Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.

India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, and I will continue to do so until at least the end of 2021. This means, among other things, that I have to write out all my comments that might otherwise have just been delivered verbally, during class discussion. Last spring, I posted some of my remarks on music videos on this blog, but I haven’t posted any class notes since. But I wanted to post my notes on Marguerite Duras’ movie India Song (1975), since I think this film is still under-discussed (though revered by many cinephiles).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was one of the major French novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Her movies are not as well known as her prose fiction, but she directed close to twenty films, wrote the screenplays for several others, and had a lot of her novels adapted into movies by others. Duras was a white French woman, but she was born in Vietnam, which was a French colony (part of French Indochina) at the time (Vietnam only became an independent country after World War II; it then went through decades of war before the Communist north and the pro-US south were finally united in 1975). Duras’ parents were schoolteachers, which is to say they were minor bureaucrats in the French colonial apparatus that ruled Indochina at the time. Duras moved to France itself in 1932, when she was 18 years old, and lived there for the rest of her life. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, she was active in the Underground resistance. She started publishing fiction towards the end of the War, and continued prolifically from the 1950s through the 1980s. Her first involvement with cinema came when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the key works of the early French New Wave. She started directing her own films in the late 1960s, and continued doing so right through until the early 1980s. Often her work crossed genres and used the same characters and situations in different works; thus India Song was first written as a play before it was made into a movie, and it contains elements and characters from a number of Duras’ novels from the previous decade (most notably The Vice Consul from 1965, but there are others as well). India Song itself was further transformed in a later movie by Duras, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), which used the identical soundtrack but had entirely different visuals.

The most surprising and challenging thing about India Song, in formalist terms, is the separation between the images and the sound. We see the main characters of the story — Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband and various lovers, as well as the Vice Consul (MIchael Lonsdale) who is in love with her — but they never speak on screen. (Besides these main characters, the only other human figure we see is that of a single Indian servant who turns on lights and passes out champagne glasses on occasion). On the soundtrack, we hear a number of disembodied female and male voices who tell us (or tell each other) the story of these characters. We also hear music (the song called “India Song”, which the voices at times refer to directly, as well as a number of other 1930s-style not-quite-tango dance numbers, all composed specifically for the movie by Carlos d’Alessio), and some background ambient sounds, plus the untranslated speech and singing of the Laotian (? – it seems) beggar woman coming from outside. The music may or may not be diegetic; the story includes at its center a big party at the French embassy, but we never see this event, since the camera remains in a different room, with an unused piano and a gigantic mirror, into which some of the characters occasionally wander). There is also, from time to time, in addition to the main voices, barely discernible background murmuring, in both French and English, which is perhaps the chatter of the guests at the party (we cannot tell for sure whether this is diegetic sound or not; part of the effect of the movie is to make the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction itself break down).

The voices recount to each other the story of Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul; sometimes this is in the past tense, and sometimes in the present. Sometimes the voices describe what they see: but this is not always the same scene that we see on screen. At other times, the voices speak the characters’ own dialogue, instead of commenting on the characters in the third person. These dialogue sequences seem to coincide more or less with what is happening visually on screen at the time, but we do not see the actors’ mouths moving; we don’t really know for sure if the characters are actually saying these things, or only thinking them. At a climactic point in the film, there is a dialogue between Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul, in which he tells her of his love for her; she responds that she feels the same way, but will not stay with him. The offscreen dialogue starts as they are dancing together on screen; but they soon move offscreen as the dialogue continues. After this, the Vice Consul starts screaming (he has already said to her that he will do this); apparently (as far as we gather from the voices) he is kicked out from the party for acting this way, but he still continues screaming from outside afterwards. We hear the screaming, on the soundtrack, on and off for a good stretch of time, but we never see the Vice Consul making a scene or actually screaming. After he has left, we only see him in a single shot where he is walking down the road away from the camera (and not screaming).

As for the images, most of the film takes place in the French ambassador’s mansion in Calcutta. The setting is a lavish mansion, but crumbling into decrepitude. Most of the interior shots are set in a single room, with a piano and an enormous ceiling-to-floor mirror. The camera never moves when it is in this room, but Duras gets amazing effects from the mirror, as we sometimes see characters only in the actual room, sometimes only in the mirror, and sometimes both. All this energizes our sense of space, although the room’s decrepitude and gloomy color scheme (sort of a pukey green, which is contrasted with Anne Marie’s red dress) conversely makes the room feel dead. There are some other shots in other rooms of the mansion, which are also fairly dark and often show the characters in nearly motionless tableaus. Early in the film, we see Anne Marie and several of the others lying on the floor, nearly passed out from the heat; closer to the end, there is a tableau of her and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) standing on a sort of verandah, as the light varies from murky to bright and back again. Interspersed with these fixed-camera shots are a number of sequences of the ruined mansion from outside, or of the park surrounding it; these are usually left-to-right tracking shots.

For the last half hour or so, the setting is different; we are told that the ambassador and his entourage have moved from Calcutta to the Ganges delta. Here the indoor scenery is lighter and brighter. There is one extraordinary shot where Anne Marie and the five men walk through the central corridor of the empty hotel restaurant, the camera tracks backwards as they walk forward. They continue walking, left of the camera and out of the frame. The shot continues, with the camera now motionless. as the Vice Consul comes in, tracing their steps, walks all the way to the camera, and then out of the frame on the right. (I am not sure, but I think that this is the only time the camera moves in an indoor shot).

India Song could be regarded as what is now known as slow cinema, though the term hadn’t been invented yet in 1975. What’s certain is that there is nothing random about any of this; everything in the movie is quite planned and deliberate. Duras produced the soundtrack first, and then shot images to accompany it; this is a procedure that is almost never done in cinema (usually the images come first, and the soundtrack is calibrated to match the image track). (Music videos, which didn’t exist yet in 1975, are the only contemporary form in which images are matched to pre-existing sound, instead of the reverse). In any case, because the movie is not shot naturalistically, it invites us to think of the juxtapositions between sound and image in a new way. Most movies naturalize the relation of sound to images; when we hear people speaking, we see their lips moving, and the non-diegetic music matches the mood of what we see happening on screen. Other movies deliberately mess with image/sound coordination in certain ways, in order to get certain reactions from us (in some classes, I have shown a sequence from Takeshi Kitano’s 1989 film The Violent Cop, in which a vicious fight between a cop and a gangster is accompanied by music that sounds like it belongs in a softcore porn film instead; his whole point is to blow our minds with the incongruity). But India Song doesn’t take either of these approaches; the relation between what we see and what we hear is oblique, but always meaningful.

Since the people on screen never actually speak, we mostly respond to them by interpreting their body language. Mostly, they seem bored, enervated by the heat; their lives seem sterile and repetitious, drained of meaning. It is as if they share the decrepitude of their surroundings. Delphine Seyrig, as Anne Marie, dances listlessly and without energy, handled by whichever man she is dancing with at the moment; the dance postures are always sterotypically correct. Sometimes she breaks into a smile, but we don’t get the impression that this does much to alleviate the monotony. We are told by the voices that Anne Marie has sex with any number of men, with the tacit approval of her husband — it seems that the Vice Consul, who is the only man who is truly aroused by her, to the point of obsession, is the only man she will not sleep with. Often we see these people smoking, though they usually just hold the lit cigarettes, without actually taking a puff.

The decrepitude of these characters’ lavish surroundings is a powerfully anti-naturalistic feature of the movie; we would have to presume that the mansion was not decrepit like this when it was actually being lived in in 1937. Usually, because of the intensity of the action, movies seem to take place in a heightened present (regardless of the year or historical period in which they are set). India Song amazingly goes against this; because of the decrepitude both of the setting and the characters, it seems to be played out in the past tense (in other words, it is not just that it takes place in 1937 when the movie was made in 1975, but everything we see and hear radiates pastness, over-and-done-with-ness, instead of the present tense featured alike by historical epics, futuristic science fiction, and movies set in the present moment). This in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to think of the voices we hear on the soundtrack as ghosts: they are not really present; and the now that plays out for them, when they describe what they see and what the characters are saying, is an already long-past now, which for that reason can only be revived in this ghostly form of images without substance, and sounds without bodies to produce them. (Gilles Deleuze, who we will read later in the semester, is the only film theorist I know of who conceptualizes the idea of films not in the present tense; though he develops this idea independently of his discussion of Duras).

India Song works as a political commentary on European colonialism in Asia, something that Duras was concerned with, and all too familiar with as a result of her childhood as a French colonialist in Vietnam. The film shows us the lives of white European colonialists, bureaucrats of colonial occupation, who are rich and powerful but have no knowledge of, or connection to, the people whose lives they control, and who they oppress. The colonized masses are never seen in the film: they are represented only by the voice of the beggar woman, whose ongoing life, in conditions of extreme poverty, contrasts with the vapid existence of the white colonials. (There is also, as I have already mentioned, the discreet presence of the one Indian servant who we see briefly). The colonial rulers live in ignorance and isolation. The men are involved either in bureaucratic governance or in making money through business; the women (of whom we see only one, Anne Marie Stretter herself) have nothing to fill their lives, but are kept as trophy wives or mistresses by the men. We are told that Anne Marie Stretter has already tried to commit suicide once, with a lover, but the attempt failed. We also learn that Anne Marie used to be a concert pianist, but she has stopped playing and now basically does nothing. The abandoned piano (with the music of India Song, and a photo of Anne Marie in her youth) is prominent in the mise en scene, and it notably remains unplayed. (We are told at one point that it is out of tune, due to warping as a result of the heat).

There is a remarkable moment, in the latter part of the film, after everyone has gone to the islands. We see a tableau of Anne Marie and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) seated around a dining table, dressed mostly in white, and brightly lit (as was never the case in the mansion). The camera pulls back slowly from the group. The offscreen voices tell us, for the first and only time, that it is 1937. They add by cataloging what is going on in the world at this time. Japan is waging war against China, and they have just bombed Shanghai. In Spain, the civil war goes on, and the Republic is on the verge of being destroyed by the fascists. In Russia, the Revolution has been betrayed by Stalinist terror. In Germany, the Nazis have just held the gigantic Congress of Nuremberg rally, consolidating their power. Suddenly it all gets crystallized for us: these people live in a bubble, a sort of vacuum, unconnected to and unaware of not only their colonial subjects (the very people they oppress), but all the horrible things that are going on in the world. I find this an absolutely stunning moment, because of how it emerges from the otherwise even tone of the film, and how it both estranges us from what we have been seeing for over an hour and a half, and gives us a sudden deeper insight into it).

Why does Duras make a long movie about such worthless people? Why does she dwell upon their splendor and decadence? (I am thinking both of the characters’ wealth and privilege, and of the way they are ironically portrayed, by being shown in the ruins and decay of a retrospective view of their lives? (I say retrospective, because of the temporal disjunction at the heart of the film — the way it doesn’t seem to have a present tense, the way the decay of the mansion in which we see them is apparently decades removed from the life they lived in 1937). I think the answer to this is in the tale of passion at the heart of the story: the Vice Consul’s hopeless love for Anne Marie Stretter. Duras is, in a certain sense, an ultra-romantic novelist and filmmaker. Her compulsive subject, in nearly all of her work, is hopeless romantic passion. (Part of her claim to be a major feminist writer and filmmaker is the way she takes this stereotypically ‘feminine’ subject and twists it around, analyzing it, pushing it to extremes, suggesting both its inescapability and its failure or impossibility). Here, the Vice Consul is the only one of the male characters who realizes the full extent of his vacancy and nullity. He is madly in love with Anne Marie Stretter, despite barely having met her and knowing nothing whatsoever about her. He sacrifices everything in his life, including notably his privileged position in the diplomatic corps, to his overwhelming, and totally ungrounded, passion.

We learn that, in the backstory, the Vice Consul has been dismissed from his consular position because he started shooting at random into a leper’s colony, indiscriminately murdering the native inhabitants. I think the point of this is that he has only literalized what all the European colonialists are doing when they make their livings in Asia by oppressing the inhabitants. All the other colonials are every bit as racist as the Vice Consul, but only he has had the bad taste to overtly and publicly act it out. Leprosy is significant in the movie both literally and metaphorically. Lepers were in the past separated from the rest of society, because their illness was believed to be so highly communicable. In earlier times, leprosy was a menace in Europe as much as elsewhere, but by 1937 it had largely been eliminiated in the affluent West (although effective treatments were not developed until after World War II). Leprosy has therefore been traditionally metaphorized as a form of social stigma. But we are also told by the voices in the film that leprosy involves decay of the nerve endings, so that sufferers do not actually feel pain, even though their bodies are in a state of decay. In this sense, the voices describe the situation of the European characters in the film as a “leprosy of the heart.”

The Vice Consul’s passion is both a symptom of the malady of the European colonizers, and a desperate (and inevitably futile) effort to overcome it. His screaming about his unreciprocated love for Anne Marie Stretter — a screaming which we hear on the soundtrack, but do not see — is both a deliberate social transgression (it gets him ostracized from white colonial society in a way that even murdering native people did not do) and a desperate attempt to express what cannot possibly be expressed. For Duras, extreme erotic passion is both fascinating and delusive. It is a demand for something that cannot possibly be attained — my fusion with the person I love, at the same time as that other person remains unattainable, because the condition of my love is precisely that they are utterly different from and alien to myself.

In nearly all of Duras’ novels and movies, this excess of passion is at the center. The Vice Consul’s passion is a desire that ruptures all social bonds, and all structures of meaning. Duras romanticizes and celebrates this excess, because it is the ultimate rejection, both of all social constraints and of the very state of being self-enclosed or trapped within one’s own subjectivity. But at the same time, it is entirely futile, because such a crossing of all boundaries is impossible; and also because such extreme feelings are inexpressible. Anything you say or do is inadequate to the desire you are trying to express. All words fall short, and all deeds are ludicrously ineffectual. Such extreme desire cannot really be represented; to represent it in any positive way would be to sell it short, and thereby to trivialize it, and indeed even to betray it. In this sense, the sexual passion that is the ultimate subject of India Song is not represented anywhere in the movie. We neither see it nor hear it, although everything we do see and hear testifies to it — or rather, testifies to its absence. This is the deepest reason for the separation of sound and image in the movie (as in most of Duras’ movies). What the movie is really about is what falls between the cracks, what neither soundtrack nor imagetrack can contain.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, artists have been obsessed with transgression, insisting on images of extreme sexuality and violence in order to scandalize audiences and break taboos. Duras turns this impulse inside out, in effect suggesting that transgressive images themselves overly tame and normalize the actions that they present — the effort to shock only ends up making the “shocking” material banal. This is why Duras is interested instead in what cannot be presented at all, what resists being captured cinematically, what falls into the disjunction between sound and image. By showing us daily banality, she preserves the extreme passion from being banalized. Life is exhausted in these movements of excess.

India Song therefore ends with the voices informing us of Anne Marie Stretter’s suicide, which once again, of course, is not directly presented to us on screen, but only communicated to us indirectly. Anne Marie has sex with just about anybody; but this sex is evidently entirely insignificant. Perhaps it temporarily relieves Anne Marie’s boredom, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything emotionally. The one passion in the movie on the part of any of the white characters, that is not just idle and trivial, is the Vice Consul’s passion for Anne Marie. But it is for this very reason that she turns him down. She reciprocates his passion only by failing to connect with him as massively as he fails to connect with her. Were she to accept him, as she does with all her other prospective lovers, this would only trivialize his passion, and extinguish her own. Another way to put this is to say that there is no solution to, and no escape from, the sterile and empty lives of the colonists. The movie’s grim message is that only escape is death, and the only meaningful passion is the one that culminates, not in satisfaction, but in death. At least this is the case for the European characters; Duras said in a interview that the only non-tragic character in the movie is the beggar woman who we never see. The beggar woman, Duras says, goes on with her life despite conditions of deprivation; but this is something that the European characters, even or especially with all their affluence, are unable to do.

A brief note on Chris Beckett’s TWO TRIBES

Chris Beckett’s novel Two Tribes contains a more or less naturalistic account of events set in the author’s actual time and place: the book is about class differences in the UK during the Brexit disputes of the late 2010s. But this account, while it is contemporary for us, is framed as being written by a historian in the year 2266. This future narrator uses (fictional, but naturalistic) diaries from the 2010s as her raw material, in order to describe a failed romance between an upper-middle class man who is an architect, and a lower-middle class woman who is a hairdresser. Though these protagonists are both small business owners (and hence petit bourgeois in Marxist terms), they are very far apart in their values and assumptions, their habits and interests, and their social circles. The text moves back and forth between third-person descriptions of these characters’ lives, and first-person reflections by the narrator, who seeks to understand these lives from her own perspective as someone living in a twenty-third century Britain ravaged by climate catastrophe, economic decline, and authoritarianism. But there is also a third time level to the novel, consisting in scenes that are set in the narrator’s past, but that the narrator admits to inventing out of whole cloth, due to the absence of sufficient documentary evidence. These added scenes are also supposedly set in the late 2010s. But the narrator acknowledges that they would actually have taken place a bit later in time: the near future for us, but still the distant past for her. These scenes point to the origins of a violent civil war in later twenty-first century Britain, between high-tech armies bankrolled by professional and managerial elites (Tony Blair-style “New Labour” people), on the one hand, and fascist militias controlled by Tory aristocrats who recruit soldiers from the resentful white working class, on the other. This civil war is recounted as being nasty and quite destructive, even though the novel reveals that the instigators on both sides come from the same tiny ruling class. Beckett’s novel thus works on multiple levels with the estrangement effects that come from differences in perspective, due both to class antagonisms and to temporal displacement.


I have just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future. It is one of Robinson’s best books. It is a near-future novel, starting a few years from now, and continuing for several decades thereafter. It is about global warming, and the possibilities for alleviating climate catastrophe.

The novel begins with a real punch to the gut. The opening chapter depicts in excruciating detail a disastrous, and all too plausible, weather event. Recent scientific studies demonstrate that human beings cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of over 35 degrees Celsius. (Wet bulb temperatures measure a combination of heat and humidity). The worst extreme-heat events across the world have almost reached this threshold; it is not unlikely that the threshold will be crossed sometime in the near future. When it gets that hot and humid, human bodies are unable to cool themselves any more; people die, even when they are in good health, have access to drinking water, and do nothing but sit motionlessly in the shade. Robinson’s opening chapter extrapolates such an event, imagining it taking place in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and killing 20 million people in the space of a couple of days.

After this harrowing opening, the novel looks at responses to, and ramifications of, a gathering awareness that something has to be done about climate change. The novel focuses on two protagonists. Frank May is an American aid worker in India, one of the few survivors of the opening chapter’s climate event. Unsurprisingly, he is both traumatized by PTSD, and weighed down with survivors’ guilt. Mary Murphy, the other protagonist, is an Irish politician who is named head of the eponymous Ministry for the Future, a UN agency founded in order to enforce the Paris Agreement and other international climate accords. It is underfunded, and has no military or police power to punish nations or corporations that violate the agreements, but it has some room to give financial support to modest climate initiatives, and to exercise moral pressure on governments and banks.

The Ministry for the Future is far more loosely organized than most of Robinson’s previous novels. Though it keeps on coming back to Frank and to Mary, it also offers a wide range of other voices and perspectives. Robinson is not interested in exploring bourgeois interiority, in the manner still typical of literary novels today (and even of literary novels that flirt with science fictional conceits). Rather, these two central characters are by design fairly flat and generic. Even their particular personal characteristics are forged in a kind of feedback response to the economic, social, political, and technological forces in the world they live in.

(I have to say that, personally, I find the novel of bourgeois interiority insufferable in the 21st century; which is why I prefer straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction).

In any case, the lives of Frank and Mary are (aside from the initial catastrophe Frank suffers through and witnesses) not all that dramatic. What’s dramatic are the events that unfold around them — world-scale in their impact, but most often local and small-scale in their enaction. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, all of them relatively short (on the average, each chapter is 3 pages long or so; though individual chapters range in length from a single paragraph to fifteen or so pages). Though some chapters give third-person accounts of the lives of Frank and Mary, most of them come from other voices. Some are fairly straightforward infodumps; others describe local happenings in a wide range of voices, usually anonymous and often collective (“we” rather than “I”). Here we learn of the experiences of, among others:

  • climate refugees who flee ravaged developing countries, and spend years in refugee camps in Switzerland and other western countries;
  • engineers in Antarctica, experimenting with various techniques to slow down the melting of the glaciers;
  • economists and lawyers seeking to convince the world’s central bankers to adopt more climate-friendly policies;
  • terrorists who carry out targeted assassinations of oil company executives and other megarich people who are directly responsible for ruining the climate in the interest of short-term profit;
  • exploited workers who rebel against neo-slavery conditions in extractive industries like mining;

and many others. These many chapters give the novel a diffuse feel. Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

In a certain sense, The Ministry For the Future is almost a guidebook to how we may overcome the horrors of global warming, and avert a climate apocalypse. The novel does not offer us a messianic and utopian vision of revolution. Such a depiction would be useful in itself, by giving us a sense of what we need to fight for. But here Robinson is doing something different. The novel is filled with careful discussions of pragmatic policies that actually could be implemented in the world as we know it today, and that would have important positive effects. These are things like introducing a blockchain-regulated “carbon coin,” that would be paid to states, corporations, and individuals who succeed in sequestering carbon instead of spewing it into the atmosphere; geoengineering to make the waters of the Arctic, once they are unavoidably melted, more reflective of sunlight so as to decrease global heating; drilling in Antarctica to extract liquid water from underneath glaciers, where they lubricate fast motion of the ice above them into the ocean, but which, when extracted and refrozen on the surface increase the bulk of water trapped in ice form; setting up rewilding corridors in areas around the world, so that animal populations increase, and biotic products circulate without releasing carbon into the atmosphere; the replacement of gasoline-fueled airplanes with airships (essentially, large helium- or air-filled balloons), and of tankers with new sorts of clipper ships that move by a combination of air in the sails and motors whose generating power comes from sunlight via photovoltaic cells; a replacement of predatory private platforms like Facebook and Google with an organization of the Internet that is publicly owned and that preserves people’s privacy; and many more.

None of these technologies (using this word in the broadest possible sense) by themselves will save us from climate catastrophe, but deploying so many of them, together with creating a social atmosphere that is conducive to their continued discovery and development, can alleviate the otherwise runaway processes of global warming, and perhaps even reduce it to some extent. The point of giving us such detailed descriptions of all these processes is to make us aware that they are achievable in the actual world, with our current levels of technology and social and political organization. Robinson does not shy from the fact that getting these entirely plausible policies enacted will require, not only mass political protest around the world, but also some judicious doses of environmental terrorism. For instance, the transition over the course of the novel from fuel-consuming airplanes to carbon-neutral airships is prompted by eco-terrorist drone attacks that take down the former vessels frequently enough that even the rich are scared to fly in jet planes any longer. More broadly, central bankers (who are, the novel suggests, closer than any other group to being the actual rulers of the world) need to be bullied and threatened, as well as cajoled, into moving the world’s economies into more beneficial arrangements — they will only do so when they are convinced that current capital-accumulation policies can lead only to worldwide economic collapse and the loss of value of all the world’s currencies.

In a powerful sense, The Ministry for the Future is a remarkably optimistic novel. It assumes that our capitalist rulers can somehow be forced, or convinced, to accept the reforms necessary to save the human world from ruination. The novel is, as I have already suggested, a reformist rather than a revolutionary one. It seems resigned to the fact that capital will never entirely relinquish its hold; but holds out the hope that it might agree to social changes that somewhat diminish its power and wealth, in order to avoid what Marx and Engels called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” It also depicts an improvement of the international situation. Robinson says little in the novel about the United States, implying (probably accurately) that conditions here are so vile and degraded as to be totally irreparable. He does depict some positive ecological initiatives that take place at the state level. Though at one point Robinson imagines the catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles — something for which a precedent exists in the Great Flood of 1862 — he also sees a California that is progressive enough to pioneer rewilding initiatives despite the hostilty of the US federal government. (There is even a short passage about surfing towards the end of the novel, though it is set in Hawaii rather than California).

But in the novel’s vision, other parts of the world do considerably better than the United States. The climate disaster in India leads to the total discrediting of Modi and the Hindu nationalists, and the election of a new government whose main object is to make sure that such a catastrophe never happens again. The novel also envisions a China that continues with its relatively (compared to the rest of the world) climate-friendly economic policies, while giving up on its heavy-handed totalitarian governance (not out of goodwill, but simply as a result of discovering by experience that it doesn’t really work very well) and according more rights to its currently hyper-exploited working class. And in the various countries of Europe, though the rightwing anti-immigrant parties still exist forty years from now, they fail to take power or to disrupt the semi-enlightened internationalism of the more liberal European tradition.

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Elizabeth Bear, MACHINE

Elizabeth Bear’s space opera MACHINE has just been published. I received an advance copy, courtesy of Netgalley, in return for writing an honest review. Here it is.

MACHINE is set in the same cosmos as Bear’s previous book ANCESTRAL NIGHT, but it is not a sequel — the two novels can be read separately. In both books, Bear gives us a galaxy-spanning future civilization, containing many sentient and sapient species from many planets and star systems, all living more or less in harmony. The Synarche (as the galactic confederation is called) is far from a utopia, but it is much more cosmopolitan, and permits much more individual flourishing (of human beings and of numerous other species) than is the case for any actually-existing society on Earth today. It isn’t as egalitarian as one might like, but everyone gets more-than-basic subsistence, and working is not backbreakingly oppressive. There is a wide choice of jobs and careers, and there are machines to do the most obnoxious tasks. Sentient/sapient AIs have the same rights as organic intelligences do. To link the numerous star systems together, Alcubierre-White drives allow for a certain degree of FTL travel without violating relativity. Bear gives us one of those rare space operas that is not organized according to a military or colonialist paradigm.

The main socio-technological innovation that allows the Synarche to function is called rightminding. This is a chip implanted in everyone’s brain (called a “fox”) that works to dial down aggression and other dysfunctional emotions. It allows you to regulate and tune your own nonconscious bodily-emotive-intellectual processes, by regulating levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as autonomic responses. In Bear’s account, being able to do such things (I decide to dial down my anger, suppress pain, suppress or enhance sexual feelings, and so on) is not paradoxical, but works as a self-aware feedback loop (the logic behind it is circular, but it is a virtuous circle rather than a vicious one). Being able to regulate oneself is a state of greater freedom, ultimately, then always doing what you think you want, but being at the mercy of your own raging emotions and your own social conditioning.

However, rightminding is a social rather than just an individual process. And it is tied up both with health and medicine, and with surveillance and policing. Other entities, and especially AIs, are able to access your fox, and tweak your settings, if you permit them to do so. Social rules are generated by consensus, which is ascertained via massive computation; and there are rules and norms that you aren’t allowed to violate. The regulation is soft rather than harsh, but it still exists. Cops are major characters in both novels. (Especially endearing, if that is the right word, is Goodlaw Cheeirilaq — “goodlaw” being used instead of “officer” — who is basically a sentient/sapient 8-foot-tall insect, somewhat like an enormous preying mantis, and who appears in both novels). If you break the rules (commit a crime), you are not punished in any of the ways that we are familiar with today; but you basically get a choice between exile or confinement, on the one hand, or allowing the authorities to tweak your fox settings so that you will not do it again, on the other.

This system might sound a bit creepy and oppressive — especially to the sorts of people (Americans in particular) who think that being obliged to wear a mask in public places when a pandemic is raging all about them is a violation of their fundamental rights. Bear takes this sort of worry seriously, but the books argue against it, and in favor of the Synarche system. In ANCESTRAL NIGHT, the main antagonist is a sexy and alluring libertarian pirate, who categorically rejects rightminding as a form of enslavement. The protagonist is powerfully seduced by the pirate, but ends up rejecting libertarianism and reasserting her allegiance to the rightminding system. (Is it worth mentioning that both protagonist and antagonist are women?). In a libertarian society, nobody has their mind manipulated, but massive oppression exists in the form of economic inequality, servitude enforced by contracts, and an overall social environment whose perverse incentives encourage the flourishing of violent sociopathy. You are nominally free, but you have no chance of being able to exercise your freedoms unless you are a degenerate scumbag (a term which I am using here in its strict technical sense, as defined in the Urban Dictionary). All in all, Bear’s volumes are unique for the way that she makes this kind of argument explicitly and at length, rather than just preassuming it (or rejecting it as is so often the case in works of hard science fiction with a libertarian bent).

MACHINE is also a work of medical science fiction; it takes place mainly in an enormous, multispecies hospital near the center of the galaxy. Bear mentions, in her acknowledgments, her debt to the Sector General series of science fiction medical dramas by James White (which I have not yet read, but which are high on my reading list). I will not try to summarize the plot here, in order to avoid spoilers. But I need to note that Bear juggles all the pieces and puts them together at the end quite nicely and convincingly.

The female human protagonist, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, is a doctor who used to be a cop. Both professions are highly relevant to the action of the novel. She now works as a rescue specialist; her job mostly involves trying to save people (of whatever species) who have had accidents in deep space. Dr Jens is not without problems of her own; she suffers from chronic pain which even the advance medicine of her far-future society is not able to cure. This means that she is thorougly cyborgian: she can’t do anything without her “exoskeleton” that provides support for her body, and integrates with her self-regulation of bodily states via her fox. She is also a bit neurotic in a way that I found all-too-recognizable and relatable. As one of her crewmates tells her, “You’re not detached. You’re dissociated.” Brookllyn finds herself having to confess that he might well be right:

what I thought of as a professional reserve, professional detachment . . . was really more like floating a centimeter outside the world, never really engaging with it. (ellipsis in original text)

Brookllyn is also, throughout the book, frequently having to put on “hardsuits” and other devices to protect her from the vacuum of outer space, or from atmospheres in which other sentient species live, but which are inimical to human life. All in all, the book is brilliant and powerful in the way it conveys a sense of interdependency. The point is that I am dependent upon otherse even when I am alone, even when I am at my most individualistic and most stubbornly anti-social, and even when my entire life strategy consists in dissociating myself from the world, so as not to have to engage with it too distressingly. Even at such times, my very existence depends upon a vast web of prosthetic technologies, not to mention built environments (however naturalized they may feel) and contributions by other people. As Brookllyn puts it at one point:

We cannot isolate ourselves from systems, have no impact, change nothing as we pass. We alter the world by observing it. The best we can do is not pretend that we don’t belong to a system; it’s to accept that we do, and try to be fair about using it. To keep it from exploiting the weakest.

The plot of the novel involves violations of social trust on the part both of insiders at the heart of the system, and of rebels against the injustices of the system. MACHINE works through a delicate balancing act, as Brookllyn finds her faith and trust in the Synarche and its institutions deeply troubled, yet still ultimately finds herself needing to affirm it and to save it from destruction — the alternative is violence and oppression on an unimaginable scale. Yet I am not sure I am expressing this quite right — it is not a conservative novel urging obedience in order to avoid anarchy, but a radical one in the way that it argues for a common that goes beyond individualism, and that indeed finds its only basis and justification in the way that it supports individual flourishing better than any other social arrangement would be able to. Brookllyn must learn, in the course of the novel, to recognize the dangers of overidealization, but without lapsing into a resentful nihilism in response. The book is ultimately about trust. This really is, as I already said, an emotional and cognitive exploration that I deeply relate to.

And oh yes, MACHINE also has an exciting, suspenseful plot involving various forms of derangement, physical dangers, malignant computer code, and twisted psychological reactions, all the fun stuff.

John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy

I just finished reading The Last Emperox, the just-published final volume of John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy. It’s a fun, breezy read, though not deep. But it is definitely of interest allegorically, since its collapsing interstellar empire tracks the current decline and fall of the American empire. We have an autocratic government that basically serves the interests of a rapacious capitalist/feudalist ruling class, of families that control all production and trade through the possession of rigidly enforced (both legally and technologically) patent monopolies, and engage in purely extractive activities. Beneath these corporate/familial entities, the vast mass of the people have no influence or political power whatsoever — but they do seem to have a welfare state much better than anything we have in the US currently (the ruling class of the Interdependency, unlike our own rapacious elite, are aware that they are buying general stability by stopping short of absolute immiseration of the masses). In the trilogy, we mostly see vicious political infighting among the elite (including frequent bombings, poisonings, and other sorts of assassination techniques) against an overwhelming background of massive and unavoidable environmental and economic collapse. The Empire is ending, and eventually the entire ruling class is forced to become aware of this. The only remaining question is what can be salvaged from the wreckage. The prevailing attitude among the members of the wealthy elite — just like the prevailing attitude among members of our real-world 1% (or really, 0.1%) — is to save themselves, and let the masses be exterminated. But the series has an upbeat ending, and the forces of rapacity are defeated, and the masses are saved, through a veritable technological deus ex machina, involving a unlikely confluence of a number of factors: benevolence among a tiny fraction of the ruling elite, combined with supercomputing and absolute surveillance technology, and a massive scientific effort that is able to detach itself from the usual corporate imperative of short-term financial profit. Scalzi’s greatest accomplishment as a writer is that he really pulls this off — his upbeat conclusion doesn’t seem forced or artificial, because of the skillfulness of his world building and his character creating. So the trilogy is a gratifying read. We don’t reject the conclusion; we are nonetheless unavoidably aware of how unlikely such a conclusion is to our actual current situation of collapsing empire. There is hope, as Kafka said, only not for us. Scalzi provides us with a (semi-)utopian alternative, which is a laudable thing to do in these dark, depressing times. In a situation where it is still easier to imagine the end of the world rather than modest improvements to the world system, I will say that even from my own marxist perspective Scalzi’s reformism is a welcome riposte to the ideology of “there is no alternative.” At the same time, for all of the trilogy’s gratifying conclusion, reading it reinforces my awareness that what happens in Scalzi’s fictional universe has little chance of happening in our actual one, and that the most likely scenario is the one that is defeated in the novels: the 1% will save themselves, at the expense of nearly everybody else.

Music video commentaries (11): The Weeknd

The Weeknd, video trilogy from Beauty Behind the Madness: The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, Tell Your Friends — (Grant Singer, 2015)

These three videos, all from the same album, and all directed by Grant Singer, form a loose trilogy. They are unified by the presence of a demonic figure, played by Rick Wilder. Wilder was the lead singer of The Mau-Maus, a Los Angeles glam rock band in the 1979s-80s. Wilder initially worked with Singer, in the music video for Ariel Pink’s song Dayzed Inn Daydreams: this is a beautiful and moving video, that gives a portrait of Wilder as an aging, lonely rocker, working a day job in the supermarket and peforming before sparse audiences in the evening. Wilder is an incredibly charismatic figure; evidently, he plays a very different role in these videos for The Weeknd.

The Hills is a downbeat, minor key song; the vocal line hovers in a high register against dissonant and sludgy instrumentation. The lyrics give expression to The Weeknd’s nihilistic hedonism, focused largely on sex and drugs (as in this line from the chorus: “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me”). And he’s telling his lust interest that he’s not one for commitment, but only for immediate pleasure (“I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you”). The line repeated in the bridge, “the hills have eyes,” refers to a gruesome 1977 horror film of that title by Wes Craven, about a family of cannibals in the Nevada desert.

Part of what makes Abel Tesfaye (to give The Weeknd his actual name) such a powerful and fascinating artist is the way he delivers these harsh, negative sentiments in such a soulful singing voice, a voice filled with pain, loneliness, and yearning. There’s a mixture of tones and feelings here, a sort of cognitive dissonance, that refuses resolution – it grabs hold of me and will not let go.

The video for The Hills feels like a slow-motion nightmare. It begins, during the instrumental introduction, with four shots (corresponding to the song’s opening four dissonant chords) of a car having overturned on a quiet, and evidently expensive, Los Angeles residential street. In each shot, the camera revolves a small distance around the car; each shot blacks out when the corresponding chord is cut off. We are not given any indication of what caused the accident; it is just a given situation at the start of the video. As the singing begins, we see Abel pulling himself out of the driver’s seat of the car. A woman pulls herself out of the other front seat, and Abel moves around the car and opens the back door for a second woman to crawl out. Then, as we move from the opening verse to the first chorus, Abel simply walks away from the accident. One of the women goes up to him, screams at him and shoves him — but he just ignores her. All this has a strange, dissociated feel because of the way that it is shot. Abel has blood smeared over his face, but we cannot see it too well, because the lighting is indirect and murky (the accident seems to have happened just at dusk). (Grant Singer is an absolute master of lighting, as we saw earlier in the semester when we watched his video for Lorde’s Green Light). Abel also walks with a slow limp, presumably from the accident; he lipsyncs the lines of the song intehimthe Weeknd, while the women and the car seen behind him are blurry, out of focus. (I also wonder about how the women seem to be moving back and forth slowly – is the video using slow motion? or is it an effect of focal length?).

During the second verse of the song, the sense of dreamlike estrangement is increased. We see Abel in profile first from one side and then from the other; this would be a violation of continuity editing rules in a narrative movie, but as we have seen all semester, music videos operate according to a different logic. At one point there seem to be two people walking on the other side of the street, but they are so out of focus that we cannot tell anything about them. The camera rotates around Abel, and at one point the same woman shoves him angrily again (I find it hard to decide whether this means that she shoves him twice, or whether this is just a sort of reprise of what we saw a minute earlier, since our time sense seems scrambled by the overall slowness of the video). In any case, at the start of the second chorus, the car explodes in a ball of flame: this happens way in the blurry background, while Abel himself is close to, and faces, the camera, which moves backwards slowly just as he advances forward. Also, in between Abel and the car, we see the woman who shoved him moving back and forth pointlessly, a bit out of focus but sufficiently visible to suggest that she has lost her mind.

In the latter part of the chorus, there is a cut from in front of Abel to behind him; we see him leaving the street and approaching a large house. It is now darker than it was (a movement from dusk to full nighttime), and we can only see Abel’s profile against the house lights. When the song moves on to the bridge (with the ominous line “the hills have eyes” sung rather sweetly), we cut to a shot from inside the house, as Abel walks through the door. We see him from various angles walking through the house; first there is a room with a bluish tint, and then one where the incandescent lights are flickering. As the song moves on to a third and final reiteration of the chorus, Abel starts walking up the stairs. The light varies from shot to shot; it is mostly dim, but there are candles at one point, a reprise of the flickering lights at another, and a chandelier with imitation-flame bulbs at yet another. It’s mostly quite dim despite thes light sources, but there is a brighter yellowish glow in the background, seemingly coming from another room.

The very end of the song features a woman’s voice, gently singing a love song in Amharic (the language of Ethiopia, the country from which Abel’s parents emigrated to Canada shortly before he was born. He spoke Amharic at home as a child). You can read a discussion of this part of the song, and of The Weeknd’s Ethiopian heritage, here. Visually, we see Abel’s face illuminated in red as he enters a room on the top floor. The video cuts to a red-illuminated room, as the camera moves into it, coming ever closer to Rick Wilbur and two women sitting almost motionless on a couch. There’s a brief reaction shot of Abel’s bewildered face, and then another closer shot moving in on Wilbur and the women staring at the camera (and presumably at Abel). Wilbur holds an apple in his hand.

It is easier to describe what happens in the video, and what feelings it evokes, than to say anything about what the video means. Online commentators have tended to regard Wilbur as a devil figure; here the reddish room evokes Hell, and the apple suggests the Tempation and Fall in the book of Genesis. I wouldn’t say that such an interpretation is necessarily wrong, but it is reductive in that it fails to evoke the full uncanniness and sense of dream-like alienation that characterizes the video as a whole. I find it more interesting to see the video as a general portrayal of weird alienation: with eerily precise images (like the final ones of Rick Wilbur) and yet an overall sense of floating uncertainty.

Can’t Feel My Face is very different musically from The Hills; it’s an upbeat dance-oriented pop song, co-written by Max Martin (the Sweedish songwriter and producer who has worked with everyone from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift to Adele to Pink to Ariana Grande to Lady Gaga). The song has generally been interpreted as a love song to cocaine. That is to say, The Weeknd addresses the drug in the language that, in pop music, would conventionally be directed to a lover. But what he seems to love about the drug is, not so much that it gives him an ecstatic high, but that it makes him feel numb – this is meant both literally (cocaine has anaesthetic effects, so it might well blunt the skin sensations that one has in one’s face) and metaphorically (in the sense that he would become insensitive, not just to physical pain, but to the emotional pain that life often inflicts upon us).

The video for Can’t Feel My Face is a performance video, with a twist. It shows The Weeknd on a stage, performing the song at a club. The video starts with a closeup; The Weeknd moves into frame, his face mostly filling the screen, with a microphone before him. He sings the first verse and pre-chorus in this single, long-held shot. The lighting is interesting; first the background is blue, then, as Abel begins to sing, a spotlight illuminates his face, and then there is a shift from blue to read (we saw a similar color shift in The Hills). The curtain behind him has blue and red glitters, but it is out of focus.

All this changes when the song reaches the high-energy chorus (“I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…”). The video immediately cuts to a full-body shot of Abel performing on stage. We see him from a variety of angles, as he starts dancing, pulling the microphone along with him. His dancing is (by design) reminiscent of Michael Jackson, with energetic, but effortless-looking, side shuffles. Often these shots are well-lit, with everything in focus. But the shots of Abel’s performance are cut in with reaction shots from the audience. The audience members, in general, look less than enthusiastic – they aren’t really connecting with the energy of Abel’s performance. This is accentuated by the way that most of these reaction shots have the shallow focus, and bluish-reddish tints, of the early part of the video. One exception is a woman in the audience (the model Chanel Iman, who mostly smiles encouragingly at Abel, though at one point she rests her head in her hands in evident disappointment). In one of these reaction shots, Rick Wilder walks in and stis at a table. He looks intently at Abel, but most of the other reaction shots show disappointed patrons. One person in the audience throws their drink at Abel during the second chorus, and later he ducks to avoid being hit by some other indeterminate object.

Things change yet again when Abel reaches the song’s bridge: the music slows down, and he only sings “oooh, oooh, woo…” for a moment; this leads into a another reprise of the pre-chorus (“she told me don’t worry…”), but slower than before. Abel is no longer dancing across the stage, and we return to a closeup of him singing, with blurry and nuanced lighting (the sides of his face are lit up more than the face itself facing us, and a bright bar of yellow runs horizontally across the screen). In this moment of the music’s semi-pause, the closeup of Abel is intercut with shots of Rick Wilbur, who looks intently towards the singer as he lights a cigarette. Then he flicks the lighter again, and tosses it at the stage. We see the lighter arcing through the air, first in slow motion, and then accelerating (against an out-of-focus background with the same fuzzy blues and reds that we have seen before) as Abel draws out the last word of the pre-chorus: “alo-o-o-o-ne.” All of a sudden, as the music goes back to full speed for the final chorus, and the camera cuts to a longer shot of the singer’s full body on the stage, Abel bursts into flame. Now he is dancing more energetically than ever, shuffling back and forth all across the stage, and even doing a dive and slide across the floor. The camera alternates full-body shots and closeups, all emphasizing the flame; and we also get reaction shots of the audience, all of whom are now on their feet, enraptured, and energetically dancing along. The musical repetitions get more insistent, and we see Abel singing (lip-syncing) the backup to the chorus as well as the main vocal line. Finally, we get to a drop: everything in the music suddenly ceases except for the active bass line. As this plays, Abel jumps off the stage and moves forward, past the dancers in the audience, the camera moving backwards to keep up with him. All the while, he is still completely aflame. Finally he pushes out of the front door of the club. He comes to a halt facing into the camera, just as the music ends with a final “hey!”. Before everything goes black, we have a second or two in which it looks like the film itself is burning.

It’s evident that the video works as well as it does, at least in part because of how the cinematography and editing are carefully set up to interact with the musical structure of the song. Beyond that, the video wows us with the energy of The Weeknd’s performance (both singing and dancing). The flames can be seen as a metaphor for the way a performer “lights up” the audience, or for the way that his career takes off. Some online commentators have interpreted Rick Wilbur as representing the music industry, which gives the performer a big career boost, but at a severe price. If he was tempting The Weeknd, as a devil, in the first video, then here he seals the deal, and it is too late for the artist to withdraw. I don’t think this allegorical reading of the video is wrong, necessarily, but it is important to acknowledge as well the visceral impact of the video – both of the dancing/performance, and of the flames, which do have a strong emotional impact even though we know that they are really just a special effect. What does it mean to consume oneself, whether with a relationship, with drugs, or with performances to which one gives one’s all? (literally and not just metaphorically)?

Tell Your Friends, produced by Kanye West, is a song in which The Weeknd unapologetically speaks of his self-destructive lifestyle: “I’m that n**** with the hair/ Singin’ ’bout poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches…” The video is more straightforward visually than the previous ones in the trilogy, but it is just as symbolically charged. The video is set around dusk, and then at night, in an empty landscape. It starts, during the song’s instrumental introduction, with the camera tracking through the wasteland to a burning tree. The camera finally changes direction, swerving to the side to avoid the tree; just as the singing begins, the camera picks up a man from behind. He is briskly walking while carrying a shovel. We don’t see his head, but only his profile from behind, up to about chest level. He is wearing all black (The Weeknd’s signature sartorial style at this point in his career). His body is sikhouetted against the sunset. We finally get the first cut at about 0:33. The subsequent shots still don’t show us the man’s face or head, but we see him shoveling dirt from a small mound and tossing it into a hole. Over several shots, our perspective is changed, until the camera is located inside the hole. A man is buried there, his body encased in plastic; presumably he has been suffocated. Finally we see that Abel himself is the corpse. He lip syncs the song from within the plastic bag, even as the dirt is being shoveled over him. Just as the song finally reaches its chorus, the screen fades to black for a moment, then we see the man thrusting the shovel into the dirt, a sign that he has finally filled in the grave. The camera finally pans up to show us Abel’s whole body, including his head and face; this finally confirms (though we probably guessed it already) that The Weeknd is both executioner and victim. He has murdered and buried himself. Abel dances and lip syncs through the chorus and into the second verse of the song. These shots are intercut with shots of Rick Wilber coming to meet him. First we see just Wilbur’s feet; then his whole body as he walks from right to left on the screen (which by the conventions of continuity editing suggest that he is walking toward Abel in the contrasting shots); then we have face-on shots of Wilbur walking towards the camera. Towards the end of the second verse, Abel pulls out a gun, aims, and fires. The song is interrupted as the sound of the gunshot reverberates for something like ten seconds. As we hear this, we have a sequence of quick blackouts alternating with slow-motion, out-of-focus shots showing Wilbur’s body twisting from the bullet’s impact and falling down. (These blurry shots are the first ones in which we see both Abel and Wilbur in the frame at once). Finally, the music resumes with the second chorus. It has gotten much darker; sunset is over and night is coming. As Abel stands over Wilbur’s body, the camera tracks backward, away from them into the distance. Abel shoots the body a second time; again the song is interrupted and the screen goes black as the gunshot reverberates for something like eight seconds (both times, the reverberations obviously last for much longer than they would in actuality).

At this point, the song Tell Your Friends is interrupted. We never get back to hear the remainder of the song. Instead, Real Life — another song from The Beauty Behind the Madness — plays for the remainder of the video. It is now fully nighttime. The song opens with a sequence of power chords, separated by pauses. For each chord, we get a shot of The Weeknd walking slowly in the dark, with quick blackouts accompanying the pauses. He is going to his car, which stands in the middle of the field in the darkness, lights on. As the singing begins, Abel approaches the car; he does not lip sync. After the first two lines of the song, as we get a cut to inside the car, with the camera in the passenger seat, the song plays more softly and and with less bass and reverb: it is as if we were hearing it over the car radio. Abel gets into the car and drives off; we can barely see anything in the dark outside the window. When the song reaches the chorus, the video cuts to a shot through the windshield of the road the car is driving down, illuminated only by the headlights. After about sixteen seconds of this shot, the screen goes to black, and the music is cut off in the middle of the chorus.

The video as a whole is bleak, and it obviously lends itself to symbolic interpretation. The Weeknd first kills off an earlier version of himself, and then kills the demonic figure who tempted him and who fired up (both literally and figuratively) his career. This is not, however, followed by any sort of dramatic rebirth, but only by The Weeknd driving off into the night — or perhaps into the void. But as with the previous videos, what really makes it resonate emotionally is the careful cinematography and editing, and the way this meshes with the music. The video gives us two songs, both of which are interrupted and incomplete; it is organized around two confrontations, the Weeknd facing off against himself and against the Rick Wilbur figure. The video both begins and ends with long takes of the camera, in which we do not directly see the singer. In between, the editing is more rapid, but the flow of both music and images in interrupted by the gunshots and their aftermath. The only time The Weeknd seems at ease — the only time we see him lip syncing the song and dancing — is at the middle of the video, in between the two confrontations.

The Weeknd, In the Night (BRTHR, 2016) and Party Monster (BRTHR, 2017)

Both of the songs here could be described, not as love songs exactly, but as lust songs. In both, The Weeknd sings about women with whom he is obsessed. In the Night is another song co-written by Max Martin, and going for more of a pop vibe than The Weeknd’s other work. It seems to be about a woman who was traumatized earlier in life by sexual abuse; she is sexually adventurous, but not emotionally available (which is also how The Weeknd tends to describe himself): “When you wake up, she’s always gone…” Party Monster involves a collaboration with Lana Del Rey, who co-wrote the song and sings in the background during the break. The song seems to be about a stripper; The Weeknd wants her, and perhaps gets her, even though he doesn’t know her name, and she is involved with someone else: “woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name.”

In any case, both videos are directed by BRTHR (Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman) in their inimitable high-octane psychedelic style. (We watched Party Monster, together with BRTHR’s videos for Selena Gomez and for Travis Scott, early in the semester). BRTHR’s editing style is dementedly fast. In both videos, we get a barrage of non-linear, metaphorical and associative images, plus flashbacks and flashforwards, as well as related ones that dissolve into one another. But this is not just a matter of rapid editing. The images themselves are heaviy computer-processed: they continually warp and morph and flash, or are overlaid upon one another, or have their colors altered, or are speeded up and slowed down. It becomes impossible to do something like count the number of shots and track continuity; rather, BRTHR seem to be inventing a new cinematic language, one whose post-processed flexibility cannot even be divided between cinematography (the capture of moving images) on the one hand, and editing (the arrangement of those images) on the other. Instead, we have a proliferation of flows and breaks, associations and dissociations, speedings up and slowings down, points of violent impact and involvement together with points of repose and detachment. The images have their own rhythms, and the effect of the video has a lot to do with how these visual rhythms interact with the sonic/musical ones: sometimes the relation is fairly straightforward, as cuts and dissolves match the beats, but other times it is much more complicated. (I have seen a number of recent videos by other directors, for other artists, that seek to do something like this; but most of them seem crude and unimaginative compared to BRTHR’s fluid density and flow).

In the Night has a lot of gangster-movie imagery, and suggests the bare bones of a narrative. The woman (played by the model Bella Hadid, who was in a relationship with Abel Tesfaye at the time) seems to be either a waitress or a stripper. She is held at gunpoint by a gangster who propositions her; but subsequently we see her and other women killing the gangsters, both with knives and by suffocation. Later, the lead gangster holds Abel at gunpoint and is about to kill him, but the woman shoots him first. Then Abel and Bella ride off in a motorcycle. Much of this plot is conveyed during interludes when the music drops out and is replaced by grating sound effects, ambient noises, and gunshots. There are three such sequences. The first one is right at the start of the video, a sort of pre-credit sequence in which we see gangster imagery, including a slow motion animation (much like “bullet time” in The Matrix) of a bullet fired from a gun, smashing through a plate of glass, and continuing through the air (this seems to be a flashforward of Hadid’s shooting the gangster towards the end). There is a second pause of the music in the middle of the video, when the gangster is kidnapping Bella. The third one comes as a sudden interruption when the gangster puts his gun to the back of Abel’s head. In between these sequences, as the music plays we see The Weeknd walking through nighttime city streets as he lipsyncs the song – first with neon lighting, and then also with an accompanying thunderstorm — we hear the thunder just as he moves to the first chorus. When the music ends, we see a number of additional shots over dissonant sound effects and final credits. These include one that I found so astonishing that I both freeze-framed it, and watched it over and over again (it lasts for about six seconds; there are two shots, one really close and one further away, and the second shot eventually dissolves): Bella seems to be drowned, underwater, yet on fire at the same time; she also seems to be floating upwards, even as rose petals (which float downwards, more as if they were falling in air than in water) fill the screen in between the camera and her.

The video for Party Monster gives us the song uninterrupted (after an opening sequence before the music begins), but if anything, its imagery is even more delirious. Abel drives through the desert in some shots, while in others he seems to be in some sex club. The video is awash with garishly oversaturated neon colors. The outlines of faces and bodies, as well as physical objects, become wavy and fluid. Light radiates out from Abel’s face and body. There are repeated apparations of flames and of Christian crosses. Eyes glisten with intensified light like in a horror movie; both Abel and a number of women find their faces melting like in another sort of horror movie. Many images are distorted with visual noise as if in old, analog video monitors. During the bridge, when The Weeknd (and Lana Del Rey in the background) sing the word “paranoid” over and over, a panther emerges three-dimensionally out of a TV screen and attacks The Weeknd – this image alludes to one of the freakier moments in David Cronenberg’s 1982 film Videodrome. The very next-to-last shot of the video stands out because it is the only shot in the entire video where the image is entirely clear, without distortions; it is a long shot of a car driving over a cliff and into the void – this image alludes to the ending of Ridley Scott’s 1991 film Thelma and Louise. The final shot, following this, is a closeup of The Weeknd, wearing sunglasses and looking at the camera (or perhaps, because of continuity editing rules that still retain their force even though they are not systematically used in this video, or indeed in most music videos,he is looking at what we just saw in the previous shot. The white of the desert sky is behind him, without distortion, but his face is still illuminated with a reddish-purplish glow.

The Weeknd, Call Out My Name (Grant Singer, 2018)

Call Out My Name, from The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy EP, is a slow and sad song, in 3/4 (or 6/8) time. It’s a break-up ballad, addressed to a former lover; only this time Abel is the one who was dumped, and feels let down and disappointed. (Online speculation is that the song refers to The Weeknd’s former relationship with Selena Gomez; see, for instance, here).

The video is directed by Grant Singer. There is a great ‘making-of video, where Singer discusses both The Weeknd’s performance and his use of special effects, here. The video starts straightforwardly, with The Weeknd alone on a deserted urban street, just as it’s getting dark. We see the streetlights turn on; everything is suffused in a dim darkish blue. Abel sings soulfully, first leaning against a lamppost and then walking down the center of the street. But when he gets to the chorus — “so call out my name” — suddenly a lot of bats get vomited out of his mouth. The CGI bats continue to swarm as Abel starts to dance, shuffling and kneeling as he continues to sing. A smooth cut with a match on action brings us to Abel still dancing, only now it is full nighttime, and the bats have vanished. There are a number of cuts and shots, and sometimes the image picks up lens flare from the streetlights (indicating, just as the bats did, the synthetic nature of the image).

The song, somewhat unusually, cuts from the chorus abruptly, while the melody and lyrics seem to be still unfinished (“I’ll be on my –“), to the second verse. Anticipating this switch, but a few seconds in advance of it, the video suddenly cuts to an entirely new location: an empty movie theater, dark except for the lit-up white screen. The Weeknd walks up some steps to the stage in front of the screen. When the second verse actually starts, we see him dancing in front of the screen — except that the camera starts turning vertiginously in a circle. Impossibly, every quarter rotation gives us another blank screen with Abel in front of it. Finally the camera stops rotating, and the screen behind Abel now has a black-and-white wilderness scene upon it. In a series of rapid cuts, the scene turns into color, Abel switches from dancing in front of the screen to actually being present in the landscape upon it, and we cut between Abel dancing in this landscape, and other shots of the landscape with wild animals posed in unusually positions as if frozen in mid-action (in the ‘making-of’ video, Singer references museum dioramas, and also talks about the special effect work that made it seem like one of the motionless animals blinked – a wonderfully creepy effect). We also get rapid flashback-like shots of Abel dancing both in the dark street, and in front of the blank white screen. There are also, even more weirdly, long distance tableau shots of Abel standing in the landscape, about in the middle of the screen, while towards the right side there is a nude woman, her skin very white, with a bird’s beak and birds’ talons instead of hands and feet (this is the horror film actress V Nixie). As the song moves towards the chorus again, the video cuts back and forth between images of Abel dancing on the nighttime street, Abel in front of the blank screen (with rotation), and tableaus of the wilderness area, with more frozen animals, fires, and the bird-woman. Something seems to gleam from her head, or from behind it.

The chorus once again seems to break just before it would have ended. There is no third verse, but an outro that consists mostly in instrumental reprise of the melody, with The Weeknd just singing “on my way” repeatedly in the background. Along with this, we get an entirely new visual sequence. Suddenly we seem to be in a futuristic, science-fictional spaceship. It is mostly white, with symmetrical rows of bumps all across the walls. In the center, at a far distance, there is an orange-rimmed circle. The camera spirals inwards towards the circle; due to the symmetry and rotation, and the general science fiction feel, I really cannot tell whether we are supposed to be moving horizontally, upwards, or downwards. We get close to the circle, and then enter inside it. There seems to be a rotating nebula inside the circle: it could be a spaceship nuclear furnace, though it also looks a bit like we are passing through an enormous eye. In any case, once we get through it, we break through clouds and see the scene beyond, which is an enormous apartment building, many stories high, with windows and balconies. We continue to zoom towards the building. Many of the balconies are festooned with clothes hung out to dry. (In the ‘making-of’ video, Singer talks about how he used both these clothes, and seeming reflections in the windows, in order to make the building – actually a miniature model — seem realistic). We zoom closer and closer to a balcony on which the bird-woman is standing, staring back at us. But before we reach her, there is a cut to the theater, the screen once again blank, and The Weeknd no longer dancing, but standing in profile in front of it. The camera zooms out, reversing its movement vis-a-vis the bird-woman, and quickly — as the song abruptly ends — cuts to black and the final credits.

No, I don’t have any symbolic interpretation of what all these strange images ‘mean’. Singer says in the making-of video that he prefers to keep meanings open and ambiguous; and his ideas for surreal moments seem intuitive rather than programmatically driven. The song/video is certainly both emotionally powerful in its expression of loss and longing, and disquieting in its odd displacements.

The Weeknd, After Hours video sequence: Heartless, Blinding Lights, After Hours (short film), In Your Eyes, Until I Bleed Out — (Anton Tammi, 2019-2020)

These five videos, all in support of The Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours, form a sequence. Though each of them was released individually, at a separate time, together they make up a 22-minute continuous video that tells a story, more or less. How this narrative is different from a more conventional cinematic narrative, because it makes use of the special affordances of the music video format, is part of what I will discuss. But it should be noted that, because they are conceived together, the videos do not always match the lyrics of the particular songs. Four of the five videos present individual songs from the album; but the one in the middle, After Hours, does not actually feature the song of that title (a song that also gave its name to the album as a whole); instead, it is described as a “short film”, and uses snippets from the album together with other sounds. The videos are all direected by the Finnish director Anton Tammi, who conceived the entire sequence along with The Weeknd. You can read an interview with Tammi about the making of the videos — though done before the 5th segment was released — here.

Heartless is yet another song about The Weeknd’s difficulties with relationships — he is “heartless,” and after trying to be faithful to a particular woman, he always goes back to his old ways. The song combines a ballad melody with heavy beats. The video shows Abel in Las Vegas, together with Metro Boomin (the co-author and producer of the track). Abel is wearing a loud red suit jacket (as he does throughout all the videos in the sequence). The video emphasizes the garish lights of Las Vegas as the world’s entertainment Mecca. Abel is continually drinking, smoking, gambling, making out, and just smiling in bemused and stoned astonishment at the bright lights and overall ridiculous ornateness of the Las Vegas hotels. Often these shots are in slow motion; they also frequently use odd angles, or rotate upside down, so that we can see the ceiling lights and their reflection in Abel’s glasses. Sometimes the lights are in clear focus, other times they just provide a blurry background for Abel’s stupefaction.

A bit more than halfway through the video, we see closeups of Abel holding a toad in his hand, staring at it, and then slowly and lusciously licking it. This is a reference to the way that certain toads secrete psychoactive (LSD-like) substances on their skin. (As far as I know, this is only the case for certain species in the Amazon; you won’t actually get high from licking the skin of the sorts of toads you find in the USA). From this point on, the video becomes even more unhinged, presumably reflecting the mental state of Abel tripping. Abstract CGI hallucination patterns alternate with shots of Abel looking confused. He even hallicinates toad-like warts blossoming on his hands. For the last minute of the video, we see Abel running down a Las Vegas street, trying to outdistance a non-existent enemy, and then finally puking. (The puking can be a side-effect of many psychedelics, but here it also expresses the way Abel has paranoically reached the end of his tether). The last shot, after the music ends, shows him smiling, in extreme closeup, as his face morphs with wavy distortions; however horrible the experience, Abel still revels in it.

This video is evidently channeling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — both the 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson, and Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation. Both book and film link the over-the-top garishness of Las Vegas with psychedelic drug distortions, implying that the latter is more a recapitulation and intensification of the former than some sort of counter-cultural rebellion against it. Las Vegas and LSD alike are grotesque expressions of the American Dream. The movie uses special effects to reproduce the bizarre hallucinations recounted in Thompson’s prose, and the video follows along with this line of expression. The Weeknd may be Canadian, but his heartless pursuit of excess, and the simultaneous self-loathing and self-congratulation with which he presents it to us, are American to the core.

Blinding Lights is a much more uptempo and dance-oriented track than Heartless, with lyrics expressing sexual yearning (“I can’t sleep until I feel your touch”). The video more or less picks up where the one for Heartless ended, although with a somewhat scrambled timeline. It opens with a 17-second extreme closeup of Abel’s bloodied face; he is smiling broadly despite being obviously messed up. We hear a swelling dissonant roar that eventually turns into the sound of helicopters overhead. Then, blackout and silence. A title card reading THE WEEKND. Then we are back to where Heartless ended, with Abel on a Las Vegas street. (His face is unbloodied, so we can presume the video’s opening shot was a flashforward). Street noise gives way to the opening music of the song. Abel staggers down the street, lunges at a pigeon, then stops and puts on black gloves. As the song’s beat kicks in, he walks to a parked Mercedes Benz convertible, gets in, and starts driving. The song title, BLINDING LIGHTS appears over the image. (Prior to video release, the song was actually used in a Mercedes Benz TV commercial. Even for big stars like The Weeknd, music videos rely on product placement and cross-licensing for part of their funding. The commercial is slick and snappy, and was evidently shot at the same time, but of course it omits the disturbing stuff from the video). In the first half of the video, there are lots of shots of Abel driving, fast and dangerously, around Las Vegas. There are closeups of the speedometer, of Abel screaming as he accelerates, of Abel lighting a cigarette, of the buildings and lights being passed by in a blur. These shots are gradually interspersed with others, with the time sequence somewhat scrambled: Abel in an empty hotel banquet room, Abel dancing ecstatically in the street with his face bloodied, and so on. Gradually, as we reach the chorus, there are more of the dancing shots and less of the driving shots.

Another image that starts intruding at this point is one of an Asian woman (played by the Japanese actress/model Miki Hamano), in a sparkling evening gown, singing (or about to sing) into a microphone. During the second verse of the song, we see a shot and reverse shot of them looking at one another; and then, in a series of wider shots, the woman points at Abel; and then, as she raises her arm, he magically rises several inches off the ground, and towards her. There are several more shots of them together, including a two-shot of their faces as they stare at one another in close proximity; but they don’t kiss, rather Abel’s cigarette, still in his mouth, creates a gap between them. The second chorus kicks in, and immediately the video cuts back to shots of Abel driving. For a moment or two, the song slows down and gets distorted as we get psychedelic shots of the road and city through the windshield, and of Abel sticking out his tongue (recalling the toad episode in the previous video). There’s a bit of car-engine noise, and then the song returns to its usual pitch and tempo.

The music is at its most upbeat and energetic, with the chorus, the bridge, and then another chorus, as we get an accelerated montage: shots get shorter, the camera becomes unstable, as we switch between shots of Abel’s increasingly erratic driving, shots of footsteps walking along a hotel corridor, and then a sequence of two big guys (gangsters? hotel security men?) beating up Abel. Everything in the hotel has a reddish tinge. There’s a closeup of Abel’s bloody face; during an instrumental reprise of the chorus, we see shots of Abel running out of the hotel and into the street, intercut with a few extremely rapid shots (driving, etc.) from earlier in the video. Abel dances down the street, followed by a shaky and unsteady camera. Reds alternate with greens.

Finally the camera holds still,as vocals return for the last time (another reprise of the chorus, but this could be called the outro). Abel is in the middle of the road, in a tunnel, dancing ecstatically, a smile on his bloodied face – at this point, the visual reference would seem to be Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. The last line is, once again, “I can’t sleep until I feel your touch.” For the last word — “touch” — we see a quick insert of the Asian woman singing it into a microphone. Then, as the music fades out, the video ends with two relatively long-held shots of The Weeknd, face bloodied, but smiling triumphantly and dancing, standing on an overpass in the night, while out-of-focus traffic passes on the road beneath him.

The video is noteworthy for the way it shows us a number of narrative events, whose order we can discern (Abel driving; the Asian singer in the casino; Abel being beaten up in the casino; Abel running out of the casino and dancing in the street), and yet presents the sequence nonlinearly, with lots of shots that, in a traditional film, would have to be called flashbacks and (more unusually) flashforwards, and with editing patterns that are established rhythmically rather than in accordance with narrative logic. There is also no linking causal chain to explain the events: we are not told, for instance, why Abel gets beaten up. The video is a masterpiece of what I have elsewhere called post-continuity; with the proviso that music videos offer a far wider scope for such scrambled editing than narrative movies do — even when, as in this case, the video (and more broadly, the whole sequence of five videos) is in fact conveying a sort of narrative.

The After Hours short film continues the storyline without being keyed to a particular song. The Weeknd is still wearing that loud red suit; his face is still bloodied, and he wears a bandage over his nose. (Side note: a bandage over the nose can be incredibly disturbing in the movies, because the sight -or site – of the face is our main point of connection with the actors in a movie, and with the characters they portray. The bandage is a disfigurement which interferes with this process of emotional connection. The best example I know for this is Chinatown, in which Jack Nicholson wears an ugly bandage over his face for nearly half the movie). The video starts with an atonal roar, and darkness. But the roar resolves into applause, and the camera zooms out, revealing that we have been looking into the dark pupil of Abel’s eye. The Weeknd has just completed his performance on a nighttime talk show (Jimmy Kimmel – an actual live performance of Blinding Lights, for which The Weeknd appeared with red jacket, nose bandage, and spots of blood on his face).

In a single long-duration shot (nearly 50 seconds), we follow Abel backstage and through a number of corridors, until (with finally another cut) he steps through a door and out into nighttime Los Angeles. The applause has long since faded into a menacing atonal roar. We get closeups of Abel’s bloody face as he touches his bandage, then distant shots of him walking down the street as the title (AFTER HOURS) finally appears. The soundtrack mixes the noisy roar with melodic fragments from the album. Abel keeps looking behind himself anxiously as he descends an escalator into the subway. We get a long-held closeup of his face, then shots of him (both at normal speed, and then close and in slow motion) of him walking through the subway station. The soundtrack remains dissonant and vaguely ominous. A train is pulling into the station. Abel looks nervous and worried; at one point he yawns. At another point, he puts on his glasses and stares upwards, as he did during the psychedelic portion of Heartless. We get quick cuts, strobing lights, an abstract morphing pattern again like that from Heartless, and suddenly Abel is on the floor, being pulled all the way down the platform by an invisible force. This is a sort of scene familiar from any number of horror movies. The music gets more dramatic, the editing more frantic, with quick cuts between shots of Abel’s body being pulled while he tries to fight off the invisible force and then finally stumbling to his feet, closeups of his mouth opened in a scream, closeup of slats on the wall passing by quickly, with the camera sometimes rotating for added disorientation. Suddenly the music quiets down a bit and becomes ambient instead of overdramatic. We see a young man and woman coming up an escalator from the subway, arguing. An elevator door opens; Abel is standing motionless in the elevator. The couple, oblivious, get in. The elevator door closes. The camera stays still, as a red light begins to strobe ever more violently, until it is just an abstract pattern, while heavy dissonance on the soundtrack increasingly blends with the sounds of a struggle and of screaming. Then the screen cuts to black, and we hear low bass sounds…

The fourth video, In Your Eyes, picks up exactly where After Hours left off. The song itself is co-authored by Max Martin (and therefore relatively upbeat and dance-friendly, with its disco-ish beat, even though the lyrics are somewhat melancholy). We see the elevator doors open, and the arguing young couple enter; Abel is just standing there, as before. Then we get a shot from a different angle -from the mirror in the corner of the elevator, we see the couple from behind, and Abel between them holding a huge knife. Then more shots from outside the elevator; as the doors close, we see the knife in Abel’s left hand, and he begins to raise it up. Dissonant noise, and then a cut from the elevator door to a nighttime Los Angeles street. The young woman (Zaina Miuccia) enters the frame, blood on her face and clothes, and runs down the street. From here on, the visuals reference 1980s slasher films. We see shots of Miucca desperately running away, often stopping to look anxiously back, intercut with shots of The Weeknd — who, in contrast, is either standing still, or walking implacably after her. There are also closeups of the enormous knife. There’s a lot of play with the lighting. At one point, Miuccia is running down a street filled with steam. At another point, a bluish tinge while Miucca is trying to make a call on a pay phone, is contrasted with reds and strobing lights associated with The Weeknd. At the start of the chorus (“In your eyes/ I see there’s something burning inside you”) we get quick shots of both Miuccia’s and Abel’s eyes. We also get a short sequence (at approximately 1:19-1:25) of Miucca dancing in a club: this latter sequence is definitely out of time order (since it is only later in the video that she gets to the club; and in this shot, in any case, she doesn’t have blood on her clothes). This is a good example of how music videos, unlike regular narrative film, can violate causality and temporal sequence, even if they are also telling a story.

We return to more chase sequences, and more shots involving reddish, strobing lights. At about 2:08, Miuccia finally runs into the club that we previously saw earlier. There are green lines of laser light running across the room, but the dance floor overall is tinted with red light; this segment of the video plays powerfully with red/green contrasts. Miuccia, on the dance floor, looks back at Abel standing in ominous stillness; we get a series of shots and reverse shots of them looking at one another, the camera pulling closer into their faces each time. (It is noteworthy that these shots use the structure of eyeline matches in continuity editing, even though it is unclear whether the respective characters are actually being shot in the same physical space). When we get just to the verge of the second chorus (“in your eyes”) we have a succession of extremely quick shots; I cannot identify all of them, but they include a closeup of the knife, a closeup of one of Miuccia’s eyes, a closeup of Miuccia’s hands filled with blood, an abstract shot of what seems to be blood, and a closeup of the lower half of Miuccia’s face with her starting to scream. This is almost like an Eisensteinian montage (but I cannot imagine Eisenstein with the disco beat of this song).

As the song continues, we have additional shot-reverse shot setups with Miuccia among the dancers looking around, matched with Abel standing absolutely still, staring ahead of himself, with a background that is oddly decontextualized (it is unclear if he is also in the club, of if the editing here is simply rhythmic rather than naturalistic). In any case, after this we see shots of Miuccia looking around, then running through the club floor and into a corridor, and grabbing a do-not-break-except-in-case-of-fire glass cabinet in order to grab an axe. Just as the song is approaching the bridge, it slows down, gets deeper in tone, and then stops (like what might happen with an analog tape recorder). There are 45 seconds of Miuccia and The Weeknd stalking each other, with reddish-tinged light, while ominous dissonant noises and a vague musical tinkling play on the soundtrack. Finally the music resumes; we are back to the bridge. Miuccia keeps looking around herself while holding the axe. She sees Abel and screams; a quick cut, and the camera zooms into Abel’s face as he stands there; another quick cut, she is still screaming, and she decapitates him with the axe just as the music picks up for the final segment of the song, the post-chorus. The lighting is still all red. In another quick shot, blood spurts onto the wall. Miuccia picks up the head and stares at it, and we get another shot/reverse shot sequence of them (Miuccia and Abel’s head) looking at one another in extreme closeup.

All of this is still clearly referencing 1980s slasher films. A long stalking sequence is typical in such films; as is the plot resolution, when (everyone else having failed and been killed), the one remaining young woman (often called the “final girl”) finally succeeds in killing the male slasher. As film theorists from Carol Clover (who invented the phrase “final girl”) onward have shown, slasher films operate by playing with gender identification; the slasher’s murders actualize the structure of the dominating male gaze, while the slasher’s victims, both male and female, are “feminized” as passive objects of this gaze (and of the knife as its extension). But in the final moments of these films, our sympathies shift to the final girl, who becomes active instead of passive as she takes matters into her own hands and successfully fights back. The video knowingly references this dynamic, not only by parodically (though lovingly) recapitulating the gestures of such older films, but also in the way it shifts our attention from The Weeknd (who has been the center of attention throughout the whole sequence, as is typical for music videos) to Miuccia’s character.

This is perhaps why, even though we have gotten almost to the end of the song, the video continues for another minute and a half, through the post-chorus and an extended instrumental outro. However, this extended final sequence also brings us onto new and different emotional ground: we feel things that we would not feel from an actual slasher film, nor from hearing the song without seeing the video. We see multiple shots of Miuccia dancing with The Weeknd’s head. At first she still looks in shock; but as these shots go on, she becomes increasingly jubilant. Sometimes we see her dancing with the head alone, in the corridor where she killed him; sometimes we see her in the club, amidst all the other dancers – it is so late that it has now become daytime, and light is streaming through the windows; and then outside, dancing with the head and waving it around against a background of palm trees and the orange sunrise. There are some shots interspersed, just for variety, where she is dancing just by herself, or where she is waving around the axe instead of the head. But we keep on returning to shots where she holds the head tenderly as she dances, and stares into its dead eyes; or where she nuzzles it and almost kisses it; or where she holds it up like a trophy (as in traditional depictions, in Renaissance and Baroque art, of Judith holding the head of Holofernes). It is hard for me to describe the emotions I feel watching (and re-watching) this video, and especially this final stretch of it. If we were to take the plotline literally, we would have to say that Miuccia’s character has gone insane. But there is something wonderfully exhilarating about the sequence: it is moving and uplifting not in spite of, but precisely because of, the cognitive dissonance involved. This also involves the way I hear the song: there is all that push and pull between how the music implores you to dance, even though the lyrics express pain and vulnerability. There is no way that I would have imagined a slasher scenario just from hearing the song; but it seems to fit, it works, because of how we are drawn from feelings of disconnection (a relationship gone bad) to — something else.

Until I Bleed Out is the final video in the sequence (at least for now — it is also the final song on the album). It works as a kind of coda (since The Weeknd’s character was killed in the preceding video, we can see this one as sort of an afterlife; or, given the title, as a prolongation of the actual moment of death). The music is slow and sad, with only a weak beat — this is not dance music, but rather something like falling-into-a-stupor music. The video’s location is a party in some sort of swanky mansion. There’s a rotating platform, and the air is filled with confetti and balloons. Abel looks completely out of it; he stumbles around in a daze, and falls down several times. There are many shots of things rotating around in a blur. Some of the other partygoers seem to be pushing Abel around, for no discernible reason. Towards the end of the video, shots in the mansion are intercut with shots in which Abel seems to be stumbling around in a desolate outdoor area, at night, electrically lit in the distance. He falls down again, and the camera circles around him from above. There are more shots of the party, and of blurry rotations; then the video ends with a medium closeup of Abel, the background seeming to rotate behind him, and a cut to a brief shot of what looks like film disintegrating. The journey is over.

Music video commentaries (10): Kendrick Lamar

Here I discuss the five videos Kendrick Lamar released for songs from his album DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar, Humble (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This song/video was the first track to be released from Kenrick Lamar’s prize-winning 2017 album DAMN. It’s a banger, with a hard-hitting percussion and piano motif repeatedly looped. The lyrics involve a lot of complicated wordplay (as is always the case with Lamar), but they basically revolve around a paradox. In the verses, Lamar is boasting of his prowess as a rapper, his superiority to all the competition — which is a traditional hip hop trope. But at the same time, at points in these verses, and even more in the repeated chorus, Lamar is warning himself, as well as others, to be humble: which probably means both before God, and in terms of the rapper’s responsibility to the community and to social justice.(There is even a mention of Obama, who had just left the Presidency when the song was released).

The video is directed by Dave Meeyrs (whose work with major artists from Missy Elliott to Britney Spears to Harry Styles we have seen earlier in the semester) in collaboration with the Little Homies (which consists of Lamar himself and his associate Dave Free, who has also directed an impressive number of superb hip hop videos on his own). The video consists in a number of carefully lit tableaus featuring Lamar and others, which vary in an editing rhythm that makes counterpoint to the rhythms of the song. Some of these tableaus are specifically keyed to particular lines in the lyrics (for instance, when Lamar mentions Gray Poupon mustard, we see him handing a jar of the mustard to somebody in another car, which echoes old TV advertisements for the brand). Other tableaus reflect the lyrics more generally. The video begins in a large, mostly empty space with high ceilings (resembling a church); it is mostly dark, but a shaft of sunlight points directly to Lamar, who stands wearing white priestly garments, with his head bowed. Shots of him rapping in this setting are montaged with ones of him lying on a floor scattered with Franklins ($100 bills) while scantily-clad women around him are running the bills through money-counting machines. This sets up the duality that runs through the song and video: religious reverence and service versus a parodic version of the opulence that is almost stereotypical for hip hop videos. Other tableaus follow, including a reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, with Lamar in the place of Jesus; his apostles are all partying and ignoring him. We also see Lamar sitting under the dryer in an African American hair salon (all the other customers are women); Lamar riding a bicycle in a wound-up shot (apparently done with GoPro cameras on a drone, plus software to stitch 360-degree views together into a distorted spherical view — a technique previously pioneered in this video); Lamar golfing off the roof of a car, in the Los Angeles River; and Lamar dressed in black, in the middle of a crowd of similarly dressed black men with bald scalps and their heads bowed. Then there are shots of Lamar dressed in white, with his head on fire, in front of other black men dressed in black with ropes on fire wrapped around their heads. One of the most praised (and also criticized) sequences shows the screen divided in half, with Lamar on one side, and a black woman on the other; as Lamar objects to false female beauty standards created with Photoshop, Lamar and the women both cross to opposite sides of the image; she metamorphoses from processed to natural hair, and from an airbrushed image of shaking her ass to one where she displays, as Lamar requests, “somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.”`I won’t catalog all the imagery in the video; suffice it to say that all these tableaus provide an expansion, and a counterpoint, to the dichotomies that we find in the lyrics. Humble is a superb example of a video that illustrates the lyrics of the song, but in an imaginative rather than reductively literalistic way.

Kendrick Lamar, DNA (Nabil Elderkin and the Little Homies, 2017)

This is another song from DAMN, with high-speed rapping by Kendrick Lamar. The wide-ranging lyrics speak about everything from black accomplishments (wealth, honors, and references to “scholars” and to the Williams sisters’ successes at Wimbledon) to problems like the prevalence of “sex, money, murder” in the ghetto. Lamar cites all these as parts of “our DNA.” There’s also, in the middle of the song, a sample of Fox news personality Geraldo Rivera denouncing hip hop.

Nabil Elderkin is an experienced video director; earlier in the semester we saw his video for FKA twigs, Two Weeks. In the first half of the video, Kendrick Lamar is a prisoner, padlocked to a table. A police inspector (played by the actor Don Cheadle) comes in to interrogate him. There is some kind of weird energy exchange; Cheadle and Lamar lip-sync the first half of the song in tandem, trading lines and glaring at each other. Finally Cheadle releases Lamar; then Cheadle falls down dead. Lamar leaves, and next we see him on the sidewalk with his posse, playing dice as he starts to rap the second verse. Lamar and his friends stand up and walk towards the camera; for much of the remaining time of the video, this turns into a black-and-white closeup of Lamar as he frantically raps. This footage is intercut with brief shots (in color, like the rest of the video) of different scenes of African American life, including gambling, eating dinner, a corpse in a coffin, and (most frequently) a bunch of young black women driving around at top speed and screaming. At the end of the video, when Lamar’s fast rapping has ended and all that’s left is the closing chorus, a member of Lamar’s posse, fellow rapper Schoolboy Q, walks toward the camera and gives it a punch. The video is visually compelling with its stark images, but also hard to put together as a whole; this matches the chaos and ambivalence of the song, which often moves from pride to self-reproach, and back, in the course of a single line.

Kendrick Lamar, Element (Jonas Lindstroem and the Little Homies, 2017)

The song, also from DAMN, mostly references Lamar’s pride and skill in his craft, even when the content is unpleasant and ugly (e.g., “if I gotta slapa pussy-ass n****, I’ma make it look sexy). Lamar also states, “I’m willin’ to die for this shit / I done cried for this shit.” The music, produced by James Blake, is less harshly rhythmic, and more flowing, than the previous videos.

The video begins with a shot of water, and then a hand and arm emerge out of the water. We hear the rapper Kid Cudi, sounding like a preacher, introducing Kendrick Lamar; then we hear him shout, “I don’t give a fuck.” After this, we get a flow of almost still images. In many shots, people are standing almost still, and in others, violence unfolds in slow motion. We see a man who has been bloodied; we see a crowd, backs to the camera, motionlessly watching a house burn. We see Lamar rapping, camera framing him from below, the blue sky behind him; but there are blood stains on his white t-shirt. We see a young boy, in profile, bare-chested, standing as snow falls. There’s a shot, early in the video, of three young African American children, evidently poor, standing behind a barbed-wire fence; the child in the middle is holding a gun. When the image returns later in the video, the boy is aiming the gun at a car passing by, and pretending to shoot it. According to this article, many shots are recreations of famous still photos by the great African American photojournalist Gordon Parks. All in all, the video mixes horror and beauty; it asks us to pay attention to what we see, and to grasp its multiple dimensions.

Kendrick Lamar, Loyalty (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

Yet another song from DAMN, this one a collaboration with Rihanna. The music is built around a sample from a Bruno Mars song; so it is more lyrical, and less banging, than many of Lamar’s other songs/videos. The song, true to its title, is all about the concept of loyalty: “Tell me who you loyal to. Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?” Dave Meyers’ visuals mostly reference gangster movies (and perhaps horror as well; the video begins with a dog barking, its eyes lit up malevolently). Then we see shots of a city at night; then some sort of club, with Lamar in a big chair, blindfolded, while women dance around him. Rihanna both caresses him, and holds a knife just over his head. There are also surreal shots of tarmac suddenly liquefying, and people (presumably members of Lamar’s crew) sinking downward; there are even shark fins gliding through the suddenly liquefied ground. We see Lamar in a fist fight with a taller and more heavily muscled man, while Rihanna looks on. We see the top of a skyscraper; Lamar stands there, holding on to Rihanna who is dangling over the edge; he tells her to “trust me” (and she does). We see Lamar as a gangster, interrogating a prisoner (also played by Lamar), and then turning him over to Rihanna, who suffocates him with a plastic bag. We see Lamar and Rihanna on a joyride; the car suddenly crashes with a sickening thud. Only then they look at one another and both start laughing: are they glad they survived? or is this a meta-moment, the two of them out of character and simply responding to the movie stunt they have just pulled? There are also several shots, placed throughout, of Lamar and Rihanna locked together in an embrace, and sinking into the liquefied tarmac; the video ends with a shot of them almost totally submerged.

Kendrick Lamar, Love (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This one is a love song, supposedly addressed to Lamar’s partner, Whitney Alford. Lamar is joined by the singer Zacari, who wrote the original version of the song. The video starts with shots of the seashore; a typically romantic location, but we only see Zacari and Lamar each standing their alone, in separate shots. Then we see vignettes of Lamar and his (fictional, played by Andrea Ellsworth) love interest at the dinner table – they embrace and make out, later they sit separately and glare at one another, then they fight and she smashes a plate in anger; then we see Lamar alone at the table, drinking. His profile dissolves into wavy lines (one of the video’s nice, low-key visual effects). Then we get continuing shots (we had seen them quickly interspersed with the previous sequence) of women dressed in black, barely visible against the darkness of the frame, either posing or dancing in slow motion. This gives way in turn to a number of surreal shots of nude women, covered in glitter, their bodies either mirroring one another or fused together in weird, impossible configurations, parts of their flesh lit against a blank bluish background (I admit it, this is my favorite part of the video). There are more suggestive shots (not surreal, but like earlier in the video) of women posing while Lamar continues to sing/rap. Then we get Lamar in the passenger seat of a car, continuing to rap wearing a silver hoodie and looking towards the camera, while Zacari, similarly clad, drives. This is mixed with shots of Lamar wearing this hoodie rapping in front of a building, while the rapper Travis Scott sits on some steps behind and to the left. Then, continued shots of the women dancing slowly in the dark, sometimes in the same shot with Lamar, and again with those wavy lines around their profiles. But these shots are interspersed with ones of Lamar’s (fictional) girlfriend working on his braids, and then embracing him; and a bit later, he comes up the steps of a house, she opens the door for him, he enters and they look at one another, both suspiciously and longingly. Perhaps this could be regarded as a reconciliation after the quarrel earlier. But the video, like so many music videos, resists any simple linearity. This seeming progression is intercut with shots that belonged with other sections of the video: Lamar on the seashore, Lamar with the models dancing in slow motion behind him, against a black background, Lamar in the car with Zacari. In this way, the video suggests simultaneity — rather than a linear narrative with beginning, middle, and end. This is also a good example of what makes music videos so difficult to talk and write about: I have described many of the sorts of shots that recur throughout, but I cannot find a good way to describe the rhythm of the shots, how they are held and varied and made to give way to one another. It is this rhythm which really makes the video come alive, so that it changes the feel of the song from what it would be without any visuals.

Music video commentaries (9): Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney, Worth It (Allie Avital, 2016)

Moses Sumney is a musician from California, the child of parents who immigrated to the US from Ghana. He currently lives in North Carolina. He often sings in a falsetto, backed by sparse instrumentation. Here is a recent interview. His music is quite original, pretty much unlike anyone else; and the same can be said for his videos: the earlier ones are collaborations with Allie Avital, and his more recent ones are self-directed. Worth It is an early song that appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. As for the video, I will only repeat here what I previously published:

Worth It is a collaboration between musician Moses Sumney and film director Allie Avital, the first of four music videos that they have done together. Avital sets stark, minimal visuals against Sumney’s brooding, multitracked falsetto voice and sparse instrumentation (consisting here only of hand claps and finger snaps). The lyrics are depressive: Sumney tells a prospective lover that he isn’t good enough for them, and they should look elsewhere. The video has no setting; it is only a dark nonspace, giving us figures without ground.

Sumney, clothed in black, emerges out of the darkness. A series of wavering cuts brings him closer, until his face fills the screen. In alternate shots, his hand reaches out towards the camera. Finally we get a reverse shot, more tactile than visual: the naked back of another human body (the dancer Martha Nichols). Sumney’s index finger hesitantly taps and traces a line down between her shoulders. In response, Nichols writhes back and forth; we see her muscles undulate. At this point, the video is almost an abstract study of the beauty of black people’s skin tones.

Gradually Nichols’ movements modulate into a full-fledged dance. She keeps her back to the camera, but twists around in wider arcs, and bends her head and torso ever further back. We find that, disturbingly, she has no eyes: just smooth flesh sealed over where they should be. All this is conveyed discontinuously, with cuts between closeups and even more extreme closeups. Nichols’ motion contrasts with Sumney’s near-immobility, as the video cuts rapidly between them. Eventually, Sumney cradles Nichols’ body in his arms, in a kind of inverse Pieta.

After a few more jump cuts, during which Nichols continues to writhe and twitch, her body softens into passive immobility. The camera now tracks smoothly back, away from the two of them. This continues for a while even after the music ends, until a final fade to black. The song/video is intense, immersive, and intimate; yet also implosive and claustrophobic. Human contact is inescapable and overwhelming, yet also nonreciprocal and uncommunicative. This is a truth about bodies and feelings, but also about the media environment that both sustains and isolates them.

Moses Sumney, Lonely World (Allie Avital, 2017)

This song also appeared on the EP Lamentations, and was reprised on Sumney’s first album, from 2017, Aromanticism (a reference to the condition of somebody who does not feel the emotions of romantic love). Lonely World is song about, well. loneliness. It partly consists in Sumney singing the word “lonely” over and over. He also mentions “the sound of the void… the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you.” The instrumentation is sparse at first; Sumney’s voice is accompanied only by a jangly guitar. But as the song proceeds, the instrumentation swells, getting louder and louder until nearly the end; the instruments finally drop out, and the last thing we hear is Sumney’s voice a capella, still singing “lonely, lonely, lonely.”

The video is shot in gorgeous black and white. We see a bleak landscape: hills covered in rocks, with sparse vegetation. Sumney walks over these hills. First we see him in the distance, just a silhouette. Later shots bring him closer. Finally his body is close to the camera, and the landscape behind him is blurry, out of focus. His sharp outline and his dark skin contrast beautifully with the fuzzy grayness of the hills and rocks. The camera turns slowly around him. Then we cut to a POV shot of clouds and sky; a smoke trail shows something falling to Earth. We go back to Sumney’s head, with the blurry landscape behind him. The next POV shot shows a rocky area at the ocean’s edge; a female figure (Sasha Lane) seems to be struggling in a tide pool. She turns out to be a mermaid; a closeup shows us that her lips are sewn together. Sumney comes to her, leans down, takes off his sunglasses, and gently breaks the sutures over her mouth. She spits out water. Next, we see Sumney carrying her, and finally gently putting her down on the sand. Through all this, the camera, mixing shots from varying distances, continues its slow circular movements. There’s a continuing emphasis on the contrast between Sumney’s dark skin, the mermaid’s somewhat lighter (but still non-white) skin, and the greys of the blurry landscape behind them.

At this point, we are at the 3-minute mark in the song; we have reached the extended coda, dominated by bass and percussion, with Sumney’s vocals — “lonely, lonely, lonely” — buried in the mix. Sumney and the mermaid start to touch one another’s faces and bodies, first tenderly, then more insistently, until they are either making love or violently fighting — or both; it is hard to tell which, or when the first changes into the second. They roll over one another, and we see their mouths wide open in screams, which could be either orgasmic or painful (but we do not actually hear the screams, only the music). The editing becomes faster, with quick cuts and unsteady handheld camera movements. Finally the mermaid picks up a rock, and quite deliberately smashes it into Sumney’s head. (We have a motionless shot, held for several seconds, of her hand holding the rock as she stares angrily; but the actual violence occurs in a blur of motion (it seems to happen twice, as far as I can tell; but we don’t actually see the moment of impact). This happens just when the music becomes most intense. and horns come in to join the bass and percussion. The mermaid drags Sumney, by his throat and by the arms, towards the water; he is not dead yet, but he turns his head and stares at her uncomprehendingly as she pulls him under the waves. The instrumentation cuts out, and all that is left of the song is Sumney’s last murmured “lonely, lonely, lonely.” The video cuts to a longer shot of the waves hitting the shore. When the music ends, it is replaced by the gentle sound of waves hitting the beach; this sound continues for a few more seconds as the image fades to black.

I don’t think this haunting video can be reduced to any fixed interpretation. It’s more a matter of shifting mood, than of any specific meaning that could be attached to the figure of the mermaid, for instance. Sumney is altogether alone; the mermaid is too, as she comes from a different world. Their moment of contact is both desperately needy and disturbingly violent. The sadness of being alone compels them to approach one another; the mermaid is in agony from her landing, and Sumney feels impelled to help her. But the shock of contact, or perhaps I should say of enforced intimacy, is literally unbearable for both of them. Merging and separation are both painful; vulnerability and violation go together.

Moses Sumney, Doomed (Allie Avital, 2017)

This is another achingly beautiful song about loneliness, from the album Aromanticism. Sumney sings, mostly in falsetto, accompanied only by sustained (and presumably synthesized) tones, droning mostly in a very low register. The lyrics are self-questioning ones about the meaning of not loving anyone: “Am I vital/ If my heart is idle?/ Am I doomed?” The video shows Sumney floating, submerged in a glass tank of water. The camera roams around the tank; usually we see Sumney’s face, arms, and upper torso, but sometimes we see him from other angles — including a striking moment when we see the soles of his feet pressed against the glass. The watery interior of the tank is illuminated with a soft and spooky blue glow. Outside the tank is blackness; at one point, the camera moves away from Sumney’s tank, through the darkness, to another tank nearby, in which a woman is similarly suspended. Then it comes back to Sumney. All this seems to be a single take, until 3:40 or so, when the image slowly fades, to be replaced by another one, that seems to be taken from above the circular tank, instead of roaming along its sides. The fade/replacement is barely perceptible, because the lighting (blue surrounded by black) remains the same across both shots. For the last forty seconds or so of the video, the camera pulls back, or upwards, so that we see both Sumney’s tank and that of the woman next to him; and then, as the camera continues pulling back, we see a whole array of circular tanks, each with one human being inside. Spheres of blue, surrounded by black. The people are in fact close to one another, but each of them is isolated, shut off, unable to reach beyond their own enclosure, or to communicate in any way with one another. This final image is gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Moses Sumney, Quarrel (Allie Avital & Moses Sumney, 2018)

Quarrel is another song from Aromanticism. It somewhat more lush and full in its instrumentation than any of the songs we have heard previously. The lyrics seem to be about the impossibility of communication among people who are not on equal footing. The person (a lover?) with whom he is at odds has “the privilege to ignore” their disagreement; but he doesn’t. “Don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel,” Sumney sings; “We cannot be lovers/ ‘Cause I am the other.”

The video is strange and oblique. It is set in the winter, with snow on the ground. It is wide screen. In some shots, the colors are muted; in others, a glow from the sun gives warmth to what remains a limited palette. After the establishing shots, from a distance and from up in the sky looking down on the ground, we see shots of Sumney and a horse. He cuddles and caresses the animal, as the camera circles swooningly around them. He stands in a barn facing the horse, and dances for it. The horse trots in slow motion in a circle aroudn him. In all these sequences, the camera placement and movement work to suggest some sort of romantic engagement between Sumney and the horse.

But then we see Sumney walking alone through the dark, and entering a building with a strange assemblage that seems to be made of the bodies of dead horses trussed up in a frame in some way. This is an actual sculpture, made in part from horse carcasses: No Life Lost II, by the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. There is an article analyzing the sculpture here, which suggests that this sculpture “is provocative precisely because of that tenderness: it forces us to look directly at abjection, at death, and to find beauty in it.”

Sumney takes out a small knife and seems to be working on it, as if he were the sculptor. The horse comes to the door, looks in and sees it. Sumney and the horse exchange glances; he stands in front of it, distressed, with his head bowed. The horse walks away; Sumney runs after it. As before, the editing and the exchange of glances imply an erotic relationship between Sumney and the horse: but here, a rupture and a disappointment. Sumney stands in the barn, looking abashed before the horse, who looks back in a reaction shot. At this point, the song proper ends, and the video fades to black.

But there is still more music: after a brief pause, we hear a two and a half minute instrumental coda. The camera, as at the start of the video, moves over the winter landscape from high in the sky. Then the video cuts to an odd tableau. Four horses stand in a circle around a kind of wooden trestle, from the middle of which Sumney hangs suspended, with a harness around his chest and shoulders. The camera spins slowly towards and away from the structure, cut together with closeups of body parts of the horses, as well as of Sumney’s face. Not only is his body a few inches off the ground, so that he swings slowly back and forth, but his arms have been replaced by horses’ legs, ending in hooves. The last shot of the video, lasting for a whole minute, starts at a point above Sumney’s body and the trestle, and then slowly ascends higher in the sky, and also circles slowly around, until the whole tableau, Sumney and horses, grows small from distance; we mostly see the figures’ shadows rather than the figures themselves. During this shot, the music is dominated by a piano, as the drums fade out. Finally, the music ends, and the shot fades to black.

Once again, there is no easy and unambiguous way to make sense of this video. It is beautiful and disturbing. Sumney’s previous videos and songs are about isolation and disconnection; this one seems to be on a similar theme, but it is changed by focusing on the interchange between a human being and a nonhuman animal (though horses have had a long relationship with us, for thousands of years). The video also asks us to question the relation between life and art; the sculpture is designed to express empathy, but it also objectifies the dead bodies of which it is composed. Does the last part of the video suggest an inversion, as Moses Sumney becomes a sculptural object for the horses?

Moses Sumney, Virile (Moses Sumney, 2019)

Virile is the first single from Sumney’s 2020 album grae (the reference is to the color gray, as in: neither black nor white). The song rejects the mainstream social conception of masculinity: “You wanna slip right in/ Amp up the masculine/ You’ve got the wrong idea, son.” He also sings of his awareness of mortality, which makes “virile” masculine postures ridiculous: “none/ Of this matters/ ‘Cause?I will return/ To dust and matter.”

As for the self-directed video, Sumney writes that it “takes place in a post-human world, the last remaining man is caught between Beauty and Brutality’s battle to dominate the earth and his body.” The overall look of the video isn’t as science-fictional as this description might imply; but it is definitely strange and alienating. The opening shot shows Sumney lying on the ground, amidst dried grass. The camera is way up in the sky, and the sound is indeterminate ambient noise; then the camera moves in on Sumney, while on the soundtrack we hear harps and a tinkling piano, and Sumney’s voice crying out wordlessly: “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…” After this, once Sumney starts actually singing, most of the video shows him dancing solo in what seems to be a meat locker. The lighting is indirect, and mostly coming from way back; there is also smoke in the air (or perhaps, given that this is a meat locker, it is evaporating dry ice). Giant slabs of beef hang on hooks. Other slabs are moved back and forth; Sumney enters between the slabs, hanging from above as they do. He jumps off the pull-up bar to which he had been clinging.

The sound thickens; guitar and drums come in after a while. Sumney engages in a furious dance. His chest and torso are bare; below them he wears loose black pants. His dark skin glistens. The camera is far enough away to show either his whole body, or his body from the waist up. His body pulses and writhes, as if he were both trying to free some energy trapped inside him, and yet also trying to bottle the energy up and prevent it from escaping. I would not quite say he is expressing anguish – his facial expression does not really convey this, though he looks tense and intent; but his whole body does seem to be taut and tightly wound up. Occasionally his back is to the camera; we see his shoulder muscles vibrating with tension, in a way that is reminiscent of Martha Nichols in Worth It.

When the song reaches the second verse — in which Sumney sarcastically sings, “To stake dominion over all that one surveys/ Is the virile, viral way” — he moves into another room. This room is set up like a religious chaper: there are rows of seats on both sides of a central aisle that leads to a kind of altar, swathed in red. Candles are burning on the altar, but to both sides of it there are giant slabs of meat hanging. Is this a site for the worship of meat-eating and masculine violence? The camera moves down the aisle towards the altar, as Sumney writhes in front of it. Then the camera moves back and away; there’s a sudden cut to a metallic wall lit in blue, against which Sumney is now dancing. We get extremely brief jump cuts back to the red room, though mostly we see Sumney against the wall in blue. These violent disjunctions of the image correspond to the musical ferocity of the second chorus, with raving guitar and heavy drums. Finally we get a shot of the entire blue room; it contains more meat, hanging from hooks and lying on a long work table. As the chorus continues — “you’ve got the wrong idea, son” — Sumney skips across the room in boxer’s pose, fists clenched as if he is going to punch out the meat. The camera follows him, in swift, jerky motions across frequent cuts. But then Sumney crouches before one of the slabs of meat, seeming to caress it. When he gets back up on his feet, his right hand and arm all the way to the elbow is covered with some blue, glittery substance. The camera backs out of the room, and as it does so, the room lighting changes from blue to red (like that of the “chapel”). The room has no door, but it is separated from the rest of the space by hanging plastic strips (such as are often used at the edge of a refrigerated area). The camera, looking through these strips, shows us the silhouette of Sumney dancing just behind them, still in the (now red) room. All this takes place during the song’s bridge with its accusation against masculine imperialism: “You want dominion to make minions of the stars,/ Made up of what you are…” The word “are” is repeated many times.

While the stream of “are”s continues, we cut from the meat locker to a long shot in which the camera rapidly moves over a landscape, mostly dry grass with a sparse sprinkling of trees. When the instruments suddenly drop out, so that for a moment we just hear Sumney’s voice once more reciting wordless “ah”s, there is a cut to an extreme closeup of meet, with beetles crawling over it. Then full instrumentation resumes, for the last reprise of the chorus; and we cut back to the outdoors. We see Sumney running along a path; we see, from high up in the sky, his running as the path turns in a loop. Then the camera, from somewhat closer in, circles around Sumney as he dances in place. The sky behind him is filled with an ominous, spiraling insect swarm (evidently CGI). There are a number of quick jump cuts as Sumney dances ever more frantically, and the swarm fills more and more of the sky. Just as the singing ends, and the music fades out, we cut to a shot of Sumney lying on the ground, breathing heavily as if exhausted. His breaths are very loud on the soundtrack. An enormous mass of beetles (like the ones on the meat earlier) are crawling all over his face and torso. The camera slowly moves closer and closer to his face, with the bugs in disgusting profusion. Then we get a cut to black, though the heavy breathing continues for a few more seconds.

As with so many of the videos we have looked at all semester, I do not think we can ‘translate’ it by giving a single symbolic meaning to each element. The video’s emotional power comes from the accretion of details, both in the music and in the visuals. Evidently Sumney is at war with conventional social ascriptions of the meaning of masculinity, which impose themselves both on his mind and on his body. If his dance enacts the conflict between Beauty and Brutality, it is because escaping from the latter involves so much struggle. We are continually reminded of death and carnivorous predation: we have taken life from the animals now reduced to slabs of meat, and this violence is almost our implicit religion, as the “patriarchs” seek to impose violent “dominion” (both of these words coming up at crucial moments in the song). It’s a struggle of life against death, or against the violent putting-to-death that characterizes hegemonic masculinity and virility. But life itself is finite; it can be exhausted, and it gives way to death, which in turn nourishes new life (like the beetles that consume inert flesh). All these ideas are expressed in the course of Sumney’s dancing and the video’s overall cinematography; though never in such form that they could be congealed in any cut-and-dried single statement. We are left, uncomfortably, with a high degree of ambivalence.

Moses Sumney, Cut Me (Moses Sumney, 2020)

This is Sumney’s latest video, also for a track from grae. I haven’t yet watched it often enough to have as developed a sense of it as I do for the earlier videos. The song is unusually bouncy and upbeat for Sumney in terms of sound. The instrumentation is more conventional than is the case for many of his songs, with a snappy bass line and horns and choruses reminiscent of soul music. Even Sumney’s voice sounds warmer and more relaxed than usual, though it still displays its awesome range. The lyrics seem to be about (both literal and more metaphorical) masochism; but even the words and rhyme scheme are more playful than is the case with many of his other meditations: “when my mind’s clouded/ And filled with doubt/ That’s when I?feel?the most alive/ Masochistic?kisses are how I thrive…. seemingly I need/ what cuts me, cuts me…”

The video is dance-based, and all the visuals are articulated with a clipped precision. But the video is also upbeat, even comedic, in a way that none of his earlier ones were. Sumney himself says of the video that it is “a satirization of the medical industrial complex, and a chuckle in the face of black death.” Sumney appears as a patient; we first see him wearing an oxygen mask. (Is this a nod to the current coronavirus crisis?) There are two other dancers in the video, Emara Jackson and Malachi Middleton, who appear as paramedics driving an emergency ambulance. They are dressed in reddish hospital gowns; Sumney first appears in one as well, but for the most part he wears his usual black. We see the three of them in a series of slightly absurd and surreal dance routines: alternately sitting up and lying down in hospital beds, for instance; or loping down a hospital corridor with Sumney in the center, his arms over the shoulders of the others who are supporting him. We also see tableaus of the three of them in their underwear, swaying softly as they lean back into one another, or all writhing slowly on the floor in what I can only describe as a pseudo-orgy. Then there are the shots of Sumney dancing or bowing on a stage, his body jerking as if pulled by puppet strings, while in the reverse shot the other two sit in an otherwise empty auditorium, holding up cards rating Sumney’s performance like gymnastics judges at the Olympics. And then there are the shots of one or the other of them dancing on top of a coffin. The video ends with Sumney riding on the roof of an ambulance (marked “Sumney County”) as if it were a horse. All in all, the video is quite beautiful; and it shows the same elegance and precision of Sumney’s other videos (whether directed by himself or by Allie Avital). But its light touch (echoing the upbeat lightness of the song, despite its potentially depressing subject matter) makes for a lovely contrast with Sumney’s other videos, and (dare I say it?) gives us a kind of hope that is more than welcome in this time of deadly pandemic.