deren, Poetry and the Film, 1953
4. Interview with Zia Anger, Filmmaker Magazine,
5. “I used those tropes to accentuate the point that I could use their methods and act like I was of their world, but I would never ever fit.” Mitski, Facebook, 


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