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Is "Runaway" The New "Thriller"?

Kanye West's short film Runaway premiered Saturday night, simultaneously airing on MTV, MTV2, and BET. He hijacked the night's music TV like an acceptance speech. And with Runaway, it seems like Kanye has made another entry on his application for biggest pop star of his generation.

Runaway's length and subject matter place it somewhere between Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller" and Prince's film Purple Rain. And even though Kanye cited Fellini and Kubrick as inspirations for the film, it seems improbable that he wouldn't be gunning for a spot next to MJ.

Runaway is similar to "Thriller" and Purple Rain in that it perfectly reflects its creator's persona. MJ brought a child-like playfulness to a genre flick. Prince combined his smoldering sexuality and Minnesota's chilly reality. Kanye's film is generally about the thing he seems to love most: himself.

For a 36-minute film, there's a lot of plot to summarize. It opens with a shot of Kanye running through a forest as Nicki Minaj introduces the story as a "twisted fiction." A bird-woman Phoenix played by Selita Ebanks crashes to earth as Kanye zooms in a Tatra supercar through a luscious forest. He rescues the Phoenix and takes her back to his lavishly appointed crib, complete with gilded furniture and woodland creatures dotting the backyard. After playing a version of the single "Power" for the Phoenix, Kanye takes her to a beach party. Then he takes her to a dinner party, where he plays "Runaway" for the guests. Everyone is impressed with his date. But the idyll is broken as the main course — a giant bird — is served, and the Phoenix screams with horror.

As the movie nears its conclusion, the Phoenix gets her first lines, saying, "You know what I hate about your world? Anything that is different you try to change, you try to tear it down." She then tells Kanye that statues are just Phoenixes with their wings torn off, thereby made solid and dead. And finally, she says she has to destroy herself to be reborn. There's an implication of sexual congress between the two, and Kanye finds himself passed out on the ground. The movie concludes as it opens, with Kanye running through the woods. The Phoenix flies overhead, and shoots straight up into space.

It's kind of a mouthful. There is a briefer way to describe the film: Kanye meets another version of himself, which he rescues. And then his other self destroys itself — in order to rescue itself. Kanye West has never had an impoverished view of his importance, after all.

See, Runaway is mostly about Kanye West confronting the reality of being Kanye West. Both the characters represent him. In the beginning, we see a wounded version of Kanye that's represented by the Phoenix, fallen to earth. As the Phoenix gets used to the Kanye compound, there's a long shot of her wandering outside, behind the bars of the window frame, looking like she's in a zoo or in jail. When she comes in, she becomes the physical manifestation of Kanye's music, the physical form of his true self, as "Power" summons her to action. At this point, the two are shot from the outside, again looking like they're trapped behind bars.

Throughout the film, there are symbols of fragility and femininity: slow-motion shots of deer and ballet dancers. Selita Ebanks herself is clothed in little more than a few square inches of fabric and a lot of colorful feathers. But the film also displays fragile objects that are unseen: The ego and artistic self-worth of Kanye himself. And it's as if he chooses to represent these fragile aspects of himself by means of these feminine icons.

Kanye has said in an interview that "Runaway" is a man's anthem and a woman's anthem. The song could be taken to be an apology to the women in his life, but it could just as easily directed to his friends and acquaintances. Kanye shows a progressive candor and self-understanding, identifying with the male and female sides of life.

The Phoenix and Kanye are both liberated in the film by the performance of "Runaway." And it's pretty clear the song is the centerpiece of it all. In fact, it seems like Kanye is aware that it's perhaps the best song he's written. The eight-minute scene in the center of the film marks its emotional and aesthetic core. The ballet dancers are both elegant and strong, holding poses for durations that defy normal endurance. Just as the film reaches its climax, it tumbles into falling action as the Phoenix is horrified by life and the trappings of success — it's meant to feast on its own flesh.

As Kanye and the Phoenix finally speak, she tells him, "If I can't burn, I can't go back to my world." The line perfectly represents Kanye's artistic method: He's made a mint by acting out and then using that material in his work. And as he's become more successful, he?s had larger opportunities to act out. It's a cycle of burning in public, and then being reborn artistically. Kanye is the Phoenix.

In a way, it's moot whether Runaway is a self-conscious dissection of his career, or an unconscious aesthetic statement. The film's other purpose is to keep Kanye in the public's mind. It's meant to drum up anticipation for the forthcoming My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In that capacity, the film is a runaway success.

Fuse October 26, 2010

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