What does it feel like to say “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”…and to be heard by the President? When Kanye West inflamed an otherwise anodyne telethon by saying those words, it was like seeing the Death Star explode at the end of Star Wars. Complacent white America, so amply represented by the limp face of Mike Myers, was suddenly blasted by unpleasant truths…and revealed as powerless. Black America had, for a moment, halted the flow of bullshit. As Myers stood by helplessly, looking like the personification of every well-meaning liberal milquetoast in the world, Kanye West decanted America’s sins. For that moment, the rap-star became a sullen prophet. Now he’s made his first movie.
If there’s a story, it’s the story of a millionaire feeling persecuted. Kanye West, like most rappers, spends half his time aggrandizing (and the other half lamenting) his success. He only wants the world to acknowledge his genius. But the world, white and jaded, never fully commits. So, in Runaway, he meets a phoenix fallen to Earth, a pure spirit, and he finds it impossible to reconcile his desire for her with all the hollow trappings of fame. The short film is intoxicated with excess, with the starburst of having it all…and the strange beauty of waste. A series of disconnected images – the phoenix, a fireball, a troupe of ballerinas, an effigy of Michael Jackson – amounts to this: a portrait of an ego, a.k.a. Kanye West.
The young woman who plays the phoenix appears pretty-much-nude for the entire movie. She wears the beginnings of a bird costume. There is, thankfully, something covering her pudendum. But mostly, she’s a naked presence. She’s meant to symbolise innocence, and unsullied creative expression. This point is made by having her frolic with woodland animals. The fact she has a body that would (to quote Raymond Chandler) “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” is somewhat counterproductive to this aim, though West doesn’t seem bothered by contradictions. In this video, the phoenix fits right in. She’s an egotist’s idea of purity: an ingénue who keeps thrusting out her tits.
The best sequence in the film involves the troupe of ballerinas. Their tough grace is arresting. Watching them move is like watching an engine work, both strenuous and fluid. As West plays piano in an orgy of self-pity…the ballerinas put you in mind of Marines. Here, finally, West finds an eloquent juxtaposition: the whiney singer and the unyielding demands of art. It’s the swallowed pain that makes ballet beautiful. In a movie that’s about someone belly-aching – but still in love with what he does – the troupe are there to show the steel of professionalism. Shot in slow-motion, their muscles stretched taut as harp strings, these women defy weakness. Precise and determined, they slit doubts in two.
By parading an effigy of Michael Jackson early in the video, Kanye West none-too-subtly adopts his mantle as black entertainer supreme/man of questionable taste. Now that he’s gone, Jackson’s legacy is perhaps best understood by a fellow egotist. If Michael Jackson stood for anything, it was the bloated sickness we call fame. West, like every black singer after Jackson, owes a debt to what Michael accomplished… but at the same time, he’s his own man. Unlike Jackson, Kanye West doesn’t want to play the messianic eunuch. He came from the rap world: it’s ok for him to like sex. What he does borrow from his predecessor is a sense of scale. Every video he makes is designed to be an event. Michael Jackson might not have gone for Peter Greenaway-style visuals, but he would have loved the colossal indulgence of Runaway.
George Bush says the greatest regret of his presidency was being called a racist…by Kanye West. That’s going to grant the man a peculiar place in the history books. After all the shoe throwing and the international condemnation, it was a rapper saying “you don’t care” that hurt Bush, finally ending the five-year reign of his smirk. In his videos, West appears as a loner, usually shunned by (or busy shunning) the world. He often gets killed. The difference between an artist and a politician is that the latter presumes love, without needing it; while the former desires love, but acts remote. Runaway is not what Kanye West will be remembered for, but it is who he is: a daring act, courageously self-absorbed.