Monday, January 01, 2007

The Flies In the Hallway

We start 2007 with a children's play, but in the hands of The Shins and director Patrick Daughters we end up with something far more adult-oriented...

The Shins - Phantom Limb - Single - Phantom Limb

VIDEO: The Shins "Phantom Limb" dir. by Patrick Daughters

Some of the more entertaining moments in any children's production come from the juxtaposition of the child actor's innocence with the more grown-up themes of a given story. Like in The Lion King when Simba proclaims he "just can't wait to be king" or in your kid's history class when a 5 year-old slurs over the syllables in a phrase like "give me liberty or give me death!" It's in watching the most in-experienced of people attempt to recreate what they have seen on the faces of their elders that we gain some feeling of comfort - remembering our own lost naivety and recognizing our present wealth of "knowledge."

Usually this makes us smile, but director Patrick Daughters ("Gold Lion", "Mushaboom") takes the cutesy undertones of Saturday morning serials and after-school specials and turns The Shins' "Phantom Limb" into a full-fledged morality play for adults. While we can still smile at the adorable performances of the players, there are a series of haunting images which negate any attempt at portraying this as simply a kid's music video.

The children vividly recreate famous scenes from human history, from the burning of Joan of Arc in France to the conquering of the "new world" by Europeans, all of which are linked thematically by the concept of "innocence" which the actors so forcefully represent themselves. The stage production is on par with Max Fisher's finest, with glowing red lights signifying the bloody destruction of war and costume design that looks frightfully realistic. It's yet another signal that the narrative on stage is not as fictional or frivolous as a children's play might imply.

Just as the idealization of purity, innocence and god can inspire a figure like Joan of Arc to fight for freedom - it can also be used as the justification for the destruction and suppression of an entire group of people. Yet the Shins not only question the practice of spreading violence in the name of moral superiority, they also aim at any type of idealization of human suffering whatsoever. As Arc burns upon a pile of thorns, a young girl to her right stands in the classic artistic pose of Jesus (the shot also recalls the end of the 1929 silent The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc which automatically also recalls a recent Mel Gibson production).

The fact that this "jesus" happens to be female is no accident either. The very first line of the song goes "frozen into coats, white girls of the north," sung from the perspective of another young girl looking for hope and inspiration in the classic western manifestation of the feminine ideal. Mercer speaks of a "latent" power in these types of girls to become angels; beacons of light to lead the rest of the world. When we actually see the young girl playing the voice in the sky, she isn't exactly overwhelmingly sunny - in fact she has a cold determinedness about her. Yet her song leads our young farmhand to take up sword and lead a revolution.

At the same time the video cuts to shots of a huddled mass of (presumably) pioneering Americans fighting against the cold. They are also led by some faint hope of greatness - what we might call the "American spirit." Yet both groups fail, one being burned alive and the other dying amidst the snow of the American wilderness (perhaps also at the hands of cannibalism). The same "white snow" that Mercer ironically uses to describe those perfect "white girls of the north" floating above the ground is here the death kiss for exploring pilgrims; a comment on our continued promotion of this one image of beauty, power and value - especially among young girls.

Yet on some level Daughters and the band want to imply that in our own ignorance of history we lead ourselves to these fates. The "phantom limbs" are all around us, signs that point to the inherent danger in continuing to follow leaders who speak solely on the basis of false hopes and proclamations. The conquering army general who wins his battle in the play raises his sword to the heavens, as if he has won some grand victory (maybe a slight reference to Bush?). But he is surrounded by dead bodies, and the rest of the play shows us that he was preceded by bloodshed and that even in the land he has now "won" there will be more bloodshed to come.

So what is it that we search for so diligently in each other's possessions? And what does the light from above have to do with any of that? In a sense it may be a feeling of belonging, or a need for safety. In owning the world we can feel completely protected from harm, and we can then justify our ownership in the name of some higher power who has the right to own all this - and is a figure with whom we feel some sort of kinship. At the same time that "kinship" or closeness can motivate us to risk everything for some future pleasure or reward. Yet Mercer is right in proclaiming "there's no connection." Because even as we build our "towers to the sky" in the name of an ideal, we are in fact losing the actual ability to connect with each other.

What we can connect, with the help of this video, is the way in which the ideologies of sacrifice, martyrship, innocence and control have spread and existed throughout history with mostly negative effects. Though the conquered kingdom was already practicing sacrifice (the killing of the cow) they are instantly killed by the disease of the west - which is this urge to own everything.

Any talk of colonization brings one to quote Heart of Darkness, but there is also a Shakespearean sense to this whole thing. Apart from the fact that it is theater, the concept of a play within a play reminds one of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Though it fits into the genre of "comedy" it is often read far more seriously as a loss of innocence, and though the Shins play is still a dream-like fantasy - we get a sense of horror in seeing these young kids fighting epic wars and dying for grandly hollow causes. We don't have the luxury of being awoken by Puck and his fairies, there is real death to be dealt with. But like Bottom (and consequently the Shins who appear in the production as an accompanying band), even after being foolishly arrogant we can still create meaning through artistic expression - a meaning that can possibly have real effects.

At the end of the video a lone survivor of the fallen pioneers, once again a young girl, sits in the snow collecting her thoughts. She hears the call of the angels voice in the sky, the same voice that has led so many others to doom, and now she must face the same question as others before her. Will she be subdued by the siren's song or will she reject it, remembering the dead kin at her side? Or perhaps she finds a new method of utilizing the angels' inspirational power (i.e. the Shins song)?

Whatever the answer, it's clear that in this way Daughters' has created a music video that serves as it's own phantom limb; asking the viewer to recall and never forget the mistakes of history, and to make sure that the next and current generation are not lured by false apparitions or the misleading words of the power hungry. It's time we all grew up a little bit.

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Anonymous said...

Impressive summary. Absolutely fabulous and full of intellect and minute observations.

Anonymous said...

The video and hamonics of the song are incredibly captivating. The casting was done beautifully as well. You can see a maturity of sorts in the faces of the children that teeters on the verge of disturbing given the situations they are enacting. I think it was wonderfully arranged and Daughters has created a very powerful visual experience to accompany The Shins' already powerful and beautiful song.

Anonymous said...

the pioneers portion of the video is almost certainly alluding to the Donner party, fyi.

Anonymous said...

There is beauty, failure, redemption, violence, isolation, rejection and contradiction in this masterfully crafted song and equally intelligent video. Humans will forever venture forth, conquer, misstep, mourn, learn, and do it all over again, and with any luck, artists and children will interpret it all forever. I am happily haunted by this song, as is my 6 year old daughter, who wishes she could have played Joan D'Arc

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie