Words by Edward Murden
When I was seventeen, having grown up in a small village away from anywhere, I finally got to go to my first concert. My dad dropped me, my brother and his friend outside of Manchester Academy and we pushed into the back of a room filled with ageing men to see They Might Be Giants. TMBG started in 1982 in Brooklyn, the original members being old school friends John Flansburgh and John Linnell; The Johns. Their albums Lincoln and Flood are in my opinion some of their best though most people would probably recognise them from the theme tunes to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Malcolm in the Middle.
I remember speaking to a man some years later who was telling how his first concert was Prince when I mentioned They Might Be Giants to him he nodded a little saying; ‘oh yeah, I think I remember them’ before ending the conversation. I understand his lack of interest, I admit standing in that room watching two old men go mad on an accordion wasn’t the coolest moment of my teenage years. Looking back now I wouldn’t even say that this gig was my most influential ‘TMBG moment’. That would have been some years earlier when my mum showed me the video to Birdhouse In Your Soul. My parents have a habit of showing music videos that they remembered from their own teenage years and I look at a lot of these with a great deal of affection and nostalgia. None as much as the music videos that accompany They Might Be Giants late 80s and early 90s singles.
After a lot more investigating than you’d think it would take I discovered who had directed these series of videos that had grabbed my attention so much. I say ‘more investigating than you’d think’ because it turns out that the director, Adam Bernstein, is himself quite an accomplished practitioner. Starting out his career as an animator (which can be seen in some of his music videos) he has gone on to win an Emmy for his work on 30 Rock as well as having credits on shows such as Orange Is The New Black, Breaking Bad and music videos by other bands like The Beastie Boys, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Public Enemy and Ween.
Bernstein met They Might Be Giants after one of their shows and began working with them soon after. The first video they made together was for Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head in 1986. This video mostly involves The Johns dancing weirdly on a seafront. One of the later video worth a brief look into is the one for The Statue Got Me High. It’s impressive that even after purchasing the film they still had enough money left over to pay for large plinths decorated with each of the nine planets. This space theme is continued, even though it appears to be filmed in a dried-out reservoir, with control room scenes that look like they’re taken straight out of a cold war spy thriller. The skateboarding astronauts are a nice touch but not the main take away from this video, what I would call its most interesting feature is how much Bernstein gets out of his one camera. The videos opens with a charming play of perspective as the camera moves towards a streaming coffee cup, this use of perspective is littered throughout the video and never fails to make me smile.
The Statue Got Me High could serve as a very quick lesson in low budget film making. All the empty frames are kept moving, sometimes in some kind of crane rig and sometimes in a car to keep them interesting. Any close-ups are made exciting with interesting set design and because they’re close-ups they never need to decorate too much.
After watching all seven of these videos several times I would say that though it isn’t the one I would immediately recommend, Ana Ng is the perfect archetype of its kind. The song as described by the men who wrote it is about someone thinking of a person on the other side of the world. This would explain the videos overwhelming use of maps and globes and the songs slow reframe ‘I don’t want the world, I just want your half’. The themes of bizarre imagery and moving shots are continued in this video but in such a way that it’s too much to take in. I've watched this video semi-regularly since I was thirteen but still I notice something new with each rewatch.
Each of Bernstein’s TMBG videos open with a small thumbnail in the centre of the screen with the songs name underneath. In Ana Ng the video playing on the thumbnail is of a figure taking large strides across a walkway, shot from beneath. This shot is repeated a few times throughout the video and is another perfect example like the perspective plays in The Statue Got Me High, of Bernstein’s talent for taking what could be boring shots and flipping them on their heads. Because of the angle, the figure is shot from we see only their silhouette, which appears stretched out and comical as they walk in time to the beat. This cuts to The Johns aggressively banging their fists on their desks both with equally strained expression. If you think this sequence is odd wait until you see the ‘dancing’ in the chorus, between all seven of The Johns have a lot of moves to teach us. The close-ups of pirañas swimming from the bottom of the screen upwards are accompanied by the lines ‘My apartment looks upside down from there.’ With the quick shots of frantic eyes and gnashing teeth as well as colour changes and words flashing on the screen, this video feels well on its way to the 90s. Busy even though the sets are quite minimal, everything cut just that little bit too fast, each frame falling over the next as we rush towards the end. All seven of Bernstein’s videos put me in mind of what one critic said about the movie Run Lola Run; ‘its MTV with a brain’ (Mark Salisbury-FHM) but mostly they’re just a lot of fun and well worth the time if you’ve got it.