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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Summer Rewind Series, Week 8: Who Is It?

NOTE: Next week, we will begin our new season with all new posts, starting with a conversation with our friend, Joe Vogel about his new book, Featuring Michael Jackson!

The following conversation was originally posted March 1, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Who Is It, Really?

Willa:  You know, Joie, there are so many things I love about Michael Jackson’s videos, but one reason they’re so compelling for me is their emotional complexity. Human psychology is not simple or straightforward. None of us is purely good or purely evil – we’re all a complicated mix of conflicting emotions and desires. And Jackson’s videos aren’t simple or straightforward either. They feel emotionally honest to me because his characters are complicated, even contradictory, and you find yourself drawn to them even if there may be some unsettling or uncomfortable aspects to them – just like real people.

All of this has me thinking about Who Is It, one of his less well known videos. (In fact, I don’t even think it’s on YouTube anymore. I couldn’t find it when I looked the other day.) On the surface, the plot of this video sounds simple enough:  a wealthy man is betrayed by a duplicitous woman who’s just using him for his money. That’s a story older than the Bible.

But every time I watch this video, I find myself drawn to her as well as him, and it’s clear Michael Jackson wanted us to feel that way. She’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and the way the story is set up, we find that she has complicated reasons for acting the way she does. In fact, in many ways she has more constraints on her than he does. He’s a wealthy man who can fly off in a helicopter when things get bad, but she doesn’t have that freedom. As the video makes clear, she’s stuck in her life. So while I sympathize with him and the heartbreak he feels because of her betrayal, I’m reluctant to judge her too harshly for that betrayal – especially when she tries to break free of the constraints on her and present her “true face” to him.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you completely here and I have always loved this video simply because of the storyline. Normally, as you know, I would say that I didn’t care for this video because there’s just not enough Michael in it, and you know how I love to sit and gaze at him! But I can’t dislike this video because the storyline is so endlessly fascinating to me. In fact, every time I watch it, I find myself trying to fill in the blanks and create a back story! I want to know who is this woman and how did she get caught up in the destructive cycle she’s in; how did she meet the wealthy man that Michael is portraying and how did they fall in love; who are the shady people she’s working for and how did they coerce her into this lifestyle? I often find myself wishing that I could sit and watch the whole story play out as if it were a TV movie or something. I just love it!

In the video, I think it’s pretty clear that she is a high-priced call girl, but it’s more than that. She’s also a skillful con-artist and she works for some really shady people who seem to have invested a lot of time and energy into the task of taking money from wealthy people. They have trained her to become a different person for each client, being exactly what each client wants and bringing his or her fantasy to life. We see them transforming her from Alex (a very ‘real,’ unpretentious girl) into Diana (a blonde, buttoned up business woman for a tryst with a mysterious man), into Celeste (a brunette vixen in killer lingerie who strips while her client, an older gentleman on oxygen, watches), into Eve (a coquettish “innocent” with a million curls who we later see dressing and leaving the hotel room of three satisfied sleeping women). Interestingly, Michael appears to have encountered the unpretentious, ‘real’ Alex – but is that the real her?

Something obviously went wrong in her dealings with Michael’s character. Somehow, they fell in love. And it isn’t really clear whether or not he was one of her clients or if he was even aware of her profession. From the pain and betrayal he feels, you get the sense that he didn’t know. He also has an assistant or detective working for him, who follows this girl and takes him to her apartment to show him all the “evidence” he’s found against her, including numerous business cards with different names on them. And once the protagonist finds out, not only is he devastated, but he’s also left wondering if he was just another mark for her. As he says in the lyrics of the song:

I gave her money
I gave her time
I gave her everything
Inside of one heart could find
    
I gave her passion
My very soul
I gave her promises
And secrets so untold  
 

So he clearly developed real feelings for this woman – or at least the woman he believed her to be. He thought they were soul mates; he thought they were going to be together forever, as he sings:

And she promised me forever
And the day we’d live as one
We made our vows
We’d live a life anew
     
And she promised me in secret
That she’d love me for all time
It was a promise so untrue
Tell me what will I do?  

He’s devastated. Just completely heartbroken by her betrayal. And he’s left asking himself “Who Is It?” Not only ‘who is the other man she’s seeing,’ but also – and more importantly – ‘who is this woman I’ve fallen in love with?’

Willa:  I know exactly what you mean, Joie. Every time I watch this video I’m left wondering, Who is this woman? Or as the title says, Who Is It?

As we’ve talked about many times before, beginning with the My Baby posts way back in August, over and over in Michael Jackson’s work we see this double scenario where he’s in a romantic relationship that also seems to represent his relationship with his audience. And I strongly sense that double relationship again here. He’s in love with a woman who’s ever-changing, and he doesn’t really know who she is – and wow, is that true of his audience. After all, his audience includes people who love him, but it also includes music critics who don’t understand him and came down really hard on him, and music industry executives who just wanted to use him and make money off him, and casual fans who liked him as long as he was cool but turned against him as soon as he wasn’t, and even haters who actively disliked him.

Remember, this video was produced in 1992, right before the molestation scandal erupted. We tend to look back and think everything was wonderful before 1993 and terrible after, but that’s not true. The backlash started before 1993. In fact, I think that’s one reason so many people were willing to believe those false allegations based on such faulty evidence:  because public feelings toward him were already really confused and complicated at that point. A lot of people wanted him to remain the cherub-faced boy of the Jackson 5, but he had grown up and become an extremely powerful and wealthy young man, with an estimated $500 million in the bank. And his appearance kept changing – just like the female lead in Who Is It. So there began to be this unsettling feeling that maybe we really didn’t know this sweet-faced boy who had grown up in front of us. We thought we knew him, but did we really? Just like he thought he knew the woman in Who Is It, but did he really?

In fact, this sounds kind of crazy, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think the situation is reversed this time, and the woman in Who Is It is him, Michael Jackson.

Joie:  That doesn’t sound crazy at all, Willa. In fact, I was thinking the exact same thing!

Willa:  Really? I’m always so worried you’re going to think I’m a nut, and always so grateful when you don’t. But there are a lot of parallels between them, aren’t there? After all, her career as a call girl depends on pleasing her clients, just as his career as an entertainer depends on pleasing his audience. She’s constantly shifting identities to meet the demands of different clients, just as he was constantly shifting his appearance and constantly having to deal with the demands of different segments of his audience. You know, at different times in his career, he was criticized by different groups as too mainstream, too edgy, too popular, too paranoid, too soft, too angry, too Black, too White, too predictable, too incomprehensible, too eager to please his audience, too out of touch with his audience, and on and on.

It also really strikes me that, as a call girl, she’s a type of artist – a con-artist. Just as importantly, what she’s “selling” to her clients is the most intimate part of herself, of her being. And I believe that Michael Jackson’s art was the most intimate part of himself. I think the reason his work moves people so powerfully is that, if you’re in tune with him, you feel that he is revealing his innermost feelings – all his joys and fears and hopes. And through his art, he’s putting his private thoughts and emotions out in the marketplace and making them available to a public who may or may not understand him, and may cast judgment on him. To me, that is such an incredible act of courage, but it also must have been terribly painful – especially since he did genuinely care about his audience.

And so I think he strongly identified with this woman in Who Is It, a very successful call girl who makes the “mistake” of falling in love with a client, just as he was a very successful entertainer who made the “mistake” of genuinely caring about his audience. And I think that’s one reason I feel such sympathy for her whenever I watch this video.

Joie:  Willa, I think you are right on the money with this one and I agree completely. And I think Who Is It is actually one of his finest videos for exactly this reason. It’s absolutely brilliant! If you just listen to the lyrics of the song, it really doesn’t lend itself to this type of storyline. The song suggests that this is a man who has discovered his woman is having an affair with another man. “Who is it?” he sings. “Is it a friend of mine? / Is it my brother?” The song itself is pretty straightforward. But the short film is so much more complex than that.

As you say, he identifies with the woman in the video, and he clearly wants us to see beyond her shortcomings and feel sympathy and compassion for her and the predicament she finds herself in. She is “stuck” in her life, as you put it. She doesn’t have a lot of options. And as I watched it recently, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Michael was trying to convey a message with this video. The message being that he and this woman really are not all that different. She’s out there giving her all, to the shady people she’s working for as well as to the actual clients themselves. And in a very real sense, Michael was in the same exact position. Out there giving his all – to the music industry executives, to the critics, to the haters, and to the fans. And I’m sure there were probably times when he too felt sort of “stuck” in his life, just as the woman in the video does. And I think, on some level … at some point in time … we all probably feel that way at some time in our lives. So she really is someone we can all relate to.

Willa:  I agree. And of course, one of the most striking similarities between her and Michael Jackson as a public figure is their constantly shifting appearance. As you pointed out earlier, her appearance changes dramatically from Alex to Diana to Celeste to Eve – in fact, her appearance shifts so radically you can hardly tell she’s the same person. It’s all just hair and make-up, but the transformations are incredible.

And of course, Michael Jackson’s appearance shifted dramatically as well – so dramatically that a lot of people insisted he must have had extensive plastic surgery, even though he repeatedly said he didn’t, and his mother confirmed that after he died. Just like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up. For example, here’s my favorite photo comparison, from 1987 and 2003:

At first glance, he looks radically different in these two pictures. But if we take the time to actually look at the structural lines of his face, they are identical, even though 16 years have passed. If you outlined the details of his face in the photo on the left and the photo on the right and then put the outlines on top of each other, they would be identical. He looks radically different, but like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up.

Joie:  It is all just hair and make-up, Willa. And in the case of Michael’s many pictures, it’s also lighting and camera angle and facial expression. My favorite photo comparison is the composite photo from the Vindicating Michael blog where they took a picture from 1988 (from the Bad era) and a picture from 2007 (from the Ebony photo shoot) and put them together.

This composite picture clearly shows that his face is exactly the same; there were no dramatic changes. The eyes, the nose, the cheekbones, jaw line, lips and chin. All exactly the same. And the two pictures used were taken nearly 20 years apart! If that’s not proof that he was telling the truth when he repeatedly said he’d had no other work done besides various procedures to his nose and the cleft in his chin, I don’t know what is.

Willa:  I’m so glad you mentioned that composite photo, Joie, because it really demonstrates something important:  while public perceptions and interpretations of his face changed dramatically from 1988 to 2007, his actual face did not. It was all just hair and make-up and the power of suggestion. But while the woman in Who Is It shifts her appearance to please her clients, Michael Jackson must have had different motives, obviously, because his “clients” were not pleased. He was really challenging his audience, and a lot of people didn’t like it and were surprisingly angry about his shifting appearance.

Seen within this context, the ending of Who Is It is very poignant, I think. The Alex / Diana / Celeste / Eve character tries to break free from her false life and reveal her “true face” to the protagonist. She arrives at his estate without the perfect make-up, the perfect hair, the glamorous clothes, the regal attitude. This to me is the “real” person, whose name we don’t know – the person behind the mask. But she’s too late. He’s gone. His assistant shakes his head when she asks to see him, and then tosses all the false name cards out at her:  Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, and more. In effect, he’s forcing her to acknowledge those false identities.

So she goes back and re-enters the life she tried to escape. In our last image of her, she’s lying on the make-up table as that same crowd leans in to remake her identity once again. And then, in a classic Michael Jackson moment, the perspective suddenly flips and we, the audience, are lying on the table looking up at the people leaning over her/us. We have become her.

To me, that sudden shift in perspective that places us in her position is quintessential Michael Jackson. Even while leading us to sympathize with his character’s heartbreak, he also encourages us to consider her point of view as well. We see these shifts in perspective throughout his work, from “Ben” through “Dirty Diana” through “Whatever Happens.” In Ghosts, he even takes us inside the mind of the Mayor (the Tom Sneddon character) and shows us the situation from his point of view, which to me shows incredible generosity of spirit. He constantly forces us to look at situations from multiple perspectives, including points of view that have rarely been considered before, and I love that. I’ve loved it since I was nine years old.

Joie:  You know, one of the things I find most intriguing about this video, Willa, is the fact that we really don’t see a whole lot of Michael in this one. And the reasons for that are really sort of shrouded in mystery. There is a lot of contradictory information floating around the Internet about it, with many fans believing that this video was actually banned from American TV, and the accepted story is that Michael was extremely busy at the time with the Dangerous Tour and just didn’t have the time to fully devote to the making of this video, so it was produced without his creative input.

I’m not sure how true that is but, there are two things that are known for certain. First, the song “Who Is It” was never supposed to be released as a single in the U.S., but Michael’s impromptu a cappella, beatbox version of it during the Oprah Winfrey interview on February 10, 1993 really piqued the public’s interest in it. Requests to play the song went through the roof at radio stations across the country. So Sony decided to go ahead and release it instead of “Give In To Me,” which was slated to be the next U.S. single. (In fact, Michael debuted the video for that song during the Oprah interview for that reason.)   The second thing that’s certain is that, for whatever reason, a Michael Jackson impersonator – E’Cassanova – was hired to finish filming certain scenes and if you look very closely at all the scenes of Michael in the limo and lying down on the plane at the very end, you can clearly see that it’s not him.

Willa:  Are you kidding me? That’s an impersonator? How do you know all this stuff, Joie? You really are incredible, like a living, breathing Michael Jackson encyclopedia. You just constantly amaze me.

Joie: You are so funny! That part is pretty much common knowledge.

Willa:  Really? Well, I completely missed the memo on that one, because I had no idea.

Joie:  But here’s where it gets confusing … people say the impersonator was hired because Michael was too busy with the tour and everything to complete filming but yet, this video was actually made in 1992. Now, I’m not certain what month it went into production but, it debuted in the UK on July 13, 1992. That means filming more than likely occurred prior to the month of July and the Dangerous Tour began on June 27, 1992. And while I’m sure he was probably very busy with tour rehearsals and preparations right up until the kick-off date, I’m not sure I buy the whole ‘too busy to complete the filming’ story.

But the facts get further complicated because on July 14, just one day after its debut in the UK, Michael had the video pulled because he was unhappy with the editing of the film and with its early release. I think this may be where the rumors that the video was “banned” from American TV originated, but the simple fact is, this video was never released in the U.S. Once Sony made the decision to release the single in America, they joined forces with MTV and created a contest where the fans could create a video for the song. So, in the U.S. the accompanying video was a compilation of earlier MJ videos and performance clips. The actual video wasn’t available in the U.S. until it was released on the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD on November 23, 1993.

But the question that keeps popping into my head is why? The video for this song was obviously already completed by the time Sony made the decision to release the song as a single in America. They made that decision following the Oprah interview (Feb.10, 1993) and released the single on March 31, 1993. But the video had already debuted in the UK (July 13, 1992). So why not just release it here too?

Willa:  That is curious. Why the big scramble for a video when they already had one – a really fascinating one – sitting on the shelf?

But I’m still boggled by the impersonator at the end. That’s just astonishing. Who does that? Who hires an impersonator to imitate them in their videos? And especially Michael Jackson, whose videos aren’t just marketing tools for his songs – they are exquisitely crafted works of art. Taking a shortcut like that violates everything I know about him as an artist. It just doesn’t add up.

But you know, if we look at this a different way – if we look at it thematically – using an impersonator at the end actually adds a whole other level of meaning and intrigue to this video. Think about it. We have a female character who’s constantly shifting identities – and being condemned for that – and we as an audience are constantly unsettled by her shifting appearance and the recurring question of “Who Is It?” And then the final scenes are of Michael Jackson, but it’s not really Michael Jackson? It’s a Michael Jackson impersonator? I mean, seriously, how perfect is that? He is so endlessly fascinating to me, on so many levels. Just when you think you have something all figured out, he throws in yet another twist. Who Is It, indeed.

This situation with the impersonator reminds me of a wonderful quotation from Bill Bottrell describing how he came to write and perform the “white rap” in “Black or White”:

I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like L.L. Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for “Black or White.” … So, one day I wrote the rap – I woke up in the morning and before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing. … That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission. … I didn’t think too much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words … but he was uncomfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went, “Ohhhh, I love it, Bill, I love it. That should be the one.” I kept saying “No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,” but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.  

As Ultravioletrae pointed out so brilliantly in a comment a couple weeks ago about “What Makes a Songwriter?” that “white rap” is a crucial feature of “Black or White.” As she wrote,

the white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way.  

So Michael Jackson really needs a “white rap” for this section, but he’s working with a producer who actively dislikes “white rap.” But he ingeniously figures out a way to get him to create it for him. As Bottrell said, “That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission.” I love that quote, and I can just picture the situation. Somehow all these amazing rappers are walking in and out of the studio, and they’re all willing and eager to be on a Michael Jackson album. Yet they’re mysteriously unavailable for this particular song – as Botrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black or White’” – so finally he has to do it himself. I’m sorry, but that’s brilliant.

Joie:  I agree; it is brilliant.

Willa:  I see the exact same scenario of “he makes things happen by omission” in the final scenes of Who Is It. It makes so much sense on so many levels to have an MJ impersonator performing those scenes, so the real Michael Jackson simply makes himself unavailable while those scenes are being filmed. Suddenly he’s too busy, can’t come, studio time is incredibly expensive, they can’t wait, and they’re forced to use an impersonator. Brilliant.

Joie:  You may be right about that, Willa. It certainly would be an interesting artistic move, wouldn’t it? And it totally shuts down the Internet rumor that Michael had no creative control over this short film. The video was shot by movie director David Fincher, who directed 2008′s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 2010′s The Social Network, among many others. He’s also directed numerous music videos for everyone from Madonna and Paula Abdul to the Rolling Stones and Nine Inch Nails. His list of video credits is just as impressive as his movie credits, and we all know how Michael always liked to work with the best in their fields.

Willa:  Oh, I think he was very involved in Who Is It, from the conceptual development through production. It’s simply too him, right down to the shifting camera angles – it carries the stamp of his personality and his artistic vision throughout. All you have to do is look at it and you can tell he was very involved in creating this video.

And he wouldn’t have allowed it to be included in the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD if he were seriously dissatisfied with it. Everyone knows how meticulous he was. We’ve all heard the story of how he and Quincy Jones and others gathered around to listen to the final cut of the Thriller album – and he didn’t like it, and refused to release it until it met his standards. I don’t know what all was going on back then when the Who Is It video was released and pulled and released again – you know a lot more about that than I do, Joie – but I’m convinced this video deserves far more attention that it’s received, and deserves to be placed alongside his better known films.

Who Is It, Really?

Willa:  You know, Joie, there are so many things I love about Michael Jackson’s videos, but one reason they’re so compelling for me is their emotional complexity. Human psychology is not simple or straightforward. None of us is purely good or purely evil – we’re all a complicated mix of conflicting emotions and desires. And Jackson’s videos aren’t simple or straightforward either. They feel emotionally honest to me because his characters are complicated, even contradictory, and you find yourself drawn to them even if there may be some unsettling or uncomfortable aspects to them – just like real people.

All of this has me thinking about Who Is It, one of his less well known videos. (In fact, I don’t even think it’s on YouTube anymore. I couldn’t find it when I looked the other day.) On the surface, the plot of this video sounds simple enough:  a wealthy man is betrayed by a duplicitous woman who’s just using him for his money. That’s a story older than the Bible.

But every time I watch this video, I find myself drawn to her as well as him, and it’s clear Michael Jackson wanted us to feel that way. She’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and the way the story is set up, we find that she has complicated reasons for acting the way she does. In fact, in many ways she has more constraints on her than he does. He’s a wealthy man who can fly off in a helicopter when things get bad, but she doesn’t have that freedom. As the video makes clear, she’s stuck in her life. So while I sympathize with him and the heartbreak he feels because of her betrayal, I’m reluctant to judge her too harshly for that betrayal – especially when she tries to break free of the constraints on her and present her “true face” to him.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you completely here and I have always loved this video simply because of the storyline. Normally, as you know, I would say that I didn’t care for this video because there’s just not enough Michael in it, and you know how I love to sit and gaze at him! But I can’t dislike this video because the storyline is so endlessly fascinating to me. In fact, every time I watch it, I find myself trying to fill in the blanks and create a back story! I want to know who is this woman and how did she get caught up in the destructive cycle she’s in; how did she meet the wealthy man that Michael is portraying and how did they fall in love; who are the shady people she’s working for and how did they coerce her into this lifestyle? I often find myself wishing that I could sit and watch the whole story play out as if it were a TV movie or something. I just love it!

In the video, I think it’s pretty clear that she is a high-priced call girl, but it’s more than that. She’s also a skillful con-artist and she works for some really shady people who seem to have invested a lot of time and energy into the task of taking money from wealthy people. They have trained her to become a different person for each client, being exactly what each client wants and bringing his or her fantasy to life. We see them transforming her from Alex (a very ‘real,’ unpretentious girl) into Diana (a blonde, buttoned up business woman for a tryst with a mysterious man), into Celeste (a brunette vixen in killer lingerie who strips while her client, an older gentleman on oxygen, watches), into Eve (a coquettish “innocent” with a million curls who we later see dressing and leaving the hotel room of three satisfied sleeping women). Interestingly, Michael appears to have encountered the unpretentious, ‘real’ Alex – but is that the real her?

Something obviously went wrong in her dealings with Michael’s character. Somehow, they fell in love. And it isn’t really clear whether or not he was one of her clients or if he was even aware of her profession. From the pain and betrayal he feels, you get the sense that he didn’t know. He also has an assistant or detective working for him, who follows this girl and takes him to her apartment to show him all the “evidence” he’s found against her, including numerous business cards with different names on them. And once the protagonist finds out, not only is he devastated, but he’s also left wondering if he was just another mark for her. As he says in the lyrics of the song:

I gave her money
I gave her time
I gave her everything
Inside of one heart could find
  
I gave her passion
My very soul
I gave her promises
And secrets so untold

So he clearly developed real feelings for this woman – or at least the woman he believed her to be. He thought they were soul mates; he thought they were going to be together forever, as he sings:

And she promised me forever
And the day we’d live as one
We made our vows
We’d live a life anew
 
And she promised me in secret
That she’d love me for all time
It was a promise so untrue
Tell me what will I do?

He’s devastated. Just completely heartbroken by her betrayal. And he’s left asking himself “Who Is It?” Not only ‘who is the other man she’s seeing,’ but also – and more importantly – ‘who is this woman I’ve fallen in love with?’

Willa:  I know exactly what you mean, Joie. Every time I watch this video I’m left wondering, Who is this woman? Or as the title says, Who Is It?

As we’ve talked about many times before, beginning with the My Baby posts way back in August, over and over in Michael Jackson’s work we see this double scenario where he’s in a romantic relationship that also seems to represent his relationship with his audience. And I strongly sense that double relationship again here. He’s in love with a woman who’s ever-changing, and he doesn’t really know who she is – and wow, is that true of his audience. After all, his audience includes people who love him, but it also includes music critics who don’t understand him and came down really hard on him, and music industry executives who just wanted to use him and make money off him, and casual fans who liked him as long as he was cool but turned against him as soon as he wasn’t, and even haters who actively disliked him.

Remember, this video was produced in 1992, right before the molestation scandal erupted. We tend to look back and think everything was wonderful before 1993 and terrible after, but that’s not true. The backlash started before 1993. In fact, I think that’s one reason so many people were willing to believe those false allegations based on such faulty evidence:  because public feelings toward him were already really confused and complicated at that point. A lot of people wanted him to remain the cherub-faced boy of the Jackson 5, but he had grown up and become an extremely powerful and wealthy young man, with an estimated $500 million in the bank. And his appearance kept changing – just like the female lead in Who Is It. So there began to be this unsettling feeling that maybe we really didn’t know this sweet-faced boy who had grown up in front of us. We thought we knew him, but did we really? Just like he thought he knew the woman in Who Is It, but did he really?

In fact, this sounds kind of crazy, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think the situation is reversed this time, and the woman in Who Is It represents him, Michael Jackson.

Joie:  That doesn’t sound crazy at all, Willa. In fact, I was thinking the exact same thing!

Willa:  Really? I’m always so worried you’re going to think I’m a nut, and always so grateful when you don’t. But there are a lot of parallels between them, aren’t there? After all, her career as a call girl depends on pleasing her clients, just as his career as an entertainer depends on pleasing his audience. She’s constantly shifting identities to meet the demands of different clients, just as he was constantly shifting his appearance and constantly having to deal with the demands of different segments of his audience. You know, at different times in his career, he was criticized by different groups as too mainstream, too edgy, too popular, too paranoid, too soft, too angry, too Black, too White, too predictable, too incomprehensible, too eager to please his audience, too out of touch with his audience, and on and on.

It also really strikes me that, as a call girl, she’s a type of artist – a con-artist. Just as importantly, what she’s “selling” to her clients is the most intimate part of herself, of her being. And I believe that Michael Jackson’s art was the most intimate part of himself. I think the reason his work moves people so powerfully is that, if you’re in tune with him, you feel that he is revealing his innermost feelings – all his joys and fears and hopes. And through his art, he’s putting his private thoughts and emotions out in the marketplace and making them available to a public who may or may not understand him, and may cast judgment on him. To me, that is such an incredible act of courage, but it also must have been terribly painful – especially since he did genuinely care about his audience.

And so I think he strongly identified with this woman in Who Is It, a very successful call girl who makes the “mistake” of falling in love with a client, just as he was a very successful entertainer who made the “mistake” of genuinely caring about his audience. And I think that’s one reason I feel such sympathy for her whenever I watch this video.

Joie:  Willa, I think you are right on the money with this one and I agree completely. And I think Who Is It is actually one of his finest videos for exactly this reason. It’s absolutely brilliant! If you just listen to the lyrics of the song, it really doesn’t lend itself to this type of storyline. The song suggests that this is a man who has discovered his woman is having an affair with another man. “Who is it?” he sings. “Is it a friend of mine? / Is it my brother?” The song itself is pretty straightforward. But the short film is so much more complex than that.

As you say, he identifies with the woman in the video, and he clearly wants us to see beyond her shortcomings and feel sympathy and compassion for her and the predicament she finds herself in. She is “stuck” in her life, as you put it. She doesn’t have a lot of options. And as I watched it recently, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Michael was trying to convey a message with this video. The message being that he and this woman really are not all that different. She’s out there giving her all, to the shady people she’s working for as well as to the actual clients themselves. And in a very real sense, Michael was in the same exact position. Out there giving his all – to the music industry executives, to the critics, to the haters, and to the fans. And I’m sure there were probably times when he too felt sort of “stuck” in his life, just as the woman in the video does. And I think, on some level … at some point in time … we all probably feel that way at some time in our lives. So she really is someone we can all relate to.

Willa:  I agree. And of course, one of the most striking similarities between her and Michael Jackson as a public figure is their constantly shifting appearance. As you pointed out earlier, her appearance changes dramatically from Alex to Diana to Celeste to Eve – in fact, her appearance shifts so radically you can hardly tell she’s the same person. It’s all just hair and make-up, but the transformations are incredible.

And of course, Michael Jackson’s appearance shifted dramatically as well – so dramatically that a lot of people insisted he must have had extensive plastic surgery, even though he repeatedly said he didn’t, and his mother confirmed that after he died. Just like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up. For example, here’s my favorite photo comparison, from 1987 and 2003:

At first glance, he looks radically different in these two pictures. But if we take the time to actually look at the structural lines of his face, they are identical, even though 16 years have passed. If you outlined the details of his face in the photo on the left and the photo on the right and then put the outlines on top of each other, they would be identical. He looks radically different, but like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up.

Joie:  It is all just hair and make-up, Willa. And in the case of Michael’s many pictures, it’s also lighting and camera angle and facial expression. My favorite photo comparison is the composite photo from the Vindicating Michael blog where they took a picture from 1988 (from the Bad era) and a picture from 2007 (from the Ebony photo shoot) and put them together.

This composite picture clearly shows that his face is exactly the same; there were no dramatic changes. The eyes, the nose, the cheekbones, jaw line, lips and chin. All exactly the same. And the two pictures used were taken nearly 20 years apart! If that’s not proof that he was telling the truth when he repeatedly said he’d had no other work done besides various procedures to his nose and the cleft in his chin, I don’t know what is.

Willa:  I’m so glad you mentioned that composite photo, Joie, because it really demonstrates something important:  while public perceptions and interpretations of his face changed dramatically from 1988 to 2007, his actual face did not. It was all just hair and make-up and the power of suggestion. But while the woman in Who Is It shifts her appearance to please her clients, Michael Jackson must have had different motives, obviously, because his “clients” were not pleased. He was really challenging his audience, and a lot of people didn’t like it and were surprisingly angry about his shifting appearance.

Seen within this context, the ending of Who Is It is very poignant, I think. The Alex / Diana / Celeste / Eve character tries to break free from her false life and reveal her “true face” to the protagonist. She arrives at his estate without the perfect make-up, the perfect hair, the glamorous clothes, the regal attitude. This to me is the “real” person, whose name we don’t know – the person behind the mask. But she’s too late. He’s gone. His assistant shakes his head when she asks to see him, and then tosses all the false name cards out at her:  Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, and more. In effect, he’s forcing her to acknowledge those false identities.

So she goes back and re-enters the life she tried to escape. In our last image of her, she’s lying on the make-up table as that same crowd leans in to remake her identity once again. And then, in a classic Michael Jackson moment, the perspective suddenly flips and we, the audience, are lying on the table looking up at the people leaning over her/us. We have become her.

To me, that sudden shift in perspective that places us in her position is quintessential Michael Jackson. Even while leading us to sympathize with his character’s heartbreak, he also encourages us to consider her point of view as well. We see these shifts in perspective throughout his work, from “Ben” through “Dirty Diana” through “Whatever Happens.” In Ghosts, he even takes us inside the mind of the Mayor (the Tom Sneddon character) and shows us the situation from his point of view, which to me shows incredible generosity of spirit. He constantly forces us to look at situations from multiple perspectives, including points of view that have rarely been considered before, and I love that. I’ve loved it since I was nine years old.

Joie:  You know, one of the things I find most intriguing about this video, Willa, is the fact that we really don’t see a whole lot of Michael in this one. And the reasons for that are really sort of shrouded in mystery. There is a lot of contradictory information floating around the Internet about it, with many fans believing that this video was actually banned from American TV, and the accepted story is that Michael was extremely busy at the time with the Dangerous Tour and just didn’t have the time to fully devote to the making of this video, so it was produced without his creative input.

I’m not sure how true that is but, there are two things that are known for certain. First, the song “Who Is It” was never supposed to be released as a single in the U.S., but Michael’s impromptu a cappella, beatbox version of it during the Oprah Winfrey interview on February 10, 1993 really piqued the public’s interest in it. Requests to play the song went through the roof at radio stations across the country. So Sony decided to go ahead and release it instead of “Give In To Me,” which was slated to be the next U.S. single. (In fact, Michael debuted the video for that song during the Oprah interview for that reason.)

The second thing that’s certain is that, for whatever reason, a Michael Jackson impersonator – E’Cassanova – was hired to finish filming certain scenes and if you look very closely at all the scenes of Michael in the limo and lying down on the plane at the very end, you can clearly see that it’s not him.

Willa:  Are you kidding me? That’s an impersonator? How do you know all this stuff, Joie? You really are incredible, like a living, breathing Michael Jackson encyclopedia. You just constantly amaze me.

Joie: You are so funny! That part is pretty much common knowledge.

Willa:  Really? Well, I completely missed the memo on that one, because I had no idea.

Joie:  But here’s where it gets confusing … people say the impersonator was hired because Michael was too busy with the tour and everything to complete filming but yet, this video was actually made in 1992. Now, I’m not certain what month it went into production but, it debuted in the UK on July 13, 1992. That means filming more than likely occurred prior to the month of July and the Dangerous Tour began on June 27, 1992. And while I’m sure he was probably very busy with tour rehearsals and preparations right up until the kick-off date, I’m not sure I buy the whole ‘too busy to complete the filming’ story.

But the facts get further complicated because on July 14, just one day after its debut in the UK, Michael had the video pulled because he was unhappy with the editing of the film and with its early release. I think this may be where the rumors that the video was “banned” from American TV originated, but the simple fact is, this video was never released in the U.S. Once Sony made the decision to release the single in America, they joined forces with MTV and created a contest where the fans could create a video for the song. So, in the U.S. the accompanying video was a compilation of earlier MJ videos and performance clips. The actual video wasn’t available in the U.S. until it was released on the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD on November 23, 1993.

But the question that keeps popping into my head is why? The video for this song was obviously already completed by the time Sony made the decision to release the song as a single in America. They made that decision following the Oprah interview (Feb.10, 1993) and released the single on March 31, 1993. But the video had already debuted in the UK (July 13, 1992). So why not just release it here too?

Willa:  That is curious. Why the big scramble for a video when they already had one – a really fascinating one – sitting on the shelf?

But I’m still boggled by the impersonator at the end. That’s just astonishing. Who does that? Who hires an impersonator to imitate them in their videos? And especially Michael Jackson, whose videos aren’t just marketing tools for his songs – they are exquisitely crafted works of art. Taking a shortcut like that violates everything I know about him as an artist. It just doesn’t add up.

But you know, if we look at this a different way – if we look at it thematically – using an impersonator at the end actually adds a whole other level of meaning and intrigue to this video. Think about it. We have a female character who’s constantly shifting identities – and being condemned for that – and we as an audience are constantly unsettled by her shifting appearance and the recurring question of “Who Is It?” And then the final scenes are of Michael Jackson, but it’s not really Michael Jackson? It’s a Michael Jackson impersonator? I mean, seriously, how perfect is that? He is so endlessly fascinating to me, on so many levels. Just when you think you have something all figured out, he throws in yet another twist. Who Is It, indeed.

This situation with the impersonator reminds me of a wonderful quotation from Bill Bottrell describing how he came to write and perform the “white rap” in “Black or White”:

I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like L.L. Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for “Black or White.” … So, one day I wrote the rap – I woke up in the morning and before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing. … That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission. … I didn’t think too much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words … but he was uncomfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went, “Ohhhh, I love it, Bill, I love it. That should be the one.” I kept saying “No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,” but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.

As Ultravioletrae pointed out so brilliantly in a comment a couple weeks ago about “What Makes a Songwriter?” that “white rap” is a crucial feature of “Black or White.” As she wrote,

the white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way.

So Michael Jackson really needs a “white rap” for this section, but he’s working with a producer who actively dislikes “white rap.” But he ingeniously figures out a way to get him to create it for him. As Bottrell said, “That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission.” I love that quote, and I can just picture the situation. Somehow all these amazing rappers are walking in and out of the studio, and they’re all willing and eager to be on a Michael Jackson album. Yet they’re mysteriously unavailable for this particular song – as Botrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black or White’ “ – so finally he has to do it himself. I’m sorry, but that’s brilliant.

Joie:  I agree; it is brilliant.

Willa:  I see the exact same scenario of “he makes things happen by omission” in the final scenes of Who Is It. It makes so much sense on so many levels to have an MJ impersonator performing those scenes, so the real Michael Jackson simply makes himself unavailable while those scenes are being filmed. Suddenly he’s too busy, can’t come, studio time is incredibly expensive, they can’t wait, and they’re forced to use an impersonator. Brilliant.

Joie:  You may be right about that, Willa. It certainly would be an interesting artistic move, wouldn’t it? And it totally shuts down the Internet rumor that Michael had no creative control over this short film. The video was shot by movie director David Fincher, who directed 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 2010’s The Social Network, among many others. He’s also directed numerous music videos for everyone from Madonna and Paula Abdul to the Rolling Stones and Nine Inch Nails. His list of video credits is just as impressive as his movie credits, and we all know how Michael always liked to work with the best in their fields.

Willa:  Oh, I think he was very involved in Who Is It, from the conceptual development through production. It’s simply too him, right down to the shifting camera angles – it carries the stamp of his personality and his artistic vision throughout. All you have to do is look at it and you can tell he was very involved in creating this video.

And he wouldn’t have allowed it to be included in the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD if he were seriously dissatisfied with it. Everyone knows how meticulous he was. We’ve all heard the story of how he and Quincy Jones and others gathered around to listen to the final cut of the Thriller album – and he didn’t like it, and refused to release it until it met his standards. I don’t know what all was going on back then when the Who Is It video was released and pulled and released again – you know a lot more about that than I do, Joie – but I’m convinced this video deserves far more attention that it’s received, and deserves to be placed alongside his better known films.