Director Jake Scott's images recall both Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire, about angels eavesdropping on the lives of Berliners, and the 1993 Falling Down, where Michael Douglas showed us just how angry a white man can be after spending too much time struck in traffic. The latter relationship is probably coincidence, but it's a safe bet that Wenders films, which dwell beautifully and moodily on the human condition amid technology and politics, are some source of inspiration to the band (indeed, a gem of an R.E.M. tune called "Fretless" appeared on the carefully selected soundtrack to another Wenders movie, Until the End of the World).
The relationship between R.E.M. and the cinema is one of the reasons their videos tend to be so interesting to watch. Michael Stipe isn't enough of a prima donna to insist on directing the band's videos (though he has made some short films, including videos for other bands, and established a Georgia-based production company), but his sensibilities are finely tuned to what's best called personal filmmaking. The band's clips have evolved from "quirky" to truly dazzling, with Tarsem's intense, symbolic take on the hit "Losing My Religion" setting the tone for much of what we've seen on MTV ever since. Just as good are the pieces that make even less narrative sense, cinematic tone poems that never see the light of television. It's obvious that the band is as interested in offering a forum to filmmakers who will create indiosyncratic, noncommercial works as it is in creating visual hooks to help sell records to a pop audience.
The new collection of R.E.M. videos, Parallel, draws from two albums' worth of music and as a result exhibits a split personality. The first half of the program seems to cement R.E.M.'s newfound status as masters of visual imagery. Peter Care's languid "Drive" offers up the low-key black and white spectacle of Stipe crowd surfing at a concert, intoning "Hey, kids, rock and roll" atop a sea of touching, grabbing hands. "Man on the Moon" (also directed by Care) gives us Stipe-as-cowboy, with frames inside frames and projections on projections showing the singer stepping quickly across a southwestern landscape, hitching a ride from a trucker who turns out to be drummer Ben Berry and winding up at a dive where Peter Buck is the bartender, Mike Mills is playing pool, and everyone else just sings along. Jem Cohen's "Nightswimming" isn't much of a music video (the music disappears for a long moment halfway through), but it's one heck of a short film, with the gentle spectacle of folks taking off their clothes and swimming in the dark complimenting the soothing soundtrack (and earning a little "Parental Warning" label on the front of uncensored versions of the video). Videos for "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and "Find the River" are compelling and competent, respectively, but less exciting.
The last five clips, all drawn from the recent Monster album, can only suffer by comparison. Care's "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" shows off the band well enough, but is strictly standard-issue: all primary colors and flashing lights. Randy Skinner's "Bang and Blame" tries to liven up the lip-sync proceedings by splitting the screen into three windows, framed black on white, and it is an interesting effect the first time you see it. The best of these clips is for the album's third single, "Strange Currencies." Directed by Mark Romanek, who has recently made brilliant, surreal videos for Nine Inch Nails ("Closer"), Madonna ("Rain," "Bedtime Story"), and Michael Jackson ("Scream"), the black-and-white clip casts the band in the glow of automobile headlights, performing at some loading dock near the edge of town. As Stipe caresses his microphone, dogs feed in the shadows, and beautiful women glance furtively from left to right, Romanek creates a modest, self-contained milieu where R.E.M. is simply the coolest band in the world.
A previously unseen video for "Star 69" is some concert footage from early 1995 edited seamlessly to the album version of the song and begging the question of why the band didn't include the live performance of the song instead. And finally, in the Spike Jonze-directed "Crush With Eyeliner," a group of Chinese kids mime the instruments and lip sync all the way through the song; at the end, Stipe, Berry, Buck and Mills show up at the club. Once you forgive R.E.M. (and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who guested on the song) for not appearing in the video, its off-center charm starts to work.
In between the songs, we get samples of the big-screen projections used on R.E.M.'s current world tour, including some surveillance camera footage (!?), dancing girls, and some imagery involving a man, a bed, a pair of boots and some jumping fish from filmmaker James Herbert, who makes wordless optically-printed pastiches that are surreal and beautiful (like the video for "Low," on the superior R.E.M. collection This Film Is On). On Parallel, R.E.M. continues to practice a mild form of aesthetic subversion, packaging non-narrative visuals in a pop context and unleashing them on a world of pop fans who might never have known such beautiful pictures existed.