Grimes’ new music video is top-notch experimental cinema

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An all-American country queen, a Renaissance-inspired art student, a moody streetwear star and a dancer trapped in a cyber dreamland — this is the bizarre assortment of characters introduced in Grimes’ new music video for her latest hit, “California.”

If you’re already thinking, “Holy crap, that sounds like a batshit crazy music video,” then let me tell you: Yes, it’s a batshit crazy music video. Drop your books, watch this right now and then watch it 10 more times, because this is probably the most important piece of art you will see all year.

And I mean that seriously. This music video — co-directed by Claire Boucher and her brother, Mac Boucher — packs in more good ideas and “Wow!” moments than most Oscar-winning filmmakers can pack into their entire careers.

The video begins with a shot of the country queen, nervously toying with her microphone as she hears the audience flood into their seats. This introduction shot by itself is a gorgeous example of cinematic surrealism. The country queen’s costume is patriotic and garish. There are glowing, fluorescent balloons on the floor. Her guitar is too small. There’s a weirdly Gothic, lady-in-the-attic woman sitting behind her.

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The video would be fantastic if it were just about the story of this country queen. But, the Boucher siblings introduce you to three more characters — all played by Grimes — who each occupy their own aesthetically lavish universes. The Bouchers show you that they can dream up entire worlds faster than you can upload a selfie onto your Snapchat story.

The art student sits in her quiet studio, which is filled with soft light and marble busts. The dancer frolics in an empty room that looks like a Piet Mondrian painting. The streetwear star languishes in a dystopian city that is all fog, steel and concrete — it looks like an Alexander Wang lookbook.

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I’m sorry, I’ve just been lingering on the establishing shots of each set, which makes up approximately the first 40 seconds of the music video. I’m just shocked by how each universe is so gorgeous, unique and immersive.

The rest of the video has these four girls dancing to the infectious beat of the song. You notice that the country singer’s audience disappears. The video builds up a delirious amount of kinetic energy as the song gets louder, the editing gets faster and their dance moves become more carefree.

Three minutes of dancing might sound like every music video in pop history. Yet this video’s simplicity is deceptive, because it actually tells a weird sort of story. Each main character begins in her own pristine world — like dolls packaged into their boxes — but the boundaries between each of their universes break down. Their curated personas fall apart, and their identities start to mesh into each other.

This music video is so beautiful because it can tell this story without any dialogue, just with the pure, visual language of cinema. The video uses every trick in the editor’s handbook — match cuts, dissolves, wipes, rewinds, diptychs and images haphazardly spliced into other images — to distort the video’s reality and to show you that these are just different manifestations of the same woman, Claire Boucher.

We often see the visuals of each world bleed into the others. The art student dances under a fluorescent, neon lamp, which resembles the lights on the country queen’s stage.

But the music video is even more impressive because it also invents a buttload of cinematic tricks on the spot. For instance, the video uses the mirror-image effect that you can find on your Macbook’s Photo Booth. There’s this triptych shot of two gentleman-monkeys dancing as cartoon hearts emerge out of a black space in the center. Like, what the fuck?

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The video’s craziest formal experiment is its play with aspect ratios and visual frames. It’s a similar experiment that we saw in Beyonce’s Lemonade, but the Boucher siblings bump up the experiment to a psychedelic extreme. The video flickers through different aspect ratios, beat by beat, and the music video’s visual climax shows one shot couched in four other shots, like Russian dolls, and each one of the shots is rich with color and movement. It’s visual anarchy.

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This music video just has too many cinematic ideas to absorb in one viewing. They’re like quarters spilling out of a slot machine. But Claire Boucher is a girl who exudes such powerful confidence in herself that she doesn’t even care if you notice the thousands of ideas that are whirring in her head. She doesn’t need that kind of validation. She just cares about having fun with her medium.

Likewise, it doesn’t even matter if we analytically pull apart each image to answer “what does this picture mean?” It doesn’t even matter if any of these experiments are too sloppy or egregious. The music video is just pure fun to put on repeat — a real psychedelic trip — because you haven’t seen the language of cinema flipped upside-down so gleefully in years.

And that seems to be the main theme of the music video — you should just try things out and have fun. Throughout the video, Boucher hops around, puts on different costumes and flickers into different identities — the singer, the sculptor, the dancer and the urbanite. It doesn’t even matter if these identities are “true” to herself or if they are too weird for the public. It can be exhilarating to just be different people at different times. And whether she’s wearing a cowboy hat or a beret, she’s just Claire Boucher in the end, anyway.

We already know that the alien, art-pop queen has an eye for amazing music videos. In the past, Claire Boucher also co-directed her music video for “Oblivion,” which was actually cited as one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s influences for his 2014 art-film, “Inherent Vice.” But Boucher has really topped herself with “California.”

I can’t tell how Hollywood filmmakers are supposed to feel about this work of art: excited by the video’s new ideas, scared that Boucher might be future competition or anxious about their own waning relevance.

After all, if Grimes’ video for “California” is any sort of prophetic vision, then maybe the most exciting cinematic innovations will no longer be made in feature films. 

Watch Grimes’ new music video for “California” here: 

Contact Jason Chen at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @1DirectChen.