If you spend enough time watching Vincent Moon’s Take Away Shows, it begins to seem like the world is populated almost entirely by well-heeled, whimsical young people, strolling the streets of the world’s older cities with guitars, charming passersby with airy acoustic pop music. Since 2006, Moon has traveled the globe, camera in hand, making music videos for La Blogotheque, a French webzine. The Take Away Shows are typically made in a single shot, often with the band performing stripped-down versions of their songs in public spaces. Moon works across genres, but his taste — or at least his taste in artists to document — remains fairly consistent, favoring breezy, melodic folkish pop; the kind of pleasant, if not terribly exciting, stuff that is disapprovingly referred to as “dinner party music”.
This is not as obnoxious as it sounds. Moon’s videos are not the twee lifestyle pornography they appear at first glance. Even if you have little interest in the music Moon favors, his videos are captivating and charming. On Sunday, he showed a few of the more recent Take Away Shows, but most of the evening was devoted to the work he produced over the past few months in Chile and Argentina for his new website Temporary Areas. As he described it, he would show up in town and ask around until he met musicians that interested him, and then capture them as quickly as possible. Spontaneity is important to Moon. He doesn’t plan his shoots ahead of time, and prefers to catch the artists he records unrehearsed. “Spontaneity” is one of those words that, in other artists’ mouths, has ceased denoting anything specific and become a bland claim to aesthetic nobility, but Moon earns it. He is not referring to some abstract ideal of his process, but to something actually present in the work. The performers always appear loose and confident, like they are having fun — Moon is an adept director of actors — and no matter how magnificent his composition, it always feels like his camera could move anywhere. The Luyas meander through a park in Montreal, their drummer using its various natural and man-made features as percussion as they pass. The small group watching Tomi Lebrero play the accordion in what looks like a barber shop spills into the streets of Buenos Aires for a late night singalong. The unpredictability creates something like suspense, charging each moment with import, fixing your eyes to each movement like a cat’s to a dangling thread. Presence is the feeling that Moon unfailingly evokes. His videos slice off and preserve a particular moment, and make it feel like it is happening now.
Moon is masterful with the light, portable DV camera. The single shot long take is a Take Away Show trademark, and Moon moves fluidly from extreme close-up to medium long shot, masking and revealing space, giving us both the sensuousness of performance and it’s spatial context. A favorite trick is to start very close on a singer’s face or guitarist’s hands, allowing the first minute or so of the song to play before pulling back far enough to show us where we are. Soema Montenegro sings for two minutes before it is apparent she is sharing a small room with another person. Moon clings to her neck, her face, and her back, presenting an explicitly physical basis for the confident and strange vocals we hear before revealing the environment the sounds pass through before reaching our ears. He takes an opposite tack with Lhasa de Sela, starting close on her drummer, showing off his hands and legs, and then moving through audience, stopping on the bassists’ fingers before finally reaching Sela. We see her first from behind, and just as it seems like Moon will show us her face, he pans down her torso and hips. When the camera moves back up, and she turns into the frame, eyes closed, totally enraptured by her song, you almost want to cheer. He is equally facile with bodies and space — the simultaneously unpredictable and precise movements that make music happen, and the looming, concrete reality of the metropolis. He makes people appear freer and more comfortable in their own skin, and cities bigger, and more mysterious.
Before his evening at UnionDocs, I had seen a handful of Moon’s videos online, but they never really caught my attention. The live, theatrical presentation works well for him. Part of this is his working method; risky, unplanned shoots like his do not produce the best hit-to-miss ratio, especially at the prolific clip that he churns these things out, and it is not difficult to happen upon a weaker piece. The curatorial discretion of an event like this is a more reliable way of winnowing down the material than following the latest postings, or seeking out the artists you’re already interested in. But I think it has more to do with the nature of the internet. Moon’s best videos bind your sense of time to your vision. He profits from, maybe even demands, an unmoving, attentive gaze. Something that, unless you’re cripplingly stoned or bound chains, you are unlikely to give to anyone tab in your overcrowded web browser. And spewed from the hateful void of the internet, a Take Away Show can appear to be yet another viral advertisement for a niche culture you want no part of. But sitting like this, huddled with other people in small room, staring at a screen, every moment of Moon’s videos is transfixing and real. It also helps that Moon was there in person. Dancing by himself while setting up his gear, or excitedly describing his favorite band in Montreal, he is likable and enthusiastic enough to upend centuries of shared national assumptions about hip French dudes.
A little while ago, Moon told Nylon:
“I just hate, hate music videos. I just think it’s a terrible way to represent music, it’s not even about the music anymore. I really tried to do something much more cutting edge with musicians. I approached all the bands I loved and didn’t really ask them what they wanted to do. I would just start shooting. So it would be before or after a show, when they were all in a rush. It’s more exciting to keep things improvised. We were like, “Let’s do it over there. Let’s see what will happen, if someone in the background is going to scream or start dancing!”
What’s astonishing here is not the ideas — you have probably similar complaints from anyone who has spent more than 20 minutes with MTV — but that he makes good on it. The Take Away Shows are truly unlike other music videos. They do not just perpetuate an idea of cool, or tap our ravenous desire for sex or product.* Even the best music videos usually wear out their welcome before they are half-finished, owing their success more to a director’s visual flair or keen cultural positioning than the creation of an active, constantly engaged viewing experience. Moon’s work tingles nerve endings we are more likely to associate with good documentary than with the kinetic pleasures offered by music videos: the persistent, tug-at-your-sleeve suspense produced by watching real life built, piece by piece, into narrative, and the conviction that what you are watching has somehow captured the world in all its simultaneity and caprice. There are, of course, plenty of music documentaries, but must of them are too concerned with conjuring a romantic aura of authenticity, or rehearsing the received wisdom of historical legacy to give any sense of the real thrill music can provide. I cannot think of another filmmaker working today who better understands popular music, or how to complement it with images. If the recent work he showed at UnionDocs is any indication, he is only getting better. At this rate, I would not be surprised if he revolutionizes the way we look at music on film.