Summer Rewind 2013, Week 8: Stranger in Moscow

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 23, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa: So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful: the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie: I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa: It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie: That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie: You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa: That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video. We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie: And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie: You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa: That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie: Now that is a really interesting question, Willa! What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa: Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie. As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa: That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie: That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

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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 August 7, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Am missing all you guys and looking forward to September so that I will no longer be a ‘stranger in Cape Town’!!

    Joie wrote – ” he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.”

    It is also incredible to me and very very inspiring. I do hope that Paris can find some inspiration from her Daddy to help her to find some joy in her life again and carry on as bravely as he did.

    I came across a quote the other week by Viv Green which goes – ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ and this for me is the message in the Stranger in Moscow short film. Those people go out to dance in the rain and embrace their sorrows (whatever they are, and I often wonder also what each character’s story is) rather than staying behind the glass or isolated waiting for it to pass. They are indeed baptised by the rain, so that they can then carry on with life again. Not at all depressing – just the opposite really – a film about hope I think.

    Hard also to pick a favourite short film, but this one is certainly in the top 5 of my favourite songs, though not sure what the other 4 DVDs would be at this stage – something to think about!!

  2. Love your comment Caro, I tend to view rain differently since I am from the rainy North West. A few days without it, we seem to be lost. My mother is starting chemo today, so I am learning to dance in the rain.

  3. Sharing 2 poems.

    In part inspired by MJ and on that subject of surrendering to the rain…. as a kind of communion.
    (Written BEFORE I saw the short film.) Took my breath away when I saw it!!
    As it felt like deja-vu of an experience I had during a storm on a farm I lived on:

    THE ELEPHANT MAN’S LEFT HAND:

    Feet trailing phosphorescence in the sand;
    You are firefly jelly, the golden hour and
    The Elephant Man’s left hand.
    Slide down a dune, throw a balloon,
    Rejoice with a farmer’s reserve;
    Not for the rain, but for the pain
    That God inverts to flower
    As earning converts to deserve.
    …….
    NOW,
    Press your wrists inside the door jamb,
    Children inventing flight;
    Bright slate sky dumps change
    And reverie,
    Arms floating up to catch the light.

    – Copyright 2003, At Mojas

    AND,

    SON OF ABRAHAM:

    For each day that
    you’ve been alone, you can smile
    and ask for more, as God will collect
    and count them.

    Each tear He will invert with evaporation
    for the day he rains down
    Joy…

    to be caught on the tongue;
    caught up in your hands, (your double-jointed arms),
    – to wet the hair and body, immersed in
    Resuscitation.

    Copyright 2004, Sandra [At] Mojas

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