MSRP: $24.98
RATED: Unrated
• Four short films
• Two interview featurettes
• 56-page art booklet

This volume of the Palm Directors Label series, featuring Stéphane Sednaoui, is pretty skimpy on the biographical details. There’s a reason the title is prefaced by The Work Of… Rather than focus on the man, he, like many artists, is revealed only in part by examination of his art. This disc is more a record of the art than of the man, as a result, and the art is well-worth experiencing.

The Videos

The disc is divided into two sections. First, there are the music videos, twenty in total. The videos can be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or by Sednaoui’s own preference. Second, there are the bonus features, which are, essentially, more samples of art. I’ll discuss those in the Goodies section below, just to maintain a sense of coherency.

The first thing that is immediately noticeable about Sednaoui’s approach to music videos is his leisurely pace. If you were to flip on Fuse, or MTV2, or whatever channel is still playing videos these days, and watch thirty minutes of videos, you’d see a trend toward quick cuts; in each video you’d find multiple costume changes, and at least three scene changes (one for verse, one for chorus, one for bridge). There’s a reason that jumpy editing in feature films, such as the recent Saw has been referred to as "MTV editing".

Nintendo didn’t have the right revolution.

Sednaoui’s approach to the pacing of his videos is almost a polar opposite across the board. Often, his videos have a single character of focus, or a single setting; and even in the videos that have a broader scope, his editing lingers on individual shots well more than the four or fewer beats we’re used to. One aesthetic result of this stylistic choice is that both the videos and the music seem more deliberate, more intentionally artistic.

In this review, I won’t do a writeup for every featured video, but I would like to examine three of them specifically to highlight three aspects of Sednaoui’s style that apply to his entire catalog.

The first of these aspects is the intensity of Sednaoui’s eye, as exemplified by the video for Garbage’s "Queer". This video perfectly captures Shirley Manson’s gruff stage sexuality partly because of Sednaoui’s choices in film stock and exposure, and partly because of the way Sednaoui’s camera ends up positioned just right for every one of Manson’s expressions. Part of the credit ought to go for Manson’s performance, of course, but it’s almost uncanny how the camera, dancing around in POV shots, ends up positioned on Manson’s face to capture every important glower. There is no distraction in the pacing, the framing, or the dressing of the scene to take the viewer’s attention away from exactly where Sednaoui wants it to be.

The reviewer's wife has asked for a divorce, so she can pursue Shirley Manson.
The reviewer’s wife has asked for a divorce, so she can pursue Shirley Manson.

The second touchstone, here, is Sednaoui’s modern approach to costuming and characterization, and there’s no better example of this than those carefree souls of Red Hot Chili Peppers in their video for "Give It Away". The video is simple in premise: the band play their instruments, lip synch, and dance like possessed shamans in the desert. The costuming, and the frenetic energy of the Peppers, is what sets this video apart from others of the "watch the band" approach. The costumes are somewhere between glam and fever dream, all sequins and mirrors and metallic paint. These are simple changes, but immediately destroy any concept the viewer might have about the familiarity of the band. A professor of mine once told me a powerful element of art was "stranging the familiar" and, with these simple touches, Sednaoui accomplishes just that. When combined with the adventurous camera angles and shot compositions, the result is wholly unique and memorable.

"Lucky me workin’ down in the gravel pit…"

The third thing I wanted to draw from these videos is Sednaoui’s unobtrusive camera, but the video I chose to demonstrate this aspect is a bit of an odd one. It is Björk’s "Big Time Sensuality". Two versions of this video are available on the disc: one is set during the day, one is at night. The comments I have can equally apply to either. Sednaoui’s camera is set up at the rear of a flatbed trailer, facing toward the cab, and Björk dances around in the middle distance while singing her song. It is all done in a single take, without any camera motion. It’s an extreme example of allowing the camera to be nothing more than an observer, but it does show what Sednaoui does, to lesser extents, in all of his videos: he seems to visit brief worlds that the camera inhabits like a silent creature.

If you don’t eat Björk, she will eat you.

All three of these videos are in black-and-white, but most of the remainder of the others are in color. I didn’t plan it this way; it was just a happy coincidence.

In direct comparison to most contemporary music videos, Sednaoui’s videos are slow, beautiful, and refined. On their own, they are as beguiling and subtle as anything you might see hanging in a gallery, moreso because of their illusion of interactivity.

8.8 out of 10

The Look

The videos are mostly in full screen, while the documentaries and extras play in a variety of wide- and full screen ratios. Palm has done a typically professional job in the transfer of the image, and the original palettes come across beautifully. Going from the grainy, high-contrast "Queer" straight into Mirwais’ soft sci-fi color gourmet "I Can’t Wait" is a perfect test to compare the color and clarity, and doing so shows that the capable range of both is quite wide.

9 out of 10

The Noise

Each video features a rich Dolby digital surround mix, each of which has an acoustic range comparable to the video range above. Basses are distinct and trebles are clear; if there’s a spot of mud, you can be assured that it’s intentional. I really can’t find a thing to complain about, here — this disc has a near-perfect soundtrack. I’ve had it playing in the background on my system while writing this review, and, even sans visuals, the sound just flat out rocks.

9.5 out of 10

The Goodies

Complementing the music videos are four short films. "Walk on the Wild Side" was inspired by Lou Reed’s song. It depicts a "day in the life" setting, but with enough of an incisive focus to make everything feel slightly horrific. "Acqua Natasa" is what the title suggests: a woman, NatasaVojnovic, performing a hypnotic contortion dance while suspended in water. "Army of Me" wasn’t included in the music video section because it was recently created, but it may as well have been, being an animated video set to the Björk song of the same title. Finally, Sednaoui chose to include his first ever short film as an encouragement to other would-be filmmakers who thought their first attempts sucked.

There are two interview featurettes, one with the myriad performers and friends that Sednaoui has worked with. It’s in these sections that we start to get an idea about who the creator of all this work is. Sednaoui’s colleagues have nothing but praise for the man, and several regard him as almost, if not entirely, as otherworldly as his creations.

Atlas Chilled

The second interview is a Q&A section with Sednaoui himself, recorded at the New York University Film School. The students and admirers as some challenging questions, and Sednaoui is articulate and forthcoming, but tough toenails if you can’t penetrate his thick French accent.

As with other Palm Directors Label releases, this one also includes a 56 page perfect-bound booklet of photographs, sketches, and treatments of the music videos. It’s a solid little artifact, and a decent, if brief, companion to the videos themselves.

8.6 out of 10

The Artwork

The cover art is a provocative still from the Peppers’ "Give it Away" video, and it does its job well, providing a bit of an optical teaser to the potential buyer. The Palm cover design that overlays the picture is simple and elegant. The only thing I question is the position of the "Director’s Label" logo in the lower left corner of the title box. It seems to float needlessly out there, and its color is a bit garish against the grayscale of the photograph. I can’t blame them for branding their product, however; if they hadn’t, I would have.

8.5 out of 10

Overall 8.9 out of 10