Celebrating Bad: Leave Me Alone

Willa:  So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!

But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.

But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.

Joie:  Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.

Willa:  I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.

Joie:  It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.

Willa:  Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.

Joie:  Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.

But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.

And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.

Willa:  Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.

Joie:  Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:

“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”

And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:

“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!'”

I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.

Willa:  That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.

But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”

Joie:  I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!

Willa:  Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.

Joie:  Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.

Willa:  It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.

This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,

“A human soul . . . is not to be trifled with.  It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.

Joie:  Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.

Willa:  It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?

Joie:  The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick:  “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!

Willa:  Oh, it’s wonderful!  It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.

And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.

Joie:  It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”

Willa:  Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on September 26, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks for the great insights and info about Leave Me Alone! So interesting about John Merrick’s words being exactly the same. Wow. Yes, the entrapment theme is there, and I see it in the details like the chains and the tabloid issues (nice link to Harry Potter!) and also in the outsized teeth that open and close and that Michael has to avoid or navigate through–the mouth that talks and confines with words and labels. There’s a kind of canibalism too, eating someone alive. It is amazing that Michael actually destroys the fun house carnival at the end of the film when he stands up. He lifts his head up and seem to breathe a sigh of relief that he is free.

    I don’t really like this film, however, as I don’t like to see live animals used so much, especially the dogs, who are obviously hot in their suits and under the lights and are panting away too much for me to think they were not stressed.

    Maybe this film could be seen as the opening shot in Michael’s power struggle with the media, continuing through Why You Wanna Trip on Me, Tabloid Junkie, Is It Scary, etc.

    • Hi aldebaranredstar —

      I think the dog images were computer-generated — dog heads imposed on top of images of people in suits, etc. I can’t imagine MJ abusing an animal.

      I think you are exactly right that it is an opening shot in his struggle with the media.

      • aldebaranredstar

        Hi, Eleanor–I looked at the film again closely and I think some of the dog images were CGI, as when the dog-headed figures are driving the stakes into the ground, but other images I think involved putting the dogs on stools in a sit posiiton and then putting the suits around them on frames of some sort. I’m not saying the dogs were abused but I think they were uncomfortably hot, at least some of them. Looks like about 3-4 dogs were used. In Earth Song they used footage of animals from archives.

        In going back over the film, I noticed a large disembodied nose with a knife stuck in it (it comes when the big E.T. type brain appears). He was having fun going after the media. Yes, as an opening shot in the MJ vs. media conflict, this film is playful and light-ish (as Nicoletta says), although there are dark elements and undercurrents too for sure, as in the gnashing teeth. He got progressively enraged and when we get to ‘Monster’ (‘he’s an animal,’ too), he sees the media as vultures who ‘eat your soul.’ The media become more than just annoying when they are ‘gunning for the money,’ literally out for blood (‘You’ll do anything for money,’ ‘ even sell your soul to the devil’).

        • On a technical note; I think they used some combination of live action and cut-out animation; therefore, the dogs we see (live) weren’t really “wearing” those suits and hats; they were probably cut out from magazine or other photographs and pasted/melded in some way (mechanical or electronic) to the figures. Likewise, some of the images of Elizabeth Taylor show her mouth moving while the rest of the figure remains stationary.

          I wouldn’t swear to it that it was CGI, but my guess is that they used some kind of stock footage of the animals—lizards, monkeys, alligators, etc…. that appear in the video, as well as the dogs (Bubbles, I believe, was real, though!) They probably subjected the original images to some kind of motion graphics program. Certainly that would account for the suited dogs pounding their lilliputian stakes into the ground!

          I’d certainly like to find out more detail about the techniques the filmmakers used. Some imaging technologies that are readily available today didn’t exist in 1987. And the film won an MTV award for best video, I believe (?)

          That final image, where Michael breaks free of the miniature roller coaster that’s pinning him down, is to me very reminiscent of the ’50s Sci-Fi film, “The Attack of the 50-foot Woman.” At least a few B-horror films from that period deal with either gigantism or its opposite: I’m thinking about another gem, “The Amazing Colossal Man” (which terrified me as a kid), or “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” later parodied by Lily Tomlin. These characters are invariably shown as having met their fates through some kind of contamination or a toxic environment hazard—often broadly couched as fallout from nuclear testing….or at least that’s the strong implication.

          There’s a connection here, somewhere…. I’ll think on it some more! Thanks again!

        • “In going back over the film, I noticed a large disembodied nose with a knife stuck in it.”

          I noticed that too, about one-and-a-half minutes in – “a large disembodied nose” spinning around, being chased by a scalpel. What a crack up!

  2. Leave Me Alone delights me every time I watch it. I love the “shrine to Liz” segment and the Gulliver ending, where he springs the bonds the Lilliputians have tied him down with and simply brushes them off. Something you said in your text strikes a bell re. the controversy that’s erupted about Abortion Papers. ~”He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.”~ So far, I seem to be the only one who thinks that he’s living the agony and ambivalence of that situation from the inside out and from all perspectives. The blogs and comments I’ve read all suggest that it’s a pro-life Christian protest song. I just don’t believe that’s his way. I also suspect that he evolved spiritually quite a bit over the years so that saying “once a Jehovah’s Witness, always a Jehovah’s Witness” ceased to apply along time ago. Even during that sweet little interview at Hayvenhurst when he was quite young I think he’d expanded beyond it–and it’s certainly obvious in his autobiography. He was always a thinker, philosopher, and empath, even as a child.

  3. Thanks for another interesting blog, but Joie I have to take issue with your comment “the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much” – not everyone loves the paparazzi or the tabloids, especially Michael fans!!

    However, thanks for pointing out all the interesting facets of this very busy short film, some of which I had not understood. I can see now that Michael always wanted us to look at the various points of view expressed in his work, and am interested in the inside/outside view here. I like the way he juxaposes real (animals and himself0 with cartoon images – so very Michael that I firmly believe that he had a guiding hand in this short film, and indeed all of them, Director or not.

    Don’t know about the Abortion Papers controversy, but on listening to it on YouTube, I am once again amazed how Michael can take such a sensitive issue and turn it into a really catchy tune that one just can’t stop singing!! to think it is 25 years old and still fresh and pertinant and getting people to listen and think about the message today – go Michael.

  4. Willa and Joie hello, thank you for this wonderful discussion.
    You know, the song and the video Leave me alone, are the things that made me definitively fall in love with MJ!

    I think they are exceptional from many points of view. I think it’s one of the last genuine representation of the spirit of rebellion and conflict for the media, he, lightly and sympathy, still manages to make fun of himself and the tabloid press. And is the general tone to attract, because it is light-hearted and irreverent without being heaviness of despair. Then, unfortunately for Michael, things got ugly and certainly he has not been able to be neither light nor sympathy.

    You have mentioned the cover of Dangerous about PT Barnum, but I see much other anticipation, I do not know if you agree with me: the general atmosphere, the dog, the monkey, the “freak”, his eyes look from behind and like Joie said “he places Himself as the subject of all of the attractions and freak show”.

    And speaking about John Merrick, I recently saw the movie Elephant Man once again, and I had the impression that Michael had a really strong identification: I remember the scene when Merrick is behind the curtain, cruelly exposed to the view of the college of physicians. We do not yet see the “monster”, only his shadow due to light: we understand that there is a being who suffers though, but ​​his movements are elegant, calm, we perceive the painful breath and we have compassion and curiosity togheter.

    You know, I thought about how many times Michael has entered the scene illuminated behind a curtain and its elegant movements of a dancer started.
    He felt a monster? or a butterfly? And who knows how much he has been identified when he had to undergo, after allegations of Chandler, the affront of being visited and photographed,naked, all over his body, even in the most intimate parts ….

    One more thing: it seems to you that, especially when Michael sings from the newspapers, he is doing a double mockery towards the media: for they have given space to chatter so absurd that only idiots dressed as dogs could considered true ! Rumors that, in all probability, he had helped to spread in order to emphasize the absurdity of the gossip!

  5. @Caro Attwell—Joie was being facetious. A bit of American irony.

  6. The Leave me alone short film interests me a lot. I think that some things are very funny, as the papers headlines, but I feel like I can’t completely laugh when I watch it. I think that is more correct to say that it makes me smile and reflect. Reflect on its message and also on the subjects used in it: except the final part that is very clear, I find as there are some metaphores which meanings I can’t completely understand. This is why I think it’s very intriguing, exactly like the Dangerous cover. Some of these objects and subjects, do you think they hide a particular meaning?

  7. @aldebaranredstar–As someone who has had dogs all of her life, I can tell you they don’t just pant when they’re hot. They pant when they’re eager, enthusiastic, about to get a treat, etc.; for them, it’s a communication device, And it occurs to me that they were supposed to pant for this film, as in “the paparazzi are always popping up and panting after me”.

    • Yes, I have had dogs for 25 years or so and it’s my opinion that the dogs were uncomfortably hot, and I don’t like to see animals dressed up in costumes for entertainment purposes. I think circuses should not show wild animals, etc., doing demeaning and unnatural ‘tricks.’ In fact, Leave Me Alone can apply very well to animals as well as people, in the sense that animals should be able to be animals, if wild in their own habitat, which should also be left alone, but we humans encroach on them and their habitats all the time to the point of abuse and extinction. I don’t think Michael ever used live animals to the same extent in other films, and I am glad of that.

      • Just a bit of British humour to follow the American irony – perhaps they used dogs because Michael was always being ‘dogged’ on and used the word quite often in his songs ha ha!!!! though have to admit whilst I understand the term in the context it is used, not sure by ‘dogged’ on as opposed to say ‘catted’ or ‘horsed’ on??

  8. Thank you for another terrific post! I enjoyed and learned from your reading of “Leave Me Alone” and I agree that in it Michael subverts the “entrapment” he endured in his life as an artist, celebrity, and object of unprecedented media attention. I especially enjoyed your comments on the P. T. Barnum elements in LMA. (As another commenter mentioned in reference to the “Speed Demon” post, this is a connection that deserves a lot more study!) I’d be interested, too, in hearing what people think of Margo Jefferson’s take on the Barnum angle. (I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something that always makes me feel uncomfortable when I read those sections of her MJ book.)

    I think that the “Leave Me Alone” film is brilliant in its critique of celebrity and media culture in general and wonderfully clever and powerful as a response to the particulars of how the media machine represented and dogged Michael. More than maybe any of Michael’s films/songs that address this issue, LMA seems to me to offer a really “inside” view of what it felt like to be the object of that kind of scrutiny while at the same time it cleverly sends up all the media hype and distortion, ridiculing it through parody. He incorporates the tabloid stories and their imagery into his own artistic production, appropriating and altering them for his own satirical purposes. In the process of doing this, I think he asserts his resistance to these stories, mocks their sensationalism, and challenges their power to represent him accurately.

    To me, the sheer number of these tabloid images in the video is comical, and that, along with the crazy headlines, works to suggest their absurdity. In the animated sequences involving images of the tabloid papers, Michael turns the tables on the intrusive tabloids, taking editorial control, as it were, by inserting into their pages images of himself that he himself has selected. He also “talks back” to the tabloids from within their pages, destabilizing their messages by adding a musical soundtrack that challenges their outrageous print headlines with the sound of his own compelling vocals. After the tabloid sequence, the twenty dollar bill shown with Michael singing from the oval window normally occupied by another famous Jackson (President Andrew) seems to assert that no matter what the tabloids say about him, he has achieved undeniable success, power, and wealth within the capitalist world of entertainment.

    I agree that the giant mouth in LMA is one of the many important images of entrapment seen in the film. In addition, as the rocket ship takes Michael into a tunnel, it seems to move into a cavernous, dream-like underworld, passing into it via an entryway framed by that huge, flapping set of teeth. I think we can also see that mouth symbolically as the giant, devouring mouth of gossip and rumor, and of the press and public’s appetite for celebrity news. The setting in this part of the film is reminiscent of a Disney theme park ride, and also of the P. T. Barnum funhouse/carnival you mentioned. I think we might also be meant to see it as an internal world, a mindscape or dream in which Michael, dodging giant hands that brandish enormous cameras and telephones, observes and directly confronts the troubling elements of his fame instead of retreating into seclusion, as he so often chose to do. Michael also slyly registers a degree of defiance in these sequences: Bubbles scampers around on the rocket’s wings during some parts of the journey, and Muscles goes along for the ride draped around the edge of the cockpit. In these scenes, I think he’s impudently flaunting those very elements of his life and personality – his devotion to childlike play, his exotic pets – with which the tabloids normally have a field day. As he does so, within the lyrics of the song, he repeatedly draws the line and demands to be left alone.

    I’ve always been fascinated and delighted with the Gulliver-esque ending to LMA. As you pointed out in your post, it’s such a perfect image for Michael’s complex relationship to the press and the entertainment industry. I’ve always been struck, too, by the fact that once Michael breaks free of the ropes and gets out from under the amusement park structures that have been built on and around him, the look on his face at that moment is not really one of clear triumph or relief. Even though he is an imposing figure as he towers over the circus world below in his crisp military jacket (a sartorial image of power and authority, but also reminiscent of the outfit of a circus ringmaster), he seems to look around in a kind of daze. Although he’s now free from the constraints that held him down, the look on his face is ambiguous – he’s exasperated, or relieved, or both, or something else entirely. As he stands alone against a darkening sky, he looks uncertain, despite the striking figure he cuts in that crisp red, black, and gold uniform. I think that a possibly more hopeful image comes in the film’s final shot, which shows a different Michael zooming across and out of the frame in the rocket ship, unconstrained and clearly on the move.

    In terms of movement, it’s interesting, too, that there’s very little dancing in this film [only with ball and chain on the carnival stage with the Elephant Man’s bones] compared to the big dance scene at the end of “Speed Demon.” While that film seems to “counter” the media/celebrity hype and intrusion with sheer speed and joy in movement of all kinds, “Leave Me Alone” has Michael moving through most of the film while sitting confined in the rocket ship. He rocks back and forth in time to the music as he sits, but the image of constraint is really forceful throughout, as you note in your post.

    Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss this great short film!

    • Hi Marie —

      The cavernous, dream-like underworld.. an internal world, a mindscape or dream” you refer to reminds me of scenes from the movie “Innerscape.” Michael has been devoured and is being digested, mentally and physically.

    • Hi, Marie, I liked what you said about Michael being ‘in a kind of daze’ and ‘uncertain’ when he stands up. This reminds me of Gulliver himself when he gets back to England after his travels. He spends his time in the stables with the horses, even though they can’t speak to him as they did in Houyhnhnm land, avoiding his wife and children. He is dislocated and confused, and doesn’t know who or what he is (houyhnhnm, yahoo, human, and what is a human anyway). In the opening, Michael is shot into the sky and spins a bit and there is a chair tumbling around him as well, somewhat as in back or White when the father is tossed through the air and transported to Africa. There’a a lot going on–confusion, threat, chaos, flaunting, taunting and taunting back–a real battle! Michael resembles Gulliver in that he is a traveler in ‘the land of the weird’ (SD), where things and people are so outrageous that Michael, like Gulliver, is befuddled by it all and yet trying to make sense of it at the same time. I think we need to look at Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most potent and meaningful satires of humanity ever, as Michael clearly brings this work to our attention.

    • Hi Marie – so many interesting details, and in this video (like the Dangerous album cover) so much of the meaning comes from the details. Your ideas about movement – or rather, the lack of movement – are very interesting. As you say, “Michael mov[es] through most of the film while sitting confined in the rocket ship. He rocks back and forth in time to the music as he sits, but the image of constraint is really forceful throughout.” The rocket ship moves, and he has some degree of control over its movements, but he himself doesn’t, so it’s an interesting double position of movement and constraint.

      Like Eleanor, I’m intrigued by your discussion of the funhouse ride as “an internal world, a mindscape or dream,” and also liked the detail that he’s imposed on a $20 bill – a “Jackson.” I hadn’t picked up on that.

      I tend to read the ending a little differently than you do. To me he doesn’t seem dazed at the end so much as looking onward. He’s enjoyed the funhouse ride to some degree, but he’s done with it now and ready to move on. I think the difference in scale between him and the amusement park that had built itself on him is very important in this context. The funhouse concerns itself with trivialities – rumor, gossip, innuendo – but he’s done with little things now, and ready for an adventure that matches his tremendous abilities. And we know from his other work the huge issues he was taking on: racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, child abuse.

      In fact, Leave Me Alone first appeared as a segment of Moonwalker. Importantly, the segment immediately following Leave Me Alone is Smooth Criminal, which confronts violence against women – specifically, a woman murdered in her apartment. We really do need to do a post (or series of posts) about Moonwalker and how all these pieces fit together within it.

  9. Hi Willa and Joie — I don’t think I have ever watched Leave Me Alone all the way through — until now. My immediate visceral response is that I don’t like it; I find it really disturbing. The funhouse images are really scary to me. No doubt I am looking at it from the perspective of knowing that they didn’t leave him alone, and that those teeth really did chew him up — and that is so painful that it is hard for me to appreciate the brilliance and cleverness of it all. On the other hand, maybe the pain I feel is his pain and a testament to his ability to use his art to convey and arouse emotion. I do love the image of him at the end, breaking free and standing — at last alone — on the mountaintop.

    Thanks for calling my attention to this short film, which I have otherwise avoided. Maybe, given your insights, and those of others on the list, I can work up the courage to watch it more closely.

  10. Commenters, I’m reading your comments and they are very interesting: they, together with the analisys by Willa and Joie, help me understand something more about this short film, especially some parts that seems a bit unclear to me. Thanks!

  11. Hi Eleanor,

    I haven’t seen “Innerscape,” but what you say makes me want to watch it. I think your sense of Michael being devoured and digested is spot on. It also makes me think of those lines from “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” — “you’re a vegetable . . ” “they eat off of you . . .” etc.

    aldebaran, I like your extension of the Gulliver reference, and it made me wonder, is LMA the only film in which Michael creates a really extended alternative world? Most of the short films present fictional worlds. Some use pretty gritty, realistic urban settings (e.g., “Beat It” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel”); some are styled to reflect a certain historical period and also manage to make brilliant allusions to other films (e.g. “Smooth Criminal,” “You Rock My World”). But I can’t think of another film with such a surreal, alternative reality as LMA. “Captain EO” is very sci-fi, and “Ghosts” sets up a Gothic/horror-inspired world. Not sure what this observation all adds up to, but I think that the way LMA sustains the notion of the alternate world and makes it seem like both an external and internal landscape is brilliant.

    Willa, I can completely see your reading of the ending of LMA as well. There is definitely a feeling there of having passed through a certain phase and going forward from there. I guess the coloring of the sky in that scene always sends me a darker message. But the breaking free from all the structures that hold him down also signals a new phase is about to begin. I like your formulation of it as being done with the funhouse and moving on to all the more serious issues that we see Michael tackling in later works. And while the cover of the “Dangerous” album alludes to the LMA funhouse imagery very clearly, the songs and films from the later album can be seen to represent a deepening and intensification of some of the themes we see in “Bad,” as well as an expansion to some even more difficult issues.

    A series of posts on “Moonwalker” would definitely be interesting!

  12. aldebaranredstar

    Hi, Marie–What about ‘Scream’ as an extended alternative reality? (takes place on a spaceship; interesting that MJ is in a kind of rocket in LMA as well as in his onstage performances when he supposedly arrives from space). ‘Scream” is also surreal and another kick in the face aimed at the media (‘kicking me down, got to get up’) and at ‘injustice’ in general. He and Janet also say repeatedly ‘stop pressurin’ me.’

    As far as the lyrics about being eaten in WBSS, the Makossa chant refers to this. I posted a reference in the lyrics section of this blog about it. The Makossa chant is a dance and you dance as if you are being peeled like a vegetable.

    “Duala is spoken in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, which has long been a musical hotbed. Since the 1960s, Cameroonian pop music has been dominated by a rhythmic style of dance music from Douala known as makossa. The Duala word makossa is often glossed as “(I) dance” (as in this article by Cameroonian linguist George Echu). The entry for makossa in the Oxford English Dictionary further explains that makossa is “derivative of kosa ‘to peel or remove the skin of (a fruit or vegetable)’; the name refers to the twisting and shaking movements of the dancer.”

    As far as the ending of the LMA film, Michael seems to heave a sigh and then raise his head up–it could be looking forward, as Willa suggests, but also looking upwards for help (Lord have mercy). In any case, as far as the tabloid fun house was concerned, things got much worse as the media tore him apart in ways he could not have foreseen back in 87. I grant you that this triggered amazing artistic output in reaction, but at a heavy personal cost and we can only imagine and lament ‘The Price of Fame’ that Michael paid.

  13. Thanks for this information about the Makossa chant, aldebaranredstar!

    It’s interesting to think about similar themes across these films: “Scream,” “Ghosts,” even “Captain EO” (the “ragtag” motley space crew). Difference, ostracism, otherness, the monstrous….

    One thing that distinguishes “Leave Me Alone” from the others, though, is that it’s done exclusively through cutout animation. So the fragmentation of the image surface itself (unlike, say, “Ghosts,” where the action takes place almost entirely in a room whose space is unified and recognizable), brings to mind a different kind of dreamscape, one where you drive (from Michael’s point of view) past these discrete yet continuous tableaux. The drive-by aspect makes it sort of like a mural or a scroll, as if you’re going past a nearly two-dimensional surface, or a series of dioramas such as you’d see in a Museum of Natural History, with strange and wondrous and terrifying exhibits, never knowing what terrors will be revealed next. There are unattached noses flying around, a weasel-monkey-like creature, a two-headed goat, a strong man, a bunch of dogs in suits riding a roller coaster…. Michael Jackson in a Derby hat with a ball and chain, dancing with The Elephant Man’s skeleton…. What further nightmares are in store for us in this strange world?

    The hybrid, often chimerical creatures we encounter in this world, their scale in relation to the other objects, the way they move, or remain static… all these things add up to a potentially terrifying “funhouse” ride, as you’ve mentioned…. Like the mindscape, a journey through the unconscious—not even the unconscious of an individual, but potentially, at least, the collective and heavily mediated unconscious of an entire society, replete with P.T. Barnum sideshow “freaks,” tabloid headlines, movie queens (Elizabeth Taylor)…. As Freud said of the dream, it consists of the “day’s residues,” but here the residue seems to consist of traces a sick child’s fever dream. Or the detritus of American society, writ large…

    So I think that’s what makes it seem both an internal and external landscape—a “mindscape” or dream, as you mentioned, Marie. That the cinematic space itself is unstable, and also laid out like a channel or a tunnel, really helps to make this a vision of a totally enclosed world from which there seems no exit—no “light at the end of the tunnel.” We are in a wholly isolated space that bears no relation to the rules of time and space that govern, for example, even the more fantasmatic spaces of “Ghost,” “Scream,” or “Thriller”—- where at least we have more stable and predictable floors and ceilings and streets where Michael and his accomplices can dance! “Leave Me Alone,” by contrast, shows us a place that can only be visited in dreams….

    Like the 1920s collages of Max Ernst, the box-sculptures of Joseph Cornell, and the experimental animated cutout film “Heaven and Earth Magic Feature” by Harry Smith, “Leave Me Alone,” probably more than Michael’s other films, really partakes of Surrealist aesthetics.

    • Hi Marie, Nina, Aldebaranredstar. Thanks so much for all the wonderful insights into Leave Me Alone. I’ve been thinking for several days now about this idea of the tunnel into the funhouse as an entry into “an internal world, a mindscape or dream,” which is something Michael Jackson evokes fairly often in his videos. I’m thinking specifically of the panther going down the steps before the dark dance sequence in Black or White. Interestingly, the panther goes down into a dungeon-type space with brick walls and prison bars. There’s a similar movement in You Rock My World, where he and the female lead go down into the basement for a dance sequence that feels disconnected from anything else in the video. And there are the fantastical dance sequences in Bad and Ghosts that Joie and I talked about a couple weeks ago.

      But Leave Me Alone feels very different from those others. I was struggling to put my finger on what exactly those differences were, but your latest comment, Nina, has really helped clarify this for me. I’m really intrigued now about this idea of Leave Me Alone as “an internal and external landscape” with no entrance or exit, “a place that can only be visited in dreams.” That’s so interesting, and it’s heightened by all the surrealist images you identified.

      Marie and Aldebaranredstar – about the huge snapping mouth and the sense of been eaten, I think this is such an important motif in Leave Me Alone. In fact, I don’t know how to explain this very well, but I think it’s the central sonic theme. There’s this very repetitive, very regular, mechanistic, percussive beat in the song (rest – BANG – rest – BANG – rest – BANG – rest – BANG …) and everything in the video moves to this mechanical beat: the tabloids landing on the doorstep, the bobbing mechanical birds at the entrance to the tunnel, the treasure chest opening and closing, the dog in a business suit pounding in the spikes. They all move to this beat, and it’s the beat of the gnashing teeth. Those teeth establish the rhythm for everything else in the video.

      It really does feel like in some ways we are traveling with Michael Jackson on this surreal journey where he is literally being eaten, and Aldebaran, it’s so interesting to think about that in terms of the lyrics to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”: “You’re just a buffet / You’re a vegetable / They eat off of you / You’re a vegetable.” This was a very important image for him, and he returns to it again in “Monster”: “You give them your all / They’re watching you fall / And they eat your soul like a vegetable.” And of course, in “Monster” he’s specifically talking about the media and the paparazzi, just as he is in Leave Me Alone.

      Wow, thank you all again for so many interesting things to think about!

    • aldebaranredstar

      Hi, Nina, Yes, I agree LMA is surrealistic and I like the way you highlight “the fragmentation of the image surface” into the “strange and wonderful and terrifying” world of the imagination, and indeed “the collective and heavily mediated [media-ated] unconscious of a whole society,” “the detritus of an American society.” These are fabulous insights!! Yes, this is not only a personal ‘nightmare’ but also a potent critique on cultural sickness in deamscape action, and the Gulliver references further this critique. I see the’ internal space’ of the underground as similar to a carnival ride exhibit, where you do in fact go into a dark tunnel and encounter tableaux along the way, usually scary (as in the haunted house, pirate coves, etc), where ghosts, skeletons, treasure chests, freaks of nature, pop out at you unexpectedly (like the lurking paparazzi). Michael no doubt was very familiar with these rides due to his love of Disneyland, and he incorporated them into LMA with his own re-visioning.

      Willa, I think your insight that the gnashing teeth set the “central sonic theme,” or beat for the song and film is so great! And this is the entrance to the funhouse ride–the teeth are the guardians, gatekeepers, so to speak, that one has to pass through to access the whole ethos of LMA. The exit seems to be the lake were the rollercoaster ride is entwined around Michael.

      I do think some of this destabilization of the rules of time and space are also seen in Ghosts and Scream, where people walk up or emerge from the walls and dance on the ceiling (a la Matrix)–I see the latter films as similar dreamscapes/mindscapes. Scream certainly shows a similiar isolation to LMA, although he has Bubbles and Muscles in LMA and Janet in Scream; in Ghosts he has ‘the family’ of ghosts.

      Great discussion–thanks!

  14. Just now I read this post and it is a great one.
    I love Leave Me Alone, because it is very funny and intelligent critic to the media and the public that eat everything the media give to it.
    I think MJ interest in John Merrick is absolutely understandable, ’cause both of them was mistreated because of their look.

    I watched the Elephant Man movie several time and I cried my eyes out all time. But not because his physics condition, I’m not pity on him because his look. I mean, it stunned me the first time I saw it, but in the middle of the movie and then, I really didn’t see his deformation anymore. ‘Cause he is so sweet, and gentle and sensitive, then, I couldn’t see any deformation on him, I just see the beautiful human bee he was. But I cried a lot, because the people that mistreated him were really monsters. John wasn’t monster, but the people that abused him were.
    And it made me sad, because it made me thing how much the people can be bad and insensitive, and cruel and it made me feel sorry about all of us.

    I searched the term Hotentote, and I found it was used as a bad word to Blacks; the term came from the Saartjie Baartman’s very sad story. She was exposed as a freak just because her “dimensions”. She was exposed naked and the people around touched her and laughed at her.

    She was sold to an animal domador! As she was a beast !
    When she died, her brain and her genitals were exposed in formol as she was a animal till Nelson Mandela ask for it end and she received her funeral.
    She died in 1815 and her remains juts was send back to the Africa in 2002 after a lot of discussion and appeals.

    How can the human been be so cruel?

    I always remember Mike when I saw movies as Phantom of Opera, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley too, because they two are mistreated because of their look as well. And they were two incredibly intelligent persons as well, who were all alone and sad, and just wanted someone to love them, and accept them as Mike and Merrik – Mike said to Boteach all he wanted was beloved – though Frankenstein and Erik – the man who was the phantom of opera – had let their hearts turned dark and they killed, while Merrick and Mike still been just gentle and kind. In the end, the two real persons were most strong then the characters, but I understand them all.

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