Netflix has a branding problem on its hands. Does the company want to be the venue for audience-friendly movies like Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in Murder Mystery, or does it want to appeal to Millennial snoots who buy vinyl and pretend to loathe anything agreeable like Murder Mystery in between bites of avocado toast? Until Netflix figures this out, it has to continue what it's already doing: appealing to both sides.
Anima, a psychological term used by Carl Jung to describe an inner self that often manifests as a feminine part of a male personality, is the name of a forthcoming solo album from Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It's also the name of what he and director Paul Thomas Anderson have called a "one-reeler," which is an old-timey way of saying short film. What it really is is a music video. But when you've got the lead from perhaps our most envelope-pushing band (do we even call Radiohead rock? I guess we do) working with one of America's most film-bro friendly auteurs (whose last film, Phantom Thread, still managed to get Oscar nominations when it was about a dude with a psychological dependence on having diarrhea) then all bets are off when fluffing this up. If Yorke, PTA, and Netflix want to call this 12-minute video a "one-reeler," all the more power to them.
This is far from the first PTA/Radiohead collaboration. He's directed three of the band's videos, "Daydreaming," "Present Tense" and "The Numbers." "The Numbers" is essentially one shot with some zooms and "Present Tense" isn't that much more. "Daydreaming" is a little more elaborate. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood has composed scores for four Anderson films, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread.
Anima (the one-reeler) is actually three songs, though they blend into one another. (They are called "Not The News," "Traffic" and "Dawn Chorus," the sixth, first, and fourth tracks from the nine on Yorke's new album.) There isn't really a plot in here, other than a guy chasing a lunch pail, but this is undeniably great filmmaking.
It begins with Yorke and a group of other commuters wearing baggy, frumpy clothes on a subway. Everyone is sleepy and Yorke can barely keep his eyes open. I suppose what happens next is supposed to be a dream. He catches the eye of a young woman, then everyone starts to bop around in their seats as some techno drone bleep-boop music plays. As is the case with Yorke, it's hard to make out the words, so Lord knows what he's actually singing.
Everyone leaves the train (and Yorke grabs a lunch pail) but he can't get through the turnstile. It just won't move for him. He tries to jump over and, as the music builds, he lands in A PLACE that kinda looks like the inside of an ancient temple, maybe?
There are weird lights and shadows and everyone else seems to be doing some sort of organized dance. Meanwhile, Yorke is nervously running in upstream. He climbs over a big wall, spies his lunch pail that a woman (not the woman he made googly eyes with on the train) yanked at the turnstile, and a beat of snappy trap drums picks up. Then comes the really great part.
Yorke ends up on a giant white stone slab that is on an angle, only the camera is parallel with it. A such, all the dancers, who are crawling around in rhythmic formation, look like they are defying gravity. Soon Yorke is among them, flopping around like a British post-rock fish. It isn't, like, elegant dancing, but it is highly choreographed and it absolutely rules. (Note: my ichthyological interpretation is not an exaggeration. One of the few lyrics I can actually understand is the refrain "I can't breathe/there's no water.")
This continues for some time and, frankly, it could have gone on for two hours or more and still held my attention. But, eventually, Yorke is blown off the big slab by the force of debris-rich winds, then ends up on the streets of an old city at night. The music changes to something less groove-oriented and more of a repetitious swirl of tones. Yorke picks himself up from the cobblestones and the woman from the beginning is there. They do a very playful and sensual dance, then wander the streets of Prague, walk through a park and get on a streetcar.
While there is almost no logical narrative, I can't stress enough how weirdly emotional this last section is. Prague at dawn is gorgeous and the loving dance the pair do is quite tender. And then there's the fact that Yorke (with producer Nigel Godrich) really do make beautiful music, even if it is impossible to describe.
Though I poke fun at Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson stans, I do it out of love. These are extraordinary artists bursting with ideas, and eager to tackle new forms. Ultimately, I salute Netflix for offering them the platform to make an event video and blast it into homes. (It is also showing for one night in select IMAX theaters; PTA doesn't play.)
Though I was very young at the time, Anima reminds me of the hoopla surrounding MTV's launch of the David Bowie/Julien Temple short Jazzin' For Blue Jean. More so than Michael Jackson and John Landis presenting Thriller, this, perhaps because it was a UK import, rocked my world as an expression of a new art form only MTV was doing. Promotional videos are still made today, but getting dumped to YouTube lookin' for a click doesn't carry much panache. I didn't see this one coming, but maybe Netflix is the last chance we've got to bring some luster back to music videos.
The streaming company's recent output has been rich in high profile short content, like The Lonely Island's The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience clocking in at 30 minutes or episodes of Bonding at around 15 each. Ten-episode binge-watches are still going to dominate the conversation, but smaller projects are likely to entice sought-after artists like Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke. It's a trend I hope continues.
Anima arrives on Netflix streaming Thursday.