J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Notes From Underground - #52
Revisiting Michael Penn's "Try" Video


My introduction to Michael Penn came through the video for his song "Try" from 1997's Resigned. It's a pretty mesmerizing video for a lot of reasons, but the story behind it is equally so. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson during the post-production work for his film Boogie Nights (which Penn scored), the video is one long continuous shot down a very, very long hallway. The video is also full of some cameos from actors in the film - probably the most notable being a backwards-hatted Philip Seymour Hoffman in a Planet of the Apes t-shirt. These days, that kind of director and star power would probably get a video noticed, regardless of the song. But Anderson hadn't quite become the well-known director he would after the release of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and neither was Hoffman the household acting name that he would be in the future. Thus, you have a lot of craft going into a product that would be seen by relatively few. Ironically, that's the later part of Penn's musical career in a nutshell.

Penn has always seemed a bit out of place in pop music. Which is odd considering what a superior craftsman of pop he tends to be. 1997's Resigned is his finest hour and is a deftly constructed album. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, it's a superb slice of classic, Beatles-inspired pop music. But in the mid/late 90s, that wasn't going to win him any huge fans. The album was produced by Brendan O'Brien who also produced one of my other favorite pop albums of the 90s, Matthew Sweet's 100% Fun, so it has everything a great power-pop record should - including an outstanding set of songs. But unlike his debut, 1989's March which peaked at #31 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, Resigned didn't even break into the top 200.

It's clear in a lot of ways that Michael Penn was never meant to play the commercial pop game of artifice and posture. His lyrics were always a little too clever and wordy, his songs and melodies a bit too winding and angular, despite their classicist structure and catchy nature. So in a touch of subtlety on par with the Replacements' video for "Bastards of Young," the video for "Try" becomes a bit of a sarcastic commentary on the very facade of rock video stardom. Where the Replacements refused to play the game, Penn pulls the curtain back on it.

And it's not that we're not aware of these things. The rolling platform on which Penn stands, the boom mic operators and effects people - all of this is part of our willful suspension of disbelief when it comes to videos or films or anything else shot for the screen. We know that those things are there, we just choose to not think that while we're watching the finished product, and we subconsciously let the world the artist inhabits in the video become a product in itself, part of their larger story even in the real world. But it's not often that the artists themselves are as honest about the idea of musicians as actors - about the "Michael Penn" of Michael Penn as it were. My favorite moment is when Penn is making his final appearance on the screen - walking resolutely forward as if he were on a mission from God, unstoppable. He is pelted with gunshots, yet he continues forth. The patches of blank explosives are visible under his white shirt from the get go, so when they begin to explode, it's no big shock. It's all part of the allegory of the video as well.

When we tear through the large paper visage of Penn early on, we're getting at what's behind the process of getting things done. He establishes himself (on the moving platform, the boom mic, the supporting workers) as a contender, he wades through suits and studio executives before tearing down a white-washed, posed paper photo of himself (as if rejecting the coiffed and prepared version of himself the studio wants), establishes himself again (though with fewer lights, a different microphone), through the long-slog of dance marathon contestants (a metaphor itself for the nearly five years it took for Penn to enable Resigned's release) and then after gunshots, storms of both rain and snow, he wades through a small crowd of well-wishers before reaching a door marked '2.' Perhaps as in - now that you've finished the first one, get ready to do it all again.

Penn would release two more albums before retreating into the world of film scoring - a place he doesn't seem too likely to emerge from soon, though I could be wrong. It's been eight years at this point since Penn's last album of new material and the video for "Try" is probably a key to understanding just why that is the case.


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