Smooth Criminal

   by Chris Sunami - 5th November, 2008

These days, when Michael Jackson is best known as the punchline to a joke --an accused molester in frightening whiteface --and when his albums and videos are increasingly overproduced, self-indulgent trifles, it’s easy to forget the consummate artist that he once was.

That’s why it’s good to revisit what I would not hesitate to name the best music video of all time, "Smooth Criminal" ("Moonwalker" version).

The reason I picked this video, over other MJ classics such as "Thriller" and "Beat it," is that it best showcases Michael’s most influential talent, not as a singer or songwriter, but as one of the premiere dancers and choreographers of modern times --in or out of the realm of popular culture.

Let’s start, however, with the song. An object lesson in Tension, it combines a dark, threatening theme (of assault and possible murder) with a catchy hook and pop sensibility. It’s a testament to then-Michael’s sense of Essence that he was able to lift a song with such obvious contraditions out of the realm of camp or kitsch.

But it’s the video that takes the whole experience to another level. Like the song, the video is about a "smooth criminal" --but clearly a different smooth criminal then the one who strikes down Annie in the song.

Strikingly, Michael has choosen to portray, not the friend-of-the-victim who narrates the song, but rather the titular anti-hero himself, who, in the video version of "smooth criminalhood" inhabits a Guys-and-Dolls-esque roadhouse bar and music hall, a place of casual, but cartoonish violence.

The video is really all about style --in a unique move, Michael chooses to take Style itself as his medium. As I watched the video recently, I was struck by the fact that none of the signature moves that appear in the video --the moonwalk, the lean, the circular rotation --is sustained for more than a few seconds. Rather, Michael’s performance is mercurial, shifting instant by instant through movement vocabularies that other performers might spend years to develop and perfect. This lends a unique quality to his motion. He’s not so much dancing to the music as an ordinary person would. Rather, his dancing floats on the top of the music, a dizzying progression of technological virtuosity.

What really makes "Smooth Criminal" stand out, however, is the choreography as a whole. The advance over the similarly themed "Beat it" is clear. In "Beat it" the indelible image is of the gang members gradually joining together with Michael, as their individual chaos is transformed into a massive production number.

But in "Smooth Criminal" the entire speakeasy is alive from beginning to end with motion, choreography encompassing everything from the tango-like dance floor to the gamblers playing craps. Through it all glides Michael, moving sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, and sometimes in a complex relationship with the other dancers not easily summarized (but reminiscent of the choreography of "high-art" dancers like Alvin Ailey).

This was also the video where Michael most sucessfully realized his strange fantasy world. Impeccably dressed in a sharp white suit, and a hat (which features prominantly in the dancing), he is the mythical figure he always aspired to be, commanding the spotlight, shooting blind, and crushing pool balls with his bare hands. As in the universe of Tarantino’s "Kill Bill", this is a reality offset enough from our own to allow the hero to seem palpably superhuman.

Infamously, the middle of the video takes a sudden shift, plunging the brightly colored speakeasy into a monochromatic nightmare, where the grotequerie underlying the imagery is laid bare. The dancers collapse into a heap of huddled humanity, groaning and making wordles sounds, while Michael himself does a brief sequence that seems less like dancing than an austistic repetitive movement.

The great thing about this is the way it exposes the almost forgotten Tension undelying the whole sequence. And then, as suddenly as it began, the nightmare ends, and the club bursts back into hyperconsonant life.

The world’s most influential dancer, surrounded by a crowd of impeccably choreographed backups in a colorful gangland fantasy.

Source: Kitoba.Com

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