Following my review of Orson Welles’ F for Fake last week, which has only managed about 96,000 views on Youtube, I want to cover another underviewed film – that’s even less conventional. Daniel Lopatin’s 2010 album film Memory Vague is a seminal work in the contemporary aesthetic and sound movement called Vaporwave made. Lopatin goes by the stage name Oneohtrix Point Never and his 2010 album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 gave shape to a style that has slowly gained followers with a fairly active Reddit community hosting a bevy of new material in the genre.
Lopatin describes his style as “flowing electronics […], ambient drones and excursions into noise, and forays into adventurous sampling.” I’ve heard vaporwave described as post-elevator music for a more concrete idea on the music side of things, but the visuals seen in Memory Vague are slightly harder to situate. Vaporwave aesthetics overall shares a focus on 80’s trash television especially of Japan, overt consumerism in naming conventions and from the use of commercials as well as a glitchy editing conventions that normally suggest inexperience being are here used with notable skill. Within music videos by prominent vaporwave artists like Saint Pepsi and Internet Club a more unified aesthetic has emerged, especially in the digital art accompanying the music that often includes Renaissance sculptures along with 90’s computer graphics. Lopatin’s Memory Vague, however, does not sit squarely within the established vaporwave conventions, which makes it an interesting work to analyze.
Somewhat like Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 as a visual manifestation of their 2000 album Discovery, Lopatin’s Memory Vague is a visual manifestation, albeit lacking a narrative or $4 million production values, of his album of the same name. The overarching focus, it seems to me, is dragging content from the media periphery, like infomercials and screensavers, to the forefront and thus elevating them to the status of ‘art’. The lines between highbrow and lowbrow have been all but erased with ballets set to Johnny Cash music and mass-market, thrift store kitsch selling exorbitantly at places like Urban Outfitters.
Certain lines have yet to be crossed, however, as few spend their time poring over screen savers despite their ubiquity, but as Lopatin illustrates interesting things can happen when we analyze the sorts of media experiences we always take for granted. We don’t know the names of the creators of this material likely because we question the artistic intent or merit behind them in the first place, but maybe our focus has been to much on the conscious intent evident in film and television, instead of the lowbrow media as representative of the mass commodification of art for consumerist use that swirls around our heads so many times a day.
Vaporwave, like much of life, has largely positioned itself around capitalism, specifically by updating relics of the “greed is good” zeitgeist of the 80’s using modern indie electronic trends to illustrate both the hollowness of Muzzak, smooth jazz, and 8-bit video game soundtracks by repeating their most vacuous lines and chords incessantly and, perhaps more importantly, how using new techniques on older material can show how relevant mass consumerism still is today.
For example, Lopatin’s video for his song “Angel,” which incorporates a slowed down sample of the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name, basically encapsulates the essence of the television melodrama in a few seconds. A woman carrying a boombox walks down a hill and Lopatin edits the footage so that the woman repeatedly turns her head in earnest to look off screen, then she transitions to smile and slowly raise her hand in a coy wave – only to cut away to the next song. There is no resolution because every episode of Dawson’s Creek or rather Knot’s Landing if we want to keep with the 80’s theme, can be paralleled to this short scene with an overly simplistic series of initial obstacles that always ultimately makes way for a cute courtship. Those primetime soaps are an amalgam of repetitive shots and emotions, often featuring the hot new commodity with not-so-subtle product placement, in this case a boombox.
Likewise the repetitive focus on an insert of a woman washing her hands later scored with his distorted ambient sounds entrances us, but you can’t help but think that this insert was never supposed to on screen for this long. We would rarely consider an insert from a soap or lotion commercial for more than the fleeting moment its on television buffering the three minutes between Scandal, but I contend that the vacuity contained in those hands inefficiently washing themselves over and over is mirrored by Lopatin’s faraway digital tunes and thus makes us reconsider its role in the media landscape.
Even more challenging than footage from 80’s commercials, are the video segments with pixelated graphics that appear almost like errors stemming from leaving a VHS tape on the shelf for too long. A swirling vortex of grainy white noise floats above a neon pink and blue ground against the night sky. None of that adheres to traditional cinematic conventions of proper perspective with properly focused shots, yet from the dregs of media comes a beautifully mesmerizing composition.
Lopatin incorporates a purposeful disruption of our viewing experience by stopping in the middle of a song or visual sequence and then transitioning with a white flash, that serves to underscore the awkwardness of the film transition instead of using the cross dissolve or match on action to hide the artificiality. Levying criticism on Memory Vague is difficult because the uneven nature of the segments comes across as more like an artistic choice than a mistake with the complete lack of cohesion between the footage as a whole intentionally preventing us from extracting a narrative. If Lopatin consistently errs on the side of complex disjuncture yet we find his material visually stimulating, albeit slightly uncomfortable, does that mean we are comfortable with the hollowness of capitalism permeating our daily lives or rather that the film’s honesty about the role of capitalism is a refreshing reprieve from the oft-ignored advertisement-ridden viewing experience we are used to? That’s the beauty of vaporwave, and of this film in particular, because there are no right answers, just a method of attempting to make the invisible visible.
The interplay of context among the various visual sequences gives us morsels along the way to hang onto like Fleetwood Mac’s “Angel”, but even high art like Piet Mondrian’s geometric shapes, once emblematic of the avant garde, has been commodified in order to sell a cassette player. Another segment where a series of crudely pixelated spheres order themselves in rows and descend backwards into space in a never-ending loop is a dead ringer for a Windows 95 screensaver, but it’s impossible to determine the level of artistic authorship. All of these recognizable images are on parade, but the removal of context by slowing down the speed or using foreign languages and cultures like Japanese or Russian as source material prevents us from reading into the content in a traditional manner. Does it matter the extent to which Lopatin created each music video or is the intent all that makes a difference?
The questions brought up by this short film are on par with any conventional work of a contemporary art and at the same time the dazzling media dreamscape contained in Memory Vague’s 33 minutes never feels like a chore in the way some discursive experimental films often do. Lopatin’s modern capitalist critique incorporates the signs of Reagan-era American excess with music that can at times be mistaken for a SNES video game score, but understanding that context isn’t necessary to appreciate the piece. Lopatin’s adept editing in the style and through the use of low-quality media detritus in repetitive, trancelike sequences can be the point in and of itself.
Memory Vague’s final video simply features a terraced, neon rainbow-colored pyramid undulating backwards and forwards for a few minutes. I’d say that encapsulates my daily experience on Twitter in its alternating display of high-octane outrage, excitement, joy and snark that just restarts with the new announcement, buzzword or media sensation. For every MCA exhibit or art house film, we get 100 Mac loading rainbow wheels and Buzzfeed top 22 list of gifs. Rigid distinctions between high and low art or meaningful and meaningless are harder and harder to distinguish, but Memory Vague and vaporwave are here to show that maybe we don’t have to choose.