Film Grade: D+
Music Video Grade: A-
To be sure, this is an impressive 34 minute music video, but it doesn’t function that wonderfully as a film so I was forced to provide two grades. The music and the concept saved the project from total disaster though the acting and the script left many things to be desired. I think Kanye should stick to making music, or in the least, he should get a good actor to play himself in his next feature and ask a real director to do the directing.
Before I jump into my commentary, let’s be clear: Kanye is NOT the first pop star ever to make a full-length music video… Michael was, of course, but the icon who first came to my mind was Janet Jackson. I remember distinctly that all of music videos for the album Rhythm Nation: 1814 existed in the same universe, or milieu, and they were woven together by a single thread culminating in the song Rhythm Nation and its music video.
Check out the full-length Rhythm Nation film here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 + “Alright” which I believe was the only music video in color off this album, and it is equally epic (Click on the links… ENJOY YOURSELF).
Commentary (I spoil everything…)
There were many beautiful shots, and interesting moments that felt like commentary, but slipped away into the vastness of disparate nothings when left uninterrogated. I struggled to follow the logic of the characters or understand and follow the conventions of the world West had created. I was given no tools to do so, and I think that’s to the detriment of the projects ability to function as a film. Here are the moments I was like… huh?
- The Phoenix’s “natural” comfort to be in nature and around furry woodland creatures that graze on West’s beautifully manicured lawn. Is this a statement that women and nature are bound? Is it about the naturalness of love? Where did that lamb come from? Was that Jesus? Was that deer bambi’s mom?
- A couple dozen dark skinned black people, noticeably discomforted by West having brought “a bird” to dinner, sitting at the long white table along with the Phoenix (a noticeably lighter hue, but not white) being served by fair skinned white women. Are these privileged Black people? Or do they represent a more general, “black community”? Do they not know what’s on the menu? Do they only eat what’s given to them by these “invisible” white hands?
- The people at the table watch Kanye and his ballet troupe’s performance. The dancers are all fair skinned. The black people at the table seem shallow and insensitive, callous even in their consumption of the performance, the food, and in their reaction to the Phoenix at the table. They clap politely and return to the table to begin eating–mostly birds (duck, chicken, hen and a big turkey) and bread. Are they eating the flesh of Kanye’s love? Did he know what was on the menu? Why is the Phoenix (Kanye’s love) the only light-brown skinned person at the table again? What is he saying about Blackness? Is he saying anything? It seems like you had to think about casting choices to make these contrasts in skin tone very apparent.
- The mixing of a “high” art, ballet (which the fair skinned women do), and “low”(folk) art of hip hop soul (which dark skinned West does). Why are all the dancers fair skinned (though a couple were visibly Asian)? What’s with the use of color to make these contrasts between “high” and “low”? What does the color on his own body mean? He wears nothing but white and Black. Why? Is he saying something about whiteness and blackness as racializing projects?
- The grief and horror of the Phoenix (bird) when she realized the folks at the table were eating the flesh of birds: her. Besides it being kinda messed up that the turkey, feathers and all, was plopped right in front of her what does this have to do with the action of story? Is this the climax? What’s the discussion here of cannibalism in the context of her wanting to “burn” herself later to “return home”? It feels like an engagement with the politics of veganism and/or a commentary on suicide, but I don’t know.
- Phoenix says to Kanye (I didn’t realize she could talk until then) that she doesn’t like that in “this world people want to change what’s different” and asks “what do the statues mean… they are the Phoenix in stone!” What are her questions about? Why doesn’t she talk until now? She says repeatedly “They are Phoenix in stone!” Who and what is she talking about? Was she talking about the dancers? To be made in stone is to be fixed, not changing. In the context of her utter terror at the idea of cannibalism at the dinner table, she has to “burn” herself (roast, like that turkey) in order to return to home. To burn something is also to change its properties. So what the hell was she talking about? I don’t get it. Does she burn after they have sex? The hell is he running to or from in the opening and end scenes?
Ultimately I was left with more questions than West was able to answer in 34 minutes and my disappointment in this project as a film is that he provides you no tools to even try to answer the questions for yourself. I’m not saying that sitting with images and sounds and not understanding them is always a bad thing, because the journey to unlocking the story’s internal logic is often very gratifying–I’m thinking about the film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey–however, you must be given the tools to unlock the secrets which according to Swizz Beats, only friends of West have.
I’m not Kanye’s friend… not even on Facebook and I can’t gchat him and ask him to explain this video to me, nor can I rely on those jokers on BET or MTV to ask intelligent questions–so help me out Kanye… help a sister out.
The saving grace: As a music video it works perfectly, because the genre doesn’t require a coherent story to be told (though many videos in the early form of the music video did tell a story and a good one). Most of us allow music videos to stand on their own and you assume the action of the video works to highlight certain aspects of the song or to convey the mood of the album, cluing you in to how you should hear (or understand) the album.
The short film music video works. It’s been done before and has good results: Janet sold 6 million copies of Rhythm Nation domestically. Why else would Kanye do it? And that’s exactly why I think this project, as a music video, was extremely successful. I know now that I need to pre-order this album. The music is fly.