The Evolution Will Be Televised

Man becomes a diapered monkey. College art rock becomes an MTV sensation. And Chuck Statler becomes the rock video director who started it all.

Just after 8:00 on a Monday night, I'm standing in a northeast Minneapolis liquor store parking lot that looks dark and empty, save for a single SUV with its lights off. I spot the vehicle and quietly steer my bicycle toward it, noticing a lone police car parked at an angle in the adjacent lot 20 yards away. The SUV's driver-side window is open. Inside, Chuck Statler has been waiting for me. He passes a package through the window.

"Thanks for meeting me," I say, glancing again at the cop car. It's too dark to tell whether or not it's occupied, but I'm almost certain I see a shadow shifting in the front seat. Should I be worried? I wonder. Is he watching us? Is this weird?

I take the package.

Monkey business: Chuck Statler launched his music video career with odes to primate rock
Sean Smuda
Monkey business: Chuck Statler launched his music video career with odes to primate rock

Statler starts the engine. A tall tuft of graying hair crowns his head, which he turns to me as he flashes a bright, gap-toothed smile. "Give me a call if you need anything else," he says as he pulls out of the parking lot. He turns on his headlights and slips into the Hennepin Avenue traffic.

I fix my bag over my shoulder and step on my pedals, pausing to steal one last glance at the squad car. I wait for the red and blue lights to whirl to life, the shrill siren to break the night silence, the headlights to blind me while the tires squeal and the car surges into action. Helicopters will descend from nowhere; snipers will pop up from rooftops. "Drop the bag!" the cop will shout, his gun trained on my forehead. "Hand over that package!"

But none of this actually happens. The cop car is empty, probably, and besides, Statler didn't give me anything illegal. At least I don't think he did. But, come to think of it, I'm not all that sure what's in my bag. Considering that my overactive imagination could have been boosted by some sort of contact high, whatever is inside the package might be some potent stuff. If that cop does decide to chase me down and search me, what would he find? A book, a wallet, some dental floss, and...say, what's this black box here?

I look in my bag. It's a VHS tape. No label. "Statler" is scrawled on the side. No big deal. Hardly anything to get worked up about. Certainly nothing to get arrested over, right?

I race home and throw the tape in my VCR. Static. Then, slowly, an image takes shape: Two half-naked men in diapers and monkey masks are spanking a woman with paddles emblazoned with Richard Nixon's face. They're listening to the sputtering, mechanized robo-pop of a Midwestern band once described by Rolling Stone as "fascist."

Jesus, I think, remembering the cops, the helicopters, the snipers. That was close.

 

Among those who are familiar with the absurdist video work of Chuck Statler, there is a faction of enthusiastic fans who regularly cite the 57-year-old Minneapolis filmmaker as a forefather--if not the very creator--of the modern rock video. One of Statler's most devoted fans is Jeff Krulik, the Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker whose Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a 15-minute documentary about a 1986 Judas Priest concert tailgate party, became a cult classic.

"I always consider Chuck as the man who invented music video," Krulik writes via e-mail. "He's among my greatest filmmaking influences. He deserves a lot more credit in the history books for his contribution to music film and video."

When I first meet Statler on a sunny September afternoon in a near-empty bagel shop, he balks at the suggestion that he had a hand in creating the form that would launch the MTV revolution. "A finger, maybe," he says. "In south Minneapolis I might have invented music videos. But what we currently refer to as music videos you can trace back to film clips in the '60s in Europe. So it well preceded me."

Film clips, while nearly unheard of in America, were a budding business in Europe following the birth of rock 'n' roll. Progenitors to the modern music video, they were short band films that record labels used to scout talent overseas. When a record company was interested in a group, it was cheaper to send footage of a band than to ship the entire band.

Aside from a few failed direct-marketing ventures by companies such as Target, the U.S. still hadn't caught on to filmed music by the 1970s, and Statler was one of the only American directors filming emerging new-wave bands prior to 1981, the year that video officially killed the radio--and film clip--star. As the poster for a Statler retrospective at the 2004 Baltimore Film Festival put it, "Before there was MTV, there was Chuck Statler." (A similar collection of Statler's work will come to Minneapolis this week during the Sound Unseen underground film and music festival, where Chuck Statler: A Retrospective 1976-2003 makes its Minnesota debut.)

Statler has always been, and continues to be, a voracious consumer of music as well as a lifelong student of film. When it came time to choose a career, combining his passions was the obvious move. It was also a right-time, right-place affair. The time: early 1972. The place: Akron, Ohio.

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