As one might expect from the New York band famed for their knotty, unorthodox melodies and oblique lyrics, there’s not a great deal in the way of plot. Instead, "Hi Custodian" plays out as a variety of loosely connected sketches that traverse temporal states and evince parallel realities. Themes appear to range (it’s difficult to say for certain...) from the tribulations of life on the road for a touring band, to the cycle of life, and the stark spatial contrast between the wilderness and suburbia. It’s a veritable jumble of image and tone that’s defiantly resistant to concrete interpretation; “It didn’t seem terribly appealing to literalize the songs,” Longstreth said at a special Q&A organized by Pitchfork at New York’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema last night, Bukowski in tow.
With its fiercely deadpan approach and arch impenetrability, "Hi Custodian" certainly lays itself open to accusations of pretension, but it’s sense of humour is often so winningly daffy that it’s difficult not to be charmed. One particularly memorable image is of a heavily bandaged Longstreth limping through harsh terrain. This seems to explicitly reference Anton Corbijn’s deadpan promo for Depeche Mode’s "Enjoy The Silence," which featured singer Dave Gahan dressed up like a king, tramping sadly around a host of desolate landscapes. “I wanted to make images that were both hilarious and really sad,” Longstreth said, noting he didn't produce a shot list until the first day of shooting. More often than not, he succeeded nontheless. "Hi Custodian" also surreally nods toward hip-hop video cliches, with an incongruous gaggle of scantily clad babes washing a car in the middle of suburbia. A hipster "Windowlicker"?
Despite the discursive narrative and musical dissonance, there is a distinctive unity of mood fostered by Bobby Bukowski’s burnished cinematography, and the extensive use of bucolic, expansive locations (the film was shot entirely on location in California). Indeed, there’s plenty of distinctive, haunting imagery that seems to confirm cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s assertion that “if people have ideas, they can direct a film. And he [Longstreth] has really good ideas”.
Visually influenced by the photography of Cindy Sherman and the paintings of Vermeer, the film is also clearly inspired by the likes of Kanye West’s epic music video/film hybrid "Runaway" (“I love how bombastic, colourful and ridiculous it is," Longstreth remarked). The singer is not to be second-guessed about his filmic influences, however. One audience member at a recent Q&A, clearly expecting Longstreth to hold forth on his love for, say, surrealists Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Buñuel, was surprised by the singer’s response: “ 'Die Hard' is my favourite film. John McClane’s an enduring character. Um, also 'Ghostbusters'. ”
All told, it’s tough to pigeonhole "Hi Custodian" (a co-production between music website Pitchfork.com and YouTube). Is it a promotional tool? A work of art in its own right to be seen as separate from the album? Or just a bit of fun? The move into film certainly seems like a historically logical progression, with Dirty Projectors following in the footsteps of restlessly creative types like Prince and David Byrne, who have tried their hand in the field of film with distinctly mixed results.
Does Longstreth now have the filmmaking bug? “We’re done making albums,” he deadpanned. “Only features from now on.” Time will tell if he’s being serious, but "Hi Custodian" undoubtedly hints at some serious cinematic promise. Perhaps he might one day look to adapt his band’s bizarre 2005 “glitch opera” The Getty Address about the fictional travels of The Eagles’ drummer Don Henley.
Watch "Hi Custodian" in its entirety below.