Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kanye West's Runaway, post 3: Who is this guy?

This is my final post about Kanye's recent music video opus Runaway. You can go to the first post to see the video and check out some other blogs' reactions; the second post discusses some precedents for this type of narrative music video treatment.

You got the story on where this fits in... today, I'll talk more about what sets it apart. And I want to start with the opinion of one of its commentators, The House Next Door's Oscar Moralde.

Moralde gets one particular thing right -- like many music videos, this short film stands on the virtue of its individual moments. The extended ballet sequence was particularly visually effective, I think, as the dance itself was beautiful. It was an interesting creative decision: this is the moment when the debutante dinner is watching Kanye the most closely. Thus, this moment represents the spectacle of Kanye's act, and in the middle of an orgy of spectacle, he chooses something restrained and expressive to draw the audience's gaze. And he doesn't half-ass it... it's about 10 minutes long, at the exact center of the 30-minute video. I love the sequence, and I love its contrast with Kanye's persona.

Is it all too grand? Is it all too cheesy? I think this is what some of the commentators think, but this isn't a paradigm that demands great restraint. After all, the "art film" pretense is just a gloss -- this film is made with a musical sensibility, rather than a cinematic one. Where the fine arts of cinema and theater are always looking for new stories to tell and fresh, transgressive ways of telling them, music is more cyclical. In the pop music worlds (rock, rap, country) we don't criticize artists for writing yet another song about love, or another self-praise anthem backed by ironic retro samples. And we have a good deal of tolerance for high drama in music, to the point of celebrating some truly epic melodramatic songs (The Killers and Guns n Roses, I'm looking at you guys). These tolerances bleed over into the world of music video, as well... we appreciate and celebrate lots of music videos weighed down with high drama, repeating the same cyclical structures: performance, abstract, story, performance.

Convention has its place, and the the "cliches" of Kanye's short film are fairly purchased by its musical nature. Just listen to the songs: "Can we get much higher?" ... "Turn up the lights in here baby" ... "Lost in the World." In the music, the self-importance, the epic drama, is a part of the package, and it's not only tolerable... it's necessary. This is where the video is rooted. This is why the project fits together.

Certainly, this video opus is excessive, but it's also very authentic. Kanye put himself into his video piece, including all his self-importance, his feeling of isolation, and his ambivalence about his industry patrons. He also acknowledges that he's kind of a ridiculous centerpiece for a sweeping drama... Oscar Moralde may interpret his lines as simply bad, but for me, they worked great as humorous asides in a very self-important work of art. When his neighbor at the dinner asks if he realizes his companion is a bird, he says, stupidly and drolly, "I never noticed that."

This little clip of dialogue is turned into a strange moment of discomfort and recognition when the patronizing neighbor makes a xenophobic remark. The cheesiness of this moment is mitigated by the awkward line that precedes it, which has already brought some levity to the moment. The recognition of injustice doesn't manifest as shock or heroic indignation, so much as a tiny crack in Kanye's total obliviousness. This makes him a strange character, an idiot-savant center of attention who doesn't fully understand what he's bringing to the table (so to speak).

You can claim he just looks stupid because he's actually stupid, but I don't really buy this. "Felliniesque" is certainly an overstatement, but the guy is shrewd, and he presumably knows what messages he is sending. Seen in this light, his character is a sort of hip-hop Forrest Gump, and his lines, like "First rule in this world, baby: don't pay attention to anything you see in the news" represent intentionally simple-minded wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, baby.

This kind of sounds like his Twitter personality, too. He's got GW Bush's pithyness and Joe Biden's tact. And he knows this. "Let's have a toast to the douchebags" is as much a self-criticism as a snipe at his peers.

This self-criticism is part of the general tone that makes this video unique. It may be decked with the trappings and ostentation of big-money hip-hop videos (the Michael Jackson parade! Jesus!), but Kanye's character isn't exactly a hard-ass baller. He's got a cool car and a nice crib, but rather than counting his bitches, he's falling in hopeless, almost adolescent love. Rather than taking over the party, he's asking whether he even wants to be a part of it.

Now, this is on top of the rather uncontroversial "central metaphor" of the film, which is that the phoenix represents Kanye's career, which is being reborn from its own ashes. Now, everybody kind of takes that metaphor for granted, because it's so easy to sum up, as I just did. But if you actually look into it, it's not so simple. The 2009 VMA's were Kanye's Taylor-Swift-boat, but is he equating this process with crashing down into a cesspool of critics, in anticipation of rising up again to return to his fame? Considering the video is about love and loss within this transitional period, and that Kanye himself appears as a companion and a guide through this "lower world," I don't think this metaphor is so cut-and-dry. There's a sense of alienation and uncertainty to the phoenix's predicament, but not a sense of failure or trial-by-fire. In fact, she seems to approach her situation with hope, and with some measured joy. You could say the metaphor is underdeveloped, or you could say it's loose and ambiguous... but it's not so simplistic that you can wave it away as below consideration.

Part of the mixed message, I feel, is that Kanye actually appreciated being lost and dismissed as an artist (now, it's arguable whether this was ever really true, but we'll play along). On Earth, where the phoenix is exiled, there's all sorts of pettiness and sniping and unfulfilled promises... but there's also hope for love, some excellent dancers, fireworks, and the epic paper mache heads of music legends. And Phoenix, when she finally leaves, doesn't seem triumphant or ecstatic to return to her place in the heavens. Indeed, she seems to be tortured by mixed feelings, knowing that she's leaving behind a sad Kanye. And Kanye himself knows that, however broken he found his career to be, his challenges after a "renewal" will probably be all the more stressful (mo' money, you know the story).

There has always been a bit of adolescence and a bit of vulnerability to Kanye, even at his moments of purest arrogance. All of these things come across in Runaway. It may be audacious, self-centered, and grossly over-the-top... but I'd like to give Kanye my props, knowing that he's an artist who will try some crazy shit when it suits him. This is who he is. Hear, hear.