The New Old Look
Bareback collects the collaborations between Tindersticks and filmmaker Martin Wallace into a mini-anthology of their music films. Working and growing together since 1993—Wallace had only been working at Nova Productions in the UK for four years and the band had released its first record at the time—their collaborations have produced unobtrusive yet elegant images that complement songs from across Tindersticks’ discography. The DVD is a trim package with only nine videos in roughly 45 minutes, yet excels as a document of thoughtful visual poetry, an evolving symbiotic relationship, and a convenient condensation of the group’s achievements over the past decade. In other words, Bareback can be appreciated for its visual and aural qualities, both independent of and in combination with each other.
Wallace’s understated approach to direction and filming works in perfect tandem with the quietly observant Tindersticks. In “Traveling Light”, he films in bleak black and white a day-in-the-life of a couple. The man and woman roll through habitual motions—he walks past his child as he continues to shave; he also zips up her dress with nary a glance at her exposed back—that capture the Paradise Lost described in song. With the theme in place, Wallace uses technique to further draw the audience in; hand-held camerawork, soft focus, and spare editing establishes an intimacy between the viewer and the viewed; the smooth flow of events evoke a certain romance about the couple that is inviting to the audience. However, he also carefully keeps the camera out of the way, focusing mostly on the main characters’ bodies or their actions so as to distance the viewer; during the rare close-ups of the girl’s face, she looks away, as if to avoid the truth the camera documents. The result is that the audience is just as much a quiet observer as Stuart Staples’ baritone narrator. Wallace also proves adept at engaging the film/song’s subject directly in “Bathtime”. The band performs in a circle as the camera weaves inside and outside of the circumference, swinging to and fro each member, accelerating in oscillations and circular motion like an out-of-control merry-go-round as the song reaches its nauseating climax. Replete with such dizzying motion and shot without any cuts, the one take perfectly captures the grit and tension of the song. In his more recent videos, Wallace uses a starker color stock that deepens the intensity and realism of his film’s subjects, as on “Can We Start Again”. Switching between scenes of the band-as-spectators in a movie theatre and a film within a film of the band’s possible paramours, Wallace also matches flat-tones for the band sitting in a dark space, and grainier, brighter colors for the women. This contrast creates a deep divide between the sexes, not unlike the constant cleavage close-ups. In each instance, Wallace not only matches the subject of each song, he realizes it as a lucid motion picture.
The intelligence of these videos no doubt stem from Tindersticks’ keen understanding and appreciation of the visual, having scored for several Claire Denis films, in addition to applying a dapper flair to both their album packaging and personal style. Although the DVD itself does not go into any detail surrounding the making of these films (the review copy did not include the planned “book-styled spine case”, so it is unknown what, if any, additional information is included), the natural ease of each video points to a healthy collaboration between band and filmmaker. The band takes an active role in the majority of the films, notably in “Rented Room”, where Staples plays a Robert Downey, Jr. crooner at the Tropicana, keeping step with Wallace’s Technicolor vision of illusion and glitz. The action captures the chaos amidst seemingly perfected choreography: Staples swings his scotch-soaked swagger; the band passes befuddled looks; and dancers run to the stage, fixing their costumes, joining the chorus line in the nick of time. The star-fucked glamour is an explosion of the song’s drunken appeals, but Tindersticks keep perfect time, their clever presence pushing the meaning of the images.
As a whole, Bareback documents the growth of an organic relationship between filmmaker and musicians. Their first work together, “City Sickness”, is a literal interpretation of the song set during the awakening and slumbering of a city, and is filled with urbanites surrounded by each other, moving through public spaces, but solitude in their own sphere: pianist Dave Boulter takes a baby for a walk; drummer Alastair Macauley calls someone from a phone booth; a kite takes a nose-dive. The sweeping yet isolated images call to mind the darker aspects of the song: “The centre of things from where everything stems / Is not where I belong.” The collaboration between the two grows rapidly from video to video. While “Sickness” relies on simple tricks like coordinated rapid cuts with dramatic string fills, the films quickly progress to convey mood over narrative. For “Can Our Love”, split frames of two people walking through a city in slow motion cast further isolation to this heartbreaking ballad. “Sometimes it Hurts” unfolds like a mini-Wong Kar Wai look at life. Again focusing on people and their daily routines in mundane urbanity, Wallace illustrates the pride of perseverance through images of people working and playing: watching a cyclist, riding bumper cars, going for a bike ride with the dog, working at the shop, repairing carnival rides, making beans and toast. Even when Wallace returns to traditional narrative, such as on “Don’t Ever Get Tired”, he focuses more on action and affect, using a young child’s barber session to illustrate Staples’ quiet praise of continued growth. While the technique of Wallace and the songwriting of Tindersticks mature, the constant in each video is a sense of patience and compassion. The films take their time to unfold, but are touching and effective.
Tindersticks will likely not release their next album for another year, but Bareback provides an opportunity to reflect on the group’s decade-plus career. With songs spanning their discography, plus their recent funstrumental “Sexual Funk”, the collection highlights both the growth of the band from jangly rock to stately baroque pop, and the consistency of their entire catalog. The DVD also collects Tindersticks’ visual work into a convenient forum for engagement with a new perspective. Fun for the fans, plenty to chew on for the uninitiated, Bareback adds just the right amount of meat to an already supple body of work.
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