Jim Blashfield: And He Was

Brian Libby previews two nights of Jim Blashfield music videos and films

Screenshot from Jim Blashfield video for the Talking Heads’ “And She Was”

By BRIAN LIBBY

Michael Jackson as a Gulliver figure tied down by tabloid-writing Lilliputians. An elephant shooting lasers out of its trunk as an accordion floats by played by invisible hands. A potato as the getaway car for a morose husband. As two upcoming Northwest Film Center screenings (part of the Reel Music festival) remind us, the mind of Portland filmmaker and installation artist Jim Blashfield is a seemingly endless junk shop of quirky enlightenment.

In 1984, David Byrne and his iconic post-punk band, Talking Heads, needed a music video for the new single, “And She Was.” These were the glory days of MTV, when no song or album aspiring to the Billboard charts could go without accompanying videos on the then all-music channel. But Byrne was busy making his feature-film directing debut, “True Stories,” and the band was scattered across the globe. For both practical and artistic reasons, they needed something different than Talking Heads players lip-synching in front of the camera.

About this time, Byrne saw a copy of Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield’s surreal short “Suspicious Circumstances,” with its blend of surrealism and humor born from an eclectic mix of images floating in and out of the frame: potatoes, an old tail-finned Cadillac, disembodied Donald Duck heads, even a cheese grater chiming like Notre Dame or the Liberty Bell. Within a few weeks, Blashfield not only had the go-ahead to direct a video for “And She Was,” but a veritable carte blanche from Byrne to follow his artistic impulses.

“David sent over some drawings that were kind of like storyboards but didn’t go that far. I basically said, ‘It looks like we’re kind of in the same place with this. He just said, ‘Well go ahead then.’ I said, ‘So you want me to just go ahead and make it?’ And he said, ‘That would be best, wouldn’t it?’ So here’s a band I’m tremendously interested in, that I find exceptional: the music, the language. I was scared shitless, but also quite confident I was on the right track, even if I didn’t know what it was going to be. It went on MTV 28 days later with us shooting all over Portland. It made such a big splash that after that people thought they were supposed to trust me. The fact that it was a Talking Heads video was stamp enough.”

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Blashfield would go on to make some of the most acclaimed videos of the 1980s for artists like Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell and Tears For Fears, winning a Grammy and several MTV Video Music Awards – all of which sit atop a rusty cabinet in his cramped Northwest Portland studio today. By the end of the decade, MTV was already starting to drastically curtail showing videos, and Blashfield had moved on as well, into the spectrum of animated and live-action shorts, found-footage collages and art installations that have helped define the second half of his career.

Yet this Friday’s retrospective of Blashfield’s music videos at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium reminds us that, for a time in the 1980s he was ranked among the great auteurs of the young art form along with the likes of Godley & Crème (The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”) and Steve Barron (Aha’s “Take On Me”, Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing”).

“They’d actually say on MTV, ‘This afternoon, Jim Blashfield’s new video,’” he recalls. “It was leading to one more interesting project to do one after the other. It was like, ‘We’re actually going to get in the car and meet Joni Mitchell, is that correct?’ Or, ‘Paul Simon wants to talk to you.’ It was so over the top in a certain way.”

Jim Blashfield in action, 1978/ Photo: Richard Blakeslee

Many acclaimed music video directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry parlayed their success on MTV into feature-film careers, and while Blashfield certainly possessed the talent to do so, he seemed to lack the desire. Unlike those filmmakers, whose videos were scripted dramas or humorous conceits set to music, he is more of an animator at heart, a fact that can hide in the plain sight of his videos because Blashfield’s specialty was not hand-drawn or computer animation but Xeroxed collage.

In his videos as well as “Suspicious Circumstances,”  there is a constant stream of photocopied images passing through the frame, drawing from Warhol’s silk screens and celebration of everyday objects like Brillo boxes, as well as Terry Gilliam’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” shorts, which displayed similarly tongue-in-cheek surrealist fun bringing existing still images to quasi-three-dimensional life.

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Despite the free rein Byrne gave him on “And She Was,” Blashfield still had to collaborate with a host of the world’s most acclaimed musicians and, even more importantly, articulate their auditory art into visuals. Blashfield’s background, dating to his years studying at Portland State University in the late 1960s, was not only in animation but documentary, so while his visual style was recognizably his own, its contents were drawn from the songs.

“I’d try pay attention to lyrics and what they’re singing about,” he explains. “In a documentary sense you’re going in and exploring. I’d ask not what you wanted the video to be, but what you were thinking when you wrote this line. But I don’t need to over-think things, either. If I’m putting a film together from footage, I’m making what interests me and following it. I proceed and I make choices. Would this be fun? And I tried to let them know or feel that I was someone they could trust.”

For one of the biggest one-hit wonders of 1980s pop, Portland act Nu Shooz and their song “I Can’t Wait,” Blashfield presented lead singer Valerie Day as a ‘50s-era scientist, employing an increasingly absurd set of rulers, microscope slides and handyman wrenches to seek the meaning of love. To make the video for “Sowing The Seeds of Love” by Tears For Fears, Blashfield recalls hiring a researcher to unearth as many definitions of love throughout history as possible before he and collaborator Don Merkt flying to London to meet the bandleaders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith.

“I remember being at a pub and I said to Roland, ‘Tell me where you come from.’ He said, ‘I’m the child of a whore and a philosopher.’ That was his reflection on being a pop star.”

Blashfield made all of his videos in Portland, drawing from the friends and colleagues around him. To match the drum sound that begins Paul Simon’s “The Boy In the Bubble,” he filmed local percussionist Obo Addy walking through the frame playing a traditional African drum. To match the line, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Blashfield decided he wanted someone with an exotic Mohawk haircut, and wound up filming a local street kid he met through Gus Van Sant.

His way of working changed over the eight years he was regularly making videos. “At first I often had no storyboards or anything. That was the case with Talking Heads. We’d have baskets of photocopies. In those days, I thought of myself like an improvisational jazz artist. I knew everything around here was something to make a scene. The stress of it appealed to me, just as a form of daredevilry. But after you’ve gone through that enough and your nervous system is getting fried, you realize planning a scene might be a good idea. By the time we got to Michael Jackson, it was all kind of storyboarded.”

Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone,” lacks the kitchen-sink quality of Blashfield’s earlier videos, where you can feel the filmmaker free-associating in both literal and subtle ways to the music and lyrics. Yet it’s also his tightest work, a mesmerizing blend of fun-house imagery with the “Gulliver’s Travels” story, featuring Jackson as both captive and in the driver’s seat.

“I seem to be very interested in making things that don’t seem to go together go together,” Blashfield says. For example, scary and ludicrous, or disturbing and ludicrous: it continues to show up in my films.”

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The second Northwest Film Center screening, on November 8 (he’s also teaching a seminar at the Center on November 11), is a retrospective of his short films, which show Blashfield’s vision moving in a variety of directions with commissioned and personal work. The Oregon Symphony commissioned 2001’s “The Tassled Loafers,” a blend of animation and live action, along with works by Gus Van Sant and animators Chel White and Joan Gratz, to pair with orchestral works at a concert. Seattle’s Experience Music Project hired Blashfield to make an abstract video interpreting Bill Frisell’s composition “The Loan Ranger” in 2002. “St. Helens Road” (2004) is the simplest of Blashfield’s works, but one of his most endearing, a single-shot trip down the Portland street of the same name over 11 minutes. More recently, “SuctionMaster: Triumph of Science” (2006) and “Vanity” (2010) use historic black and white footage from the Prelinger Archives to forge kaleidoscopic visions of both humor and menace.

Blashfield has also in recent years been making installations that expand our traditional notions of moving image. A five-screen video installation made for the Port of Portland’s new headquarters called “Conveyor” (2010) displays 20 different rotating natural and surreal scenes, while “Circulator” (2011), an exhibit for the Brightwater Environmental Center in Seattle, uses seven different screens to evoke basic elements of fire, water and plants.

Making “CONVEYOR” / An Installation by Jim Blashfield from Jim Blashfield on Vimeo.

It may be true that, at 68, Blashfield will never again make works seen by as many millions of people as the generation in America and beyond who watched his music videos. But part of what has always distinguished him, both personally and artistically, is a quiet but unwavering sense of self.

“I was very careful surrounding the buzz of the videos,” he says, looking back. “I was very careful not to become distracted. I appreciated it but I knew it was only going to go so far. There’s a saying: Beware of success and failure, because they’re both impostors. I could see what the machine was when we were doing the video. I was glad to be on it. But I wanted to keep my seat belt on here. I suppose I have a natural reticence. It’s very Oregon. It’s very Portland.”

NOTES

“The Blashfield Studio’s Classic Music Videos”
Friday, October 26, 7PM
Northwest Film Center, Whitsell Auditorium

“The Short Films of Jim Blashfield”
Thursday, November 8, 7PM
Northwest Film Center, Whitsell Auditorium

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