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"I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille"

[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

OK, OK, calm down. Yes, that new U2 video "Numb" – which frames a mumbling Edge in a tight close-up as we watch him get poked, slapped, caressed, undressed, spoon-fed, and tied up by a panoply o' men, women and children – is clever and entertaining enough. But when you're U2, you can get away with anything. More daring and impressive is an independent video that shows what you can really do with a close-up.

The band in question is the Phantom Helmsmen, three rocker guys from Chicago (in descending order of cuteness, Steve and Tom Gerlach and John Carpender) who can boast a few successes. They've sold a couple of thousand copies of their not-bad-but-not-awesome-either début, Lessons Worth Learning. During the recording of a fab cover of "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" for a compilation album kookily entitled 20 More Explosive Fantastic Rockin' Mega Smash Hit Explosions!, they kept an almost audible straight face – and didn't change any pronouns. What refreshing maturity.

In their B&W video "Said & Done," Steve Gerlach sings right to the camera most of the time à la Edge in "Numb," but with the artistic assistance of some overlaid animation. In a technique reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi's film The Lord of the Rings and the Beastie Boys' video "Shadrach," both of which animated over live action, "Said & Done" intermingles thumbnail sketches of the scene as captured by the camera. It's all very meta: You get the real thing and a reasonable hand-drawn facsimile, sometimes both at once. For visual variety, these sketches occasionally appear in a sort of polka-dot pattern, as if projecting the animation through a slice of Swiss cheese as it pans across the frame.

Though the song doesn't make much sense (that's all right; this is pop music, not opera), the video does, albeit in unintentional ways. Gerlach augments his singing with a range of head nods and twists and facial expressions that don't amount to much until the last line. Imagine someone tells you your slip is showing. When you look down to check, you see it's true, and with a nod, eye-squint, and eyebrow-lift you say, "Yeah, I guess it is." Gerlach illustrates the final line "When all is said and done, I'd sing this song again" with exactly that sequence of movement and expressions, as if to say, "Yeah, I would sing this song again." This, too, is all very meta, and it casts the previous head nods in a new light; they become what David Bowie would call a vocabulary of everyday movements, the sort of thing his fave choreographer, Édouard Lock of La La La Human Steps, uses in so much of his work. Not bad for an indie video.

But it gets better. Gerlach's movements and the animation techniques add up to a blueprint for choreography for quadriplegics. No, missy, I have not lost my mind. Think of this: The devices and accommodations people with disabilities use – wheelchairs, white canes, interpreters – are extensions of the person. If, for example, you can't move your arms and/or legs much but still want to enjoy rhythmic movements accompanied by music – what most of us call "dancing" – you might just get away with it by doing what Gerlach does. The camera could focus on the parts you can move and use every trick in the book (close-ups, overlaid animation, facial expression, nods) to jazz up the experience. These tricks would become simply another form of accommodation, a cinematic extension of your person. And what would you be then? Why, you'd be a dancer, of course. You just wouldn't use your legs.

Kray-zee stuff, right? Well, don't laugh. Diversity of representation comprises more than just race, honey. There are disabled musicians: Teddy Pendergrast is a quadriplegic, Michael Sheridan (guitarist in Michael Hutchence's one-off band Max Q) and Vic Chesnutt use wheelchairs, Def Leppard has a one-armed drummer, and of course Stevie Wonder, Jeff Healey, and Ray Charles are blind. You'll also find the occasional quadriplegic choreographer and deaf dance troupe.

Disability representation was, I'm sure, the farthest thing from the Phantom Helmsmen's minds when they created their video, but however allegorical the representation may be, it's there nonetheless.

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