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Vol. LXIII, No. 26
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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DVD Review

Seeing Is Believing: The Video Passion of Michael Jackson, Burning Bright

Stuart Mitchner

From the mid-eighties on, he turned himself into a “What Is It?” With genius and generosity as an artist; with solitary and fearsome zeal as a man.

Margo Jefferson

The day Michael Jackson died, last Thursday afternoon, June 25, 2009, my most immediate image of him was the one I’d been averting my eyes from since 2003, if not before. My reaction had nothing to do with the child-molestation trial and the attendant media feeding frenzy led by that perpetually sneering piranha, CNN’s resident prosecutor, Nancy Grace. I just found it painful to look at his face. The fact that he’d already resorted to cosmetic surgery undermined the rationale that the drastic whitening of his skin was solely due to the pigmentation ravages of vitiligo. My doubts were amplified by the Pulitzer-prize-winning African American journalist Margo Jefferson in her novella-sized book On Michael Jackson (Pantheon 2006):

“Was he man, boy, man-boy or boy-woman? Mannequin or postmodern zombie? Here was a black person who had once looked unmistakably black, and now looked white or at least un-black. He was, at the very least, a new kind of mulatto, one created by science and medicine and cosmetology.”

Thankfully, Jefferson departs from the P.T. Barnum sideshow she’s concocted (the chapter title is “Freaks”) long enough to recognize Jackson’s “wondrous art,” which “orders contradictions and unwelcome longings; glorifies what’s perverse or infantile, lavish and dream-bright, suave, abject, incurably romantic.” Her reference to “phrasings that quicken the blood and shock the nervous system” seems out of keeping with the bloodless mask-like face that haunted the media during the Bush years.

Until a few days ago my only contact with Michael Jackson’s art had been during the Thriller period when stars like Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra were heaping praise on his dancing and singing. Thinking I might write something about the album for this week, I sampled it online. As soon as I heard the lame duet with Paul McCartney (“That Girl Is Mine”), I gave up the idea of a record review and searched instead on YouTube, MTV, and VH-1. There I discovered what I should have known all along, which is that Michael Jackson literally has to be seen to be believed. When Fred Astaire said, “That boy moves in a very exceptional way. That’s the greatest dancer of the century,” he wasn’t talking about a record.

By now I’ve watched hour after hour of Michael Jackson videos. You don’t need to see the Beatles performing to appreciate Revolver and you don’t need to see Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker in action to get the essence of the music; nor is a digitally activated image of Mozart likely to enhance your enjoyment of The Magic Flute. With ABBA, and certain other groups, it’s actually an advantage not to see the performers.

But Michael Jackson is something else. Listening isn’t enough. Dance critic Alastair Macaulay makes the case in the Saturday Arts Section of the Times (“His Moves Expressed as Much as His Music”). In the course of a detailed, exacting, and not always flattering analysis, Macaulay stresses the “tricks and special effects,” and finds that “even in his best work,” Jackson relies “too often on known stunts” like the “crotch-grabbing and moon-walking” and on “too many occasions the audience seems to be waiting for him to do them.” By the end of the article, the critic comes close to contradicting himself, admitting that even the later Jackson is “one of those rare dancers” that “you feel you’d pay just to watch him walk.”

To stop there and accept the fact that Jackson’s a great dancer in spite of all of Macaulay’s qualifications would be like saying the same of Muhammed Ali. Footwork and body English aren’t enough. Ali and Jackson were both masters of style and attitude, both gifted with a self-conceptual sensibility, the weapon Ali used to make a narrative of his fights, his beauty, and his mission. Jackson is more ambitious. He and various directors have turned his dreams, fears, visions, and messianic rhapsodies into videos. His lyrics are also undoubtedly more effective and compelling than Ali’s witty doggerel, but, as with Ali, everything depends on the way Jackson — this genius singer, this world champion of music — delivers the message. Whether you watch the long or short version of the Martin Scorcese-directed video for “Bad,” you’ll see a force that could seemingly have outfaced anyone, including Muhammed Ali. Whether the subject is the salvation of the planet or sex and violence in the ghetto, what makes these videos unforgettable is the fiercely expressive power of Michael Jackson’s face.

I can’t think of any actor, living or dead, who burns as brightly as Michael Jackson does in videos like “Bad,” where the sweetly smiling college kid goes home to the urban jungle and morphs into a passionate demigod of the subway, a Nijinsky Samurai in black leather (shot from the boots up the way Sergio Leone films Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) preaching the word to home boys who were about to mug an old man. Who else but Michael Jackson could put himself into the torch held by the Statue of Liberty (in ”Black and White”)? Who else could howl for a dying planet, on his knees, arms extended, at once crucified and crazed, Christ, Samson, Prometheus, Johnny Ray, James Brown, Ray Charles, Al Jolson, you name it, the last hope of life on earth holding it all together against a gale-force wind that he simultaneously suffers and summons, still howling while fallen trees rise again, the burned-out earth goes green, and the dead come back to life. The apocalyptic pyrotechnics of “Earth Song” verge on the ridiculous, the singer’s histrionics all but begging to be mocked or parodied, but to people around the world who have seen this video in the aftermath of June 25, 2009 (or when it was current in the nineties, his best-selling song in the United Kingdom) that’s Michael Jackson bringing the planet back to life again. And the trademark little cries at the end that in other contexts can connote joy, lust, triumph, or loss really do seem to come up from the earth through this once in a lifetime messenger and his “wondrous art.”

Barack and Michael

As if the 44th president didn’t have enough to contend with, here comes the death of Michael Jackson. You know the election of a light-skinned African American had to have special significance for the composer of “Earth Song” and “Cry,” where a globe-circling line of human figures stand hand in hand from sea to sea. For all we know, the world tour Jackson had been exhausting himself getting in shape for may have been intended not only to signify the onetime King of Pop’s return to power but to celebrate on the grand scale the ascent to world leadership of Barack Obama, who in his Afro-haired youth could easily have subbed for one of the Jackson Five, if not for Michael himself.

In fact, bloggers and you-tube espontaneos are already making a connection that the ever circumspect president and his advisers understandably find a bit iffy; for instance, the introduction on YouTube of Jackson’s video for “Cry” is prefaced by a picture of Obama. (Jackson’s irresistible “Beat It” has also been converted into an inspirational anthem for the post-election revolt in Iran while another YouTube sighting has Jackson, in effect, telling British prime minister Gordon Brown to “beat it” and resign.) Just as he was chastised for not speaking out sooner on the “election” in Iran, Obama’s getting flak for not making a public statement about the death of Michael Jackson, never mind his having extended condolences to the family. The president’s discretion should come as no surprise. The perils of guilt-by-association, in this case with the Janus-faced, hide-your-kids aspect of Jackson, could be used against him by the fabulists of the far-right who are even now claiming that his autobiography was ghostwritten by that terrorist he was “palling around with.” It’s even possible Obama may fear that the posthumous worldwide glorification of Jackson could reflect negatively on the international dimensions of his own appeal. The president surely hasn’t forgotten what his Republican adversaries were able to do with the Paris/Britney onus of “celebrity” after he wowed the masses in Berlin.

Most of the videos mentioned here can be found on YouTube. Available DVDs include Michael Jackson — Video Greatest Hits — HIStory, a 90-minute collection of ten videos; Michael Jackson HIStory on Film, Vol. 2; and Michael Jackson — Dangerous: The Short Films.

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