Essays · Movies

The Daring Cinema of Kanye West

By  · Published on June 28th, 2016

Appreciating “Famous” and its role in essential cinema.

Kanye West’s video for “Famous,” being a thing done by Kanye West, has caused a bit of a stir. The song itself, opening with the lines “For all my Southside ni**as that know me best/I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous” alludes to Kanye’s notorious, simultaneously obnoxious and poignantly misunderstood episode with Ms. Swift at the 2009 VMAs in a deliberately provocative, boorish fashion that leads into a longer, digressive meditation on fame itself.

Depending on how far one is willing to go down the yellow brick road of Kanye’s id, one either decides “he seems like an obnoxious asshole” and cuts off, or continues to an Emerald City of metatextuality and quantum states of meaning. I freely admit to having long since chosen the latter course. I both find Kanye utterly fascinating and understand completely why others simply can’t deal. While a full appraisal of his music would take a book at the very least, for the purpose I’m leading to here it will suffice to say that over the years, and particularly his last couple albums, Kanye has embraced the personal to the point of inscrutability. His mastery in the studio, however, keeps his music within sight of the realm of the conventional, which is an elaborate way of saying that while he might be a little, or a lot, weird he still fits within the parameters of commercial pop music, even if only by virtue of being better than almost everyone else at it.

His forays into other forms, particularly filmmaking, are far too gloriously bizarre to be tethered to normalcy. His video for “Runaway” was in fact, and in the maximalist spirit of his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a 35-minute film featuring other songs from the album and channeling a parade of filmic references led by a baton-twirling Alejandro Jodorowsky. “Famous” is, structurally, the apparent opposite, but it’s an extraordinarily dense work interacting vividly with the text and ideas of the song.

“Famous” consists almost entirely of a series of pans and closeups over what appear to be the nude, sleeping Kanye, his wife Kim Kardashian West, as well as Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Chris Brown, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Ray J., Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, and Bill Cosby. All of these figures have some sort of connection to Kanye, however tangential; the ubiquitous Trump being the most tangential, relevant mainly for his fame. They’re all naked because people picture what famous people look like naked. They’re all inanimate simulacra because that’s a reification of the manner in which celebrity media depicts the very famous: a breed apart from normal people, existing only on screens, in print, and in fantasies. It’s that simple. And simultaneously not: Kanye and Ray J. are positioned in an aspect suggesting a polyamorous triad with Kim where history meets present.

This leads the eye to form other links and narratives based on the other bodies’ repose. The graininess of the video and the handheld pans suggest an ambiguity about voyeurism, and when the song drops out, replaced by sounds of sleeping, the proximity to the (not really) sleeping celebrities becomes alarming, as if reflecting and justifying Kanye’s own paranoia. The video, without resuming the song, apparently ends. An ominous “special thanks” roll call lists the “players.” And then a smash cut to the outro: an almost comically pretty shot in Cinemascope ratio, as the Sister Nancy sample at the end of the song kicks back in, and the shot pulls out to reveal the “cast,” in a curtain call of sorts, leading into Kanye suddenly waking up and segueing into “Father Take My Hands Part 1,” also from The Life of Pablo.

The artistic process is at once greater and lesser than non-artists may realize. The best example I can think of to elucidate is a story my mother likes to tell. When she was younger she made a number of visually striking metallic sculptures of slightly unearthly looking creatures with wings and tails, and people would compliment them with all kinds of flowery readings about cryptozoology and the like and ask her about her process. She’d invariably reply “Melting shit with a soldering iron is cool . . . I gave this one a tail for balance so it wouldn’t tip over” and take great pleasure in the disappointed eyes of all the “pretentious” people “reading too deeply into things.” My mom is not Kanye ‐ she prefers Wu-Tang ‐ but I would argue that Kanye’s filmmaking in “Famous” is a partial inversion of the given example: it looks (mostly, and, to be clear, deliberately) like shit but it should be given a deeper than surface reading. Every frame of it is alive with its director’s creative energy. Weirdly, as indebted as Kanye clearly is to Jodorowsky, I might prefer the disciple to the master, even if the reason why is the mundanity that I personally find Kanye’s self-indulgent preoccupations (media, the possibility of artistic genius coexisting within commercial industry, nudity) more interesting than Jodorowsky’s (with all apologies to religious mystics). The heart wants what the heart wants.

The vitality and will to be weird that gives Kanye’s visual art its pulse derives from the same place as the force powering his music: the sense that there’s a near infinite amount more where it came from. One of my favorite line readings of Kanye’s as a rapper is the rhetorical dialogue “’Your whip so cold’/’This old thing?’” which is, to be sure, a throwaway line (this is part of what makes it a perfect fractal), but it feels less like he’s downplaying the luxury and glamour of his car (“whip”) than it is a statement on his entire artistic oeuvre. It reads, instead, like “Your body of work is impressive and the work of, if occasionally a frustrating one, nonetheless an unambiguous genius”/“Well, sure, but wait til you see what I’m going to come up with next.” Because that’s the thing about Kanye. The fact that he’s driven so purely and entirely by impulse and id can lead to some wildly frustrating behavior ‐ his out-of-nowhere defense of Bill Cosby was, at best, dumb ‐ but it’s also the source of the art. Craft is neat. Art rarely is upon initial discharge.

Basically what I’m saying is this:

Or, barring that, any feature film. Barring that, as many shorts as possible. The cinema needs Kanye.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all