The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"This Is It" (2009)

This Is It (2009)

Nobody cares who directed this, and certainly no one "wrote it". There is only one star, and one reason to see it: the final performances of Micheal Jackson. If you can't separate the man from his art, or can't find it in your heart to look beyond the tabloids and wonder who this human being was, stay away.

But for the rest of us, those who grew up with Micheal's music (he always felt like a little brother to me), watched him rise to the level of the first black man to escape the bonds of race, and become the arguably most popular entertainer in the history of the planet...This is definitely It.

I have a theory that even Micheal knew he couldn't do fifty shows. That, in essence, he was actually performing for this documentary. I'm not sure I mean that he knew that consciously, although it is certainly possible. There are moments when you can palpably feel his fatigue, and my sense is that it wasn't just physical fatigue from the last hour's performance. More soul-deep, the awareness of someone who grasps, quite clearly, that he somehow lost his way in life, and cannot reclaim what once he was. Just a few.

But other than Watching someone, anyone, in any field, who is as much a dominant force in their discipline as Jackson was in his is qualitatively and quantitatively different from watching the rest of humanity. There is a precision of thought and action that is simply beyond what other people experience or express. There is a quality of synesthesia, the ability to interpret stimulus in unusual ways, that simply suggests such marvels see more colors, hear more sounds, fracture time into smaller slivers, make their choices from a palate far broader than that the rest of us enjoy.

"This Is It" is about as close as we've ever been to him. He is interacting with his musicians, his dancers, his singers, and in every case, in every moment, he is telling them EXACTLY what he wants, and they are struggling to give it to him because they LOVE him. It is a simple reality, perhaps difficult for cynics to grasp. These people came from all over the world for even a chance to work with him, because they believe that it was his energy that inspired them to move forward in their lives.

We all know that Fred Astaire, the greatest dancer of his time (according to Baryshnikov) declared Jackson the greatest dancer of his. We don't need to debate this: such people are more than entitled to their expert opinions. I tend to agree if we limit the pool to western entertainers---I simply don't know what the rest of the world was doing in this sense. Singing? Something about his voice and personae cut across cultural lines like nothing I've ever seen in my life. Never ever saw an entertainer who seemed to be so loved by all quadrants of humanity. Not even sure who comes in second. And if I was/am irritated that in order for him to accomplish that he had to have a near-falsetto voice and walk so close to the edge of sexlessness that he had to constantly grab his crotch just to make sure there was still something there, well...that's my stuff. Life is what it is, and consciously of unconsciously he chose a form of protective coloration that gave him the ability to slip past the masculine sexual competition thingie that should have limited his appeal among white males. Strange. Clearly, he was operating on an energetic level above my own, and I can acknowledge that without a hesitation.

Whatever music he heard, whatever strange sun warmed that pale skin, this man was cut from the same cloth as many of the most legendary and influential artists the human race has ever produced. I like Wanda Sykes' take on what happened to him: "Micheal Jackson happened to Micheal Jackson." He had grown women throwing their panties at him at the age of EIGHT. There is simply no way he could have grown up "normal" with that. Add to that the particular time in American history, the cultural change, and you have the recipe for a talented young boy to get totally warped, without a protective family around him. We don't have to comment further on that.

What remains is a marvel. What a concert it would have been, if he'd been able to pull it off. Because his art is one you can actually watch evolve moment by moment, this is actually an important document for those of us interested in human excellence. Wounded excellence. Damaged excellence. But this level of commitment, clarity, energy and focus, applied to any discipline at all, would have produced mastery. I wondered what he had left as a dancer. Had heard that he practiced an hour a day, and personally doubted it: he seemed too frail the last decade or so. But apparently I was wrong. The quality of motion on display is almost superhuman, honestly. For a fifty year old man, his level of muscle control and separation is startling. I've never seen such a thing in a Westerner.

Look, "This Is It" is cobbled together from two hundred hours of rehearsal footage, and they struggle to find coverage of several of the numbers. He isn't singing or dancing at 100% most of the time. But what is here is like getting a CAT scan of Mozart as he composes, or Harlan as he writes, or Ali as he dismantled George Foreman. "This Is It" instantly becomes one of my favorite movies, one I'll watch a dozen times just to watch his feet, or his eyes as he plucks notes out of the air with his fingertips. What a horrible waste. What a phenomenal talent. I can't wait to see what the human race generates next...and I hope that whoever that next breakthrough performer might be, that he is better protected by those who hold his heart in their hands.


Saw an "Avatar" trailer before the movie, and for the first time felt excited. I finally have a sense of the human story inside the spectacle: a crippled ex-Marine given a chance to have a whole body again...a cloned alien body, an Avatar if you will, with which he will gain the trust of an alien tribe so that Earth can steal their goodies. Imperial Marines indeed. And apparently, he begins to empathize with the aliens...

"A Man Called Horse" and other films come to mind. There is a bunch of science fiction novels that play with this territory as well. But by letting us feel the excitement of a warrior given a chance to regain his physicality, paring it with an exotic love story and a tale of redemption, for the first time I can see the beating heart inside the Swiss watch. NOW I give a damn about the half-billion dollars of effects and next-generation 3D and CGI. Now it's starting to look like a potentially great adventure film, where the science that creates the images is a subtext for the future technology presented. I've heard it said that Cameron is the most technologically sophisticated director in the history of the medium. I don't know. I know that when a helicopter broke down on the set of "Abyss" he just grabbed a box of tools and fixed it. That he devised the underwater cameras and gear personally. That Jerry Pournelle said Cameron knew more about the space program than he did. And the guy knows writing. Yeah, I know--almost every writer "knows" they could have written a better script for Titanic, and many of them are right: but they wouldn't have had a prayer of holding the entire project in their minds: designing effects, designing shots and sound design, writing the script, working with the actors, handling the staggering logistics of a two hundred million dollar film...just boggles the mind. Cameron has given me multiple Moviegasms, broken the mold, pushed the edge. In his way, he has a place in my heart as dear as Kubrick. And after a decade, he's back.

I'm 100% ready to slap my money down.


Dan Moran said...

I must have listened to Thriller a hundred times. Jackson was never my favorite artist, but he was sure somewhere in the top 5 at one point.

About all I have to say about him as a person is that his absence has made it possible for me to listen to his music again. Maybe in a few years I'll be able to watch this movie.

Mike Ralls said...

Being a child of the 80's, I've got some fond memories of him. Never saw him live though. Seeing This is It in Imax will be as close as I can get, so I'm gonna give it a shot.

He was a fascinating character, and in about 10 years when the first really good biography of him is published, I'll pick it up and be enthralled.

Christian Lindke said...

Michael Jackson was never an artist that I obsessively followed. There was no need because society was saturated with his art, and it was usually engaging -- his dancing was always engaging and remarkable. And remarkable dancing is one of the most, if not the most, powerful aesthetic experience possible.

I am, still, an obsessive Prince fan. In my mind, Prince is able to look at music in ways that I cannot fathom. He never ceases to amaze me.

Reggie said...

I will watch Avatar with a great appreciation of Cameron's art and incredible grasp technology. But, also with cynicism. It is essentially "Dances with Aliens" - just swap Native American Indians with the blue-skinned aliens. Oh look, here's the White hero who's coming to save everyone by betraying his own kind. How effing noble. Too much of a cliche storyline, unconsciously reflecting the deeply seated White self-image as saviors of non-Whites everywhere and everywhen.

Steven Barnes said...

I 100% agree on what he's doing. But if I didn't let myself enjoy media that originated in sexist, racist, or culturally elitist thinking, that would probably eliminate 99% of the world's literature and movies.

And I agree about Prince. Lord God that man is beyond talented!

Steve Perry said...

And from what I've heard, Avatar is gonna make Poul Anderson look even more brilliant, too ...

Ethiopian_Infidel said...

The 80's produced two iconic twin towers with phenomenal musical talent: Michael Jackson and Madonna. While I'd argue Michael was the more innately and spectacularly gifted of the two, Madonna appears to more fully embody the the emotional and physical ideals championed on this blog. From early childhood, Michael was molded, groomed and forced towards stardom, whereas Madonna is completely self-made, having launched herself in adulthood. Madonna also seems to have avoided the substance abuse problems that plague and destroy many entertainers, maintaining physique and sanity with a Spartan exercise and dietary regimen. Her monumental achievements also bespeak unshakable ambition, focus and self-confidence, and superb ability to ignore naysayers. Madonna's career and example merit separate discussion, and provide excellent examples of abilities and qualities that underlay success in many fields.