Full disclosure: I’m not completely well acquainted with the work of Kanye West, save for half a dozen songs and his very public persona. His egoism almost seems to speak for itself, but there a moments where even I, as someone who rarely listens to rap, understand that there’s more to him than meets the Tweet.
Perhaps part of West’s appeal is his ability to play off of himself intentionally. He has a good sense of humor, and there appears to be a self-awareness in his work, especially in his presentation of his public persona. Kanye West is, to my meager understanding, just as calculated of an artist as Lady Gaga or anyone else.
Spike Jonze, who was first a maestro of the music video before he moved into film, just might be the best person to continue to help hone West’s vaguely Joaquin Phoenix-à-la-I’m Still Here personality. Both Jonze’s cinematic and music video work often focuses on the surreal, environments that exist with a level of meta-awareness. From his Happy Days inspired Weezer video for “Buddy Holly” to the layered world of Being John Malkovich, from the sly smirk of Chris Walken dancing in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” to the literarily surreal Adaptation., Jonze knows how to wink at the audience, but for a reason. In the aforementioned pieces, he’s able to explore (in various amounts of constraint), the power of nostalgia, the Freudian fallacies of desire, and the pain of sensitivity.
It’s true that Jonze’s work has a unique air of sensitivity, and a male one at that. Without resorting to crass stereotypes, he is at once able to explore the agony of sensitivity and the absurdity of the male ego. He lets fragility transcend gender, and this seems to be particularly evident in Her, where his protagonist writes meaningful letters for a living.
Enter We Were Once a Fairytale, a short film by Jonze starring West. Though initially the two came to the table with separate ideas, with Jonze conceiving a short and West conceiving a music video for “See You in My Nightmares” (off his album 808s & Heartbreak), the two decided to combine the ideas and expand them into an experimental film. (This is one in several music videos that may as well be, and some are, considered short films in their own right, but that’s a topic I’ll return to for another time.)
At eleven minutes, Jonze is able to concisely sketch two portraits of Kanye West: the brash, egomaniacal baby who brags when his song comes on at the club he’s attending, and the crushed, vulnerable hip hop star whom no one actually understands. It’s both self-aggrandizing in a knowing way and incredibly earnest. And, admittedly, kind of weird.
West is drunkenly making a fool of himself at the club, and when he stumbles into an empty room, he finds an attractive woman wearing a leopard print dress. The alcohol has, by this time, taken hold of him, and his depressed demeanor makes a more explicit appearance, as he regresses into a pathetic figure and whimpers. She comforts him, whispering “It’s okay”. The encounter turns sexual, but only a moment or so passes before he wakes up on the couch with the woman nowhere to be found.
In a Lynchian turn of events, he realizes that the brief encounter was a phantasm, simply a manifestation of the comfort and acceptance he wants. He stumbles to the bathroom and begins to vomit red rose petals. He plunges a large, crude knife into his stomach, and more rose petals fall, as if they’re his entrails. He digs through his stomach and finds a little mouse-like creature attached to him via an umbilical cord. He cuts it, placing the animal on the sink and handing it a miniature version of the knife he himself had used. He watches as it commits suicide, and Jonze cuts back to West as he gazes at the small rodent’s corpse.
It’s a strangely impenetrable piece, one that takes joy in being as much of a cipher as its star and director. Formally, it weaves in and out of focus, in a similar drunken stupor to West. It feels on the fly and intimate. But when it hits its final beats, it transforms into something more premeditated and artful. The short’s solemnity becomes visually evident, with low lighting that has a halo-like glow in the room. Its enigmatic title seems to point to a piece or price of fame that, while often explored, is rarely examined in the manner that Jonze and West have presented it. Existential dread for the rich and famous is nothing necessarily new, yet part of the film’s selling point might be understanding that that dread can come from a man whose eccentricities are as well known, if not more so, as his work. But there’s a key emotion that resounds through every frame, making We Were Once a Fairytale feel like a piece of delicate introspection both for Spike Jonze and Kanye West.
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