Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a wonderful discussion of Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” This week I am very excited to be joined by Nina Fonoroff to talk about the short film, Billie Jean, and about Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Nina is an associate professor in cinematic arts, an independent filmmaker, and an artist who has drawn inspiration from Michael Jackson – for example, in a series of collages she created of him. And in the course of gathering material for her collages, she has collected more than 35,000 images of him. Wow! Thank you so much for joining me, Nina.
Nina: Thanks, Willa! I look forward to exploring the “anatomy” of Billie Jean!
Willa: Oh, so do I! I’ve been wanting to take an in-depth look at Billie Jean for almost four years now, but I’ve felt kind of intimidated by it. So I really appreciate your leading the way.
So today we’re planning to talk about Billie Jean specifically, and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir more generally in a number of his films, and it seems like we should begin by defining what exactly “film noir” means. But to be honest, I’m a little fuzzy about that. What makes a piece film noir? Is it the characters (a hard-boiled detective, a seductress, a criminal mastermind like Mr. Big in Moonwalker) or the setting (gritty, urban, 1940s or 50s) or the way it’s filmed (beautifully framed black-and-white scenes with lots of shadows). Or is it something else – a mood or a feeling?
Nina: Great questions, Willa. Film scholars have never been able to determine whether to call “film noir” a style, a movement, or a genre. Billie Jean uses many elements we find in typical noir films, though there are also some distinct ways it departs from them.
In noir films, there’s often (though not always) a femme fatale who leads a man into a life of crime, or some situation that is morally compromised. So there’s the criminal ne’er-do-well, and often a detective, who we usually see wearing a trench coat and fedora hat. This detective is often the film’s protagonist, or main character – we identify with him, and typically learn everything through his point of view. (In some films, like Double Indemnity (1944), we hear the story told as a flashback, from the point of view of the man who committed the crime and who is about to die.) Some classic “noir” films were adapted from crime novels written by figures like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and James M. Cain. In period slang, the detective is sometimes known as a “private dick” or “shamus” – in other words, a private investigator, as distinct from a detective who is employed by the regular police force.
Willa: And we see this kind of character in Billie Jean – the private investigator or reporter who’s trailing Michael Jackson’s character. We also see a variant of this character in You Rock My World and especially Smooth Criminal, right? Michael, the main character in Smooth Criminal, isn’t a private eye, but he’s an updated version of Rod Riley, Fred Astaire’s character in “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, and Rod Riley is. And Michael is certainly dressed the part, especially the fedora pulled down low over his eyes.
Nina: Yes, that’s exactly the type, and Michael was very conscious of the style. Spats, an elegant suit, a fedora. Then we have dark, deserted streets within a sinister-looking city; and parts of the story are often conveyed through voice-over narration. Usually it’s the voice of the detective we hear, a device that allows us to form a strong bond of identification with him, his observations, his experiences and – most importantly – the knowledge he acquires about the case he’s working on. We know that we can count on him to eventually crack the case and “spill the beans.”
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Nina. And we see those “dark, deserted streets” you mentioned in a number of Michael Jackson’s videos: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Jam, Give In to Me, Who Is It, Stranger in Moscow, and You Rock My World, as well as the panther dance portion of Black or White.
We certainly see it in “Girl Hunt Ballet” also, along with the use of voiceover, as you mentioned. Here’s a video clip, and it begins with Fred Astaire’s character walking those “dark, deserted streets” and talking to us in voiceover, as you just described. As he says, “The city was asleep. The joints were closed. The rats and the hoods and the killers were in their holes.”
It’s really fun to watch that clip and look for all the ways Michael Jackson borrowed from it or modified elements of it when creating Smooth Criminal. For example, some of the costumes are a direct match, like his white suit and fedora with the blue shirt and socks, or the woman in the red dress with black gloves up past her elbows.
Nina: Fred Astaire’s performance here riffs on the classic film noir hero (or antihero), especially in the tone he adopts to tell his story. There’s a heightened sense of drama when he recounts his woes – the tale of a romantic/sexual exploit turned bad. The way he delivers his interior monologue evokes an urbane male persona, whose suaveness and sophistication are no match for the “dame” who took him unawares or “done him wrong.”
We can also hear this character in Michael Jackson’s spoken introduction to “Dangerous,” some of whose lines come directly from the Rod Riley character in “Girl Hunt Ballet.” Here’s Michael Jackson’s performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV Awards:
The way she came into the place
I knew then and there
There was something different about this girl.
The way she moved. Her hair, her face.
Her lines, divinity in motion.
As she stalked the room
I could feel the aura
Of her presence
Every head turned
Feeling passion and lust
The girl was persuasive
The girl I could not trust
The girl was bad
The girl was dangerous
She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return
Willa: I love that performance of “Dangerous”! And you’re right, some of these lyrics are a direct quotation from “Girl Hunt Ballet,” as you say – specifically the lines, “She came at me in sections … She was bad / She was dangerous.” And the overall feel of these lines is very “noirish.” I can easily imagine a character from one of those 1940s crime novels – or the films based on them – saying just these words.
So what other elements mark a film as noir?
Nina: They often have complicated plot twists, including flashbacks (sometimes multiple ones) or other scenes that reveal the characters’ dark pasts. And because the genre matured in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, when black-and-white film stocks were more commonly used, we often associate these movies with a high-contrast black-and-white look that feels atmospherically menacing, with deep shadows and their connotations of secrecy, danger, paranoia, despair. The lighting effects are often described by a lovely Italian word, chiaroscuro, which means high contrasts of dark and light. The term originated in painting, and was then applied to photography and film.
Willa: And Michael Jackson occasionally filmed his videos using high-contrast black and white, like in Stranger in Moscow or parts of Billie Jean, Bad, Black or White, and Ghosts. Or he would use color film but with a very muted palette and strong contrasts between areas of light and dark, so it resembles black-and-white film. I’m thinking of moments like the dance in the basement in You Rock My World, which is almost like a series of sepia-toned photographs.
Nina: That’s true, especially for You Rock My World, which depicts a noirish environment in color – but it’s a limited color palette, as you say.
Films noir also tend to elicit a set of emotional responses from the audience, leading us on a journey of suspense, sometimes infused with anxiety for the character or the outcome of the story. The narrative unfolds so that by the end of the movie, the resolution of a puzzle or mystery – usually a violent crime – is revealed to the audience from the detective’s point of view (though, as I pointed out in the case of Double Indemnity, sometimes another character “narrates”). Through a bleak and often cynical depiction of right and wrong, these films communicate a set of social values: we are meant to ponder, even if unconsciously, what it might mean to be trustworthy or duplicitous, or to be an “outsider” looking in – as both the detective and the criminal he follows often are.
In their obsessive intelligence, exposure to danger, risk-taking, and seemingly cold-blooded approach to human relationships, these men (the detectives, and often the women they associate with) represent social deviance – they conduct their lives, as loners, in a way that’s different from the mainstream of society. They’ve either rejected or else haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity, marriage, family life, home and hearth. So both the criminal, and the detective who pursues him, are figures who stand apart from ordinary people, who are safely ensconced in the trappings of middle-class existence and normative social values. They are exceptional, and often deeply ambivalent characters.
According to Tim Dirks, who writes for AMC Filmsite:
Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, sociopaths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally ambiguous lowlifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive – and in the end, ultimately losing. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed…. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It seems to me that Michael Jackson drew on elements of noir when creating his characters, but with important differences. His characters are often outsiders who “stand apart from ordinary people,” as you say – characters who “haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity.” We see that repeatedly in his films. But they are not “cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners,” in Dirks’ words. Not at all. In fact, often his characters are alone for the opposite reason – because they are innocent in a corrupt world. I’m thinking specifically of Billie Jean, Stranger in Moscow, and Ghosts, but there are other examples as well.
Nina: Interestingly, Willa, sometimes a noir (or “noirish”) film can feature a man who is wrongly accused. As Dirk states, he may be “an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.” Of course, this totally resonates with the story of Billie Jean.
Willa: It really does. So Nina, this thematic approach to film noir helps explain some of the confusion I’ve been feeling. For example, Stranger in Moscow is beautifully shot in black and white, and it’s in an urban setting, and when I watch it a lot of the individual frames look like film noir to me. But the overall feeling of the film as a whole is very different from film noir and I wouldn’t label it that way.
On the other hand, Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal were filmed primarily in color, though muted color, and when I watch them carefully – as I did while preparing for this post – a lot of the shots don’t really look like film noir to me. Less than Stranger in Moscow, actually. But the overall feeling of these two is very much film noir, I think.
Maybe some of this has to do with the “notions of social value” you were just talking about. In all three of these films – Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and Stranger in Moscow – Michael Jackson’s character is an “outsider,” and there’s a sense that the world is a pretty threatening place for him. So maybe that’s the undefinable thing that makes Stranger in Moscow feel kind of “noirish” to me.
Nina: Although there are a couple of shots in Stranger in Moscow that I think look distinctly noirish, I’d say that the film as a whole lacks the necessary elements of danger, criminality, violence, and pursuit. In a noir film, we expect to meet characters whose actions fall outside of the boundaries of lawful behavior, or at least outside the confines of “acceptable” social norms. Also, most (though not all) noir films feature nighttime shots of the city – and a good deal of the action takes place at night. So I’d say You Rock My World, or Who Is It, or even Dirty Diana (of all things!) have more in common with noir films than Stranger in Moscow does.
Willa: Really? Dirty Diana?! Wow. But I see what you mean about Stranger in Moscow. There is something threatening about it, but that comes primarily from the lyrics (“We’re talking danger, baby”) and from our own knowledge of the backstory behind the film – of what the Santa Barbara police were putting him through at the time. But the mood of the film itself isn’t really threatening. It’s more a feeling of hurt and sorrow, I think.
Nina: Yes, hurt and sorrow, as well as loneliness and a burdensome alienation, are the feelings that come through most strongly for me in that film, Willa.
In general, the solution to the central question (or mystery) within a noir film occurs when the detective apprehends the criminal and hands him/her over to the police. But these films also convey something we might consider a more ideological “message”: in a word, a morality tale. (Here, we might think of the expression “crime doesn’t pay.”) This kind of messaging partly came about because of the Hollywood Production Code, in force during the 1940s and 1950s, which stipulated that films couldn’t allow a character to get away with criminal behavior. They had to be punished, either by death or through the strong arm of the law. A character who has committed a crime must never be allowed to get away with it, according to the Production Code.
Willa: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s interesting, Nina. I’d noticed that many of those films ended with the bad guys getting their just desserts, but I thought that simply reflected the mood of the country back then. I didn’t realize it was a legal requirement.
Nina: It’s interesting how much of Hollywood cinema was governed by organizations that stipulated various projects’ adherence to “community standards,” first through the Code, and later through the ratings system that replaced it.
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. This is especially the case with the detective, a complex character who himself often gives way to sordid temptations. Going even further, some analysts have seen the style/genre as it evolved in the years after World War II as a critique of postwar American society: the “dark underbelly” of the culture that lies just underneath the glittering surface of optimism and prosperity. A lot of these themes touch upon ideas about the “unconscious” that were elaborated by Sigmund Freud: in particular, the “return of the repressed.” When an individual stuffs or represses an unpleasant memory today, that memory will inevitably re-emerge in a variety of morbid psychological symptoms tomorrow. The past comes back to haunt the character.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s one reason these films were so popular back then, and why they’re still seen as classics today – because they convey a kind of psychological truth.
So, Nina, this is all much more complicated than I realized. I’m starting to understand now why it can be so difficult to classify specific films, or even specific elements of films, as noir. We can look at how the film was constructed – the characters, plot, setting, cinematography – which is all I was thinking about when we started talking. But now I’m beginning to see that there’s also a whole other element of noir, which focuses more on how it resonates with an audience and how they interpret it.
I wonder if that’s why, for me, Stranger in Moscow kind of fits the noir label and kind of doesn’t. Except for the black-and-white format, it doesn’t meet the criteria for how film noir is typically constructed. But it definitely leads us as an audience to think about “how difficult it is for individuals to maintain moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world,” as you said. Or rather, it asks us to consider “how does it feel” to be alone and adrift in a corrupt world.
Nina: That may be another example, Willa. It can be difficult, though, to detect how these larger meanings might come to fruition in short films like the ones Michael Jackson made. We could more easily discern these patterns in a feature-length film that follows a more traditional narrative scheme. Michael’s short films are sometimes stories in miniature: they have characters, action, and sometimes dialogue, spoken and/or sung. Yet their brevity, as well as the way they’re structured to include singing and dancing, makes the fully developed characters and complex plot development of the feature film impossible to render.
Willa: Well, it’s true that his short films don’t have the complex plots or fully developed characters you see in feature-length films. There simply isn’t the time in five or six or even 11 minutes to convey all the plot twists, for example, that you might see in a two-hour film. But it does seem to me that Michael Jackson explores some pretty complicated ideas in his short films, and in innovative ways that are difficult to describe.
Nina: You’re right there, Willa: his films do explore complicated ideas, as well as complicated emotions. They may leave us with feelings that aren’t easily resolved, because they engage our sensibilities in ways that are very different from, say, the traditional feature-length noir film, where we come out of the experience with a satisfying sense of narrative “closure” – the detective has solved his case, and so, by proxy, have we. By contrast, Michael’s short films often don’t provide that kind of closure. Billie Jean, for example, does not – nor do the other films we’ve mentioned.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Nina, though in Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s character has evaded the private eye who’s been stalking him – in a trenchcoat, no less! – and even turned the tables, so the one trying to “capture” him on film has literally been “captured” by the police. The last we see of the detective, the police are taking him into custody, and Michael Jackson’s character escapes. So the problem has been solved, and in that sense it does have a degree of closure.
Nina: Yes, that’s a great point, Willa. There’s a role-reversal between the detective and Michael’s character, which I believe has implications that go beyond the film itself – about which I’ll say more presently.
Willa: Sounds intriguing! So earlier you mentioned Dirty Diana and Who Is It. I don’t think I ever would have considered Dirty Diana as film noir! Or Who Is It either, though it leans more that way. That’s interesting. I’m going to have to think about that … There’s also something very noirish about the panther dance at the end of Black or White. The setting, for one thing – those gritty city streets – but more than that, the feeling of social alienation and being an “outsider,” as you mentioned before.
Nina: Well, in true postmodern fashion, Michael Jackson and his collaborators have taken a bricolage of stylistic elements, and “pastiched” them into tableaux and stories that resemble, on some level, existing cinematic genres; but they don’t function in the same ways that those feature-length cinematic works do. Still, we can explore how the detective, the hero/protagonist (but which one?), the femme fatale, and the unsettling urban atmosphere do function in Billie Jean.
Willa: Yes, I’d love to do that! So where would you like to start? At the beginning of the film and work through it chronologically?
Nina: Yes. The film starts out with a series of black-and-white shots, in closeup. The choice of black-and-white film here may have even been a self-conscious gesture, a sort of homage to noir aesthetics. We see a brick wall, a gloved hand against the wall, a man’s trouser leg and feet walking, a garbage can overflowing with papers and debris, a cat running, a man taking a drag off a cigarette, another shot of his wing-tip shoes stomping out the cigarette, and – a motif that recurs in several of Michael’s short films – a spinning coin.
What’s noteworthy here is that these are all fairly close-up shots; we don’t get a view of the whole space right away, but instead brief, almost abstract glimpses of things that foreshadow some of the motifs that will follow. They set up an atmosphere, and provide the allure of mystery and suspense – especially in conjunction with that unmistakable bass line that starts the song!
Willa: Yes, they really do. We, as an audience, are given a series of images that we try to fit together into something meaningful. It’s like we’re trying to piece the story together, just like the detective is doing. So in a way, even though we sympathize with Michael Jackson’s character, we’re also kind of aligned with the detective character. Like him, we’re watching in a kind of voyeuristic way, and maybe intruding into Michael Jackson’s life in ways that are uncomfortable for him.
And the fact that Billie Jean begins in black and white and then switches to color reminds me of Ghosts, another film about people invading his privacy and intruding into his life. In Ghosts, the initial scenes are all black and white, and then it switches to muted color when we enter the space of the Maestro – the space where he conducts his magic. Something kind of similar happens in Bad as well. The entire film is shot in black and white, except for the scenes in the subway station that are playing out in his imagination. So for Michael Jackson, black and white seems to represent “real life,” and color represents the world of magic, or his imagination. Kind of like The Wizard of Oz, where the Kansas scenes are all black and white, as compared to the full-color scenes in the land of Oz – or rather, the land of Dorothy’s imagination.
And of course, that holds true for Billie Jean as well: a lot of magic happens in the color scenes in Billie Jean …
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa – there does seem to be a pattern. And yet, the fictional space of the black-and-white scenes function differently in each film, I find. In Ghosts, for example, the trope of the townspeople and their Mayor, carrying torches, encountering a raven on a dilapidated signpost, descending on the “haunted house” that’s inhabited by a (possibly dangerous) madman seems to be more directly lifted from certain Gothic/horror B-movies from the 1950s.
Willa: Oh, I see. So more like The Revenge of Frankenstein than a noir film with Bogart and Becall.
Nina: In Billie Jean, I suspect the choice of using black-and-white film stock (a choice that was probably made by the director, Steve Barron, or another member of the crew) seems more haphazard. Another thing that’s noteworthy here: the entire image is framed by a white line, a frame-within-a frame. Why did they choose to do that? I can’t venture to say! Maybe we should ask Steve Barron….
Willa: I’m intrigued by that “frame-within-a-frame” also – it reminds me of photographs. They’re all presented as rectangles, proportioned like photographs and surrounded by a thin white line against a black background, as you say. They almost seem like shots you’d see in a police folder about a crime scene, or in a detective’s folder about the suspect he’s investigating. That resonates in an ironic way with the scenes later on where the detective keeps trying to take a picture of Michael Jackson’s character, and not succeeding.
Nina: Yes, it invokes an idea about a succession of still photographs. And this white outline will soon return, to be used in what seems a more purposeful way – breaking up the image into diptychs and triptychs – later on, when we see Michael dancing and singing “Billie Jean.”
In any case, we’re seeing the initial black-and-white images and at the same time hearing the intro to “Billie Jean,” with its unmistakable, insistent bass line and percussion. Then the synth comes in as an additional sound layer, playing those four syncopated notes that we recognize so clearly. As soon as Michael’s feet enter the picture, the film switches to color. We see a contrasting pair of two-tone wing-tip shoes. The familiar bass line comes in, and as we see Michael’s feet lighting up each square of the pavement, each of his footfalls is timed precisely with the rhythm of the music. A closeup of his hand: he throws the coin up and catches it, a perfect gesture of nonchalance that fits in with his character.
Willa: You’re right, Nina! I hadn’t noticed that before, but you’re right – it’s when he enters the picture that the film shifts to color. That seems significant … like when he appears, magic is about to happen. And it does. The concrete pavement squares glowing under his feet are an early indication of the magic he possesses. Maybe that’s why this reminds me of Ghosts …
Nina: Yes, that’s true, Willa! A bit about the mise-en-scène as a whole. (Mise-en-scène is a French term that means “putting in the scene”; it refers to everything that we can see happening in front of the camera, including the decor, the figures and their movements, costumes, makeup, lighting, etc.) Michael appears as a nattily-dressed young man who impresses us as a mysterious, slightly louche fellow, a layabout. He’s a type of hero (or antihero) from the past – despite his (almost) contemporary garb. He may be a lovable rake, but sad: he seems preoccupied, lost in thought, perhaps tragic. His evident magical powers don’t seem to bring him any joy. He saunters down the street, in no great hurry.
This character seems a familiar kind of figure to us. In fact, it’s not the first time Michael himself played this sort of cynical, world-weary “man-about-town.” Here he is in the Diana Ross TV special from 1971, doing his best imitation of Frank Sinatra with the song Sinatra made a hit, “It Was a Very Good Year”:
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? He looks exactly like a film noir detective … and acts like one, loving and leaving women without becoming emotionally attached to any of them. He even talks like one, telling Diana Ross’ character, “We’ve been taking a train to nowhere.” Of course, part of the humor is having a 12 year old talk this way …
Nina: And here’s the cover art for Frank Sinatra’s album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
This man is a “type” who occupies a certain place in our collective imagination – sometimes he has a jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and he stands under a street lamp, “loitering” – possibly up to no good. He is between engagements: coming from somewhere, and on his way to something else … but we don’t know what.
Willa: Yes, and in Billie Jean the detective definitely fits this type – and so does Michael Jackson’s character to some degree, though his character is more complicated, more difficult to pin down.
Nina: Yes. What’s he doing in that seedy neighborhood on the “other side of the tracks”? Where has he recently been? His presence there is a mystery.
Willa: It is.
Nina: Then the camera shows us Michael’s point of view, as it moves in upon the homeless man who’d been hidden behind a garbage can. At the same time, we hear the first verse:
She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “I don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round?”
She said, “I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round”
But at this point, we don’t see our protagonist singing synchronously with the song. Instead, he is silent: he looks quizzically at the homeless man and again we see a closeup of the spinning coin, which lands in the man’s cup and makes it glow. Michael seems to have transformed the pauper into another nattily-dressed caricature with a white suit, white dress shoes, and a red cummerbund. The film’s images prompt us to make connections – between characters, between events – by way of visual association, rather than by setting up a specific problem, or crime, that needs to be solved.
Willa: That’s true. The images we see aren’t acting out the words of the song, as videos often do. There is no “beauty queen” and no discotheque with a dance floor “in the round.” Instead of acting out the lyrics, something much more impressionistic is happening.
By the way, just listening to your description of the opening scenes of Billie Jean conjures up noir-type images in my head. I could very easily imagine those kinds of scenes in The Maltese Falcon, for example, or Gilda, which Michael Jackson referenced in This is It.
Nina: Yes – there are so many interesting points of connection! If Billie Jean were a feature-length film, then the “Billie Jean” number would just be one scene within the larger film. But because it’s a short film (and understood in the context of a “music video”) a different set of expectations govern what we perceive. At first, just a few simple images and the first notes of the song playing have established an atmospheric world that we’ll live in for the next few minutes, which poses the question of how these isolated elements will add up and become a story that’s about to unfold.
It’s a very neatly constructed introduction, with the edits of the film often coinciding with the beats of the music: notice how his first three footfalls correspond with the rhythms of the song.
Willa: Yes, I love that!
Nina: And while we may not know what’s “going on,” it’s not necessary to know. We encounter it as a “music video,” which means that the performance of the artist will be paramount – that’s really what we’re there for! Beyond that, the film establishes an atmosphere for us to revel in which, more than anything, might describe a dream that issues from our unconscious.
Willa: That’s interesting, Nina. And that way of suggesting a story through visual cues and juxtaposed images rather than direct narration feels psychologically accurate, if that makes sense. What I mean is, that seems to be the way the mind works, so Billie Jean seems to be expressing psychological truth – “a dream that issues from our unconscious,” as you said – rather than a conventional story with a more straightforward plot and narrative.
Nina: Yes, I think so. We find in our dreams some devices that can operate in a way that’s very similar to the flow of images in a film – especially if they appear somewhat disjointed, or out of sequence. Initially, our minds may work in this more associative way, until we engage in a process of “revision” (as Freud would put it), where we begin to remember our dreams as complete narratives, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Willa: I agree. It almost feels like we’re wandering around inside this character’s mind, inside his thoughts, as much as a real geographic place. And then from the collected images we’re shown – bits of memory, perhaps – we construct a narrative.
Nina: Yes. Plus, the film has so far shown us a handful of caricatures, like cartoons – all the more, because they appear in close up. In fact, the whole of this film could easily be translated to the medium of comic book or a graphic novel.
Willa: I can see that! I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And apparently Michael Jackson felt a connection between those two forms: comic books and films. It’s been well documented, in Frank Cascio’s book and other sources, that he wanted to buy Marvel comics and turn them into movies before anyone else had the idea for doing that. And like a comic book or graphic novel illustrator, Michael Jackson was very skilled at evoking a sense of intrigue or other powerful emotion with just a few well-crafted images.
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa. He had a real flair for being richly succinct. As you and Raven pointed out in your post a few weeks ago, just a few simple items – articles of clothing, images, gestures – and a whole flood of associations comes to us. These may include even associations we may not be aware we had, but they’re nonetheless lodged somehow in our collective cultural memory. Even if some people have never seen a movie they could identify as a “Film Noir,” we’ve all encountered so many posters, photographs, advertisements, cartoons, comics – a whole storehouse of visual information that trigger these associations. Michael Jackson, an avid movie aficionado, could tap into this rich repository like a great archivist. As you say, he was very adept at selecting a few of these motifs – and by placing them in new contexts, he created meanings that are very distinct from their original use.
The images of one cat chasing another cat are significant, because they introduce a parallel: just as one cat trails another, the detective trails Michael in a game of “cat and mouse” (or “cat and cat”). We never actually see the two animals framed together in the same shot, but through the magic of film editing (it’s called “cross-cutting”), we assume that it’s a setup of pursuer/pursued – just as the detective, in a more protracted way, stalks Michael. And in fact, only twice during the film do Michael and the detective appear in the same shot. But almost from the very beginning, we understand their relationship.
Willa: Oh, interesting! And that idea is reinforced by several subtle scenes throughout the video. At 1:10 minutes in, Michael Jackson’s character pulls out a tiger-striped cloth – just like the one in “Girl Hunt Ballet” that turns out to be an important clue for helping Fred Astaire’s character solve the murder mystery. In Billie Jean, he pulls out a similar tiger-striped cloth, puts his shoe on a trash can, polishes his shoe with the cloth, and then a tiger cub appears. So there’s a symbolic connection between the tiger-striped cloth and a real (is it real?) tiger.
A few seconds later, at 1:22, we flash back to that scene and then almost immediately, at 1:25, we see the “pursued” cat turn into the tiger cub behind the same trash can. At 2:50, the photographer picks up the tiger-striped cloth – just as Fred Astaire does in “Girl Hunt Ballet” – and smiles, thinking he’s about to capture his prey. But he’s wrong. He’s the one who’s captured. As the police take him away, he drops the tiger-striped cloth, which turns into the tiger cub and escapes. Tiles light up as the tiger runs away, just as the tiles lit up under Michael Jackson’s character at the beginning.
So as you were saying, Nina, there’s an implied connection throughout Billie Jean between the cat, Michael Jackson’s character, the tiger-striped cloth, and the tiger cub that escapes at the end, though it’s never explicitly stated or shown. We just feel a connection because of those associations.
Nina: I actually thought it was Michael’s character (as an invisible presence) lighting up the tiles in the end – it didn’t occur to me that it was the tiger cub. I’ll have to look for that next time!
Willa: Or maybe it’s his character in the form of a tiger cub – an invisible tiger cub.
Nina: At any rate, it’s true that many of the relationships, motifs, and themes of the film are set up within the first minute, or even the first thirty seconds! At the second verse, we finally see a more distant shot that reveals the whole street corner, with the detective skittering around, picking up a newspaper with the headline “Billie Jean Scandal,” and hiding around the corner of the store: “Ronald’s Drugs,” as the sign tells us, on the “West Side.” Another common motif in films noir is a newspaper headline that indicates some tragic or shocking event that has occurred, which signals a further development of the film’s plot. (That trope survives today in police procedural shows like Law and Order: “Ripped from the headlines!”)
The name “Billie Jean,” which we see in the headline, is reinforced by what we’re hearing in the second verse of the song:
She told me her name was Billie Jean, and she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed
Of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round
So this is where we come upon a way of viewing cinematic work that’s actually a departure from the ways we view more traditional narratives. It seems we’ll be wrestling with a conundrum: the flow of images seem to be “telling” us one thing, while the song’s first-person narration – as voiced by Michael – tells us another story.
This is one important element that distinguishes feature films from a short “music video” – filmmakers, writers, and cinematographers can play fast and loose with these sound-image relationships, with no obligation to “illustrate” the song by means of the image, or vice versa. Instead, they can make more abstract and associative connections than if they were hidebound by the conventions of the linear narrative development. So that’s how I view Billie Jean, as well as others of Michael’s short films. They bear some of the iconic marks of a number of narrative film genres (horror, noir, gangster, romantic costume drama, contemporary urban drama) and the mise-en-scène we often associate with these genres. But they do not work upon our minds and our viscera in all the same ways. Creative, plastic film editing (as we see in Billie Jean) is something an editor might choose to do, as much for its rhythmic and associative possibilities as for anything else.
As Michael ambles down the street with his jacket slung over his shoulder, we get seemingly random inserts of the cat, the detective’s face, and Michael’s shoe; we are seeing a landscape that represents Michael’s interior mind, or memory … or perhaps ours. But still, we’re not necessarily seeing any visual enactment or “dramatization” of what Michael sings about.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. The song and the video really are telling different stories, aren’t they? Or maybe the same story from different perspectives – the song focuses more on Billie Jean’s treacherous actions, while the video focuses more on him navigating a treacherous world. But the song and the video “fit” together so well, it feels right to see those images with those words.
Nina: The image and the sound are glued together by the coincident rhythms that both establish: Michael’s footsteps, lighting the tiles, are timed to fall exactly upon the major beat of the music. As he puts his foot up and cleans his shoe with a rag, we see further evidence of his seemingly magical ability to light things up and transform them. Then the song’s bridge:
People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful who you love
Be careful what you do, ’cause a lie becomes the truth …
What appears to be “happening” in the image, and the situation that Michael describes in the song, will pull us in different directions. It’s like two stories are going on simultaneously. We haven’t seen any women, much less any beauty queens.
Willa: That’s true. The only women we see are the two women in the shifting images on the billboard. And they could be Billie Jean and My Baby, the two women in conflict in the lyrics, but there’s really nothing to suggest that other than our own desire to make meaning from the images we see. It’s interesting, though, that the billboard dominates the scene, just as these women are dominating his thoughts. In fact, at one point, at 2:14 minutes in, he stares at the billboard and then puts his hands to his head, as if he can’t contain his thoughts.
Nina: That’s so true, Willa – we have a strong desire to make meaning from the images we see, and from the words we hear, and to connect the two. When we hear a song, we form mental images of the people, places, and events that the lyrics describe. When we watch Billie Jean as a film, we are presented with an entirely different set of images of the people, places, and events that we formed in our imagination. This could present us with a major conflict! But for the most part, we’re not aware of anything particularly jarring – we simply learn to prioritize all the information that’s coming to us, and “suspend our disbelief”! We can even tolerate a certain amount of confusion.
Willa: Yes, though I never realized until you pointed it out how much the images in the video differ from the lyrics. That’s really interesting. But while the story told by the song and the story told by the video aren’t the same, they do seem related. They both center around a false accusation of sexual impropriety – a woman named Billie Jean is accusing him of fathering her son. In the song, we’re told that story through the lyrics, and in the video, we see it in that newspaper headline you mentioned before: “Billie Jean Scandal.” The song focuses primarily on his relationship with Billie Jean and the woman he loves (My Baby), their intertwined history, and the conflicts between them, while the video takes a different approach. It shows a detective who seems to be trying to gather information to support Billie Jean’s claims. So the stories they tell seem different but connected.
Nina: Yes, the stakes of the film have dramatically changed from those of the song. Michael Jackson and Steve Barron may have wanted to “triangulate” the dispute that started out with only two people, as a kind of he said/she said situation. The detective is introduced as a third element.
Michael then leans against a lamppost (lighting it up), still oblivious to the presence of the detective who is right behind him. This is where we see a Polaroid camera in the window of Ronald’s Drugs, spitting out a photograph in which Michael – to the detective’s consternation – doesn’t appear. We hear the chorus:
Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
She says I am the one
But the kid is not my son
Then the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.
Willa: Wow, this is all so fascinating, Nina! And we’ll pick up with that new chapter in another post, when we continue taking a cinematographic look at Billie Jean. Thank you so much for joining me, Nina! And for sharing those wonderful movie stills.
Nina: My pleasure, Willa – and thanks so much!
Willa: You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.
Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:
Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.
So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.
Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?
Willa: No, I didn’t!
Lisha: According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Willa: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:
I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.
And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.
Lisha: Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.
Willa: That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.
Lisha: Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.
Willa: Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”
Willa: That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.
So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.
Lisha: Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.
I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?
Lisha: I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?
Willa: Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….
Lisha: I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.
I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:
Willa: Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.
You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?
I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.
Lisha: Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”
Willa: Really? That is too funny!
Lisha: I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.
But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …
I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.
Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?
Lisha: Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.
Willa: Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”
Lisha: That’s a good way of describing it.
Willa: They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.
Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.
Lisha: Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.
Lisha: And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.
Willa: I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.
One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:
And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.
And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.
Lisha: You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.
I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.
I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.
Willa: That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:
Willa: Oh, and the spins as well! Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)
You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”
Lisha: It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:
So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.
Lisha: At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”
Willa: Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.
But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.
Lisha: I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.
Willa: That’s a good description.
Lisha: But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:
Willa: That’s a great clip, Lisha! And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.
And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:
I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?
Lisha: That scene is painful to watch, for sure.
Willa: It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.
Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.
It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.
Lisha: Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha! And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:
But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there? Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.
Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.
Lisha: It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:
Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha! I’d never made those connections before.
Lisha: Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted! Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.
Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it. So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.
Lisha: I would love to! Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.Special Note:
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.