A Look at Neo-Noir in Michael Jackson’s Short Films
Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.
Posted on January 28, 2016, in Michael Jackson and tagged Billie Jean, David Fincher, Elizabeth Amisu, Karin Merx, Michael Jackson, Neo-Noir, Scream, Smooth Criminal, Stranger in Moscow, This Is It, Who Is It. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.