Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I am currently watching an entertaining and well made Young Adult TV series – Dwight in Shining Armor. In one episode a random character, a history teacher, declares, “History is the story we tell about the events we have chosen to remember”. A nicely succinct formulation. No doubt a script writer who was dying to get this observation onto screen somehow!

Foucault, of course, made this point continuously throughout all his works.

Categories: TV

Weapon of Choice is a short 3 minute video clip of a Fatboy Slim track directed by Spike Jonze.

I wrote this review back in 2002 for my defunct Walken Works site when the internet was still fun and starting to emerge from its wild and woolly experimental frontiers. This video, which of course predates YouTube, was immensely popular at the time. When it was originally released it was played continually on television (I recorded it for repeat viewing with my trusty VHS recorder), provoked imitations, early internet memes and other ‘homages’. On YouTube, the official video currently has a staggering 61.8 million views, indicating its continuing popularity as do the comments attached to the video as well as any number of continuing parodies and memes elsewhere. It enjoyed a further renaissance when it was restored in 4K high definition in 2021 and its longevity can be seen in an informative April 2022 article on the Radio X site.

I have uploaded my review here with a few minor edits and updates. At the time, I had a fairly comprehensive list of links to reviews and other material associated with this video but the majority of them have all long gone – even on the wayback machine – except for a BBC site announcing awards for the video. One or two comprehensive reviews that still remain are interesting in that they display a style of internet review writing that has already disappeared into the mists of time.
Review by Marc Weidenbaum, 1 August 2001.

Wikipedia has some useful additional information on the video. If anyone can update me on any of the sources missing below, let me know.

A jaded businessman (Christopher Walken) sits in a hotel lobby with his baggage beside him, slumped weary and defeated in his chair. A vacuum cleaner hums drearily in the background. The man becomes aware of music coming from a radio perched on a cleaning trolley. He nods discreetly in time with the music, then stands swaying slightly. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he launches into a dance. He dances energetically up and down the escalator, races down the concourse, does a cartwheel with no hands, leaps onto a table kicking away the brochures and smiling with enjoyment. He dances down a corridor of mirrors into the lift and dives over a mezzanine railing and flies around the hall, hanging for a moment in front of a large painting of a boat at sea with a look of sheer elation on his face. Then he comes back down to earth, quite literally, and after standing briefly considering his wild moment of freedom, he returns wearily to his chair and his bleak cogitations.

This is one of my favourite Walken performances. For many people, it is such an unexpected departure from their clichéd view of Walken as villain, they simply cannot believe they are actually seeing him performing, and have speculated that they are either seeing a stand in or clever CGI effects. There are indeed a couple of moments which feature stand ins, when he jumps off the table – which Walken was unable to do because of his knees, the dive over the balcony and the cartwheel. But he was certainly performing on the wires and it was reported at the time that he got some quite bad bruising from the wires. He said nothing about this but the bruises were noticed in the dressing room. [Unfortunately my source for this anecdote is long gone from the net]. When this video first appeared on screens in shopping centres and stores, people would stop and stare, transfixed by its sheer bizarre uniqueness. Such was the impact of the video that free-to-air TV Channel 9 in Australia paid homage to it in its station advertisement for 2002. This station filler used the Fatboy Slim music, a large Sydney hotel and featured the various newsreaders, other stars and mainstays of Channel 9 whom one would never expect to see dancing. They danced on tables kicking away the brochures, danced near lifts and did cartwheels (or at least the stand-ins did!) and danced down stairs and in lobbies.

Walken, in fact, had had a long history as a dancer, learning tap from an early age and dancing impressively in such films as Puss in Boots and Pennies From Heaven. His first work was almost exclusively in musical theatre before moving on to serious acting in the late sixties. He can also be seen dancing in episodes of Saturday Night Live, notably in 1992 in an extravagent and most entertaining set with multiple partners, including the mock reluctant producer of the show, all to Irving Berlin’s standard ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’. Indeed, it was seeing Walken dancing on Saturday Night Live that gave the director Spike Jonze the idea of filming him. Walken has often taken the opportunity to perform a few dance steps in his other films as well.

Weapon of Choice was directed by Spike Jonze who has directed numerous other video clips and films, notably Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). It won a well deserved six MTV awards in 2001 and also won best video of all time in April 2002, in a list of the top 100 videos of all time, compiled from a survey of musicians, directors and music industry figures conducted by a UK music TV channel VH1. Walken has also commented in interviews that it has been the most popular thing that he has ever done. The music itself is not particularly memorable. The clip features a slightly shorter and slower rendition of the version that appears on the single and the album Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. The music was also mixed slightly differently for the 2021 restoration. The video was shown on large screens in art galleries and at film festivals in 2003 and 2004 as part of the now defunct Resfest and at other special exhibitions. It toured to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, where I had the chance to see it. It transferred superbly to the large screen.

It is extraordinary what Walken manages to fit into a mere three minutes. First of all, there is a virtuoso and energetic exhibition of tap dancing, particularly impressive for a man of his age (58). He is hyper-flexible, very comfortable and at home in his own body, which gives the whole performance a wonderful freedom and naturalness. It is also a performance which features that unique and arresting blend of anarchy, energy and discipline so characteristic of Walken’s best work. His use of props such as luggage trolleys and fixtures such as escalators and tables is also fun. In addition, as he mentioned on the Conan O’Brien show, one of his moves was inspired by watching racoons near his house in Connecticut. Then there is a whole story about a man who has become trapped by the choices he has made. He fantasises about how things could have been – could still be – if only he had the courage to choose differently, but in the end, resigned to his fate, he settles back into despair.

The Marriott hotel in Los Angeles where this was filmed, provides an imposing example of modern corporate interior design and takes on a vaguely sinister aspect in the dim lighting. This provides an interesting contrast to the camera work which is energetic and discreetly playful. Incidentally, the double mirrored walls were built by the film makers for the video.

Technical note
On the technical front, Audrey Doyle describes the role of computer software in the creation of the video: [again, the source for this has long gone from the net].

Combustion also played a major role at Sea Level on the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” In this video, actor Christopher Walken is seen dancing à la Fred Astaire, while diving, flipping and floating in the air in a hotel lobby. Walken’s dance moves necessitated the use of numerous wires as well as six large support towers and a steel-crossing infrastructure that supported the wires. Because digital removal of all this equipment from the backplates would have been too cumbersome, Sea Level re-created the lobby in 3D in inferno. Walken was then extracted from the original footage in combustion, and composited into the 3D lobby in inferno.

“This work was fairly complex because there was a lot of perspective change, with Walken coming pretty close to the camera, then moving away from the camera, and then spinning around,” says Sea Level’s Bruno.’

A DVD of the clip was released as part of a compilation of a number of Spike Jonze’s music videos and other short films. There is the added bonus of a commentary by Walken marking his first – and perhaps only – DVD commentary.

This is not strictly speaking a music video, but a scene from a film set to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Ballad of Thin Man’. It appears in Todd Hayne’s highly creative 2007 biopic I’m not there about Bob Dylan. Six different actors play six different characters, representing Dylan at different stages of his life and career. None of these characters actually bear Dylan’s name.

Cate Blanchett plays the character ‘Jude Quinn’ – a 1960s folk singer – who abandons his folk roots for electric rock music which his fans see as a betrayal. Blanchett is thoroughly convincing and engaging as Bob Dylan and gets the gestures and attitude just right. Todd Haynes remarks: “I know a lot of people would have preferred to just watch the Cate Blanchett Dylan the whole way through.” I have to admit that I’m one of those people. I found the other performances and segments of the film somewhat less interesting.

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ also happens to be my favourite Dylan song (I’m not otherwise a fan). The version for the film is sung by Stephen Malkmus and is very close to the original. The underrated Bruce Greenwood also offers a fine performance as a BBC journalist, Keenan Jones. Incidentally, Bruce Greenwood appeared in two very watchable science fiction series in the 1990s – Nowhere Man and Sleepwalkers – both disappointingly cancelled after one season. Nowhere Man, included liberal “hommages” to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

But to return to the video. There is quite a bit of historical information concerning various incidents in Dylan’s career packed into the visuals. At one point, there is an allusion to members of the Black Panther party playing the song in an endless loop, convinced the lyrics addressed racism. There have in fact been numerous interpretations of what the lyrics might mean, but perhaps the most obvious reading is that they are reflective of that famous trope of the 1960s: the ‘generation gap’, between an older conservative generation and a younger, rebellious, more socially conscious generation. There’s also a fair serving of another sixties trope – a particular form of surrealist imagery. This is rendered and updated very nicely in the film with Greenwood providing a subtle and layered performance in the midst of this.

In short, the performances, imagery, the distancing monochrome and sarcastic strength of the music and lyrics make this wonderful sequence eminently suitable for repeat viewing.

David Beer provides some really useful quick tips on writing on his blog The Fragment.

19 very brief thoughts on writing. Not rules, guidance or advice, just some thoughts.

I particularly like these tips:

    9. If you aren’t enjoying the writing, change the writing plan to bring forward a project you will enjoy (or, alternatively, adapt the thing being written to make it more engaging).

    10. Have a writing plan that prioritises topics that make writing enjoyable.

    11. Enjoying the writing makes for better outcomes.

    12. Plan the writing to give you a reason to read the things you most want to read.

Applying a Marxist framework, this could be described as a story of the alienation of the worker in an industrial and urbanised consumer society. This wonderfully directed video/short film features a very strong central performance, striking characterisation of the car factory robots and seamless special effects. The driving industrial music perfectly sets the tone of an overwhelming anxiety crowding out all space to think.

It opens with an aerobics class – so far, so music video – an expression of the entrepreneurial self – striving for the perfect fit body, aimed at the voyeuristic consumer. But this is a video that bites back. The shot quickly pans out to show a man watching the class on multiple television screens in a shop window. One of the aerobics performers addresses him directly, soundlessly telling him in no uncertain terms where to go. The warm embrace of voyeuristic consumerism is not for him.

We see the man’s unease as he turns up for his factory job supervising car robots, an unease that ramps up another level after he has an implied work accident which leaves his arm in a cast. Walking down to the Thames, to take some time out from the urban streetscape, he encounters a factory robot drinking from the water like a predator in the wild. The predator menacingly turns him to face him as he decides to beat a hasty retreat.

Back at home, alone in his tiny dreary flat, the head of the robot smashes through the bathroom window – only to disappear again, leaving the man to examine the window once again intact. Out in the street, the robot starts to intrude on his everyday activities. Desperate, he turns to his unsympathetic boss at work who unceremoniously fires him. The situation worsens as the robot starts to appear everywhere, in the tube, in the street, until finally the man runs down the streets with the robot in full pursuit, trampling over a car. He ends up distraught sitting on the ground in a back street, surrounded by robots which remain invisible to the onlooker. There is no happy ending to his situation.

What adds to the menace of the robots is their physical interaction with the man’s real environment, drinking from the water, smashing through a bathroom window and stepping on a car which moves under the impact.

When I have shown this video to students and asked for their views, I have found the response that it is about a man having a mental breakdown, deeply frustrating. I have been similarly irritated by some viewers’ interpretation of Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko as a film about mental illness – rather than science fiction. It is this ambiguity that the director clearly wanted to clear up in producing his extended director’s cut.

It has taken me a while to analyse this annoyance. It has to do with the historical distinction Michel Foucault draws between madness and its gradual transformation into mental illness in the nineteenth century, in his 1961 work History of Madness. He argues that this transformation silences the voice and truth – and ultimately the suffering – of madness and reduces it to a pathology. Once madness is reduced to a pathology, it can no longer communicate truths about various aspects of human existence to others. It just becomes the object of science and medicine, an abherration that needs treatment and elimination – it is reduced and completely muzzled by the calm order of reason. But as we all know, particularly in a pandemic age, that orderly and narrow dream of control is no more than an illusion.

I remember my introduction to New Order when I was living in Paris in the early 1980s. The FM radio band had just been deregulated and anybody at all could set up a radio station. I had two favourites: Radio Nova which played a lot of non mainstream music – including Australian music and La Voix du lézard which played a lot of new wave (including other favourites such as Depeche Mode and PIL (Public Image Limited). Blue Monday, of course, is a towering classic of 1980s electronic dance music.

I really like this 2016 version using 1930s instruments. The video is nicely done, featuring shady, masked, dinner-suited characters playing in what one might imagine to be some grimy, decadent, illegal Berlin backstreet cabaret in the limbo between the two World Wars. The use of unusual instruments such as zither, musical saw, crystal classes and theramin to recreate some of the electronic effects in the original is wonderful. The stuck gramaphone record is a nice touch too. The level of thought and expertise that went into creating this version is quite something. I’d love to see this group do more of this kind of work, but this seems to be a one off.

One can usefully apply the idea of palimpsest when it comes to listening to certain cover versions of well-known originals. The original is carved into your listening memory and the cover version and interpretation comes to overlay the original, creating a multi-faceted subjective music experience in the listener, operating reciprocally between the original and the cover.

This version is a fabulous musical palimpsest.

It is hard to appreciate now how innovative Kraftwerk were in their early days (and indeed in their later days!) and the sheer effort and technical expertise it took to produce this music. You can see the concentrated effort of the musicians here as they perform this great version of their classic track ‘Autobahn’. It’s also a good demonstration of some of the excellent atmospheric cinematography that you see showcasing some live music performances in the 1960s and 1970s. One shot I particularly like here is the closeup of the cables moving as the electronic drumsets are being played. The musicians’ names in futuristic neon is a nice touch as well.

The future that never happened…

What immediately struck me about this video is that, counter to so many other music videos, the women are not hyper sexualised. Judging from the comments on YouTube however, this artist hasn’t maintained this stance, which a number of the commenters have found deeply disappointing. I haven’t investigated further, preferring to maintain my illusions, restricting my interpretation to just this one work.

The setting is an asylum boasting the cryptic title of ‘The Palace of the Dogs’, with a pre-title explaining ‘Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices’. The inmates – far from the usual shambolic and miserable stereotype of the interned mad person are a voluntarily disciplined and cheerful group dressed and coiffed with extreme elegance. Everybody – male and female – is wearing a black and white tuxedo and two toned shoes or is dressed in simple black – with the one exception of the asylum nurse who is dressed in white. The mysterious otherworldly wardens are dressed in long flowing black robes with nothing but a sinister mirror for a face beneath their hoods. The dancing and choreography are superb, the black and white design striking, and the dance music builds as it goes along. There are more than a few elements of Michael Jackson ‘hommage’ of course. Like many music videos, the lyrics of the song have little to do with the video and the story it is telling. The video tells a far more interesting story than the song and music do.

The performance of the residents is not the sad madness of the Carnival of the mad. It is a counter-disicipline fully enacted and chosen by the residents. It is their exit and resistance from the disciplinary institution of confinement, but they are ultimately defeated and separated as indicated by the main character being returned to her cell by the alien warders after a magical escape to the outside generated by art and artistic skill. The asylum stands in for so many social institutions with the inhuman masters delegating duties to members of the incarcerated community. The nurse cannot help but participate from the sidelines in the dance fest she is observing – she can never be entirely separate.

I’ve decided to add a new category to this blog – music videos. Music videos can be extremely rich art forms with so much packed into a short time frame.

The Avalanches are an Australian electronic group based in Melbourne. This particular video deservedly won the video of the year award at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2001. It is a perfect example of how, in the short space of less than 5 minutes, a perfectly structured concept, short story and wonderful performances can have a major impact on the viewer. The numerous comments in response to the video on YouTube testify to this.

The video works at so many levels. The trapped miners with their still healthy clichéed singing canary in the background, find an unexpected trapdoor and emerge from their monochrome underground into what they see as a wonderful paradise of colour and glamour. But the audience sees only a rather tawdry dance hall with a couple of young wannabes in 1970s dance attire performing without an audience to two aging and bored judges. The miners, unfit, overweight and dirty are initially seen as interlopers but after a faltering start the older miner proves an unexpected virtuoso of dance and the miners bring an unexpected light into the world of both dancers and judges. All parties have benefitted.

On offer in this short video is a layered set of metaphors dealing with the transition to the afterlife, friendship, grief and loss, indeed a metaphor for life itself – the first tentative steps and then a magnificently played out performance in obscurity to only a very few who judge and participate in its virtuosity and then both celebrate and grieve at its end and loss. There is an evocative blend of time periods – vaguely early to mid twentieth century miners and 1970s disco meet in this strange hidden heteroptian space.

The music itself is entirely composed of samples and has the retro nostalgic and bitter sweet cheery echoes of so many obscure and forgotten dance halls. The title of the song, ‘Since I left you’ exists in Magritte-like dissonance with the sampled song ‘Since I met you’, adding further to the richness and ambiguity of the text.

In short, a wonderfully evocative piece.

In recent years, I, like many others, have noticed that criticism and critical intellectuals have been steadily pathologised as unduly negative and hence in need of therapy and psychological intervention. It’s a very effective way of silencing the critique of institutions and social conditions.

It remains to be seen how this trend will play out in a post Covid world. A number of governments, politicians and social institutions are now engaging in what I would call head in the sand and wishful-thinking governance. If we pretend the problems surrounding Covid are not there, they will magically go away and we will return to the morally and socially bankrupt reign of neo-liberalism that worked well for the proponents of this wishful thinking strategy. If we think positively we can have everything back! But this kind of thinking is premised on the idea that the old status quo worked for everyone. Many have no wish to return to the strictures of a ‘2019 normal’.

I am currently re-reading Svend Brinkmann’s excellent 2014 manifesto (2017 in English): Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement craze. He proposes a number of principles loosely derived from Stoic philosophy to counter the endless incitements towards self-development, self entrepreneurship and a no holds barred positivity. He notes:

‘Barbara Held posits an alternative to coercive positivity -namely complaining…. Life is hard … but this isn’t our real problem. The real problem is that we are forced to pretend that life isn’t hard…. The freedom to grumble comes from the ability to face reality and accept it as it is. It endows you with a type of human dignity, in stark contrast with the terminally positive individual who zealously insists that there’s no such thing as bad weather (just inappropriate clothing). Well actually, Mr. Happy, bad weather is real – and when it’s real it’s nice to be able to complain from the warmth of the pub.” (p. 39)

He makes the very important point that complaint focuses on what is external to us – weather, oppressive work practices, the cost of living and so on, whereas the philosophy of blanket positivity is directed inwards. It’s not the weather that’s bad, it’s that we’re not dressed properly for it. Underpaid at work? Think positively, work harder, get promoted, change your job, change your attitude. One can of course list numerous other examples.

The idea, of course, is not to indulge in a maudlin gloom fest but to recognise real external constraints and act with dignity and integrity – two words that recur in Brinkmann’s book – in solidarity with other humans to better external conditions where possible and adapt where not. Positive thinking and the ‘law of attraction’ are the illusion of an infinitely powerful self and self-will. Covid-19 and its endless variants (Deltacron anyone?) and environmental degradation are a pointed reminder of the limitations of the human will in making itself centre and arbiter of all existence.

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