Art is about what the artist wants to tell us. But sometimes the most affecting communication has less to do with what the artist intends to say than with what the work unintentionally conveys about the private person. For more on this, consult your Freud. For just enough on this, watch Husbands and Wives or Roseanne and tell me that your knowledge of the psychic disturbances rumbling within Woody Allen and Roseanne Arnold doesn’t influence your viewing experiences. You watch the character Roseanne Conner throw a fit because she’s jealous that Dan had lunch with an old girlfriend, you compute that you recently read that Tom Arnold might be fooling around, you go oooooh. You watch the character Gabe Roth humbert around with Juliette Lewis, you remember ) that Allen is romancing a 21-year-old, you go hmmm.
The more we know about an artist, the more we inevitably read into the art. Then again, the more work the artist creates, the more likely it is that someone or something-Oprah or PrimeTime Live or even this magazine-is going to tell you more than you ever thought you needed to know about the flawed person.
For more on this psychological morass than you ever thought you’d pay attention to, consider the case of Michael Jackson. His new video compilation, Dangerous: The Short Films, includes the stuff you’ve seen countless times on MTV: ”Black or White,” ”Remember the Time,” ”In the Closet,” ”Jam”-meticulously made vanity productions directed by such movie biggies as John Landis and John Singleton, as well as video auteurs like Herb Ritts. It’s also padded with behind-the-scenes vignettes and footage from the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show and various awards ceremonies. Taken as a whole, the tape is an extraordinary piece of work, as much for what it says about the dark mystery of Jackson the man as about the bright brilliance of Jackson the artist. It is, in spite of itself, a document of a talent shaped-mutated, really-by psychological damage.
The first thing you notice is this: There are children everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Sure, we saw them at the Super Bowl, we saw them in ”Black or White.” But now, viewed through a filter of headlines about Jackson’s alleged activities with young boys, a kind of prurience hangs in the air like a funk. Macaulay Culkin’s cozy friendship with Jacko in the clip for ”Black or White”- what’s that about? All those rainbow kids at the Super Bowl singing ”Heal the World,” Michael’s intense devotion to young AIDS sufferer Ryan White, chronicled in documentary footage in Gone Too Soon (including attendance at the funeral in 1990)-is this seemly? (Hint: No, it’s not.) In one scene from the 1993 NAACP Image Awards, Jackson is led on stage by two tykes. (Now we ask: Who are they?) In a quick behind-the-scenes shot included before ”Remember the Time,” Jackson watches the action with an unidentified little boy close beside him. (Now we wonder: Who is he? and Is he safe?)
In turn, this preoccupation with children shades our appreciation of Jackson’s sexual persona-the skinny, heavily made-up man who pumps his pelvis, grabs his crotch, bares his teeth, growls, and fancies himself a panther. What real rage is he venting in ”Black or White,” when he shouts and smashes windows and works furiously at his fly? (This is the 11-minute version, complete with the violent coda deleted after the clip first aired.) What fantasy is the inspiration for ”Jam,” in which he teaches big, muscled sports legend Michael Jordan a thing or two about manly dancing? And what, doctor, please, is the erotic meaning of ”In the Closet” (let’s start with the title, shall we?), in which Jackson and model Naomi Campbell swivel and thrust and simulate heterosexual heat about as dry as the desert dust in which Herb Ritts set the soulless drama?
Knowing what we do now about Michael Jackson-about his fragile personality, about the scarring flaws that may or may not have led him to do damaging things to the very children he claims to idolize while mourning his own wrecked youth-we can no longer watch a video like Dangerous as innocents. Then again, even knowing all that we know, we cannot ignore the one pure thing he has: a burning genius as a performer.
In the end, Dangerous is more dangerous than even Michael Jackson knows. For intentional art: B- For unintentional revelation: B+