by Nick Hanover
The first thing I noticed when the Austin Music Video Festival announced its nominations this year wasn’t the number of excellent videos by local creative teams but the categories and who was nominated within them. There were your usual festival standbys like Best Video and Best Director, with nominations credited to the video and its director. Nothing unusual there. But then as you got further down the list of categories, it became clear that those were in fact the only thing AMVF’s programmers cared about: director and video. So you end up with a category like Best Cinematography, with the nominations going to…the director. Or worse, thematic categories that also only nominate the director but miss the point of some of the nominated videos, glorifying aspects of a work that the creators intended to criticize.
It goes without saying that what Austin Music Video Festival is trying to do– celebrate the oft-maligned world of music videos– is notable and worthy. Austin in particular has been churning out a dizzying number of remarkable music videos over the past several years, so much so that we have an entire column dedicated to showcasing the most notable. But the issue is that in its current form, AMVF’s stands out as an especially disappointing manifestation of the limitations of auteur theory. As far as AMVF is concerned, the only people worth celebrating when it comes to the creation of music videos are the bands (who get absurdly prominent placement on the poster) and the directors, to the degree that even in categories where other creative talents are ostensibly meant to be celebrated, like Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects, the names of these creatives are not mentioned at all.
AMVF’s approach to nominations is baffling and has no real parallel in either the festival or awards world. Imagine if the Academy Awards listed the director as the nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category, or if only the producer was nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance. At best it serves as a sign of the cluelessness of the programmers (something that is also supported by the fact that AMVF still doesn’t have the winners for 2016 or 2015 listed on their site and instead just have text saying “coming soon”) but at worst it indicates that AMVF’s programmers have no respect for the people who truly bring these music videos to life.
There is some support for that latter argument in the non-awards programming the festival does. This year, that programming included a Spike Jonze “mixtape” showing some of that well-established director’s most famous videos (he is notably the only non-musician listed as a “headliner” on the poster), and retrospectives for the artists Walker Lukens and Christeene as well as the local label Holodeck. It’s easy to see why Christeene and Holodeck were singled out, they have well-honed aesthetics that also stand out as a full fledged art pieces rather than “commercials” for their music, but Lukens’ inclusion was a little odd. It’s not that Lukens hasn’t been involved in some great looking videos, but by framing Lukens rather than, say, a collaborator like the choreography collective Woven Feet, who worked with Lukens on his “Kindle to Your Fire” video and have also brought their talent to a number of equally impressive local videos, it’s difficult not to question AMVF’s true motives. Why does a musician who doesn’t even direct all of his own videos deserve to be singled out for a retrospective but an established, veteran cinematographer, or a dance collective, or a special effects team doesn’t?
When I spoke with some of the behind the scenes talent at the AMVFs this year, this was a running complaint. So many of the best and brightest of Austin’s film community wanted to support the AMVF for what it tries to do but were concerned and disappointed by the festival’s lack of inclusion for behind the scenes personnel as well as its general disorganization. Some felt that the people involved in the festival only cared about building up AMVF’s brand and that that was why the marketing material for it emphasized bands over the creatives it was ostensibly celebrating.
That concern for brand over work extends to some of the more thematic categories as well. The most obvious is the “Your Ad Here (Best Music-Driven Commercial),” a weird category to have in a festival trying to convince people music videos aren’t just commercials, but far more discouraging is the “Best Violent Vid” category. The naming of the category, whether the programmers intended it or not, seems to celebrate violence, which is all fine and good if you’re, say, Fangoria and you’re giving out your annual awards for best gore and best death scene. But it’s a little more questionable when one of the videos, Protextor’s John Valley-directed “Heatstroke,” is an explicit condemnation of police violence. Had the category been “Best Political Video,” the inclusion of “Heatstroke,” as well as co-winner Pussy Riot’s Jonas Akerlund-directed “Make America Great Again,” would have made obvious sense, but by centering violence as the reason the video is being nominated for an award indicates the programmers completely missed the point of the video. It’s like nominating Irreversible and its infamous rape scene for “Best Sex Scene.”
I want AMVFest to succeed, I really do. I genuinely believe music videos deserve to be recognized as worthwhile art and I think a festival highlighting them and curating incredible work by the creators of the videos should be supported. But right now, AMVFest is not that festival. Until AMVFest fully recognizes the contributions of everyone involved in the creation of music videos, and not just the bands and directors, and puts better care and sensitivity into their thematic categories, they are not doing justice to the work they claim to be supporting but working against it.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover