I happened to catch Kanye's new music-video-cum-short-film opus Runaway on Vimeo the night it came out. I didn't even realize it would be a phenomenon. I think I was lucky in this regard -- I didn't have to see it so much as a media artifact of fame and arrogance, as just a video project, as with everything I see randomly on the Vimeo front page. But now the blog responses have started coming in, and I feel compelled to provide my own bit of discussion.
It's a mythic hip-hop saga of a playah (Kanye, who may or may not be playing himself) who runs across a fallen Phoenix, descended like an angel in a ball of fire. They go through the standard stewardship ritual, where he introduces her to the world in its beauty and tragedy, by way of some baroque music video set-pieces. Of course, he falls in love with her, and then (in the oldest tragic love-story trick in the book) has to let her go.
If you've got a free 30 minutes, watch it below:
First, I ran across the reaction from Monika Bartyzel at Cinematical, to which I responded: what? Your only reaction was to be totally sarcastic and unsympathetic? Haven't you ever seen a music video? Un-subtle symbolism is not a crime against sensibility... it's just a guy going crazy with the expressive tools at his disposal. Surrealism was no less blatant; neo-realism wasn't much more opaque about its deeper implications. If you insist on sputtering vitriol, please give it some substance!
Second, the reaction from Oscar Moralde at The House Next Door. This one is less hostile -- still delivered with an undertone of condescension, but it makes concessions to the imagery and the ambition. His initial problem seems to be that the video is arrogant and self-aggrandizing, and that it's got the sensibility of a film student. I submit that these complaints aren't that serious, either... rappers are generally expected to be adept in the art of self-praise, and cultural reference is one of their stocks in trade. And perhaps he's not exactly a mature, restrained filmmaker, but don't a lot of artists make their best work in their student period? Wouldn't you rather have the ambition of a student who's preoccupied with great works of art, rather than the routine of a rap video with no interest in showing anything but bling and bitches and booty, or (in the case of early gangsta rap) a bunch of dudes engaged in a pot-smoking rager?
[EDIT: I re-read Moralde's piece, and it's much more well-rounded than I give it credit for. He actually does discover some beauty and noble purpose in the video, and honestly, along with his criticism, his take is probably even more balanced than my own. So thanks for that, Oscar -- just wanted to put it out there.]
Okay, so needless to say, I don't buy these criticisms. In fact, I rarely buy criticisms without some sympathetic acknowledgment of what the artist was trying to do, or what makes their vision unique. And in Kanye's case, we have a guy aligned with the rap scene (complete with help from Hype Williams) but who wants to capture an epic tableaux of love, passionate, and self-destruction. It's got the pomp and circumstance and self-importance of the rap game, which is one of Kanye's essential themes, but it's also got a consciousness of myth and the universal human story.
In my next couple posts on the topic, I'll talk about two things: tomorrow, visual precedents for this kind of treatment; Wednesday, the oddities of theme and character that make this video uniquely Kanye.