Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Storytelling Giant

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Storytelling Giant

The other day I was talking to an animal-lover and preservationist about local wildlife. Apparently, as people and their homes encroach on natural habitats, woodland creatures begin to nest in backyards. Unable to change their surroundings, they accommodate themselves to it, adapting for the sake of survival. The same can be said of creative types in a media-saturated, commodity-drenched world.

This is a central idea in David Byrnes' 1988 film Storytelling Giant, a compendium of Talking Heads videos punctuated by lower-case talking heads, normal folks telling normal and not-so-normal stories about their lives. Usually these anecdotes (they're relatively short, none more than fifteen or twenty seconds) serve as lead-ins to the videos, so that we get someone talking about self-realization before the burst-of-consciousness song "Once in a Lifetime," or partying before "Wild Wild Life." Initially it appears that the film will be little more than a video collection but as it moves along, certain overarching themes begin to appear.


Talking Heads, gleefully pop and outrageously weird at the same time, were (despite their emergence in the 70s) perhaps the archetypal 80s group. Like the animals who burrow behind a suburban family's swing set, nesting amongst the toys children leave on the lawn when they go in for dinner, Byrne and his fellow musicians find a way to make the flagrant materialism and consumerism of the 80s comfortable and almost homelike.

The strongest example of this can be found in the video for "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)". The latter part of the title is telling, and indeed there is something almost touchingly naive about the way the video unfolds: the band sits in front of a projector watching images of themselves in front of their own dream-homes (a ranch, a sci-fi corridor, an apartment rooftop, etc.). Then they go downstairs into the basement and sing the song as an old woman in an apron brings them tea and cookies. There is a palpable sense of creating your own home, choosing from a variety of images presented to you and eventually allowing this to suffuse your own sense of comfort and security. The band take their customized home-dreams, the apex of what consumer society offers its denizens, and instead of fighting a losing battle against this manipulation they embrace it with their own willful naivitee and raise the possibility of surviving, rather than defeating, a system with the potential to dull and overpower the creative mind.

Twenty-five years later, in the age of Juno and more cynically-designed quirkfests, this seems more like a cop-out than a victory but there remains something winning about the Talking Heads' vision here. For a time it seemed that postmodernism was a survival strategy instead of a dead end, that synthetic consumerism could be embraced and humanized, and if these hopes have been dashed in the years since, there remains something warm and almost noble about the experiment.

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