Jonathan Glazer’s Visual Insanity

The music video-to-Oscars pipeline has been a recurring phenomenon for decades now. David Fincher, known for a classic filmography that includes Fight Club, Se7en, and The Social Network, got his start directing videos for everyone from Rick Springfield and Aerosmith to Madonna and Billy Idol. Spike Jonze directed iconic videos for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys before he went on to make full-length feature films like Being John Malkovich and Her. Paul Thomas Anderson, the auteur behind Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and Phantom Thread, has a storied history with Fiona Apple, Radiohead, and Haim.

More recently, though, that phenomenon has become even more prevalent. Last year, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, together known as the Daniels, swept the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with their universe-hopping action comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once. Before they became Oscar darlings, they were music video directors, famous for “Turn Down For What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, “Simple Song” by The Shins, and several Manchester Orchestra videos. At this year’s Oscars, there’s another music video director in the midst. It’s the guy who made Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity.”

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest is up for a total of five Oscar nominations, including Best Sound, Best Director, and the coveted Best Picture. The WWII-era film, adapted from Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, follows the Hӧss family, whose patriarch, Rudolf, is a commandant of Auschwitz. They move next to the camp itself in an idyllic house that looks like it was plucked straight out of the suburbs, complete with a verdant garden and even a small swimming pool. Although we never see the inside of the concentration camp itself, it frequently lingers at the edge of the frame, the electric fences and gray concrete walls juxtaposing the domestic pleasantries. It’s a harrowing, disturbing watch, one where the most atrocious scenes are never leveraged for sheer spectacle but instead relegated to literal background noise.

Throughout the film, you can faintly hear gunfire, screams, and barking orders from Nazi officers. These disquieting noises soundtrack everything from a petty argument between Rudolf and his wife, Hedwig, to a tour that Hedwig gives to her mother of her expansive, lush garden. Glazer’s use of contrast — gorgeous visuals with disturbing sounds — is masterful. The Zone Of Interest, solely from an audiovisual perspective, is a tour de force. Mica Levi, who first worked with Glazer as a composer for his eerie sci-fi film, 2013’s Under The Skin, reprises their role. For Glazer’s latest, Levi has created yet another disquieting score that augments the director’s multisensory fixations. There’s much to be said about the banality of evil, a concept coined by philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt that underlines the mundanity that so much systematic harm requires. It may feel like a cliche at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true; you can see it today with the general apathy people have for Israel’s genocide against Palestinians, for example. Glazer’s ingenious use of audiovisual components keeps the film from ever feeling trite.

The English filmmaker honed those chops while directing music videos, including ones for Britpop mainstays Blur, The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft, and Jack White and Alison Mosshart’s The Dead Weather. As an art form, the music video is a fortuitous combination of sound and sight, and Glazer’s decade-plus foray into the medium feels like foreshadowing for his latest work. For instance, take his 1998 video for “Rabbit In Your Headlights” by Unkle and Thom Yorke, in which a man staggers through a tunnel, walking in the middle of the road, as cars whiz past him. He mutters something unintelligible, repeating it like a mantra as if to save himself from getting hit by one of the many cars on the road. Here, the song itself almost feels like it’s in service of the video itself, rather than the other way around. Yorke’s spectral vocals ring out into the distance, secondary to the loud automobiles that graze (and often kill) our protagonist repeatedly. In the “Rabbit In Your Headlights” video, Glazer implies that sound design is nearly just as important as the visual storytelling itself.

In his 1996 video for Radiohead’s The Bends closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” Glazer’s black-and-white aesthetic mirrors the night-vision sequences in The Zone Of Interest. Although he doesn’t specifically use thermal imaging, its eerie, barren landscape offers little to look at. He accomplishes a similar feat in the video for Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ plaintive, piano-led “Into My Arms,” and this time the background is a complete black void, save for Cave’s pallid, otherworldly figure and other recurring characters. Just as Glazer centers the lone girl placing apples in the trenches in The Zone Of Interest, he focuses on the people in “Into My Arms” and nothing else. His penchant for brutal heartbreak and isolation is perhaps best captured in his 2006 video for “Live With Me” by trip-hop luminaries Massive Attack, which opens with a brief black-and-white prologue before segueing into something darker: a young woman who drinks herself into a stupor alone in her apartment. It makes Terry Callier’s crooning vocals hit that much harder: “I’ve been thinking about you, baby / I want you to live with me.” Like The Zone Of Interest, it’s not easy to watch. It’s a painful but accurate portrait of the perils of alcoholism and addiction in general.

Still, it would be difficult for Glazer to pull off the contrast he does in The Zone Of Interest without first establishing a sense of visual splendor, such as the beautiful close-ups of Hedwig’s flowers that slowly morph into a blood-red screen. His most famous and influential video, the one for “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai, is by and large the best example of Glazer’s capability to, frankly, show off a bit. There’s no Nolan-esque, “look-at-this!” showboating to be found in The Zone Of Interest, but that doesn’t mean Glazer doesn’t know how to flaunt his filmmaking prowess. “Virtual Insanity” is a technical marvel; even when you know how it works, it doesn’t make the video any less impressive. As vocalist Jay Kay dances around the room, his gaze fixed to the camera, the floor and couches move seemingly of their own accord. It’s an optical illusion. There are a lot (amazingly software-free) technicalities at play here, and even then, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. Glazer ensures that you never doubt his skill for [ahem] visual insanity.

Glazer may just be the latest addition to an ever-growing legacy of Oscar-nominated filmmakers with a background in making music videos, but he has carved out his own niche within that realm. As The Zone Of Interest shows, no one quite possesses his eye, nor his ear, for affecting contrast. His variegated skillset as an artist, especially when it comes to juxtaposing aural and aesthetic themes concurrently, is unmatched. If anything, he reinforces the music video as an essential art form in its own right, one where two senses, sight and sound, can enhance the other’s meaning. He has been honing his cinematic signifiers for a while now in his music videos. In The Zone Of Interest, Glazer weaves them into an unnerving whole.