Friday, August 03, 2007


Sorry it took so long to finish this, but life intruded.

So in the mid-90's, Michael Jackson had hit a bad patch. In the 80's, everything Jackson touched seemed to turn to gold. But "Bad" had not sold as well as "Thriller," and "Dangerous" had sold less well than "Bad." By 1996, Jackson's oddity, always a factor in press stories about him, had now come to the forefront; the controversial "Black or White" video, the quickie marriage and quick divorce with Lisa Marie Presley, the child molestation charges, the morphing appearance, all overwhelmed coverage of his music.

Creatively, he had become irrelevant. He had not released an original album since 1991, and had instead released two very expensive compilations of older material mixed with a few new songs. Jackson continued to push his music with ever more elaborate music videos, hoping to reignite the spark to his career that had caught with the "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" videos from "Thriller." As the videos got longer and stranger, though, Jackson's efforts felt more and more desperate.

And in 1996, along came "Michael's Jackson's Ghosts." Thirty-eight minutes long, featuring special-effects make-up by Stan Winston (who also directed). "Ghosts" tells the story of the Maestro, a reclusive man who lives in a spooky house just outside a small town. The film opens in black-and-white, with a group of townspeople marching up to the house carrying torches. Apparently, some young boys have been spreading stories about the cool stuff the Maestro shows them when they come to visit, and the townspeople, especially the fat, white mayor, want the Maestro gone and their children left alone.

The gates outside open mysteriously, as do the doors of the house. The Mayor leads everyone inside, and the film shifts to color once they get inside the main ballroom of the house. The Maestro (Jackson) appears and confronts the Mayor. The Mayor calls him a freak and tells him the town doesn't want his kind of folk around anymore. "Are you going to leave," the Mayor asks, "or am I going to have to hurt you?"

The Maestro then declares that, since the mayor is trying to scare him, he will now scare them back. And he begins to sing and dance, while summoning ghosts from the walls all around him. After about twenty minutes of this, he finally scares the mayor away and convinces the rest of the townspeople to accept him.

As a movie, it's not very good. The story, credited to Jackson and Stephen King, is a flimsy excuse for the set-piece dance, and the dialogue is incoherent. And it's downright uncomfortable to watch, because you can tell it's clearly meant to be a commentary on Jackson's highly-publicized personal troubles and get us to sympathize with him. And maybe that worked to some extent in 1996, but in 2007, after more child-molestation allegations had surfaced, it is hard not to wince when we see one kid says, "Show them the stuff you showed us," followed by another kid saying, "That's supposed to be a secret."

And the discomfort continues once the music starts. Once again, Jackson spends long stretches of time shouting at the top of his lungs for no apparent reason. It would be bad enough for him to do it once, but he does it over and over again for long stretches of the film. And the scene where he removes his flesh and dances as a bare skeleton would be really cool, except that it is edited to look as if Jackson just removed his clothes initially, with cutaways to the townspeople, including the kids, who react... strangely (actually, the film is full of reaction shots that form no coherent arc-the townspeople alternate between scared and amused for no apparent reason).

The most disturbing, and perhaps revealing, moment of all is when the Maestro possesses the Mayor and forces him to dance. The Mayor manages to make himself stop, and then a hand holding a mirror bursts out of his abdomen. The Mayor's face changes into a demonic version of itself, and he begins screaming into the mirror in the Maestro's voice, "Look at yourself. Who's the freak now? WHO'S THE FREAK NOW?"

What's disturbing about this is that the Mayor is played by Jackson in an elaborate prosthetic make-up. So here we're seeing Michael Jackson, who has dogged for years by rumors that he has been trying to make himself white, made up as a white man possessed by a (sort-of) black man, screaming hatred at himself in a mirror. Urgh.

And of course, this video is further proof that Jackson's strategy of hiring supposedly the best (or most popular) talents in the world to support him just never paid off the way it was supposed to. It seemed like such a good idea in the 80's, when we all thought there would be some kind of crossover between music video and feature films. But that first wave of video directors like Steve Barron, Bob Giraldi and Russell Mulcahy never did make any features worth a damn.

And would anybody seriously argue that John Landis ("Thriller," "Black or White"), Martin Scorcese ("Bad"), "Francis Ford Coppolla ("Captain EO"), John Singleton ("Remember the Time"), Herb Ritts ("In the Closet") or Spike Lee ("They Don't Care About Us") did themselves proud with these things? "Thriller" was the most popular, but it's clumsy and let's face it, Landis was always a hack. David Fincher's video for Michael ("Who Is It?") works really well, but Fincher is one of those few in the second wave of video directors who has been able to slip successfully between the long and short forms.

Here, Jackson has the support of Academy Award-winning make-up/effects man Stan Winston, bestselling author Stephen King and Academy Award-winning effects house Digital Domain and it still turns out awful. The effects are great, but the film overall is boring. It's worth watching as a curiosity, but not as a film.

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