Willowz: Seeinsquares (2006): Richie James Follin, Alex Nowicki, Jessica Reynoza - PopMatters Film
A band that got its first big break through the movies revisits the visual format with mixed success.
The Willowz, out of unlikely Anaheim, CA, were just another MySpace band back in 2004, when director Michel Gondry's musical director serendipitously located their music online and brought it to the boss. Gondry liked their raw and blues-y style enough that he used "Something", from Willowz Are Coming in his film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed a video for "I Wonder". That video, which is included in the bonus section of this 26-video compilation, shows Richie James Follin and his band members, Alex Nowicki and Jessica Reynoza, shot in black and white, progressing via rattletrap go-karts from a Depression-era railyard to a swank Hollywood party. It's a fitting metaphor for the way that this band has cobbled together success for itself, welding scraps of rock and blues history into scorching hot blasts of garage stomp. And, the fact that this threesome has been under the camera lens since the beginning makes it all the more appropriate that they celebrate their second full-length Talkincircles with a collection of videos, one for every song.
More than 20 directors made films for Seeinsquares. A few are well-known -- Gondry, for instance, and Ace Norton, who has worked with Death Cab for Cutie and The Faint. Others come from less established talents, but all share a minimalist, DIY aesthetic. Not all of the videos work equally well, and some of them are frankly puzzling, but none of them are off-puttingly slick.
The main portion of the DVD follows the track listing for Talkincircles, so it opens exuberantly with Ace Norton's treatment of "Ulcer Soul". The video is basically footage of the band playing in someone's living room, but sped and chopped up to manic speed. They are continually jumping up and down, and the film is manipulated so that it looks like they hardly touch the group. This footage is intercut with images of mundane suburban life. It's the first, but hardly the last time that empty sidewalks, pools and kitchen sets will enter the frame -- both grounding band members in their natural habitat and showing how different from it they really are.
"Cons & Tricks", maybe the best song from Talkincircles, is more abstract, showing band members perched on ropes, playing against a background of white with cartoons drawn on it. A pair of disembodied hands wanders over the ropes like a spider, eventually reaching up to pull Follin's pants off. But it's not just his pants, it's his whole bottom half that comes off, and he swims upward through the air, just a torso, in a chase for his lower extremities. Playful, engaging and clearly low-budget, the cut, directed by Toben Seymour, is as much a highlight of the DVD as it was of the recording.
With so many directors working in so many different styles, you wouldn't expect many common threads, but surprisingly a few tie the whole package together. The suburbs take it on the chin repeatedly, whether in the form of an SUV driving right through the band's taking-it-to-the-streets rendition of "We Live on Your Street", or the visions of lawn mowers, pool cleaners and Richie slurping Fruit Loops in "Dead Ears". There are also a few nods to neighboring Disneyland, in the reverse Goldilocks version of "Blind Story" (it's the bear that eats the porridge, falls asleep in the bed, etc.), and "Toy"'s cartoons gone criminal and Pinocchio-esque boat chase.
Most of the videos are fall a little short, goofy where they might be hilarious, odd where they might be bizarrely profound or beautiful. These are teenagers at work, cracking themselves up with their own jokes, grimacing and overacting and, for the most part, clogging up the message with visuals. Follin is compelled to lip sync at the oddest moments, completely destroying the flow of the more story-oriented videos. But on a couple of occasions, they and their directors create videos with real impact.
"Lock Me Out", directed by Charles Spano, is nocturnal and disturbing, with odd images of flowers at night and a murky story about digging up treasure. The narrative is clichéd -- a girl unearths a chest, opens it and it turns out that Richie Follin is inside singing -- yet the lighting, the imagery, mood are all much more interesting than this story line. Cory Reed's treatment of "No Name Notes", is less literal, setting the band in front of a trailer in a desert, playing this furiously rocking song in slow motion against a background of pink and orange. It is serene and beautiful, even as Follin and Nowicki jump off tables and destroy their instruments.
The best of the videos, though, is "Walk Straight", by The Beta Movement. Band members are photographed outside, in very strong light that washed colors out of the frame. The setting is natural, with tall grass and sunshine, and we see shots of Follin and Jessica Reynoza curled in the grass together. The oddest most surreal image comes later in the video, when both are standing, swathed in some sort of silvery skirts, in the middle of the field. There is a group of tiny people picnicking in front of them... or maybe these are regular sized people and the Willowz are giants. (Or trees? Willows? It's possible.) But though the moment is inexplicable, it is also memorable and beautiful, the main image from the DVD that sticks with you.
The bonus section adds more videos, some from the Willowz first album, as well as a short film of the band playing at a summer camp.
Only the most freakishly devoted fans will want 26 videos of the Willowz -- and very few will watch this more than once or twice. Yes, there are some interesting shots, and yes, this is a wonderful band. But the best video of a Willowz song has already been done. Nothing here can top Kirsten Dunst jumping on a bed in her underwear. When you start with that, it's downhill wherever you go.
The Willowz - Walk Straight