Heath Ledger’s Modest Mouse Music Video Gives Humans Their Comeuppance


[show=heathledger size=large]On Sunday, Chris wondered whether viral video would mean the end of the music video, as the viral video has recently been proven as an effective tool for increasing album sales. But where’s the line between a fan-created video using a pre-existing tune, and the traditional music video? After all, Heath Ledger’s posthumously released music video for Modest Mouse’s King Rat, released today to coincide with the band’s new EP, is more the former than the latter.

When Ledger died last year, much was made about how our generation had lost one of its most promising actors, but what many of the obituaries and tribute pieces brought up in the weeks following was that Ledger died just as he’d begun expressing interest in moving behind the camera. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan described in a Newsweek piece Ledger showing him a few works-in-progress: “short films he’d made that were exciting and haunting.” And one of those films might have been the King Rat video, which Ledger began working on in January 2007.

According to Stereogum, Ledger initially pitched Isaac Brock, guitarist/lyricist for the Seattle-originated indie rock band, with the idea for a video that would address the illegal commercial whale hunts that continue off the coasts of Australia, using one of the band’s more obscure singles as a soundtrack.

King Rat‘s lyrics are a bit hard to interpret, but there’s a vague theme of comeuppance to be found. There’s also a lot of talk about fish and water. So the video — a gruesome depiction of “what if the whales were the ones hunting humans?” — evolves naturally out of the song, which is a perfect fit for the video’s intended message. It also makes for one strange 6-minute trip.

Originally, King Rat would have been a collaboration with Terry Gilliam, who had directed Ledger in The Brothers Grimm and would later helm Ledger’s last film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but Ledger ended up going alone. And while you can sense Gilliam’s clear influence on the video, right down to the animated trumpets emerging from the clouds (a direct reference to Gilliam’s animation for Monty Python), the rough animation style and cartoonish aesthetic, married with a distinctly macabre sensibility, is strikingly original. And its unfinished look and feel is an unspoken tribute to its creator.

Ledger’s name isn’t the only one on this project — the video was produced by Sara Cline of film and music company The Masses (in which Ledger was a partner), with Daniel Auber credited as co-director and illustrator, lead animation by Norris Houk and animation by Jade Taglioli. In a few hours of release, it’s gotten over 20,000 views on MySpace, though King Rat has yet to debut on iTunes, where, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the first month of sales from the video will be donated to that international nonprofit’s fight for ocean-based wildlife preservation.

Like any posthumous work left incomplete, it’s impossible to say how close the final product gets to the artist’s original vision. But awareness has been raised, and hopefully some money will be as well — which, given Ledger’s inspiration for King Rat, is as close to his original intention as you could hope to get.

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