Yet near the end of their new Netflix collaboration Anima, a 15-minute “one-reeler” (so named to recall the early days of moviemaking) directed by Anderson and set to three songs from Yorke’s new solo album, something unabashedly sincere unfolds, so sweet it’s a miracle when left unspoiled. It’s all only a dream, images from one man’s distillation of his reality. But it’s not impermanent, either. It’s a dream vivid enough to remember, and a beautifully sweeping, emotional affirmation of life amid bleakness. It’s right on time.
Anderson’s music-video career stretches back more than two decades, with work visualizing songs from Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Haim, and Joanna Newsom, among others. His relationship with Radiohead has been particularly fruitful: Jonny Greenwood scored There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread, while Anderson has directed three of the band’s videos, including the achingly melancholy Moon Shaped Pool standout “Daydreaming.”
Yorke’s fourth LP (counting last year's soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake) favors more heavily electronic-driven rhythms than Radiohead, but is no less ethereal, poetic, nor darkly portentous of the future. Its lyrics can be devastating: “If you could do it all again / Yeah, without a second thought,” he sings on “Dawn Chorus,” one of three tracks featured in the short. “I don’t like leaving the door shut / I think I missed something / But I’m not sure what.” Coupled with the one-reeler’s central conceit—a 1984-like dystopia—one might assume it’d all feel oppressive. And yet there’s an irresistible buoyancy to even its most nightmarish sequences, in large part because of how funny Yorke is in the central role.
He stars as an anonymous work drone we first spot dozing off on a subway car in Prague, surrounded by dozens of fellow commuters in equally drab, dark clothing. All are nodding off to the same mesmerizing rhythm, as if pulled by invisible strings—a sea of start-and-stop movement (stunningly choreographed by Damien Jalet) that grows bolder and more jagged as the video goes on. Anderson only closes up on two sets of eyes, though: Yorke’s sleepy ones, and those of a pretty woman who leaves a lunch pail behind on the train. (She’s played by Italian actress Dajana Roncione, Yorke’s real-life partner.) Our hero jumps to return it to her but finds his path blocked at every turn. Portraits of one-eyed faces posted where subway ads should be gaze impassively at his efforts; in one tunnel, a poster reads, “What happened to your dreams?”
It might seem grim yet Yorke moves with a comic physicality Anderson has likened (with good reason) to Buster Keaton. He’s flung backward then hurls himself forward, sailing through the air over a rogue turnstile that’s allowing everyone but him to pass. Even “Not the News,” the song that scores this part of the video, packs a mischievously sardonic punch: “Who are these people?” Yorke sings as Anderson pans over the subway crowd. “I’m in black treacle / Cue sliding violins / In sympathy.”
Yorke falls out of rhythm with the rest again and again, even as the floor under him tilts and bumps and tries to sweep him along with the rest. Sometimes he submits, sometimes he trudges against the current, his arms flailing like a doll’s—though, make no mistake, Yorke is more than at home among the dancers, with as much grace and control of his body as the next. He’s also wonderfully expressive here, flashing broad, dopey grins at the sight of his crush’s lost lunchbox, looking alternately bemused then purposeful as he weaves among his fellow drones, and finally wearing a look of the purest affection as he reunites with her in a playful dance.
The video’s final scenes are more nakedly tender and romantic—even optimistic—than any lens through which Yorke has perhaps ever allowed himself to be seen. The last dance in Anima is merciful in its clarity, like a pleasant dream that feels, if not real, at least true. The couple drifts onto another subway car, cupping their hands around one another’s eyes. They can only see each other. When he nods off again under the first rays of morning light, to the dawn chorus of birds, the screen cuts to black, sparing us the jolt back to earth—as happy an ending as one might hope.
Yorke’s been on a Carl Jung kick lately, fusing the psychologist’s fascination with dreams (and his theory about the male and female parts of each person’s psyche—“anima” was his term for the femaleness of a man) with his own preoccupation with the surreality of our times. In particular, with how easy it is to dissociate from the “Punch and Judy show,” as he recently put it, that passes for politics in America and Britain today, no matter the damage done.
“The reason we can watch Boris Johnson lie through his teeth, promise something that we know will never happen is: We don’t have to connect with it directly because it’s a little avatar,” he told Zane Lowe this week. “It’s this little guy with a stupid haircut waving a flag… ‘That’s all right, that’s funny.’ And the consequences are not real. The consequences of everything we do are not real. We can remain anonymous. We send our avatar out to hurl abuse and poison, and then trot back anonymous.” That refusal to process our warped reality might be construed as a form of sleepwalking, like those drowsy commuters on the morning train. To dream, however, is to attempt to make sense of it all. To dream is necessary.
Yorke and Anderson pulled Anima together quickly (it was only shot last month), though the essence of its nine-track companion album had bounced around Yorke’s head for “ages.” It may not have been conceived as a rejoinder to the specifics of today’s dysfunction, but Yorke always knew what was coming. If he and Anderson can find beauty among the muck and hang on to its memory in their waking hours, perhaps so can we.