Hell All Up in Hollywood: Michael Jackson’s Ghosts at 20

ghostsMichael Jackson was a shapeshifter, fascinated by musical and visual transformation. Of all his memorable metamorphoses — werewolf, panther, Egyptian mystic — perhaps none was as striking as that in the sequence at the centre of 1997’s Ghosts, in which Jackson’s haunted house trickster faces off against the local town Mayor out to destroy him. It’s a moment straight out of surrealist nightmare: Having taunted the corpulent bureaucrat with a series of increasingly goofy gestures, Jackson’s “Maestro” proceeds to peel his skin back over his head to reveal a demonic, chattering skull, who then holds up the lifeless visage, like some Halloween Michael Jackson death mask, with leering delight. Not quite done, the skeleton Maestro violently smashes his skull to pieces to return to — shamone! — Jackson once more. The permutations of the self are dizzying, to put it lightly, and that’s before the Maestro has bodily invaded his nemesis and forced the white man to perform a possessed dance routine. “Back to the circus, you freak!” the bewildered Mayor gasps, rattled and rhythmically disorientated. Continue reading

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide: Peter Watkins’ Privilege

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“Smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” – The Youngbloods, “Get Together”

“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” – Steven Shorter, Privilege

In 1967, rock ‘n’ roll was the sound of a generation with the power to change the world. At least that’s how baby boomer nostalgia tells it, anyway, with its fabled Summer of Love, flower power and Sgt. Pepper — Altamont, May ’68, and Coldplay but a distant, unknowable nightmare. Whatever hash-scented winds were a-blowin’, however, they apparently failed to reach Peter Watkins’ door. Just as tie-dye bliss hit peak delusion, the British filmmaker unleashed Privilege, a scathing satire that set its sights squarely on the commodification of the counter-culture’s rock dream. It was the antithesis of “all you need is love”: bleak, sinister, disdainful of both the establishment and swinging ’60s youth — and a flop with critics and audiences before vanishing into relative obscurity.1 Placed in the context of the year it’s a fascinating, brutal anomaly; seen a half-century later, even the most casual observer would be hard-pressed to miss its grim cultural prescience. Continue reading

Method and Madness: The Dueling Brandos of Listen to Me Marlon and Lost Soul

brandodigitalWas latter-day Marlon Brando the corpulent madman of myth, or a visionary genius who’d already moved on to the next level of movie acting? While the perception of the 20th century’s most famous actor as a paycheck-cashing recluse in his later years endures in the public consciousness, two recent documentaries cast a different light on the unraveling of the man who revolutionized cinema performance—and in turn expose a method to his supposed madness. Continue reading