Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Rock video "according to Fredric Jameson"

Robart Pahlavi Bowie

This article is an analysis of rock video (ie promotional films for pop records) according to the influential concepts Pastiche and Schizophrenia, developed by Fredric Jameson in his essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society".1 In addition to re-circulating Jameson's definitions for the mentioned concepts, in the analysis that follows we will also briefly consider a number of well-known rock videos before undertaking a more precise textual reading of a video that is a good illustration of how Pastiche and Schizophrenia operate in rock video. The video in question is David Bowie's "Loving the Alien".

Jameson defines the first of his two distinctive features of the new postmodernisms in the following way:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humour. 2

The imitative tendency that this definition posits as the key formal feature of Pastiche is notoriously prevalent in rock video. A prevalence so acute to have caused Michael Shore, a rock video historian, to complain:

... rock-video directors get most of their imagery ... from an attic full of half-remembered media images, plundering ... all of film history as well as painting and photography, and even television shows.3

For example, Jay Dubin's video for Billy Joel's "Tell Her About it" tried to recreate the Ed Sullivan Show (as seen in the early 1960s). Bob Giraldi similarly mimed the Robert Wise film The West Side Story in his video for Michael Jackson's "Beat it", primarily by focusing on a stylised conflict between two rival gangs; while in another video, for Madonna's "Material Girl", a sequence from a different musical, namely "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was carefully re-staged, with Madonna replacing Monroe.

Like these and many other rock videos, "Loving the Alien" lends itself to the rubric of Pastiche by structuring itself after a classic text of German Expressionism, namely Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Three aspects of the video best demonstrate how "Loving the Alien" is a Pastiche of Caligari. First of all, "Loving the Alien", like its ancestor, is a largely a studio-bound production. More specifically, the cardboard sets before which Bowie performs parts of the song strongly resemble the highly unusual, oblique sets of Caligari - a film that is, renowned for (among other things) its set design.

The second of the three aspects under discussion is the thematic parallel between the veiled woman who manipulates Bowie's head early in the video, who is apparently in charge of the seemingly tormented character played by Bowie, and the evil Dr Caligari, who is similarly in charge of Cesare, the somnambulist.

Arguably the most important of the three aspects that allow the classification of "Loving the Alien" as a Pastiche of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is the structure of the 'asylum' scene close to the end of the video. In the course of this scene we find Bowie, lying on a bed, blue-faced, and listening to "Loving the Alien" through a set of headphones. He is also visited by his Eastern-looking girl-friend.

The structure of this scene is important because it is modelled on what is perhaps the most famous feature of Wiene's film. Caligari ends by discrediting the film's narrator, Allen, and his story, which takes up the greater part of the film, with the revelation that he is a lunatic asylum inmate (a fact which also explains the film's oblique sets as a signifying the 'unstable' state of the narrator's mind).

In a similar move, the closing scene of "Loving the Alien" discredits all that is seen up to that point, with the exception of the two black and white scenes in the video. How then does this scene discredit the video's 'narrator'?

In addition to the highly clinical appearance of the room in which the scene is set and which invokes memories of asylum scenes from other films (eg. Ingmar Bergman's Persona), as well as the position of Bowie (lying on his bed), the discrediting is primarily accomplished by the use of Bowie's headphones as a narrative device; a usage that conveniently brackets the images prior to this scene (with the exception of the black and white images) as being the product of the character's mind; an image chain which is broken due to the arrival of the Westernised, Middle-Eastern looking woman.

This break is indicated by the collapsing of the volume of the song from the normal state to that which is heard through the headphones, a volume shift without a jump in the chronological sequence of the song. It is this continuity of the music that links the images prior to this scene with the present one; a link that is instrumental in persuading the viewer to consider the previous images as being due to the character's imagination, having been triggered by the song he is listening to.

This contention is reinforced by the ghastly blue colour of the bed-ridden Bowie's face which links this character to the other blue-faced, trembling one, also played by Bowie, seen earlier in the video seated against a colourful background with which the character appears to (in a sense) overlap. I read this image as a visualisation of the experience of the schizophrenic who, according to Baudrillard, can no longer produce the limits of his own being ... "He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence."4 If this reading of the image is correct, then the blue colour of Bowie's face in what I have called the asylum scene is a sign of his schizophrenia. And this, in turn invalidates the previous images due to their having been issued from a madman's mind.

Another reinforcement for the contention regarding the bracketing character of the asylum scene occurs in the scene that follows, during which we see the distressed Bowie, still on his bed which is being sucked down a light tunnel, accompanied by the grating, distorted soundtrack - another musical shift, this time from the headphones' state of the volume.

This is clearly another imaginary scene from the 'mind screen' of the asylum inmate version of Bowie, apparently triggered by the near-kiss of his girlfriend, heavily implying the character's castration fear of his girlfriend's double 'otherness': she is both female and not Western.5 (The fear, amplified by the character's schizophrenia, equates the kiss with the terror and the implied loss of life or self of being sucked down the light tunnel - vagina?)

All this then should explain the highly fragmented Caligariesque something-like-a-narrative of the video.

This aspect of "Loving the Alien" was dwelt upon not only because it is the most potent illustration of how the video is a pastiche of Caligari, but also because the protagonist's psychological instability relates to Jameson's second distinctive feature of the new postmodernisms, namely Schizophrenia, a concept that is based on the work of the late French psycho-analyst, Jacques Lacan.

For Lacan, the experience of temporality, human time, past, present, memory, the persistence of personal identity over months and years - this existential or experiential feeling of time itself - is ... an effect of language. It is because language has a past and a future, because the sentence moves in time, that we can have what seems to us a concrete or lived experience of time. But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, he or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity either, but is condemned to live in a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the 'I' and the 'me' over time.6

In this definition two features of schizophrenia are foregrounded: temporal discontinuity and lack of a persistent identity. Both of these are extremely conspicuous in "Loving the Alien" as well as in a great many other rock videos.

Temporal discontinuity in "Loving the Alien", it must be noted, is defined against, or in relation to, temporal continuity in the traditional narrative film, which is logical, or linearly developed, and which time lapses are 'explained' by certain cinematic codes, such as dialogue cues or lap dissolves.

We should also note that a time lapse may or may not require a shift in space. An example of the 'may not' half of the pair is that of a character waiting for someone in a room for a long time; a length which may be suggested by one or more dissolves.

On the other hand a time lapse may require a shift in space, as when, in two successive shots, we 'move' from one country to another. This is a temporal and spatial shift that may be clarified by a dissolve, and a caption announcing the identity of the new place.

My primary reason for discussing temporal linearity in narrative cinema is to show that temporal discontinuity can be signified by spatial discontinuity, or unexplained changes of setting, and this is the case in much of "Loving the Alien".

While the performance segments of the video lend it a certain appearance of unity, there are still all the bewildering disconnected scenes that refuse any such unity. For example, it is impossible to explain in terms of traditional or realist narratives how the first performance segment, (followed by) the veiled woman who manipulates Bowie's head before a rotating mirror, (followed by) the pan shots of Bowie running along the expressionist cardboard buildings (the same as those in front of which he performs parts of the song) over and over again, (followed by) Bowie emerging with an organ from the bottom edge of the screen, and so on, are causally connected.

The only way that I can explain the video's image track is by arguing that the video's images are linked with the song - whether the lyrics or the melody accompanying the image at any one moment in the course of the video - through 'free-association'.

So it can be said that the image of the video's religious figure, the veiled woman, manipulating Bowie's head before a mirror is loosely motivated by the accompanying lyrics 'salvation for the mirror blind'. Together, the image and its accompanying lyrics can be read as an attack on religion and the believer. In addition, the mirror image of Bowie whose head is manipulated by the sinister veiled woman shows us what the mirror blind, the religious believer, is blind to: the mirror-image in question is of the blue-faced, schizophrenic Bowie. In other words, he is blind to his schizophrenia, caused by his religious belief and the power exerted by the religious figure over the believer via the believer's belief. Schizophrenia then, is structured here for the viewer to mean the true 'salvation' of the believer.

A different example of the image-song association is the shot of the emerging organ from the bottom of the screen. In this case, the image is 'keyed' to the beat of the song at that moment: and this can be noted by considering the movement of Bowie's hands on the keyboard of the organ that is synchronised to the music.

With the help of these examples it is not difficult to see how the video's image track satisfies the first of the two features foregrounded by the definition of Schizophrenia given above, namely temporal discontinuity. The second foregrounded feature, you remember, is lack of a persistent identity.

In "Loving the Alien" David Bowie appears in at least three guises:

- as a singer

- as the asylum inmate

- as the imperialist (of the black and white images)

In addition, if it is accepted that the pseudo-narrative portions of the video have issued from the mind of the asylum inmate character played by Bowie, then this character is 'responsible' for other 'characters' played by Bowie such as the trembling blue-faced Bowie; the one seated on a rock, who throws a rock at the window with silhouette; the character whose head is manipulated by the veiled woman; and so on.

It is possible then to conclude that there is no one David Bowie, or a character played by Bowie, that can be said to have a persistent identity in the way characters have such identities in traditional narratives (the schizophrenic asylum inmate character is excluded by definition), or straight performance rock videos, an example of which is Bowie's own Modern Love. Therefore, the video can safely be regarded as Schizophrenic, in terms set down by Jameson's definition.

As in "Loving the Alien" temporal discontinuity and lack of a persistent identity are dominant features of many other rock videos. For example, in Julien Temple's video for ABC's "Poison Arrow", the band's lead singer, Martin Fry, performs four different parts: Temple also gives two parts to Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones to play in the band's video for "Undercover of the Night": while John Landis makes unstable his video's central character in a different way, by having him metamorphosise before the camera from the human state to that of a beast - the video in question is of course for Michael Jackson's "Thriller".

From these examples, Temple's videos are also temporally discontinuous in the way I discussed this concept in relation to "Loving the Alien"; as is Brian Grant's video for Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey"; Russell Mulchay's video for the Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac song "Gypsy"; and any video that mixes band performance with a narrative of sorts.

To conclude, we can see that there is a sense in which rock video can be discussed, on a textual level, as a decentred genre, if only in Schizophrenic videos (I would like to say that Pastiche videos are also decentred, since their 'centres', what they are a pastiche of, come from 'outside' the texts; or rather, the fact that the centre comes from outside the text is more strongly foregrounded by a Pastiche text than by an in-genre text; although I am aware that this claim is debatable).

This decentredness on the level of the text is however coupled with the video's 'centre' within the social, or the institutional scene. Rock videos, as we all know, have the centre/function of selling records, keeping record companies going, adding to the star's status; a function of capital.

It is not difficult to see how this function, paradoxically, motivates the textual decentredness of rock video, at least in the genre's many instances with Schizophrenic image tracks.

I say paradoxically because the strategies that accompany the discussed decentredness are borrowed from the avant-garde, which is often regarded as the artistic space within which the order of capitalism is resisted.7

However, in rock video, these strategies are not deployed to resist capitalism, but rather to sustain it. This is because rock video's Schizophrenia is precisely what allows it to be repeatable at such a high rate on television; if rock videos were structured as narratives in the manner of say TV dramas, they could not be repeated on TV as often without boring the audience to nausea. And of course the more often a video is repeated, the better are the chances of the chart success of the corresponding piece of vinyl, and the greater the royalties collected from TV stations for showing videos.

It must be said that there are now and again videos shown that are closer to the spirit of the avant-garde than the capitalist videos that one comes across most often in music programs.8 For example, "Loving the Alien", with its critique of imperialism, is clearly not a capitalist video. However, artists who make such videos, predictably, always run the risk of having their work not shown and therefore compromising not only the commercial success of their song, but also their careers.

David Bowie is an exemplary figure, since his video career has perhaps suffered more than any other major artist due to his risk taking.

"Loving the Alien" for example, was shown a total of three times on local TV. His 1979 video for "Boys Keep Swinging", a savage send-up of masculinity, was banned for screening before 8:30 pm (at the time most rock programs were scheduled before 8:30 pm and many still are) both in Australia and in Great Britain. Both records failed commercially, as did a more recent offering, "Day in Day out", the Julien Temple directed video which was both heavily censored and little shown (even after it was censored) due to its containing 'offensive' material such as soliciting; a video which also happens to be a brilliant critique of the mistreatment and discrimination the poor are subjected to in contemporary America.

So rock video, like most postmodern offerings in other genres, only appears radical due to the devices it borrows from the avant-garde, while remaining deeply conservative since, as we saw, the system (in our case the TV networks, and more generally the Western capitalist social systems within which the TV networks operate) is just as intolerant, as at any other moment in its history, of works, such as "Loving the Alien", that border on radicality.


Notes

1 F. Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983), p.114-125.

2 Jameson, p.114. It must be acknowledged that while this definition and the one of schizophrenia are useful in defining post-modernism, both strike this writer as displaying a certain nostalgia for modernity in the way they are formulated in terms of loss, whether it is the loss of the normal in pastiche or the loss of a persistent identity in schizophrenia. This point could lead to a potentially interesting analysis of the highly problematical discourse of such neo-Marxist writers as Jameson. However, the intention of the present piece is slightly narrower, since we are primarily concerned with the textual mechanism of rock video in order to discover how pastiche and schizophrenia operate there.

3 M. Shore, The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1985), p.103.

4 J. Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication", in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (Port Towsend: Bay Press, 1983), p.133

5 In this regard, the black and white images are illuminating. As what I consider to be the only 'non-imaginary' moments of the video prior to the asylum scene, they contain the broad reason for Bowie's fear: in the first of the black and white instances we see Bowie, clad as an imperialist, pinning money notes to an Eastern woman against a background of rubble of buildings. Both are happy. In the second instance, the woman is shown to be revolting against the imperialist by tearing the money notes off her suit. Bowie, the imperialist is very distressed. The castration fear that I mentioned earlier, on the basis of these images, is on the one hand a fear of being dominated by the female sex (by losing the dominant position), and a fear of the loss of the colonised territories, on the other. These two discourses of 'fear' are woven together by the process of condensation in the dream-world of the video, but here, in the black and white images, are 'objectively' commented upon.

6 Jameson, p.119

7 See for instance Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, or Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension.

8 There are many sorts of commercial video, examples of which are Diane Ross's most recent offering "Dirty Looks" (!) during which the singer unashamedly offers herself to the male gaze as its object as she declares her love and adoration for the other's 'dirty looks' through the song's lyrics; or the Robert Palmer video "I didn't Mean to Turn You On" with its cast of background women (Palmer's 'band' and 'chorus') that are truly reduced to the object status by being deprived of any recognisable human expressison, aided by their heavy, Vogue-style, make-up and by being presented in a manner not unlike department store window dummies.


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