In the age of the mp3 and the dusk of the traditional music video, how do you get someone to sit down and listen to an entire album, beginning to end? If you're Michael Stipe, lead singer of the band REM, you assign filmmakers to each of 12 songs on your new album, and screen the resulting short films in succession at the Clocktower Gallery in Tribeca on an unseasonably cold Tuesday night.
Collapse Into Now is the title of REM's 15th album and that of Stipe's accompanying film project. Last night, about half of the participating filmmakers, most of whom had worked with Stipe before, showed up for the opening. All 12 films screened three times; after each cycle, Stipe encouraged the audience to "smoke, drink and flirt with the many handsome people" milling around the upstairs bar and terrace.
The Clocktower Gallery is an exhibition space affiliated with Art International Radio. Alanna Heiss has been the director of AIR since leaving PS1 in 2008. Her connection to music videos comes from the fact that she was "very active in the nightclub scene in the '80s, when visual artists made music videos." Heiss curated James Franco's recent show at the Clocktower. In typically overachieving fashion, Franco directed two films for Stipe, "That Someone is You" and "Blue," the album's closer.
By the start of the third screening, all kinds of musicians and actors had shown up to congratulate Stipe: Patti Smith (who sings back-up on "Blue"), Martha Wainwright and Justin Bond.
Stipe himself was tricky to track down, but told A.i.A. about coming up with this music/film mashup idea while on vacation with Sam Taylor-Wood.
REM was still recording the album Collapse Into Now, Stipe recalled, when Taylor-Wood suggested finding a way to collaborate. (Taylor-Wood's contribution to this series, for "Uberlin," features her boyfriend, the actor Aaron Johnson, acrobatically dancing through the streets of London in a tight yellow T-shirt and black track pants.) Stipe says that overall, he was very hands-off. "I didn't give a lot of direction . . . I just offered myself as a producer, if anyone wanted feedback."
Stipe found Sophie Calle's contribution, for "Walk It Back," the "most unexpected, because it's a sad, meditative song, and her film isn't like that at all." Instead, it features a girl dancing in a parking lot, a somewhat pornographic long shot of a horse peeing, and a fly skittering across a laminated menu.
Jem Cohen, who has known Stipe since the late '80s, directed the film to go along with "Oh My Heart," and was also impressed with Calle: "She was free and funny, and gutsy." When Stipe approached him over the winter, Cohen was finishing up shooting his latest feature film, Museum Hours. Initially, Cohen found the match improbable: "I was in Vienna, it was winter, and clearly the song is about post-Katrina New Orleans." Despite directing five videos for REM, Cohen said that he finds most music videos "problematic and disturbing," and hasn't done one since '95: "I agreed to come out of retirement for him."
James Herbert, Stipe's former art professor at the University of Georgia and the director of 14 REM videos, including "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," is now a painter living in Bushwick. "Michael came to my opening recently, so I had to return the favor!" he said jokingly. Herbert used found images from his own archive, editing them together by "using the joystick to the beat of the music." His song, "All the Best," was instantly catchy. Herbert's film, like all of his work, involves nudity—in this case, mostly naked young people goofing off in a messy house.
The last time I passed a couple hours in this historic building, which houses the Clocktower but is also a criminal courthouse, was over the summer, when I received a summons for riding my bike on the sidewalk in front of my apartment. This was much more fun, and the music was better too.
"Collapse Into Now" will be screened at the Clocktower Gallery, 108 Leonard Street, 13th Floor, through April 22 (Mon–Fri, 12–5 PM).
Still: From the R.E.M. Collapse Into Now Film Project, ÜBERLIN. Director: Sam Taylor-Wood. Photographer: Jon Cardwell