In August of 2015, director Paul Thomas Anderson dropped a new music video on the unsuspecting masses. The piece features his INHERENT VICE star– singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom– performing her new single “SAPOKANIKAN” as she walks through the chilly Manhattan streets at twilight hour. On the surface, it’s a simple performance piece that’s so low-tech in its execution that seemingly anyone could have done it. Indeed, upon first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of the prestigious filmmaker’s participation whatsoever. It could just as well be a scrappy film school student’s work. However, Anderson’s deceptively simple approach here reveals some interesting insights for those who would delve deeper.
“SAPOKANIKAN” is a stark departure from Anderson’s previous work in the visual sense, but it stays consistent with his artistic conceits and thematic fascinations. The piece appears to have been shot digitally, which is a notable factor considering Anderson’s preference for celluloid within his feature catalogue. It also appears that Anderson is operating the camera himself, shooting handheld in extremely guerrilla fashion using only the natural light afforded by their most-likely-stolen locations. The piece’s spotty, inconsistent focus is further evidence of the extremely lo-fi nature of the shoot. Overall, there’s a great deal of looseness to Anderson’s approach– the piece comes off less like a music video and more like a documentary: very improvisational and naturalistic.
Anderson’s work as of late has demonstrated a fascination with portraiture– a conceit that has generated some of the most affecting close-ups in recent memory. This dovetails quite nicely with the format of a performance video, allowing Anderson to indulge in compositions that put Newsom’s ethereal visage front and center against a twinkling backdrop of fuzzy light orbs.
When it comes to music videos, Anderson has always been picky about which artists he chooses to collaborate with. Traditionally, the artist in question is either a close friend/lover (like Fiona Apple) or has worked with him on his features in some capacity (like Aimee Mann or Michael Penn). Specifically, the artists he chooses to direct videos for tend to be strong-minded and quasi-eccentric female singer-songwriters. Joanna Newsom, being both a left-of-mainstream singer/songwriter and the wispy, lilting voice of INHERENT VICE’s quasi-narrator/commentator Sortilege, carries on this proud tradition.
“SAPOKANIKAN” is hard to place within Anderson’s artistic trajectory, simply because it seems so off-the-cuff and improvisational. Without any further commentary by Anderson or Newsom themselves, it’s difficult to tell whether the lo-fi, handheld aesthetic was a result of the production’s limited shooting circumstances or if Anderson is moving away from the structural formalism that marked his camerawork in favor of the loose, playful vibe he began exploring in INHERENT VICE. If recent developments on his feature slate are any indication, it might be the latter– he’s reportedly attached to write and direct a new version of the classic children’s tale, “Pinocchio”. It may very well be several years before we’re able to discern how “SAPOKANIKAN” informs Anderson’s evolving aesthetic, but in the meantime, at least we have a charming promotional piece for one of the music industry’s most enchanting artists.
JOANNA NEWSOM: “SAPOKANIKAN” is currently available via the Youtube embed above.