[Deep Focus]
Nine Inch Nails: Closure [VHS]

Grand Guignol

Originally released 11/24/97

Supposedly, this is coming on DVD this fall. But, you know, I wouldn't hold my breath.



A potential gift idea for the most morose music fan on your Christmas list, this new double-cassette release from Trent Reznor and company has shipped in the most inventive packaging I've ever seen on a videotape. The two individual tape sleeves give no indication of their contents; the box that they slide into is completely wordless save for a sticker on the bottom panel that bears the copyright information. The box, in turn, slides into a clear plastic casing that features an embossed color NIN logo and the title: nine inch nails: closure. Nifty.

It's a typically contrary move for the shrewd Reznor, whose releases have always given fans the feeling of entering a sort of secret society. You can tell whether you've missed anything by looking at the catalog numbers. The first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine, followed the release of a single, and was thus dubbed "Halo Two." 1994's The Downward Spiral is Halo Eight, and was followed by another slew of singles. Closure is Halo Twelve. "Collect them all" is the not-at-all-subtle message.

And lots of folks are likely to snap this up. One of the cassettes is the long-awaited collection of NIN music videos, from 1994's "Head Like a Hole" through to this year's "The Perfect Drug." The other, more dubious half of the set is a tour "documentary" (uh-oh). The bad news is that most of this "documentary" is about as superfluous and narcissistic as you might fear. The good news is that, at $24.95 (street price: $17.99), you're not paying that much more for the documentary.

Oh, it's alright as these things go. The first tape alternates between lo-tech concert footage and backstage shenanigans that may remind you what it was like to be in high school. (Mostly you'll feel sorry for the people who have to clean up after these guys.) Lou Reed stops by after a show to offer his congratulations, and David Bowie drops in to duet with Reznor on "Hurt." Otherwise, we get the typical shots of young fans arriving for concerts, of Trent sitting at a keyboard and plunking around with new material, and a few too many appearances of his pal Marilyn Manson for my taste. The high point is an uninterrupted super-8 vantage on a furious performance of "March of the Pigs" during which Reznor crouches at the front of the stage and lets himself be groped by fans while members of the audience jump onto the stage with the band and vice versa. Struggling young musicians may shudder at the plentiful footage of Reznor, the postmodern Pete Townshend, destroying those expensive keyboards over and over and over again.

The second tape begins with the deliberately rough videos for "Head Like a Hole," "Sin," and "Down In It." It also includes the notorious video for "Happiness in Slavery," in which a naked man (Bob Flanagan, supermasochist) is strapped into a sort of dental chair and then has his body uncomfortably poked, pinched, punctured and prodded (and finally devoured) by the assembled machinery — sort of like a scene from Brazil as it might have been reimagined by David Cronenberg in collaboration with Survival Research Laboratories. (The even more notorious footage that bookended this video on bootleg videotapes is not included on the new collection.)

It's entertaining enough, if it's your cup of tea, but you have to wonder exactly what the point is. Not all the videos have trouble communicating, though, and the most potent clips are arguably the finest moments in the band's history so far — the videos for "Hurt" and "Closer."

"Closer" is, to my thinking, one of the half-dozen best music videos ever made. Director Mark Romanek has taken his knocks from critics who've labeled him a rip-off artist. But I prefer to think of what he does as cultural "sampling." At any rate, I find it transfixing. "Closer" is an explicit homage to the grotesquely baroque photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, although it's also indebted to such folks as Man Ray and Jan Svankmajer's proteges the Brothers Quay.

(Witkin was anointed by the art world last year when his work became the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim. He populates his photographs with "unusual" people, typically deformed in some way, for whom he advertises in classified ads. He has also struck a deal with a local institution that allows him access to fresh and dismembered cadavers, which he arranges as stiflingly serene still lives. He revels in going completely over the top or, perhaps, under the bottom — his "The Kiss," which features [so I'm told by those who have examined the photo carefully] two neatly cleaved halves of a severed head in passionate liplock, is a little too much for even this critic to enjoy.)

So "Closer" borrows Witkin's visual style, with its aged-looking film stock and turn-of-the-century sepia tones. There's nothing as full-stop outrageous as "The Kiss" on display, but Romanek makes good use of a hog's head, a beating heart, gynecological illustrations, and bondage paraphernalia. And, oh yes, a crucified monkey. Of course, MTV was driven to apoplexy by all this, and the version of "Closer" that wound up in heavy rotation (and helped make Reznor a superstar) was censored with unusual wit — a silent film-style title card reading "scene missing" was made up and inserted so that the rhythm of the video wouldn't be interrupted when shots were pulled out. Most of the footage of the aforementioned monkey was blacked out, and a few shots of female nudity were optically fuzzed. (Romanek was reportedly furious.) Closure presents, finally, the unedited version of the video. Combined with the driving dance rhythms that are layered upon themselves to bring "Closer" to an enervating climax, this is one of the most disturbing — and entertaining — short films I've ever seen.

Romanek's ire notwithstanding, I say it's a miracle that the notoriously skittish MTV accepted this stuff, even with the guts cut out. Consider the live performance of "Hurt," which takes place behind a huge scrim onto which is projected found footage — wartime atrocities, the rotting bodies of animals, a snake's head hovering in the middle of the screen, staring right back at the audience. It all verges on miserable pretension, but somehow coheres and reveals some universal significance in the tortured lyrics. What does it mean to watch this remarkable shot of a bird swooping down into the water to snatch a fish in its beak as Reznor sings the signature lines, "If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way"? And then, as a fox's decomposed body begins to magically reconstitute itself through the miracle of reverse-action, is that a signal, finally, of abiding optimism behind Reznor's despairing worldview?

Oh, who knows? Reznor on love: "You are the perfect drug." Reznor on sex: "I wanna fuck you like an animal." Reznor on ambition: "I want to fuck everyone in the world/I want to do something that matters." At his best, Reznor finds something profound in his misery and anger even as he capitalizes on it. (At his worst, he sounds like nothing so much as a more caffeinated version of Depeche Mode.) All in all, the tightly wrapped energy of his music suffers from the compromised sound of the first tape, and its superficial determination to prove that Nine Inch Nails ROCKS. But sonic energy is enhanced by the right imagery — if the second tape includes as many misses as hits, the hits do tend to be bullseyes. Further, the video quality is a knockout — VHS tapes seldom handle color and detail as well as these do. Recommended to those whose tastes run toward this sort of thing, and recommended most highly to the group's fans, who won't want to live without it.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer