Vincent Moon’s film, A Skin, A Night, tries to capture the National as they record their 2007 album Boxer. As they were filming, it must have seemed like a fantastic project. A band on the cusp of breaking out—after their album, Alligator, got them some serious attention—set down to record a follow-up that could cast them into the spotlight, or toss them back into obscurity. The stakes must have seemed awfully high. But, now that the film is finally being released on DVD a year after the album’s release, it feels a little anti-climactic.
For one, we all already know what happened with Boxer. They made it. It is fantastic. And now the National are the It boys of the ever-expanding indie rock scene. That knowledge renders the film a little flat. In fact, Moon seems to acknowledge this built-in flaw in the story of the film. Much of the film concerns itself with the difficulties of recording the album. Stall outs in other recording sessions led them to rent out a house to record the album, and there is a feeling of quiet frustration as we see them record. But just as the film gets to a moment when the band isn’t sure the album will even be finished, it cuts out and tells us what we already know about the album’s completion and success. As a result, the hour-long film feels cut off, like Moon’s tortured band story didn’t come to fruition, so he bailed out.
A Skin, A Night & The Virginia EP
US: 20 May 2008
UK: Available as import
Still, while the arc of the film falls short, that is also not entirely the point. Moon’s style naturally avoids normal modes of storytelling. While there are interviews with the band, they are often laid over disparate images. The film cuts back and forth between frantic, sometimes seizure-inducing city images and more steady, quiet shots of the band in the studio. There is an indication, supported by some of the band’s interview footage, that they are getting away from it all shutting themselves off from the world to make Boxer. Singer Matt Berninger speaks of drinking a lot of wine before going on stage, and is often pictured in the corner of a room, hunched over a notebook or staring into space. His introverted nature frames the mood of the film, which—for all its frantic images—is a quiet, calm affair.
Moon also uses the music of Boxer well. He uses snippets of songs —particularly permutations of “Green Gloves” and “Slow Show”—to show the band’s progress. And, where we never hear the songs come to fruition on the film, Moon does a nice job at portraying the mystery of making an album. The process of making the album, though its the center of the movie, is never broken down into simple parts. And Moon’s camera crew often stays well out of the way, often giving us images of the band that seem to get closer to them by staying away. The film almost never feels staged or even planned. It seems to assemble itself as it goes, much in the way the band assembles the album.
Still, if the cameras are out of the way, the style of the film is very much in the way. Moon’s constant piling of images, some beautiful on their own, begins to grate on and distract the viewer. It doesn’t take away from the film’s story, because that doesn’t really seem Moon’s objective. But as an exploration of the creative process, the film comes apart under its own construction. Where Boxer seems to have been created organically, the film about Boxer often feels overdone and forced.
As an exploration of process, the accompanying Virginia EP fares much better. An early version of “Slow Show”, with a completely different chorus, sounds fragmented compared to the Boxer version, but you can hear the band figuring it out. That early chorus, eventually removed from “Slow Show”, ends up on another track here, “Blank Slate”, and sounds much more at home. Other non-album tracks like “Santa Clara” and “Tall Saint” are solid and soaked in the band’s brilliant atmosphere, but don’t quite equal anything on Boxer. A new version of old favorite “Lucky You”, recorded in a Daytrotter session, is the best track on the EP and shows the band much more confident today than it was a few years back. And a great live cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” shows the band’s ability to take only a few tools and make the song their own.
The Virginia EP is probably a fans-only affair, as is the film, but it is hardly an empty victory lap for the creators of Boxer. In one way it is an interesting odds ‘n sods collection, but in another, better way, it is a nice view of how the band has become what it is. It is not an EP of their finest work, but it does contain their greatest strengths. And you can hear the moments in these songs when the band absolutely nails it, and those moments make it a compelling companion to the brilliant album these recordings yielded.