Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Attacking the Giants: Rufus Wainwright "Going to a Town"

Rufus returns after a 3-year hiatus with a gorgeously somber song, and a brilliant Sophie Muller directed video...

Rufus Wainwright "Going to a Town"

dir. by Sophie Muller

On 2004's "Gay Messiah," Rufus Wainwright sings sarcastically of a "coming" savior. Throughout that track from his fourth album, Want Two, he makes illicit jokes, takes a dig at certain strains of Christianity and references his own role in this impending revolution - as "Rufus the Baptist". But three years removed from that album, the Baptist steps into the lead role for his video "Going to a Town" - the first single from his forthcoming Release the Stars.

Esteemed director Sophie Muller wastes no time getting to that point, prominently featuring a crown of thorns in the opening sequence. Wainwright sits below it, studying the woven chaplet hanging from a nail, while an open book rests in front of him. The struggle he faces may appear a bit pretentious, but the video merely matches the ambitions of the song - "I got a life to lead America." The crown on the wall actually seems to represent his inner "Jesus" - or the potential for greatness in every human being - and his ascent to the thrown is simply a recognition of responsibility to that potential.

Wainwright has claimed no religious affiliation, but rather a general fascination with "spiritual" aspects of life. His latest album cover features a close-up on a sculpture of Gaia, the Greek goddess (mother earth), which is part of a larger work, "Athena Attacking the Giants," in Berlin. Over time Gaia lost out to the patriarchal tendencies of society, but in early mythology she was a far more prominent figure. Thus the image of a silenced Gaia is entirely appropriate as Wainwright's muse - and a particularly helpful tool in understanding this video beyond its Christian context.

Cover Art: Release the Stars

"Athena Attacking the Giants"

The silencing of certain groups in society, including the gay community, is in many ways the fire that ignites the burning bush.
In Exodus, Moses is informed of his divine calling byway of the fire, and here the inflamed roses push Wainwright towards taking the crown. But the fact that this is a rose bush, and not a mere shrub, is an important distinction.

A popular quote from that story of Moses in Exodus 3:2 is "yet it was not consumed," in reference to the persistent life of the bush. Here the thorny plant is blooming, but the roses are only released into the world through Wainwright and his music. After the fiery inspiration things don't just persist, they actually get better. It's a beautiful image of rebirth, and perhaps the highlight of the video, as Wainwright sits on his bed American Beauty-style and red petals consume the room.

Like that excellent Sam Mendes film, the video has much to say about the prohibition of American society. Wainwright sings of "folks who have already been let down" and America taking "advantage of a world that loved you well." The mourning women that come to raise the singer up on his cross are perhaps a reference to the mothers of soldiers in the war - or just death in general. Like the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, they foretell a changing of the guard and warn of the deceptions of the world.

When Wainwright sings of "a town that has already been burned to the ground" he isn't just singing of America's well-documented descent over the years at the hands of another Bush. Like the statue from which he gets his album cover, this album was born in Berlin - a town devastated by war just a few decades ago. In the song the singer is leaving tired America, which is burning, to seek out a place that is already covered in ash. That doesn't mean he is giving up on the country, but instead on a journey to discover something inside himself which can spark change.

There's no question that Wainwright sees himself (and his music) as a special part of this fight, fulfilling his own dreams on his way "home." In a recent Guardian interview he admits to aspirations of being the next Verdi or Wagner. But even as he leads America on a path to salvation, he "ain't gonna be alone." One could interpret that as walking on the beach with God, or a lover in Berlin, but I think he's talking more about people - of all the other angry and inspired individuals ready to fight with him.

Wainwright clearly defends the right of all people to love, and the heavy use of Christian imagery to deliver this message is an ironic jab at the more Passion-ate members of our society. But Muller's work doesn't require you to read the Bible or study Mel Gibson films to feel its power. It's evident that the jail-like setting contrasted with the triumphant explosion of roses is a comment on the hidden beauty of humanity. And it's also clear that Wainwright and company aren't going to take this suppression laying down. The final shot of his face reveals a seething, fiery anger - poised for attack.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is a very insightful analysis of the inspirations behind this beautiful song. There is so much sadness about the state of destruction expressed through the lyrics... Thank you for sharing your comments online!

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