Long before Tawny Kitaen writhed around on the hood of a Jaguar for Whitesnake, long before the Beastie Boys ran around rooftops with fake mustaches and detective badges, long before David Fincher carved himself a film career out of Madonna videos, there was Chuck Statler. And there was Devo, little red flowerpots atop each of their pre-punk, post-apocalyptic heads.
Statler's called, sort of officially, the "godfather of the music video" for hatching a scheme with two kids he knew at Kent State in the early '70s. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were putting together a band called Devo and got to know Statler through a class they were all taking ("Experimental Sculpture," of course).
Devo has always been an art band, putting together songs that are weird, nerdy, techno-obsessed, vaguely sexual and very synthesized. But at the time, New Wave hadn't come around yet, nor had punk, so Devo was a bit of an anomaly, and this made it hard for them to get a label.
Statler ended up moving to Minneapolis. He did visit his friends in the band, though, and on a holiday break in 1975 they announced that they were breaking up: no luck with the labels.
So Statler got an idea. "Let's put this on film," he said. "Let's document."
And "The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About DeEvolution" was born, a film which explained their philosophy: that humankind is regressing rather than progressing, reversing the flow of Darwin's river. The film got them a label deal, and launched Statler on a career making short, concept-heavy films based around music for a world with a dwindling attention span.
That was 30 years ago, and in that time, Statler made most of Devo's videos, including "Whip It," which should probably stand as some kind of cultural watermark, a turning point for absurdity with cowboys, sleeveless turtlenecks, and bright-red Energy Domes (those flowerpots). Big music stores like Sam Goody put up Devo displays, which ran loops of their musical mini-movies.
It caused an industry buzz, Statler says: "It fanned the flames of doing videos, or pop clips." He found himself directing videos for more artists. "There was a three-to-four year period that I was pretty much on my own," he says.
Statler and his cameras traveled the world shooting videos, but he especially enjoyed Europe, where the music video had a long and venerable history. Apparently the Europeans incorporated the "pop clips" into their culture way back in the '60s, so by the time Statler entered the scene, there were already music shows like "Top of the Pops" and "Old Grey Whistle Test" in the UK.
There, Statler found his place, too, working with Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and Madness. "That was great folly and fun," he says.
Then in 1981, there came MTV, killing the radio star and all that. Video budgets tripled and Statler found himself caught up with. "I could see the transition," he says. "I knew exactly what was happening."
In 1983, after six years of creating surreal depictions of Prince, Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu, The Cars and others, Statler got sort of burned out. He considered his options.
"I always thought that if I moved to L.A. it would be for a loftier purpose, like a feature film," he says. "I elected to stay out here in the prairie."
And so it is that he's watched the cultural shifts from his outpost in Minneapolis. He's made corporate videos, documentaries and commercials. He's done some videos in the last few years, one for Ben Kweller. New York's Museum of Modern Art was host to a retrospective of his works in November. He's working on a documentary about elevator music and one about the evolution of pop music.
He's watched technology replace film with video, and later, video with digital. With the attendant bits of absurdity.
Reality television, for example, bothers him. It's possible now, he says, because it's so cheap to run cameras all day and night, endless footage of people being people. Back in the day, he says, "you couldn't afford to burn that much silver."
Now, he says, "the pipeline is full of content." While he acknowledges that there's a certain democratic aspect to it, it's also troubling that people are so content to receive information without regard to quality.
From the man who had a hand in shortening the attention span, his ideas about the effect of a full pipeline sound familiar. Maybe it's a vestigial tail of those first reels of de-evolution. "As long as there's a glow coming from the box," he says, "they're content." S
The James River Film Festival presents a two-part retrospective of Statler music-video work Saturday, April 14, at noon at the Byrd Theatre and at 8 p.m. at 1708 Gallery. Admission to each is $7. Call 232-RMIC or visit www.rmicweb.org.