I’ve argued in the past that Lady Gaga has been the driving visual force behind her videos, regardless of who sits in the director’s chair, but “Marry the Night” marks the first time she’s officially claimed full credit. Fittingly, she contemplates the role of the director as one of her major themes here; the video is one of her biggest epics not merely by length (a weighty 14 minutes), but by the breadth of its modes of expression. Despite its exploding cars and frenetic choreography, the video is an utterly personal one, moving beyond a visual explication of the track toward a poetic memoir.
Consider the opening monologue, as Gaga is being wheeled into the main hall of an asylum. Here she’s self-conscious about the role of her artistic intervention, ascribing the same qualities to direction—shaping and controlling the visual world and the depiction of events—as to the distortions of selective memory. She guides our gaze with a long tracking shot down a winding corridor while also guiding us verbally, telling us to check out the “great ass” on one of the nurses; when the nurse bends over to open a door, Gaga says “bam” with the pleasure of a director watching an actor hit her mark perfectly.
In the monologue, Gaga announces that “memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics,” and her delivery combines the flat affect of sedation with the rhythmic, contemplative cadence of poetry. Poetics is all about the parsimony of imagery, of saying a lot with a little, and Gaga reminds us of that every time she prominently displays the Rilke quote tattooed on her arm. In the loose, jumpy chronology of “Marry the Night” we’re presented with the breakdown and rebirth of an artist, and its shots are like those atoms—iconic encapsulations of all the moments along that arc. We get a brief glimpse of Gaga sitting naked at her piano, her head slung low and her wild wig obscuring her face as her fingers dance across the keys; it’s a snapshot of talent driving artistic obsession.
And this is all before the song even begins; when it does, the thumping, insistent beat drives a visual barrage of a life in fragments, something that could pass for the trailer to an artist’s biopic. The centerpiece is an energetic dance rehearsal sequence where Gaga is the center of attention even when she’s off to the side, a scene that touches on the core of the Gaga phenomenon. Yes, she may be visible among our current pop-culture constellations because of her outrageous style and performance-art antics, but if she can make a claim for the iconic it’s because that style is allied with a talent that can roll off Beethoven when she sits at the piano, or dance an entire routine in stiletto Louboutins, or put together a video like this one.
The video has the texture and style of the early ’80s, with its eight-track tapes and the rattling of film projectors; of course, this isn’t Gaga’s era, but she makes it her own. The story of Gaga’s artistic development doesn’t revolve around exploding cars or dance sequences channeled from Fame, but as she admits, “Truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest, because I invented it.” Amid all the artifice and construction, there’s a real honesty on display here, the story of a brunette-turned-blonde who moves from New York to Hollywood in search of success, and who suffers setbacks, but is driven by singular obsession.
The honesty comes from the quiet, poignant elements that Gaga is able to locate among the grandiose and the frenetic, such as with the brief snippets with an unexplained, faceless father figure who helps a struggling Gaga carry her keyboard down the stairs. But perhaps the most telling moment is a quiet sequence in which Gaga sits in her bathtub coloring her hair and softly sings the tune that will become “Marry the Night.” As director, she’s asking herself to be more than the vengeance monster of “Paparazzi” or the fame monster of “Bad Romance” or the mother monster of “Born This Way.” She’s challenging herself to be a real human being—and in this video, she is.