Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Some thoughts on U2's Linear

I stumbled across an email conversation I had with my colleague Michael Gilmour, also from Providence University College. In our conversation, from the Spring of 2009, we discussed U2's film Linear, which accompanied their album No Line on the Horizon.

We both seemed to notice the emphasis on travel and movement throughout the film, as well as a series of binaries. Dr. Gilmour put it as follows: "urban to rural; black and white to colour (and back); Europe to Africa. The motorcycle is classic symbol of liberation and interesting to watch the main character escape his job (police) and his city and the shallowness of his world (all the XXX salons in the opening song, etc.) and discover the open road (a very Kerouacian image). Maybe the police represent the establishment and conformity, which he escapes, burning the bike and eventually losing the uniform." I noted those binaries as well, especially the binary between urban and rural. The beginning and end of the film, in which the protagonist is in a "city" (it's unclear whether it's a city at the end, but it certainly isn't rural) are in black and white, while the section of the film in which he is traveling, stopping at rest stops to eat/look at women with facial hair is in colour. It is most interesting that, once he gets on a rowboat to row to Africa, the film doesn't once again change into colour. Of course, all of this assumes a certain "positivity" associated with colour as opposed to black and white. Such a connotation is not necessarily warranted; in any case, the use of colour in contrast to B&W is striking, especially when the B&W scenes take place in urban settings.

Gilmour noted that the film was disorienting: "When you finally see U2 performing, they are blurry on the TV with poor reception. Maybe this disorientation is positive, suggesting a break with established (European?) patterns of thought ... a little reminiscent of the psychedelic movement. The African cloud appears to be an epiphany of sorts." He also mentions that the film is certainly not a music video, and that the songs are out of order compared to the track listing of the album, with a new song thrown in as well. The disorienting idea is interesting; for me, U2 on the television set is interesting for me because the band is doubly mediated. Even if we saw a crystal clear image of them, they would still be "apart" from us, mediated twice by the context of the story (once through our own televisions and once through the one in the film). The fact that the image is also distorted adds even more distance. I would read this as ambivalent.

Gilmour wrote about the "epiphany" moment and the "African cloud." The three images in that sequence are: Africa in the clouds, the biker evoking Christ crucified, and the the number 1 in the clouds. This is one of the clearest sequences of symbols in the film, but what they might mean strung together like a sentence is difficult.

I would suggest that there are also deliberate links between musical moments and visuals as well. While I only watched the film once, I often find that the images from the film remain in my mind when I hear the songs. I did a very little bit of research on the film, at it seems that there is also the context of racism, immigration and unrest in Paris which informs the first part of the film. The graffiti that the biker sees on the wall at the end of the first song is derogatory towards police, and seems to set him off against his profession and to seek out north Africa, presumably where he himself originates.

In the end, neither of us concluded anything (I think Michael admitted that he enjoyed the film but didn't understand it at all), except that the film did give us a appreciate of the music of the album.