Willa: This week Eleanor Bowman and I conclude our three-part series on the short film Michael Jackson created to promote his HIStory album. In Part 1 of this series, we focused on its most obvious influence, the one critics at the time tended to focus on: the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. In Part 2 we looked at a more subtle but even more significant influence: Charlie Chaplin’s satirical film, The Great Dictator. And today we’re considering other works and historical references in the HIStory teaser.
Thanks for joining me again, Eleanor! I’ve learned so much from our discussions about HIStory.
Eleanor: Thanks for extending the invitation, Willa. I’ve learned a lot, too. In my continuing quest to understand HIStory, I have discovered allusions to three more films, which open yet more doors to new worlds of meaning.
Willa: Yes, and there’s one more we haven’t figured out yet …
Eleanor: At least!
Willa: There’s also the location where HIStory was filmed – Heroes’ Square in Budapest – which from what you’ve told me is very significant. I’d like to talk with you about that today also.
Eleanor: Right, HIStory’s setting, Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, was anything but random.
Thinking about it, that powerful image of the unveiling of the statue of MJ in HIStory’s final scene seems emblematic of HIStory’s use of references and allusions to unveil the nature and aspirations of this remarkable man. But the more I study this film, the more I get the feeling we have only scratched the surface.
Willa: I agree. So I guess the best place to begin is by identifying those other references. In addition to Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, what other films do you see referenced in HIStory?
Eleanor: Would you believe the teasers for Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and Apocalypse Now – as well as the movies themselves?
Full disclaimer, Willa. I would never have made the first two connections without a comment that I found on the Film Score Monthly site from KonstantinosZ. So, many thanks to KonstatinosZ, wherever you are. As for Apocalypse Now, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed Captain EO, it was the helicopters that tipped me off.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Eleanor – and so unexpected! Michael Jackson really did pull inspiration from just about everywhere, didn’t he? High culture, pop culture, paintings, movies, children’s stories, poems, cartoons, symphonies, tap dancing, hip hop, pantomime, ballet … the list just goes on and on. But why these particular films? What’s the connection?
Eleanor: Well, superficially they seem very different, but all three are about the madness of war.
Willa: That’s true, and they’re all about a specific kind of war – a global war, or a war with global implications. Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam, a former French colony, during the Vietnam War, when Southest Asia became the chessboard for the playing out of Cold War ambitions between the US on one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other. The Hunt for Red October is also set during the Cold War, focusing specifically on military tensions between the US and USSR. And Terminator 2 involves time travel from a horrific future where humans and machines are fighting each other for global and even interstellar control. The goal is to alter the present to avoid that terrible future. And of course Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator are also addressing the spread of an ideology with global implications, with Triumph promoting it and The Great Dictator fighting it – an ideology that ultimately resulted in World War II.
So all five movies referenced in HIStory are engaging with the horror of global war and global empire-building.
Eleanor: Yes, all focus on some aspect of war or nationalism – and reveal our fascination with it.
Willa: That’s true – we do seem fascinated as well as horrified by it. I’m especially intrigued by the inclusion of Terminator 2 and The Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson directly quotes music from both of them in the first half of the HIStory teaser, and includes subtler allusions as well.
Referencing these two movies in particular is so unexpected, but thinking about it, there are some very interesting parallels between them. Both films are about an object of intense fear that threatens global annihilation of humankind. In Terminator 2, a cyborg assassin has been sent back from the future to find the future leader of the humans at war with the machines they created. And in Red October, a Soviet submarine captain is piloting a nuclear-armed submarine toward US waters – a situation that could trigger World War III.
But – and this is the crucial part – as it turns out, both are actually trying to prevent global war and preserve and protect humankind. While the cyborg was trying to kill his human target in the first Terminator movie, in Terminator 2 he’s been given a new mission and is now devoted to protecting his target.
Eleanor: Right. In the original Terminator movie, the terminator is sent back from the future by Skynet, the computer network that launched a nuclear holocaust to wipe out humanity. Returning to the pre-nuclear holocaust past, he is tasked with killing the woman who would become the mother of John Connor – the man who leads the post-nuclear holocaust survivors in their resistance to Skynet – thereby preventing his birth and the resistance. But the terminator failed, and John Connor was born.
In Terminator 2, the terminator has been rebuilt by the resistance fighters themselves, who send him back to the pre-nuclear holocaust past reprogrammed to protect the child, John Connor. Back in the past, he is rewired with the ability to learn by John’s mother, and his mission expands to include destroying Skynet, thus preventing the nuclear holocaust altogether. He not only saves the boy, but changes the future and saves humanity.
Willa: Exactly. That’s a great summary, Eleanor. And the submarine captain in Red October is trying to defect and share new technology with the US, so the delicate Cold War equilibrium between east and west will remain in balance. So in both of these films, someone who is initially seen as a terrible threat to humankind is actually working toward its salvation.
And that’s exactly Michael Jackson’s position, isn’t it? Many people saw him as very threatening – a “beast,” a “monster,” “the living dead,” and “your worst nightmare,” as he says in “Threatened” – though he was actually working to “heal the world.”
And that’s kind of how the HIStory promo film functions as well. At first glance, it feels really uncomfortable and intimidating. Michael Jackson leading an army? What?! But if we can tamp down our fear and animosity long enough to explore deeper, we start to see things differently.…
Eleanor: I really like that, Willa. We need to have enough faith in MJ to overcome our initial discomfort with HIStory, because making the effort to understand it will deepen our understanding of him and his story.
Willa: I agree. At least, I know that exploring all these different references has transformed how I interpret and respond to HIStory. And actually, transforming interpretation is an important element of both of those movies as well.
What I mean is, The Hunt for Red October is an action-adventure movie, but the real suspense comes from trying to decide if the Americans should trust the Soviet captain or not. Is he trying to defect, or is he planning to launch a nuclear weapon at a major US city? Is he a savior or a villain? A renegade hero breaking with his leadership and his past, or a Soviet pawn? Or maybe he’s a “madman,” as the president’s National Security Adviser calls him, who wants to kill himself following his wife’s suicide and has decided to take the whole world out with him. How should they interpret him and what he’s doing? And how should we as an audience interpret what’s happening? Figuring out how to interpret his actions is the critical question at the heart of the movie.
And interpretation – specifically, trying to figure out who or what we can trust – is at the heart of Terminator 2 also. We learn fairly early on that the terminator is trying to protect John Connor, but he’s protecting him against another cyborg made of liquid metal who’s a shape-shifter. This other cyborg can appear in any guise – as a policeman, a little girl, John’s mother, or even inanimate objects.
Eleanor: Right. And the visual effects you mention, which are an integral part of the story, represented a major “breakthrough in computer-generated imagery.” I think that’s one of the things that drew MJ to this movie. Although many see technology in opposition to art, Michael Jackson (and James Cameron, the director of Terminator 2) viewed technology as a powerful means of artistic expression.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor. It’s true that Michael Jackson was very interested in new technology and in general was quick to embrace it. That’s a good point.
So in both Terminator 2 and Red October, we’re constantly asking ourselves, Can we trust what we see? Are people (and things) really as they appear to be? How can we be sure we’re interpreting everything correctly? And of course, Michael Jackson was a shape-shifter as well, and a lot of people weren’t sure how to interpret him either or if he could be trusted.
Eleanor: That’s true, Willa. In these two films, there’s a whole lot of shape shifting goin’ on. In Terminator 2, the bad guy’s shape shifting is on the outside. Inside he remains absolutely true to his original mission. On the other hand, the terminator and the sub captain never shift shapes, they look the same way they always have on the outside, but their missions change radically. In alluding to these films, HIStory tells us that Michael Jackson may have changed on the outside, but remains true to his mission to heal the world through music. We can trust him absolutely. But it is also telling us that when the chips are down, people are capable of profound psychological change.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Eleanor. It’s also true that the films themselves are constantly shape-shifting as our interpretations of them and what’s happening changes. And interpretations of Michael Jackson were constantly shifting also – just look at how quickly things changed after he died.
Eleanor: Yes, which sadly proves his point that people can change, in this case, almost overnight. But unfortunately for him, it was too late. It took something as terrible and tragic as his death to shock a lot of people – including me, I regret to confess – into recognizing what a treasure he was, the magnitude of our loss, and the cruel injustice that had been done to him. Which then led me to begin to investigate what our treatment of him reveals about us.
And it may take the impending destruction of the planet and everything on it to force us to recognize and change the self-destructive cultural beliefs we hold about human nature and collective survival. However, through its many allusions, HIStory expresses MJ’s belief that people are capable of making changes to their core values, just as the terminator does by having Sarah Connor open his head (open his mind?), remove the CPU, and flip the switch, allowing him to learn, to expand his vision and his mission!
Willa: I think maybe I need one of those switches …
Eleanor: Right, I love that image. Would that it were so easy for us to open our minds to new ways of being! But the good news is that different human societies in different times and places have held very different cultural values, which shows us that human cultural beliefs are not hardwired. Let’s just hope that, like the sub captain and the terminator, our culture will opt for survival – and make some deep changes in our belief systems, even and especially where notions of power and hierarchy are concerned. Through his art, Michael Jackson was trying to show us the way.
Willa: That’s a beautiful way of interpreting that, Eleanor. So I was thinking, we should probably back up a bit and identify where all these references are in HIStory, and how they’re used.
Eleanor: Good idea. In our previous post, we discussed the fact that HIStory opens with no images, only a blank screen and the words spoken in Esperanto, which link HIStory and Michael Jackson’s story to The Great Dictator and its star/director, Charlie Chaplin, and to the theme of internationalism. And although HIStory’s first allusion is to be found in what we hear rather than what we see, even the blank screen serves a purpose, focusing our attention on the words. And come to think about it, Apocalypse Now also opens with a blank screen and just the sound of a helicopter, a symbol of war rather than peace.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. That is similar to the opening of HIStory, though HIStory’s intro is more ambiguous. We hear a man shouting but we don’t know why, and unless we speak Esperanto – and most of us don’t – we don’t know what he’s saying.
Eleanor: Yes, and he doesn’t sound very peaceful.
Willa: No, he doesn’t.
Eleanor: In the rest of the film, the references, both historic and cinematic, are to be found in HIStory’s sights and its sounds – the sounds providing a commentary on what we are seeing – a non-verbal and sometimes oblique narration. For example, in HIStory, the first image we see is the statue of the turul, Hungary’s “state bird,” representing Hungarian nationalism. And the sounds we hear following the words spoken in Esperanto are the militaristic sounds of jackboots.
Willa: So giving it a somewhat threatening feeling – kind of like the sound of helicopters at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, as you just mentioned?
Eleanor: Yes. In these opening frames, HIStory is contextualizing Michael Jackson’s history within the framework of Hungary’s history, which is emblematic of the history of imperial conquest in general. And given that Esperanto is so closely followed by the sound of jackboots, it appears that Michael Jackson’s story – and his view of the world – is to be told through contrasting sights and sounds, and the juxtaposition of peace and war.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. It is true that the “sights and sounds” don’t seem to go together. As Bjørn Bojesen translated for us in a post last year, the man shouting in Esperanto is talking of “global motherhood and love and the healing power of music,” while the images are militaristic and scary. So once we know what the Esperanto words mean, it is a powerful “juxtaposition of peace and war,” as you say.
Eleanor: Right. Next, there is the scene of workers building what appears to be an enormous statue, accompanied by loud and threatening industrial sounds – the hissing of molten metal and banging of hammers, calling to mind the scene in the Terminator 2 teaser, where the cyborg is being rebuilt and reprogrammed with his new mission.
Willa: Yes, and in the background there’s the very repetitious, industrial-sounding music that plays during confrontation scenes in Terminator 2. You can hear it in this clip:
It’s especially noticeable from 35 to 50 seconds in. You can hear that exact same groaning, repetitious, industrial-type music in the HIStory teaser from about 15 to 40 seconds in.
Eleanor: And then, as those sights and sounds fade into images of troops dressed in the uniforms of the Red army, HIStory’s soundtrack shifts into “Hymn to Red October,” the music from the film The Hunt for Red October, bringing to mind not only the film, but themes associated with the Soviet Union and the terrors of the Cold War.
Willa: Yes, and this is a very important reference, I think. Here’s a link to “Hymn to Red October” that includes the lyrics in both Russian and English:
These lyrics take us inside the mind of a soldier or sailor, who may spend months at a time far away from home. Here’s a translation of the Russian lyrics we hear in HIStory:
Cold, hard, empty
Light that has left me
How could I know that you would die?
Farewell again, our dear land
So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream
Motherland, native home
Farewell, our Motherland
The opening lines seem to refer to the sub captain’s backstory. His wife committed suicide during his last deployment (“How could I know that you would die?”) though, as he says, he spent so much time at sea “I widowed her the day I married her.” Now he’s going to sea again, and having very conflicted feelings about that.
But then the pronouns shift from “me” to “us,” and the lines that follow seem to express the feelings of sailors and soldiers more generally as they leave to spend months away from home (“Farewell again, our dear land / So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream”). So as we talked about in last week’s post, while Michael Jackson (like Chaplin before him) is ultimately critiquing war and imperialism, he’s not demonizing the soldiers and sailors who carry out orders from above. Instead, he seems to sympathize with them and the complicated situations they find themselves in, and these lyrics reflect that.
Eleanor: Thanks for finding those lyrics, Willa. And I agree completely with your interpretation.
Willa: You can hear this music playing through much of the first half of the HIStory trailer, beginning about 40 seconds in, with the music from Terminator 2 merging directly into “Hymn for Red October.”
And as you mentioned, Eleanor, this is another case where the “sights and sounds” don’t quite match up – or rather, the sounds complicate the visuals. On the surface, we see soldiers marching triumphantly toward Heroes’ Square, but the Russian lyrics give us a sadder, more human, and more nuanced view of what those soldiers may be feeling.
By the way, this music was composed by Basil Poledouris, who also scored the soundtrack for the first two Free Willy movies. And of course, Michael Jackson was involved in both of those as well – he wrote and performed “Will You Be There,” which became the theme song for the first movie, and then “Childhood,” which was used in the second one. These movies came out in 1993 and 1995, right around the time HIStory was being made, so it seems there were a number of connections between Michael Jackson and Basil Poledouris in the mid-1990s.
Eleanor: I didn’t know that. That is so interesting.
Willa: It is, isn’t it? So getting back to what you were saying about Terminator 2, I searched for trailers and there were several different ones made. In fact, the Director’s Cut DVD includes eight different trailers – it was a well-publicized movie! But this seems to be the primary one, and also the one closest to HIStory. Is this the one you’re talking about, Eleanor?
Eleanor: Yes, that’s the one. Beginning about 1:03 are the scenes of the terminator being rebuilt. The terminator is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became identified with the lines, “I’ll be back,” which he first spoke in the original Terminator movie. In that film, he gets everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him, but as the Terminator 2 teaser shows, he survives to fight another day. He’s back!
If that’s not a clue to Michael Jackson’s frame of mind when he was making HIStory, I don’t know what is! The teaser as well as the film itself, which came out in 1991, just prior to the escalation of attacks on Michael Jackson, help tell MJ’s story. I think an absolutely furious and outraged Michael Jackson, by referencing Terminator 2 in HIStory, was making the statement that he was not going to let anyone get him down. He was coming back in a big way.
Willa: Oh that’s funny, Eleanor! So like the terminator, he was saying, “I’ll be back”?
Eleanor: Right. And there’s some other really interesting stuff going on in Terminator 2 relative to Michael Jackson and his story. For example, the narrator says, “Once he was programmed to destroy the future, now his mission is to protect it; his loyalty is to a child….” And then “the Arnold” says, “Trust me,” another line he made famous. No wonder MJ referenced this teaser – and, through the teaser, the movie, which is about protecting the future and a child – at this time in his life. He couldn’t have found a better in-your-face, back-at-you response to the allegations of child abuse. And as a result of the allegations, trust had become a huge issue for him.
Willa: Wow, it’s true that when you look at it that way – that while the terminator is seen as a threat, he’s actually “protecting the future and a child” – it makes a lot of sense that Michael Jackson would reference this movie. And the line “Trust me” also gets back to the issue of interpretation we mentioned earlier. Can we really trust someone (a cyborg, a Soviet submarine captain, a shape-shifting pop star) who in some ways is so threatening to the world as we know it?
Eleanor: Yes, and through this association, MJ is proclaiming loudly, Yes, you can trust me. Yes, you can trust my music. Remember, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” Much of the power of his music resides in the raw truth of his emotions, his extraordinary ability to musically express truths that come from a deep, deep place within him and touch a correspondingly deep place within us. Truths that are liberating to some and threatening to others. Which is why the mainstream was throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” at him – to discredit him and take away his power.
Willa: It’s also interesting that in the trailer they are welding together the metal skeleton of a cyborg that will become the terminator. It seems very reminiscent of those scenes in HIStory where they are pouring molten metal and welding together the enormous statue and Esperanto star.
Eleanor: Yes, the reference to the terminator rebuilding scene fits perfectly, doesn’t it? The terminator is coming back to save humankind, (from itself, really, as humans created Skynet and its cyborg minions that are out to destroy them). And Michael’s artistic return with the HIStory album, maybe his most political album to date, emphasized and reinforced his commitment to healing a world that was and is badly out of joint – saving us from ourselves.
Also, I think it is interesting that this allusion associates MJ with a robot, given his famous robotic dance moves. Did you know that the word “robot,” which was coined by a Czech playwright, comes from the Czech word “robotnik,” which itself was derived from the word for forced labor and an older Slavic term for slave, and was used to refer to peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (remember, HIStory was filmed in Hungary) who revolted against rich landowners in the late 19th century? Whew!
Willa: No, I had no idea.
Eleanor: Well, I didn’t either. So much history contained in a single word! And from my experience researching HIStory, I am positive that MJ was aware of all of it. In associating MJ – or his statue – with a robot, HIStory is associating the enslavement of African-Americans with the forced labor of the peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, at the same time, HIStory touches on ideas of liberation and change from a robot-like existence.
HIStory’s reference to Terminator 2 tells us that Michael Jackson is back. And just as the terminator tells us to trust him, HIStory is asking us to trust MJ’s interpretation of events, rather than THEIRstory of his life.
But in referencing Terminator 2, HIStory is also telling us something about ourselves – that in spite of the fact that humans seem to be caught in a self-destructing loop of war after war, we are capable of change, that real change is possible. As Sarah Connor says at the end of Terminator 2, “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, I think, and it reminds me of another connection between Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and HIStory … and actually The Great Dictator as well: they all center on a new kind of hero. The hero of Terminator 2 isn’t John Connor or even Sarah Connor, though they both do courageous things. It’s the terminator, a cyborg assassin that has been reprogrammed to preserve human life. Talk about an unconventional hero!
And in some ways, The Hunt for Red October is even more unconventional. It actually has two heroes: a Soviet submarine captain and an American naval analyst for the CIA. The captain wants to defect and share new technology with the west, and when the Soviet leadership realizes this, they order their navy to sink his sub rather than let it fall into enemy hands. They also tell their American counterparts that he is a rogue and dangerous, and ask the US military to attack his ship – and most of the Americans are only too happy to oblige …
Eleanor: “Rogue and dangerous,” like “armed and dangerous”! That reminds me so much of the scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah and John and the terminator are blowing up the computer company to short-circuit Skynet and prevent the coming nuclear holocaust. The police are warned that they are “armed and dangerous.” When, if anything, it is the police who, armed to the teeth and sent to destroy the terminator, are dangerous. As in the plot of The Hunt for Red October, if the “good guys” (the US military or the police) kill off the “bad guys” (the Russian sub captain or the terminator) well, then, it is curtains for us. So Michael is saying, You know, they are pointing fingers at me, saying I am the threat, I am dangerous, when I am only trying to heal the world and prevent a disaster that will come if we do not change our ways.
Willa: That’s true – both films really challenge conventional ideas about “good guys” and “bad guys,” don’t they? And in both a traditional bad guy ultimately turns out to be a hero.
Even more unconventionally, in Red October the outcome of the movie ultimately comes down to empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – even if they’re from a very different background – and imaginatively see the world the way they do. Action-adventure movies don’t generally place a high value on empathy, but it’s at the core of Red October. The CIA analyst has studied the sub captain and even met him once, and he seems to understand him and what’s important to him. Even more importantly, the analyst has an empathetic personality and is able to put himself in the sub captain’s position and intuit his motives and future actions. Because of this extraordinary ability to empathize, he interprets the sub captain’s actions very differently than the others: not as an attack, but as assistance.
Eleanor: Just as Sarah and John understand the terminator – and as Michael Jackson’s fans understood/understand MJ.
Willa: That’s true, Eleanor. Michael Jackson’s fans in particular see him very differently than most people because we empathize with him and try to see things from his perspective. That’s a good point.
So in Red October these two very different men from two very different cultures both defy conventional wisdom and their own leadership. They take a huge leap of faith, meet in a neutral place in the Atlantic Ocean, and reach an understanding. So what makes them heroes isn’t daring actions in battle. Rather, it’s having empathy and understanding one another, having the courage to trust someone very different from you, and having the wisdom to avoid war – which is exactly what Charlie Chaplin is advocating in his powerfully moving speech at the end of The Great Dictator. And of course, that’s another film with an unconventional hero: a shy, sensitive barber thrust against his will onto the world stage, who is then able to use that position to condemn fascism and avert war.
Thinking about it, empathy can profoundly affect how we interpret HIStory as well. On the surface, it feels scary and threatening, the work of a megalomaniac – “the most boldly vain-glorious self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face,” as Diane Sawyer quoted one critic. But if we approach it with empathy for Michael Jackson, for what happened to him in 1993, the year before HIStory was made, and for what he tried to accomplish throughout his career, and if we look more closely and carefully at what’s actually going on in HIStory – at the meaning of the Esperanto words at the beginning and the Russian lyrics soon after, at the many references to The Great Dictator and other films as well as Triumph of the Will – we begin to interpret things very differently, just like the CIA analyst does in Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson isn’t advocating fascism or “self-deification” as Diane Sawyer implied. Instead, he’s trying to alter our beliefs and perceptions and bring about deep cultural change.
Eleanor: Exactly. And from everything I have learned about Michael Jackson and what drove him, I believe that he was convinced that we humans were capable of making the changes necessary to save ourselves – that we are not irredeemably locked into the cultural patterns that drive us to make war and despoil the earth.
As John Connor says in Terminator 2, just before he and his mom and the terminator change the future by destroying the computer technology that, if it continues to exist, will cause the holocaust, “The future’s not written. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Which, of course is the message of Michael Jackson’s lyrics in the song, “HIStory”:
Every day create your history
Every path you take you’re leaving your legacy ….
All nations sing
Let’s harmonize all around the world
In song after song, Michael Jackson returned to the theme of change leading to global harmony. He believed that humans have the power to change ourselves – to create our own history, to refuse to let the past determine our future.
Willa: That’s true – this idea runs throughout his life and his work. In “Much Too Soon,” which was written in the early 80s, I believe, he sings these lines, which I just love:
I hope to make a change now for the better
Never letting fate control my soul
And in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, recorded just a day or two before he died, he says this:
The time has come. This is it. People are always saying, “They’ll take care of it. The government’ll … Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it’ll never be done.
Throughout his career until the very end of his life, he was encouraging us to take control of our own destiny, to create our own history, to “Heal the World.”
Eleanor: And he saw music as a means of bringing about that change – because of its power to touch our emotions. To tell you the truth, Willa, without Michael Jackson and his strong belief in the power of music, and especially his music, to change human nature (or what we take for it) and set us on a new path, I think by now I would have lost all hope.
I believe that Michael Jackson himself represents a new version of humanity, a new model of the fully human, a new kind of hero, who inspires us to make peace not war. By associating the statue with the reprogrammed cyborg, HIStory is saying that Michael Jackson’s all about revolution, but a revolution within, in thinking and feeling – but most especially feeling – not a military action. And he deeply believed in the power of art to touch our hearts and create the empathy which you talked about earlier as a means of bringing about change.
Willa: Yes, repeatedly through his art he encouraged us to “create your history,” as you say, and he also thought it was important to know our history. There are many historical references in both HIStory (the album) and “HIStory” (the song), as Lisha, Joie, and I talked about in a post last spring. And there are important historical references in the HIStory promo film also, especially its setting. I know you’ve done some research about that, Eleanor. Would you like to talk about what you’ve found?
Eleanor: Yes, Willa. If nothing else, HIStory proves that MJ had a much better grasp of history than most of us do (as I keep saying, just researching HIStory has been a history lesson for me), and that he was a big proponent of the idea that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Setting HIStory in Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, following Hungary’s long period of domination by the Soviets, and using imagery associated with the Soviet Union, links Michael Jackson’s recent personal history, the history of African-Americans in the United States, and the history of oppressed peoples in general to the history of the Hungarian people, who under Soviet domination were “tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps or interned as slave labour on collective farms where many died.”
And, to make sure we see the connection, HIStory’s marching soldiers wear the uniform of the Soviet Union, and their destination is Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, which is centered around Hungary’s Millennium Monument, erected in 1896 (when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state in 896.
Significantly, although the Millennium Monument occupies the central position in Heroes’ Square, the square is architecturally defined by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts, bringing together the themes of art and heroism – a heroic art? the artist as hero? – juxtaposed with reminders of empire.
Willa: Oh, I like that, Eleanor! – the idea of “the artist as hero,” a different kind of hero. And we see this idea visually represented by the towering statue of Michael Jackson himself in HIStory.
Heroes’ Square is a place filled with statues to commemorate military and political heroes, and in HIStory we’re watching the addition of a new statue – one that towers over all the others. But it’s a statue of a new kind of hero. He’s not a military or political leader, someone who leads armies to change geographical lines on a map. Rather, he’s a powerful artist who changes the way we think, and encourages us to empathize with people around the world from very different cultures and ethnicities. So this statue truly represents “the artist as hero,” as you say.
Eleanor: Layering “Hymn to Red October” over images of troops dressed in Soviet uniforms also brings to mind two October revolutions associated with “the reds”: the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, that overthrew the tsarist empire in Russia and brought the soviets to power, and the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviets, who had been in control of Hungary since WWII – a revolution which played “a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union decades later.” His point being that historically one revolution is generally followed by another and so on. The pattern never ends.
Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Eleanor. And the October Revolution in Russia is referenced in the lyrics to “Hymn to Red October”:
Sail on fearlessly
Pride of the northern seas
Hope of the Revolution
You are the burst of faith of the people
In October, in October
We report our victories to you, our Revolution
In October, in October
And to the heritage left by you for us
Eleanor: Leading a new kind of army (us, his fans?), whose rifles (arms) are “bandaged” in white (like his arm is bandaged?), marching into Budapest’s Heroes’ Square which is festooned with banners, opening his “not-iron” fist to throw kisses, Michael Jackson represents a hero of a new age, whose goal is to end the cycle of conquest/revolution/conquest – and to provide a new image of a new humanity capable of working together for the well-being of all.
I wish I knew Russian, but I don’t, so I don’t know what the banners or the bands on the uniforms say.
Willa: Actually, I tried to translate the message on the banners using Google Translate and Babelfish and didn’t have much luck – it doesn’t seem to be a recognizable word. Then I asked Bjørn, our resident European languages expert, about it and about the soldiers’ armbands, and his reply was fascinating:
I don’t think the soldiers’ armbands have Cyrillic (Russian) letters on them. They look like runes. It was probably inspired by the Nazis’ SS logo. I’ve been looking around a bit, and I don’t find the characters in any runic alphabet. I guess they were invented for the film. The three visible armbands look like variations of this pattern:
They may be readable or not.
So while there are suggestions that the soldiers are Russian, as you say, or maybe German or even American, they aren’t clearly labeled.
So maybe we’re supposed to interpret them more generically than strictly Russian? The “invented” armbands seem to suggest that. And as Arcadio Coslov wrote in a comment last week:
Military Parades are held in Russia, France, Germany, China and USA. It’s part of military culture generally. The flitter that rains down on the parade for example is typical US-American.
So according to Arcadio and Bjørn, there are mixed signals about the nationality of these soldiers. Michael Jackson seems to be combining Russian-style uniforms with a Nazi-style armband and an American-style military parade to complicate how we “read” this army.
And the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me – that the nationality of the soldiers would intentionally be left ambiguous, with an “invented” language on their armbands, rather than words or symbols that would clearly link them to a particular country.
Eleanor: Well, the soldiers were actually hired from the UK because no Hungarian would put on a Soviet army uniform – an interesting fact from an article filled with interesting facts.
Willa: Wow, that is interesting! They really went to a lot of trouble to make sure the soldiers were wearing Soviet uniforms, didn’t they? As the translation of the article says,
Michael … has invested $5 million U.S. of his own fortune to run this movie which promises to be spectacular. Some hundreds of young Hungarians had the pleasure of working as extras in the video, but all of them wanted to play members of the peace.
The Hungarian extras refused to wear the uniform of soldiers of the Red Army to recreate a similar sequence to the triumphal march that rallied the troops of Hitler at the beginning of the Second World War. They therefore have to use the services of a British recruitment agency to hire real soldiers. They arrived with 100 Royal Marines and some paratroopers. These soldiers have received a fee of $135 U.S. per day, plus stay in four star hotels and enjoy, of course, a free trip. It will cost to hire those soldiers, about U.S. $150,000.
Michael Jackson must have thought it was very important for the soldiers to wear Soviet uniforms to go to all that trouble and expense. So maybe we are supposed to see them as Soviet soldiers. That’s really interesting, Eleanor.
Then, following those scenes of Michael Jackson with the marching soldiers, we have an odd intermediary section. I don’t quite know what to call it – if this were a song, I’d call it a bridge. The mood is very different all of a sudden, very chaotic and fearful. Suddenly it’s night time and a car is burning, helicopters are swooping overhead, explosions are going off, people are screaming and either running or cowering in fear … in other words, it’s a scene of chaos and turmoil, which is so different from the extreme order and precision of the scenes that come before it.
Eleanor: Yes. And here HIStory is quoting the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, with the helicopters appearing, black against the red sun – a scene very closely identified with that film.
Willa: I agree. I hadn’t made that connection until you mentioned it, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it does feel like a direct visual quotation, doesn’t it? Here are screen captures from the helicopter scenes in Apocalypse Now and HIStory, and they’re remarkably similar.
Eleanor: Apocalypse Now is a film about the horrors and insanity of war in general, and specifically the Vietnam war where America “lost its innocence,” where Americans learned on the six o’clock news that we too were capable of atrocities, and where thousands upon thousands of young men, doing their patriotic duty, were caught in a gigantic war machine that, if it didn’t take take their lives, it chewed them up and spit them out, broken physically, mentally, and morally.
The people running in panic at the sight of HIStory’s helicopters are like the terrified Vietnamese school children and fishermen running for cover from the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now – just before the missiles hit and their world explodes. War’s innocent victims. Again, the good guys are the bad guys and vice versa.
And, given that HIStory also quotes Riefenstahl and the Nazis, it is interesting that the helicopters in Apocalypse Now are outfitted with loudspeakers blasting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as they come in for the kill. No matter what side we are on, we are all victims of insane nationalistic political systems that result in war over and over.
Willa: Those are such interesting connections, Eleanor, with important implications for how we interpret HIStory, I think. For many Americans, the Vietnam War is a shameful episode that has come to symbolize military excess without a clear mission. Young US soldiers – many of them in their late teens or early 20s – were dropped in a foreign land where it wasn’t always clear who was a civilian and who was a combatant, and then set loose in confusing and hostile circumstances without clear guidance. It was devastating to the Vietnamese and to the young Americans who were sent there.
Even if we don’t catch the reference to Apocalypse Now – and I didn’t – it’s still clear that this scene in HIStory is depicting panicked citizens in fear of the military. This is such a contradictory message to the adoring crowds welcoming the military, led by Michael Jackson, that we see in the first section. So again, he juxtaposes contradictory images to complicate the meaning.
You know, as frightening and unsettling as this odd little entr’acte is, I think it’s one of the most important scenes in HIStory and serves a very important function. It powerfully undermines and complicates the Riefenstahl-type imagery that came before it – imagery that idealizes the military – and forces us to imagine that same army being turned against us. In effect, it shows that the fearsome might of a strong military can be a threat as well as protection.
Eleanor: Yes, I agree with you about this scene’s importance. And perhaps this scene explains why MJ was insistent on the Soviet uniforms. Given their recent experience with the Soviet Union, it would make sense to depict the Hungarian people as “gun shy” – as wary and ready to panic at the first sign of what appears to be aggression from an army wearing the uniforms of the country that had so recently been their oppressor. Have they really changed? Are these really good guys? Can we trust them?
Willa: That’s a good point, Eleanor. And Budapest is the perfect spot to illustrate how threatening powerful armies can be. I visited a friend in Budapest in the summer of 1991, I think it was, and we actually stood in Heroes’ Square as she told me some of her country’s history. And I was shocked by it – they were occupied by one group or another for hundreds of years, most recently the Soviet Union.
And while I’m sure things have changed a lot since 1991, when I was there the physical evidence of World War II was still very visible – for example, in mortar scars on buildings. That wasn’t true in any other European nation I visited that summer, but in Hungary reminders of World War II were still very noticeable. It seems appropriate then that since HIStory draws so much imagery from World War II – specifically Triumph of the Will – that it would be filmed in a place where the effects of that war were still so present.
Importantly, those mortar scars came from Allied – namely, Soviet – bombing since Hungary was part of the Axis (who Americans see as the bad guys in World War II) and the USSR joined with the Allies (who Americans see as the good guys). So when Americans see a WWII-era scene of Soviet soldiers marching into Hungary, like in HIStory, we should identify with the Soviets – after all, we were on the same side in World War II.
But in the helicopter scene, especially, it seems to me that we as an audience tend to sympathize with the Hungarian (Axis) civilians under threat from the Soviet (Allied) troops. Talk about mixing up the good guys and the bad guys! The Soviets would then occupy Hungary for decades following World War II, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, using brutal measures to repress dissent and rebellion – further complicating any simplistic notions we may have about good guys and bad guys.
That’s one reason it’s so interesting and significant that Michael Jackson, an American, would film HIStory in Hungary using imagery from World War II. The Hungarians were our enemies in that war and the Soviets were our allies, but that’s not how it feels watching this film. So he’s flipping our perceptions and emotions inside out.
Eleanor: Hmmm… Willa, that’s interesting, because I don’t see MJ so much as an American but as a citizen of the world, and I don’t see HIStory as being set in WWII, but in 1994. And in 1994, the recently defunct USSR would have been viewed as the enemy by both Hungarians and Americans. Which makes it doubly weird – and complicated – that MJ would be leading such an army in Budapest.
Do you really see it set in WWII?
Willa: That’s a good question, Eleanor. The short answer is no, but the Riefenstahl imagery and other historical allusions make it more complicated than that.
I guess I see HIStory as set in the present but strongly evoking the past, so there are persistent echoes of World War II and the Soviet occupation running throughout it. It’s almost a type of double vision, with images of the past – the long lines of troops from Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, the monument to power in the background – coexisting with crowds dressed in contemporary clothes. So there’s the Hungary that fought against the USSR (and indirectly the US) in World War II, and the Hungary that suffered under Soviet occupation for decades following that war, existing as ghost images alongside the Hungary of 1994, when the film was made.
How do you see it?
Eleanor: I see HIStory set in a country whose people are still so traumatized by the Soviet occupation that they wouldn’t wear Soviet uniforms even for a film. So when the helicopters appear in the movie, their terror is believable, associated with the recent occupation. In 1994, they are not Axis civilians, but Hungarians recently liberated and still none too trustful of Russians, even make-believe ones. And I don’t see the audience for this film as necessarily American.
Willa: I agree. That’s one reason I think it’s so interesting an American made it – because it’s not a typical American point of view. Just the opposite. I mean, how many times have we seen an American leading a Soviet army? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, ever. It’s another one of those juxtapositions of discordant images that you were talking about earlier, Eleanor. They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys – that’s the typical view – so why is he there with them? It is interesting to think about how an American audience would react to that, emotionally and psychologically, but I don’t think Americans are the only audience, by any means.
And I just have to say that what he’s doing here is really complicated and hard to figure out. I’m still struggling with it.…
Eleanor: Well, it’s no wonder. Michael Jackson took on a terrifically complicated (there’s that word again) task with HIStory, and compressed a tremendous amount of information into a very short film. But, I feel like we’ve come a long way toward better understanding it.
Willa: I do too.
Eleanor: And returning to your point about WWII, I agree that it is helpful to think about the HIStory helicopter scene not only as alluding to the Vietnam war, but also as layered over the memory of a battle that took place many years ago, when Hungary was America’s enemy, not its friend. I think that what MJ is saying in HIStory is that, no matter who’s in power, power structures based on the principle of divide and conquer will never bring justice, but just ensure the continuation of injustice, and that war never brings peace but only more war. The players may change, but the pattern doesn’t. The constantly shifting interpretation of who’s good and who’s bad calls into question the ethics of war in general.
And it fits in with our previous Chaplin discussion – where those who were anti-fascist (therefore good) during WWII, were transformed into communists (bad) during the Cold War, just a few short years later.
So, in light of these themes of constantly shifting sands, Budapest does seem especially fitting as HIStory’s locale.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Eleanor: And although the Hungarians were at peace in 1994, the world was not. In fact, there was a particularly brutal war going on, not too many miles distant, in Bosnia.
Willa: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that.
Eleanor: And that was a war that was so complicated that I have never really been able to figure it out.
But HIStory soon makes it clear that the appearance of helicopters does not signal the commencement of a military attack, but a celebration. A celebration of the unveiling of the statue forged in this new hero’s honor – a hero whose mission is to deliver us from this never-ending cycle.
But Willa, from this point forward, HIStory’s allusions elude me. And given what great clues are to be found in HIStory’s soundtrack, as well as the sights, I am sure I am missing a great deal of what is going on here.
Willa: I agree. I’ve really been trying to figure out where the music comes from that we hear during the unveiling of the statue, but haven’t been able to track it down – and like you, I have a feeling it’s significant. I thought it might be from The Hunt for Red October soundtrack – maybe something other than the theme song – but I listened to the entire score and didn’t hear that particular piece of music. Then I thought it might be from Carmina Burana, a similar-sounding work that Michael Jackson loved and used on his Dangerous tour. But I listened to a performance on YouTube (the opening piece, “O Fortuna,” will probably sound very familiar to Michael Jackson fans) and it isn’t there either. I also tried searching for song credits for HIStory (the promo film, not the album) and did other research – even emailed an orchestrator who may have worked on it – but haven’t identified it yet.
So Eleanor, I agree this music seems important, but I don’t know what it is. It may be from Hunt for Red October or other music by Basil Poledouris – it sounds like it – but I don’t know.
Eleanor: Well, Willa. I guess we are just going to have to wing it.
HIStory’s final scenes have a futuristic, sci-fi feel – completely different from the earlier part of the film, which is dominated by the past, architecturally, historically, cinematically. And HIStory uses CGI to completely transform Heroes’ Square. Just before dark falls, we see that the tall column which is part of the Millennium Monument has been removed from its central position in the square and replicated.
Willa: And this is an important detail, I think. That tall Millennium Column is topped by an archangel, so in the digitally modified Heroes’ Square that we see in HIStory, the long central avenue is now lined with archangels, as we can see in this screen capture:
This seems significant in light of Michael Jackson’s symbolic association with the archangel Michael, as stephenson pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago. Stephenson mentioned “the role of Michael the Archangel in scripture and legends as the leader of God’s army of angels,” and suggests this is another way to interpret the scene in HIStory where “Michael” is leading an army. In this light, it seems significant that a series of columns, each topped with an archangel, surrounds and frames the scene.
Eleanor: Yes, I am sure that this archangel, who it turns out is Gabriel, is significant, especially since in one scene the statue of MJ is seen through his wings. But the significance does not seem clear cut. On the one hand, Gabriel plays a significant part in Hungarian legend, offering the crown of Hungary to its first king, St. Stephen. So Gabriel’s position atop the Millennium Monument deepens its symbolic meaning in terms of the history of the Hungarian people.
Removing Gabriel and the column – and what the column plus the archangel represent – from the center of things, symbolically marginalizes the imperial message, which makes sense in terms of HIStory’s anti-imperial message.
However, as you point out, the column with Gabriel atop it has not been removed from the scene altogether but, thanks to CGI, has been copied, and its copies now surround the square. And Gabriel, even apart from Hungarian legend, is known as the announcer of big news, having to do with beginnings and endings. So his replicated presence surrounding the square indicates that momentous things are about to happen – something big is to be revealed.
Willa: Oh, I like that interpretation, Eleanor. Something very big is about to be revealed, both literally and figuratively …
Eleanor: In place of the Millennium Monument, in the center of Heroes’ Square stands a gigantic statue, wrapped and bound, and the mood of the crowd shifts from celebration to anticipation. As the klieg lights come on, they illuminate the statue and a man, dressed in military garb, clinging to the side, setting an explosive charge. Expressions change from wonder to anxiety. What is going on? Is he going to blow up the statue?
Once he has rappelled down the side of the statue and is safely away, the distinguished-looking old man (symbolizing the imperial past) signals the military officer (symbolizing military authority), who flips down the cool scope-like lens of his glasses (which symbolize military technology), gets the statue in the cross hairs, and gives the final command to the man in charge of the detonator (who symbolizes those who do the bidding of imperial/military authority), who plunges the lever and sets off the explosion (symbolizing a military attack).
To everyone’s great relief, the statue remains standing. It is the bonds that burst dramatically apart, allowing the wraps to billow slowly to the ground, unveiling the statue of Michael Jackson, standing impossibly tall. Representing his art, his legacy, it is a monument to a man who, through his person and his art, explodes the old myths that have created the mindset that results in war after war. A monument to a man whose art carries and releases a new energy, driving us to work with, not against, each other. A monument to a new millennium, ushering in a new age, based on the power of art, not military might, to create a global society where people no longer need to live in fear of each other.
Willa: That’s a fascinating way to interpret this scene, Eleanor. Like you, I think it’s especially important that the new central statue commemorates an artist rather than a political or military leader, suggesting the creation of a new ideology and a new world order – “one based on the power of art, not military might,” as you say.
Eleanor: And in this final scene, HIStory presents art co-opting all the symbols of empire and employing them in the service of art. HIStory transforms technology from a means of keeping people in chains, to a means of liberating them – an instrument of peace, not war.
Technology can contribute to the making of a work of art, and it can carry it to every part of the globe. So it is fitting that, in HIStory, technology is the means used to reveal a statue representing Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy. Which reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s focus on technology as a uniter, not a divider, in the final speech in The Great Dictator:
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. …
You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world ….
Willa: I’m so glad you brought us back to Chaplin’s speech, Eleanor. In many ways, it serves as kind of a blueprint for HIStory, and you’re right, Chaplin talks at length about the power of technology for good as well as evil – for peace as well as war, to unite us as well as divide us.
Eleanor: Just as the explosive charges are set, using the latest and greatest technology, and then triggered, releasing the statue from its bonds, so technology will release the full power of art on the world to heal the world.
Once the statue is unveiled, the helicopters continue to buzz around it like dragonflies, the crowd erupts in cries of joy, and the fireworks begin.
In HIStory’s final frames – the camera focuses on the face of the statue, its expression pensive, an expression frequently seen on the face of Michael Jackson. He knows we can change our destiny. But is he wondering if we can change the future before it is too late?
Willa: A critically important question that he asked many times, in many different ways. I’m thinking again of the words he spoke in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, and of the words he spoke near the end of the film when he’s encouraging the other musicians and dancers to “give your all”:
We’re putting love back into the world to remind the world that love is important. Love is important, to love each other. We’re all one. That’s the message – and to take care of the planet. We have four years to get it right or else it’s irreversible, the damage we’ve done.
It’s been more than four years since he spoke those words …
Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me! We’ve covered an awful lot of ground in these three posts about the HIStory teaser, and I deeply appreciate all the information and insights you’ve shared about this complex and disconcerting short film. You’ve really opened my eyes to new ways of seeing and interpreting it, and given us all a lot to think about.
Eleanor: Thank you, Willa, for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to delve into HIStory’s mysteries. And happy Thanksgiving to you and all your readers. I’m especially thankful for Michael and his music.
Willa: Thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to you as well.
I also wanted to add a quick note that Susan Fast has just published a fascinating article about Michael Jackson and “posthumanism.” Here’s a link.