The film noir style was frequently pilfered and parodied in ‘80s music videos from Ultravox’s VIENNA to Olivia Newton-John’s STRANGER'S TOUCH, but possibly the video that best captured the noir feel was the Motels’ 1982 ONLY THE LONELY clip. Without any direct noir references or cliches, somehow the dark side of late 1930s/early 1940s Los Angeles is stylishly conveyed.
Though the video was made in the early days of shoestring budgets, it manages to evoke the beauty of a bygone era without becoming a cheesy costume drama. “I think the video for ONLY THE LONELY came out beautifully,” Motels singer and songwriter Martha Davis has said. “I had the pleasure of working with the great Russell Mulcahy, [and we] collaborated on concepts.”
ONLY THE LONELY is less pastiche than Mulcahy’s other videos, maintaining a single setting, lighting and mood throughout the piece. The setting is a fabulous art deco bar in the late 1930s, the lighting is stark enough to be reminiscent of black and white even though the clip’s in color, and the mood is — what else? Lonely. Mulcahy doesn’t crowd the song with unnecessary visuals, giving Martha’s contralto voice and vulnerable gaze all the room they need to take center stage.
Martha plays a woman consumed by her own memories, downing drinks in a bar straight out of The Shining (1980) while ghosts of the past come to life around her.
A few drinks from the phantom bartender and the empty room transforms into a pre-war party. Some faces are glamorous, some decaying; does she drink to forget them or to remember?
There is laughter, chatter, liquor and kisses, but it all seems to torment her and cause her more pain. She is neither part of the social game around her, nor able to escape it.
Mulcahy uses the Table Flip motif subtly in ONLY THE LONELY, but it’s there. About two-thirds of the way into the video, Martha sees a man (her lover?) pass out and take his drinking table right over with him.
Her emotional reactions to the Table Flip and to the crowd of odd characters range from shock to sorrow to shame, but in the end she is left alone, sprawled across a table.
The dimly-lit bar is once again empty, and the picture turns to sepia. It’s a haunting final image in a video that hits all the right notes, and one that earned Davis an American Music Award for Best Performance in a Music Video.
The performance still holds up today, and so does the performer. Martha has recently formed a new Motels and is currently touring. Click here for dates!
Monday, May 24, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS is significant because it represents music video’s historic first use of a popular motif I like to call the Table Flip. The Table Flip occurs, as its name implies, when a character in a video sends a table (usually in a restaurant) flipping over in slow motion, dishes and all.
With a new cable channel devoted exclusively to round-the-clock music videos, the biggest problem for early ‘80s directors was cramming all that programming chock full of catchy visuals. Images had to stick in the mind like warm Dubble Bubble to a flip-flop, yet be enigmatic enough to remain just this side of decipherable. Videos that were easy to understand at first sight wouldn’t hold up under months of repetition.
The Table Flip worked because it was arresting yet completely G-rated. Early MTV wasn’t ready for extreme sex and violence, so tipping over a piece of furniture – particularly one supporting drinks, candles and plates of food – served as a dramatic statement that said, “I’m dangerous, baby!” without actually harming anyone. (Except maybe for the poor film school intern who had to pick all those tiny shards of glass out of the rug.)
DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS stars the hunky Rick Springfield as a creepy stalker who lurks in dark alleys, gropes women under tables, plays his guitar on a police car and commits arson on a rotary dial telephone. What a rebel!
Despite dimpled Rick’s slight departure as a bad boy in this clip, it’s pretty much your standard fare for 1982. The first known music video Table Flip occurs about one minute in, when Rick’s stranger-talking girl slaps her date and their dinner flies across the restaurant courtesy of Rick, who hides beneath the tablecloth.
From this moment, directors would employ the Table Flip when they needed a visual statement that expressed rage, conveyed sheer excitement, or just looked cool in slow-motion. Join me for more on the Table Flip next week, and in the meantime… take a safety tip from Mr. Springfield: