Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The National: ‘A Skin, A Night’
Since I caught their set at Messiah College, I’ve been listening to The National obsessively for the better part of the past two months. The band’s most recent album, 2007’s “Boxer,” has been particularly high in the rotation, so imagine my excitement upon sitting down to watch “A Skin, A Night,” a documentary filmed during the recording of that instant classic.
I couldn’t help but have high expectations: I was thinking somewhere along the lines of the Wilco film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” where filmmaker Sam Jones was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time as the band recorded its landmark “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”; or at least I would get something akin to Pearl Jam’s 1998 mini-documentary “Single Video Theory,” which chronicled the writing process for their stellar 1998 effort, “Yield.”
“A Skin, A Night” is neither of those two things. Not even close. In short: It’s a stunning disappointment. First-time director Vincent Moon delivers the most clichéd piece of moody art-school trash you can imagine. Painfully long shots of musicians noodling aimlessly on their instruments with no context are broken up only by even more painful long shots of stereotypically mopey images of subway trains or cityscapes. You’d think it would be impossible for a film only an hour long to have any fluff, but “A Skin, A Night” is filled almost entirely with expendable scenes. The only rationale I can think of for this type of work is an attempt by Moon to capture in film what The National do with music: belying specifics in favor of weaving together pieces of images and letting the audience decide its meaning for themselves. It works for the band, but definitely not for the movie.
I learned almost nothing about The National or their process from this film. There are a few scattered scenes of frontman Matt Berninger working on and discussing the lyrics for “Green Gloves,” but even that storyline is never brought to a close. At one point, one of the band members mentions offscreen how sometimes they’ll work and work on a song and something will then just “click,” and will come together in a flash; you’d think a moment like that would find its way into the film, but, sadly, no. There’s not even any investigation into the motivations and inspirations behind “Boxer.” One member of the band mentions late in the going how this could be a landmark period in the group’s career; that statement obviously proved true after the album came out, but the film ignores it.
“A Skin, A Night” is a massive failure due to such a glaring missed opportunity. I gained much more insight on the band from this 20-minute NPR interview (which I highly recommend) than from this entire film. The only thing that remotely saved the movie was, of course, the music, but there’s not even that much live material included here, either. “A Skin, A Night” disappoints in basically every possible way.
On a side note, the saving grace of this DVD is that it comes packaged with a new batch of material from The National. Dubbed “The Virginia EP,” it’s actually no EP at all, clocking in at 45 minutes. It has several new songs, several more excellent demos (including an early version of one of my faves, “Slow Show”), and a few great live cuts. The best of the latter is the band’s amazing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On the Hill” (I like their version better than Bruce’s!). The DVD/CD combo is only $15 on Amazon, so the CD alone is worth the price. And, who knows, maybe you go in for the art-school schlock this film offers.