Oh, Michael. It’s not that your name has a legacy of royalty. Nope, not that. It’s not that you are the cutest big band singer, and quite possibly the hottest crooner to ever walk this Earth (ok, except for Jakob Dylan, but I digress). It’s not even that you are dating an Argentine actress and model who is 12 years your junior. I love your voice, I love your songs, you’re easy on the eyes… you really have it all. But that video… oh, Michael, that video. It just, let’s say, enrages me. Let me backtrack and explain a little more thoroughly what I am talking about here.
Crazy Love, Michael Buble’s new album, hit the stores in October 2009. Finally aware of the release of a much anticipated record, I awaited his soft voice in tunes that had earlier been graced by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Brook Benton, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and others. Between his caressing of notes with his vocal chords and his charming looks, this man is a feast for the senses. Therein lies the pleasure of the modern art of the music video. So far so good, and his track record made me believe that I was safe clicking on the new audiovisual Youtube link. Previously, I had always loved his videos. The video for “Home” showcased his girlfriend at the time in a story of how much he misses her, and the one for “Everything” was absolutely adorable. However, the one for my favorite track of the new album, “Haven’t met you yet”, not so much.
The video takes place at a grocery store, or as highlighted by the sign above the door, a market. This already gives us a hint of what the video will be about: Michael shopping for something, in this case, a woman. The analogy of groceries/commodities/you name it with a human being, especially of the female denomination provides, at the outset, the sense that something problematic is about to take place. The opening sequence, right after the establishing shot, shows a succession of: bananas, hands, cream puffs, yogurt and melons. Ok, call me dirty, but it is really not too hard to see the sexual implications of all this. To add insult to injury, as Michael’s soft voice lulls us with the lyrics “I’m not surprised, not everything lasts”, Michael shops in the frozen foods section, and later his video features a store clerk pricing canned goods. As his 22 year-old girlfriend enters the frame, also grabbing something from the freezer, the chilling message I take away from these images has to do with preserving looks, avoiding ageing and being frozen in time. All that matters in this market is to have the most appealing packaging, to be appealing. As the butcher wields his knife, we are introduced to the idea that this store really is a meat market.
While Michael waltzes down one of the aisles with a giant phallus, and other men blow on theirs (trumpets and other miscellaneous instruments), we are reminded of who really reigns supreme in this diegetic world. As the store patrons dance unprompted, confetti and all, the heteronormative patriarchy crucial to musicals of the 1950’s resurfaces in this modern context, one in which the male lead can sing big band music wearing sneakers. This patriarch, one that stands in all his Canadian whiteness, has conquered the Latin American woman, the locus of exoticism that has no other purpose in life than to turn herself over to the colonial power. Even the end of the video cannot alleviate this strong message. When Michael ‘wakes up’ from his musical reverie, he sees his dream woman entering the store. Firstly, the ability to conjure up the female he has imagined places him at a prime position as a creator, or somebody who, much like Scottie in Vertigo, can ‘make’ a woman exactly how he wants her. Secondly, her lack of agency throughout the whole video (he is the one speaking and singing, and she is not able to even mimic the sound of a word) also plays into this male dominated diegesis. And finally, her entrance into the store suggests that the place of the market, in which the female is a commodity, is simply inescapable.
What Buble’s video tells us, whether we like it or not, is that male privilege, money and fame can buy everything, maybe even a young, sought after female actress and model. I wish he would remember that Beatles cover he reprised in his 2005 album It’s Time. As much as you want to believe the contrary, the old adage still holds true: money CAN’T buy you love.
About sixty years ago, Antoine de Saint Exupery created a fantasy in which a Little Prince hopped from planet to planet in his search for happiness. Much more recently, another member of the royal enclave (the king of pop) was engaged in a different kind of meandering: race hopping. From black to white, Michael Jackson not only traveled in his own life, but also in the diegetic world of his video clip “Black or White”. Whereas the Little Prince promised to never forget what he learned from a fox he had domesticated, Michael Jackson seems to have forgotten what every member of the imaginary royalty should know: the tenet that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. “Black or white” opens with an aerial shot of the suburb and home that we will later familiarize with, hence introducing us to the space as coming from the sky. The departure of the hopping and exploration of the diverse worlds that inhabit Planet Earth (as opposed to the diverse planets that compose our universe) is a white middle class suburban home, which sets the norm of our reality. In this home, the father, mother and son seem to have assumed primary psychic roles, which become reversed when the son blasts off his father to the other side of the world. The repressive patriarchal authority, in contrast with the Little Prince, is transported against his will to a world of Otherness. His voyage, in turn, leads the audience to a different double journey: that of the King of Pop walking from frame to frame into stereotypically depicted cultures, and that of Michael’s own real life travel, from blackness to whiteness. This double journey, as the images that compose the video indicate, takes on certain implications about racial difference and its importance in terms of white supremacy.
THE MUSIC VIDEO IN QUESTION:
The representation of a number of diverse racial groups is what makes this video so unique. However, these representations are fraught with a “flawed mimesis” (Stam and Spence 881), stereotypes, and a certain colonial sensibility. In the introduction to his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the presence of a division, “as both geographical and cultural entities […] sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made” (5) By extension, I would like to argue that the video “Black or White” creates several imaginary geographies, adjudicating to each one a stereotypical image that when placed opposite whiteness can be redefined to mean ‘otherness’. This project becomes apparent during the first racial representation, that of the African Natives. The scantily clad men in painted faces are about to kill an animal, responding to their savage and primitive calling. However, out of nowhere, they begin dancing with Michael in a highly choreographed manner. He is within them, trying to blend his difference by yelling a guttural sound, but failing as his western clothing denounces him. Through the attempt to erase difference but by highly stereotyping the natives, the image is then in crisis: the imaginary African continent and its people as a locus of otherness conflicts with the blurring of the distinction with whiteness, because according to his own words “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”.
Enter the eroticized Asian female. These women move in perfect unison, wearing oriental outfits and moving in constrained and very slight movements, as they portray the essence of the truly feminine, “passive, subservient, dependent” (Marchetti 115). The male gaze within the diegetic world not only complicates this representation in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, as these women become highly sexualized racial bodies. As he continues to screen hop, Michael encounters the far West, with its Indians in red face and cowboys that shoot guns without a purpose. Herein lies an invocation to the most racially troublesome genre of American culture: the western. Michael interacts with the Indians like he belongs, and nobody looks at him any different, despite the long withstanding antagonistic relationship between whites and native Americans set up by westerns such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).
Another locus of erasure of racial differences is Michael’s encounter with a traditionally clad Hindu woman, dancing in the middle of the streets of an industrialized India. The imaginary absence of borders manifests itself through the action and setting, as their dancing nonchalance suggest that, contrary to reality, the middle of a well-populated street is removed from dangers.
Many parallels run through these representations of the diverse cultures. Firstly, Michael seems to blend with the ones who accompany him in the frame, even though he leaps out of the screen for the audiences who see him as different. Secondly, he seems to be able to adapt quite well to each race through dance, which suggests his dexterity in the art of bodily adaptation and race hopping. Nevertheless, this argument becomes more complicated when taking into account the last stop on his diegetic culture trip: the Russian white Cossacks. This particular segment is the only one he can complete in its entirety and in perfect unison with his screen partners. This feat suggests perfect harmony with his fellow white dancers, inducting him, according to the video’s discourse, into The ‘Hall of Whiteness’. The white snowflakes falling only add to the sentiment of absence of color that permeates the screen.
Furthermore, as the scene converts into a snow globe, a small hand holds it in its grasp. The camera pulls back to reveal a white baby sitting on top of the world, who right in front of a black infant shakes the snow globe that has captured Michael’s reality. Almost like a justification, these two babies are evocative of the Clark Doll Study, an experiment which asked children to choose between a white and a black doll in terms of their preference. Just as the study reveals, and as Michael represents, whiteness equals desirability. This not-so-novel discovery as a result of white supremacy explains why the snow globe resides on the white baby’s hand, conferring him and agency the black baby cannot have. The white baby is, in this world of binary divisions, the one that gets to hold the globe. The exposure of this experiment almost validates Michael’s escape from blackness, but also endorses the idea of whiteness as the top of the food chain, or literally in this video, as the agent in control on top of the world.
The same can be said about Michael’s trip to the flame of the Statue of Liberty. His positioning on top of one of the tallest structures of the world reinforces his status of privilege as a white male, but also stands as an emblem of the Ellis Island culture, that of the American Dream. In the United States, the land of possibilities, one can become whoever he or she wants to be. America becomes the place of dreams and reinvented identities, a space where most fantasies can become a reality because of that ‘freedom’.
It would seem that only white people are in the privileged position to say that skin color does not matter. “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”, he sings, mainly meaning that the prism by which we should evaluate people is not race, but equality. However, the suggestion of the erasure of color leads us to conjecture that whiteness is the ideal. Michael, occupying his throne near the crown of the Statue of Liberty, asserts this statement through more than his lyrics. His costume choice for this video becomes an interesting one to analyze: a white shirt, paired with black pants. If we were to deconstruct it, we would find that the whiteness of his outfit resides on top of the black, signaling the order of hierarchy of race, but also occupies the top portion of his body, the one valued because of intellect and reason, while the black one covers the bottom half, the portion that contains the genitalia and is often associated with the sexualized and the primitive. We can see this clothing choice as a reflection of cultural stereotypes: the rational and civilized white is above the primitive and hypersexualized black. Being that this is a video to try to disavow racial stereotypes and racial differences, the clothing selection surfaces as a huge oversight, or a fraught choice.
Whereas this video was released to repudiate certain racist accusations towards Michael Jackson, the image tells us a different story. Even though the video promises to challenge ruling discursive assumptions about race, it ends up reaffirming the status quo of white supremacy. The morphing of the faces that ends the musical portion of the video, as well as the transformation of Michael’s face through plastic surgery manipulation seems to suggest that the King of Pop is not looking to join the Little Prince on his quest of returning to the Earth to live happily ever after. Instead, it seems that he has reached the point of no return, and as his hopping from identity to identity progresses, his highly morphed body better suits a space within this galaxy, but out of this world.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House, 1994.
Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism an Representation: An Introduction” in Film: Psychology, Ideology, and Technology. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th Ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004. pp 877-891.
FIRST HATER POST, oh the carnage
It seems futile to barricade the top ten lists of 2008 from the inspirational puppy-dog-eyes of the Hollywood/Bollywood brainchild, Slumdog Millionaire, another lucrative product from the folks who have succeeded, much like the Disney Channel, to clone a progeny of audience favorites (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), which makes the job of any ghost reviewer easier by dutifully proclaim “It’s this year’s _______.” When all the independent sidearms of the top studios have been liquidated to only a footnote in history, Fox Searchlight endures as it funds and buys out the better-tested of the best, safety features, that is. Radical risk-taking isn’t exactly part of the mission statement of the company, and their acquisitions have come to mirror each other in tonality and predictability, in which those legal last rites of the rolling credits should be appended to “All characters are purely fictional and frictionless.”
With the announcement from the National Board of Review that Slumdog Millionaire is supposedly the BEST FRAKKIN’ FILM of the Year, a no-surprise shrug was my first reaction, followed by an angry realization that a smug shutter would suffice instead. Sharing Meg’s initial and permanent assessment of our screening at Telluride, Slumdog’s only salvageable virtue lies in its ingenuity to wed MIA’s gangbang hum-a-thon, “Paper Planes” into the movie’s soundtrack, after a gleeful sham marriage of a teaser from Pineapple Express. Not once of course, but twice, including a DFA remix of the song, in a subsequent lull moment after a frenetic montage of the brothers’ joyous robberies aboard a luxury train across India, keep those Marc Jacobs’ limited edition LV trunks close to you at all times. Otherwise, the film suffers not from ADD, in threading together the lead character’s rags-to-riches flashbacks with utmost pandemonium editing, but OCD, carefully cleaning up the beautiful mess with a single-minded goal to get the boy his girl, these damaged goods are back together at last.
With the majority of its defenders celebrating its lush, odorous in-your-face imagery of contemporary India coupled with a national fable of upward mobility both idealized and envied, how could a small minority of critics muster their intellectual weaponry at such a PC crowd-pleaser of a tale of two cities, Mumbai, loud and dangerous, recent Terrorist events have only reinforce the social reality of racial tensions, and Mumbai, ambitious, modern, and Western-friendly, recent retaliation to the attacks have also indicated. The only offensive line of reasoning would lead to nowhere but the emotional indifference that possessed me at the time of my viewing, an unimpressive impression. With the exception of the MIA song that highjacked my feet off the ground, this Bollywood-lite musical was made for those who don’t really want to see a full-blown Bollywood spectacle nor the American epic poems of the 50s or 60s, their length and majesty truncated for the 120-min threshold of the action thriller. Australia falls on the other end, too much with too little to say.
With the DGA deciding its next saint coming early 2009, Danny Boyle may find himself accepting that honor and delivering what his auteur admirers would find consistently fitting into a future retrospective, but for me, Mr. Boyle is basically paying back Fox Seachlight the loan he borrowed for his flopped pet project, Sunshine, a sci-fi rumination on human-termite existence. Perhaps, one could fault this no-holds-bar acceptance of Slumdog as a cultural symptom of our downtrodden times, when happy endings sloppily hemmed together stand for larger wish fulfillments of a quick-bailout kind, from the government, or from media giants that finance get-rich schemes like “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”.
Has 2008 begotten such an impoverished roster of cinematic candidates that we must crown a pauper in place of a prince?
UPDATE: As much as I despise Slumdog Millionaire, discovering that Paste Magazine awarded its top prize, in a bold, but deeply calculated move, to Nandita Das’s Firaaq is equally distressing. I prefer the inauthentic audacity of the former over the authentic affectations of the latter. Please, has the same plague afflicting the Academy in 2005, when Crash triumphantly crashed Brokeback party, returned in a more menacing form? Say it aint so.
“ALL I WANNA DO…is take your money” YES, so close your wallet and watch this clip, IT IS THE MOVIE.