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I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 2

Joie:  Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.

So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.

He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!

Willa:  They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.

And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.

I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.

Joie:  Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.

Willa:  I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again:  with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.

Joie:  Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.

But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.

So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.

Joie:  Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.

Willa:  I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.

Joie:  Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.

Willa:  Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.

Joie:  It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.

Willa:  I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.

Joie:  And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.

Willa:  Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.

Joie:  Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.

Willa:  Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.

Joie:  By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.

In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.

The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.

Joie:  That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.

Willa:  They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.

And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.

Joie:  I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.

Willa:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?

But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.

So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.

I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.

But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”

As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”

You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.

Willa:  I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.

I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.


One More Look at One More Chance

Joie:  So, you know how sometimes you get this idea in your head about something and your mind is made up. But then you stumble upon new information and suddenly that thing you were so certain about just takes on brand new meaning? Well, that’s what happened to me and my view of Michael Jackson’s One More Chance video.

This time
Gonna do my best to make it right.
Can’t go on without you by my side.
Come and rescue me out of this storm
Get out of this cold, I need someone.
(If you see her)
Tell her this for me:
All I need is
One more chance at love….

This R. Kelly ballad is a really beautiful song sung to perfection by Michael, and when it was released on 2003’s Number Ones, I loved it instantly. And after Michael died and the Estate announced that they would be including the long-lost video for this song on the much anticipated Vision box set, I was ecstatic that we would finally get the chance to see Michael’s last short film.
But once the video collection was released and I eagerly sat down to devour it, my excitement was short lived. I have to admit, I did not love the video. I didn’t even like it. Not even a little bit. Where was Michael? The setting was gorgeous and romantic, the premise – with the audience on the stage – was unusual and intriguing, the song was beautiful and one of my favorites. But where was Michael in the video? It was all seemingly shot either totally from behind him or at really weird angles, his face – and therefore, his amazingly expressive eyes that I love – completely hidden from view. And in fact, the video even sparked some debate at MJFC as to whether it was even Michael at all. Perhaps it was merely a body double, a really good MJ impersonator! I was so disappointed. Just between you and me… I often get into my comfy sweats, fire up the DVD player and snuggle in with my Vision box set when I have a free afternoon. But honestly, the One More Chance video was one that I would frequently skip over.
And then recently I stumbled upon an article published just after the Vision box set was released in November of 2010. The article was written by journalist Charles Thomson and titled, “One More Chance: The Dream That Turned into a Nightmare.” Now I have to make a confession here:  this article actually came across my inbox shortly after it was published but, things have a way of getting very busy for me with MJFC and my everyday life (and now I’m dancing with elephants too!) so, I set it aside with the intentions of reading it later. Well, “later” turned into much later and, I’m ashamed to say, I just recently found it sitting in my “To Do” folder. So I took a few moments and read it. And boy…. did it change EVERYTHING!
In writing this article, Charles Thomson researched the video thoroughly, speaking to Michael’s publicist and his manager at the time as well as several of the crew members and extras who worked on the video, and in doing so, he gives us a peek into where Michael Jackson’s life was at the time this video was created. And it is that context, that knowledge that puts this entire video in a whole new light for me. I look at the video with new eyes now and, whereas before it really held no connection for me at all, now I have such an emotional attachment to this video and it holds so much meaning for me.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie. My initial response to the One More Chance video was much more positive than yours, though I know what you mean about “where’s Michael?” And my response to Thomson’s article was much less positive. I appreciate all the background information Thomson provides, and it’s definitely an article worth reading, but I thoroughly disagree with his interpretation and assessment of this video.  

Like you, I thought “One More Chance” was a beautiful love song and was eager to see the video, and like you I watched it as soon as the Vision DVDs came out. And I was surprised – it wasn’t at all what I was expecting – but I loved it. As often happens with Michael Jackson’s videos, it led me to completely rethink my ideas about this song and opened up a whole new way of interpreting it. Now I see “One More Chance” as much more than a love song. Responding to it as a beautiful love ballad is still there for me and still valid, but other interpretations have become apparent to me as well. And frankly, I think Thomson’s interpretation completely misses the boat.

In his article Thomson writes rather critically of the video’s concept:

The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for “one more chance at love.” The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared to be more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion into Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s videos – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.

Thomson is right to some extent:  if we see “One More Chance” simply as a love song, then the video doesn’t make much sense and the “set-up seem[s] to have little correlation with the song.” But I disagree with Thomson’s interpretation. I don’t think the point of this video is show “a crowd of bystanders . . . transfixed by his heartbreak.” Jackson doesn’t treat the on-stage audience in this video like intrusive voyeurs, that isn’t the mood he creates here – the mood is much more celebratory than that – and that isn’t what this video says to me. As you know, Joie, I’m all for multiple interpretations, and I think any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence from the work, but I see very little evidence to support Thomson’s interpretation.

But what if we approach this video like the My Baby songs and view it more metaphorically? In his videos, Michael Jackson frequently parallels the relationship between a man and his lover with that of a performer and his audience. What if we view One More Chance that way? What if he isn’t talking to an ex-girlfriend, but to us, his audience? What if he’s telling us, his audience, that the false allegations and misunderstandings and years of bad press have been terrible for him – it “Hurts so bad sometimes it’s hard to breathe” – but he’s ready to try again, despite everything, and he wants us to give him “one more chance?”

As Thomson writes in his article, Michael Jackson made this video at an important turning point in his life. He was planning to make a fresh start in film, and saw this as a new beginning to his career. So maybe he’s telling us, his audience, that “This time / Gonna do my best to make it right.” Maybe the reason he set up the video with an audience on stage is because he’s talking directly to us, his audience, when he says “All I need is / One more chance.” If we view it that way, this video makes perfect sense. And the fact that the police raided his home the very next day is heartbreaking.

Joie:  It is heartbreaking. Thomson explains that with “One More Chance” – the single and the video – Michael was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony and CBS. Once they were completed, Michael was done. He was freeing himself from his contract with Sony and preparing to move on to bigger and better things. He was tired of touring and he wanted to venture into the realm of film. Ironically, something he tried to do in 1993 but couldn’t once the first allegations happened. So, in the video, that last shot of him turning his back on the audience and walking out of the frame with a smile on his face, was very symbolic of the transition he was about to make. He was walking away from the music industry and walking toward his long-harbored dreams of making movies. All he needed was “one more chance.”
And, in answer to my question of “where is Michael,” Thomson tells us that the video was purposely shot from behind Michael in order to track his movements more fluidly. The following day, they were all set to capture the frontal shots and close ups of Michael doing his thing. But that never happened because the following morning came the bad news that the police were raiding the Neverland Ranch for the second time. And I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the song itself:

‘Bout to strike and rain only on me.
Hurts so bad sometime its hard to breathe.

I imagine those lyrics mirror what Michael must have been feeling when he got the news and realized that his dreams were being snatched away for the second time.

Willa:  Those are good points, and I really do appreciate all the background information Thomson provides. It’s really deepened my understanding of this video. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Thomson simply because One More Chance has become very special to me. Just the idea of Michael Jackson in pain but ready to try again and asking us for “one more chance” is incredibly poignant. And then the conclusion of the video is so moving, and very motivating for me personally. At the end, he has left the room, but his audience is still on stage. It’s up to us now. He’s no longer here, but we are – we’re the ones left on stage – and we’re the ones who have to act to preserve his legacy and “help these mysteries unfold.”
Joie:  I think you are being hard on Thomson. I don’t think he really offered any sort of interpretation of the video at all. I think he was merely just giving us the set up, explaining the premise, if you will. But I don’t think his one-sentence assessment of the premise of the video was ever intended to be viewed as an interpretation.
But I do understand your readiness to defend something you love. As you said, this particular video has become very special to you so, wanting to explain it and possibly make others love it as much as you do is only natural. I feel the same way about a certain ballad from the Michael album that you and I violently disagree on but, we’ll save that for another discussion!

Willa:  Joie! That is just wicked. You really aren’t going to let me forget about that are you? Oh well, I guess I deserve it. (Heavy sigh). You really are just too funny sometimes. . .
Joie:  Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But this video is as special to you as that song is to me so, I understand how you feel about it.
Willa:  So here’s some exciting news. Joie is flying to Montreal this morning to see a sneak preview of Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and next week she’ll tell us all about it!