Monday, March 28, 2016

From Thriller to Captain EO: Michael Jackson On Film

In his enlightening dissection of the Thriller music video, titled "Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson's Thriller", Kobena Mercer outlines the importance of music videos in the creation of 80s pop personas. While the "Thriller" video, as Mercer notes, is divorced from the economic context of many other music videos because of the previous success of the LP, it is important for more aesthetic purposes. Firstly, Jackson's entry into the MTV canon was unprecedented for a black artist due to the channel's "unspoken policy of excluding black artists" (SID 302). Mercer attributes this groundbreaking success to Jackson's ambiguous racial and sexual identity. Initially introduced to pop culture as an Afro-sporting motown artist as a member of the Jackson 5, Michael would slowly undergo a transformation over the course of his solo career, first trading in his afro for "a shock of wet-look permed curls" and eventually undergoing a series of surgeries to ultimately become indistinguishable from a white person. This muddling of boundaries, both racial and sexual, is not lost on Mercer, who writes, "He may sing as sweet as Al Green, dance as hard as James Brown, but he looks more like Diana Ross than any black male soul artist" (301). Jackson's image, which reached its height of popularity at a time when masculinity, both black and white, was hardening with the monumental success of the blaxploitation genre in the early to mid 70s and the growing popularity of action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 80s, is resolutely soft, defying stereotypes and conventions to affect the mannerisms of a "lonely 'lost boy'" whose "biggest thrill is taking trips to Disneyland" (Mercer 301). However, while Jackson's image was both soft and ambiguous, it never ventured into "cross-over" territory like the work of Lionel Richie, whose "middle of the road" approach to music left him resolutely on the side of white radio stations. Jackson, like Prince, skirts a fine line, operating in a number of contexts which allow him to popularize "black music in white rock and pop markets" (Mercer 303). The second aspect of the video's aesthetic importance is its unconventional approach to "story-telling or narrational direction" (Mercer 303). Jackson's video is more of a short film, showcasing the actor/singer's range while he dances through a number of horror tropes with a crew of zombified backup dancers. Jackson's music videos are unlike anything else on the market, excluding perhaps those done by Duran Duran, whose special effects spectaculars still never approached the narrative cohesiveness of a Jackson video. Jackson's use of a Hollywood director like John Landis is echoed in his sci-fi parody short film, Captain EO (1986), produced by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Coming full circle, Jackson was able to create an attraction for his favorite place on the planet. Promotional materials for the attraction note Jackson's heavy involvement in the filmmaking process and his eagerness to be involved with image-making, a sentiment echoed in Jackson's own statements on acting recounted by Mercer, "I love it so much. It's escape. It's fun. It's just neat to become another thing, another person. Especially when you really believe it and it's not like you're acting" (304). What Mercer calls the "neutral eroticism" of Jackson's dancing style, a trait borrowed from Fred Astaire, is amplified by Jackson's role in the Disneyland film. Surrounded by aliens straight out of a Star Wars movie, there's not a single human in sight until Jackson frees the mechanical subjects of Anjelica Huston's Supreme Leader. The dramaturgy of the two videos is similar, a loose genre-parody frame is interrupted by a dance number that showcases Jackson's talents as a stage performer. This form was reused in 1988 for his feature-length film Moonwalker, which was really just a bunch of unrelated music videos collected into a single film. Jackson's free use of genre is reminiscent of the excesses of camp, which he uses to separate himself from the mainstream view of black masculinity as violent and hypersexual. As Mercer writes, "If we regard his face, not as the manifestation of personality traits but as a surface of artistic and social inscription, the ambiguities of Jackson's image call into question received ideas about what black male artists in popular music should look like" (314). Jackson's popularity as a mainstream star is heavily indebted to his constant, and often-controversial, blurring of lines, both black-and-white and male-and-female.

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