A Toast to the Douchebag

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Al Bell on Kanye West’s music-video-cum-art-film, Runaway

The first scene of Kanye West’s thirty four minute long music video Runaway shows the artist running desperately through a flaming forest, while a Mozart Requiem plays. One YouTube viewer comments that this is, “probably because he thinks he’s the Mozart of our time”.

Its length and recent premiere in a cinema in New York City suggest that the movie is intended as a more serious artistic endeavour than West’s usual fare – that he sees it as a masterpiece, of sorts. It’s full of perplexing imagery, extravagant visuals and lots of things exploding in slow motion. In this new medium, though, Kanye doesn’t articulate the same novelty and creativity with which his music has garnered acclaim. Even so, its hard to look away, perplexed by the psychology of a man who would herald with such pomp and circumstance his foray into territory in which he is quite frankly not at home.

With the obviously large budget and West himself clearly on display, is it possible to see the movie as anything other than a self-aggrandizing gesture?

Summarizing the plot of his movie in what seems like a serious interview in New York magazine, Kanye says, “It’s the story of a phoenix fallen to Earth, and I make her my girlfriend, and people discriminate against her and eventually she has to burn herself alive and go back to her world.” *eye roll*.

If, like me, you hadn’t read Kanye’s synopsis before watching the movie, the flaming creature falling from the sky would surely evoke the thought of Icarus – a myth somewhat more relevant than the Phoenix to Kanye, chiding the sort of arrogance that leads one to over-step one’s limits. For a moment, then, one entertains the idea that Kanye is being graciously self-deprecating, giving a nod to his abrasive and ill-advised public actions. But I don’t think Kanye’s up on his mythology..

West touts Runaway as genuine artistic expression, so we can assume it  aims at truths at least more universal than the glitz and glamour that accompanies his identity as popstar; there’s even a thinly veiled ‘thesis statement’, delivered by Kanye’s phoenix-girlfriend: “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change. You try to tear it down.”

But the movie is undeniably superficial, all highly sumptuous visuals, distinctly foregrounded. There’s a clear emphasis on fashion and design; West is never without a well-tailored suit, there’s a decadence implied in every highly stylized scene. The video indulges in aesthetic extravagance so seriously, that one can’t overlook it as irony: it seems to be the point of the whole thing. And perhaps it is; Kanye says he was “mostly inspired by colour” and that the “main meaning of the film is just express yourself”. I suppose that’s alright, but it seems an awfully hackneyed idea to spend huge amounts of money on and to frame it as serious art.

At one point, Kanye and his ‘girlfriend’ go to a dinner party in an empty warehouse, where all the guests wear white and a guy who looks like Michael Jordan asks Kanye if he knows that the naked woman is “a bird”. Kanye quickly steps up to a piano close at hand and with a little tingling on the keys, he summons an entire dance company, clad in black, who engage in hybrid of ballet and modern choreography.
It all looks great, and the styling is influenced by the performance works of artist Vanessa Beecroft, whose pieces often involve large groups of naked women subject to humiliating voyeurism from gallery goers. Beecroft herself is criticised for engaging in the objectification she critiques, rather hindering the feminist cause she promotes. For Kanye to quote her ideas, he had better be doubly sure he isn’t propagating any sexism himself, which he certainly is: the camera lingers over thrusting hips and flexible limbs, objectified bodies, panning back now and again to reveal the mass of writhing dancers conducted by Kanye’s travails at the piano. It’s a textbook example of the Male Gaze in cinema. What’s more, that he is depicted as a sort of shaman, inciting ritualistic movement (only in women, no less) is a testament to West’s egotism, certainly a central, if unintended theme of Runaway.

If nothing else, the project does yield some beautiful visuals, (too) often sustained by slow-motion shots as if to remind viewers to behold the artistry offered to them. It has been suggested that there is a wealth of illuminati and satanic imagery. A youtube comment stresses that, “if you listen closely, there are times where he says stuff like ‘I see the devil’ amongst loud drum beats so you cannot understand it that well. But he is still a dope rapper”. Though what West would have hoped to achieve by including this I couldn’t say.

Though the movie doesn’t make much of its self-conscious artistry, the music that accompanies it is excellent. Whatever deficiency can be attributed to West’s visual ideas, he redeems himself tenfold in the realm of his production. Dabbling in the experimental, sampling Bon Iver and building weighty beats around simple melodies, every track in the video is certainly captivating. That being said, I have misgivings about praising a man like West; watching him perform the single Runaway (around which the rest of the movie is fleshed out) on Saturday Night Live, it’s obvious that he has unshakeable belief in his brilliance. He recoiled from the piano after hitting each note with an outstretched finger, as if the sound he had produced was so lethally good he had to stop a moment to appreciate it.

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