Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Baring it all for the Sake of Rock and Roll

(Coyne and Brownhill at Van Sant's.)
By Jon Brownhill

Would you ride a bike naked in a public park? I had to ask this question myself when The Flaming Lips decided to shoot a music video at Mt. Tabor park in Portland, Oregon, where I currently reside. The video to be shot was for the song "Watching the Planets" off of their new album Embryonic. The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands and their new album is fantastic. The band wanted local extras in the music video but the extras were to be naked and bicycling. I had never done anything like that before. So began my dilemma...

The following were my back-and-forth thoughts the week prior to the September 23rd video shoot:

I love the Flaming Lips and everything they have done. I wanted to be a part of a music video but I didn't want to be naked in public or seen naked on video. However, I was not working that week, and could easily attend. The negative side of this situation would be that my mother could stumble upon this video and be horrified and people all over the world could potentially see me totally exposed. A lot of people were bound to attend and do the same thing. I was self-conscious about my body but thought it could be a liberating experience for me personally. In the end, I decided it would be worth it to bare it all in a safe place with a crowd of people who most likely had similar apprehensions. I had to do it.

The call was to show up anytime at the park from 10am through 10pm on September 23rd. I showed up at about 3pm. As I made my way up the mountain, I heard that the park rangers had shut down the full nudity, but were still allowing partial nudity. I was relieved. I arrived at the top as Wayne Coyne, the lead singer, was inside his signature clear plastic ball. A co-ed crowd of (likely unemployed) young hipsters were surrounding the ball chanting lyrics to the song as it was playing on the loudspeakers. Right after the scene finished, Wayne declared to the crowd of about 100 that they were done with all the extras for the day, but would continue shooting the next day. He was determined to see his vision for the music video through. He said that we would meet again at 10am the next morning at Mt. Tabor, and a bus would bring all of us and our bikes out to Sauvie Island north of Portland. His friend Gus Van Sant, director of Milk and Good Will Hunting, decided to let us use his secluded residence to finish shooting the video.

The next morning, my friend Dave and I got on a bus bound for Gus Van Sant's. It was an overcast and chilly morning, and I was even more nervous than the previous day. We arrived around 11:30 but the scenes were not ready to be filmed until about 1pm. So this group of about one hundred people just hung out on the film director's front lawn for an hour, playing frisbee, psyching ourselves up for the days events, and watching the large freight boats traveling by on the Columbia River headed south towards the ports. The clouds cleared away in this window of time, and the sunshine began to warm the air, as we were all called to the first scene.

The filming began in the forest on another part of Van Sant's expansive private property. The taping began as Wayne once again stood in his giant clear bubble, which sat to the right of another bubble covered in fake fur (you will have to see to understand). The first brave volunteers began stripping their clothes. My friend and I stood awkwardly on the side for the entire first scene because neither of us could quite humble ourselves enough to strip down. Plus, Mr. Van Sant showed up to watch and we were even more star struck than before. Milk, dude, Milk.

After the scene finished next was the naked bicycling. This was it, the entire reason for showing up. Dave and I shrugged at each other, stripped our clothes and rode off down the path on our bikes with the crowd to the production site. I was in shock for a brief moment. I was naked in front of and with a ton of other people. But, everyone was relaxed, calm, and joking with each other. It was not awkward at all. Everyone was having a good time as Wayne directed us over a megaphone to "Bike slower!" on the gravel road as he drove a mini-van in reverse, following us, with a camera pointed out the tailgate. I had faced my fears, and I won.

There were several more scenes throughout the fading day and into the night. The sun was setting and the autumn air was chilling. Luckily, we only had two more scenes; both intended to be shot at night. We went again to the forest. As the crew set up the lights for the night shots, I began to feel awkward. It was cold, and I was tired. This had become a long day of work. We had almost been there for twelve hours already! I was unsure if I would continue doing these scenes. My self-consciousness had erupted once more, but I pressed on. My doubts were subdued when Wayne stripped all his clothes off with us for the last two scenes. It felt like a family as our idol brought himself down to our humble level. The video was then complete.

I finally arrived home that night at about midnight, on my 23rd birthday, with a sense of accomplishment. I felt I overcame a lot of shame and self-consciousness that day and was liberated of body image issues. I felt more confident and excited to be a part of a music video. This experience taught me that we should not feel ashamed of our bodies. It taught me that our differences as humans are only skin deep, but our common ground is far deeper. I have not seen the video yet, and I do not know if I will be seen in it; but frankly, I no longer worry about that. I will of course continue to wear clothes daily, but I won't ever forget this liberating experience.

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