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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fertile Ground

My sister does not read this blog. She claims that it is because she is "Too Busy" to read--which really means "Way Too Cool" to read, of course. So, when she said to me, "Hey, I want to read your take on the Dead Can Dance video "Persephone" I jumped on that prompt like a DDR junkie slamming zir feet down at the sight of a looming <=  =>.

And at first, the assignment seemed pretty manageable. Check the video out:

Wow. It's a nice piece, actually, saturated with a mythic post-apocalyptic gloom that is so over the top that it staggers with wild junkie eyes straight back into the realms of Wonder. It's like a live action Goya painting, from the incomprehensible rites of fertility to the laughing crones to the bleak and horrible landscape.

Let's dig into the symbolism a bit, though, shall we?

Check out the kid at the beginning with the crucifix. Now, what we can draw from that is that this is some sort of debased civilization--the relics of the past have been left in the mud. The serpent (or, maybe some sort of giant hideous worm? We never see more than the slithery tail) slips through this landscape unhindered. I love the little touch, incidentally, of the child nailing the little Christ to his little cross with a big honking brick. The video doesn't linger on this image, which is a good choice--with such a brief presence the clip remains sly rather than obnoxiously overt. Taken together, these images proclaim a kind of barbarity holding sway over the world. This is even more profound when paired to the sepulchral background music, which groans ponderously in a medieval dirge.

Welcome, the video says, to the new dark age.

Then, if you weren't overstuffed with Christ already, we've got an almost pagan blood rite between our two protagonists, as they cut their hands (in the middle of a mud covered wasteland, I might add--hope penicillin isn't a lost technology here) and join their blood together. I bring it up as another nod to Christianity, though, because these hand wounds are rather reminiscent, in my mind, to stigmata, the wounds of Christ on the cross, wounds that would appear sometimes upon the palms of the devout. (This is, you'll recall, an image the Surrealists really dig.)

I would normally feel a bit odd about the repeated footage of the hand carving scene here, but I think the reintroduction of the footage, its use of slow motion, and the pairing of that moment with a shift in the music itself to a clearer choral sound actually works in the video's favor. It all seems to emphasize a sort of inevitability of the whole thing, an almost obsessive caressing of details, an etherization of time itself upon the examiner's table, a sense of how one moment plods hopelessly into the next.

I think this actually works quite well with the title--Persephone. For those unfamiliar with Greek myth (not that common these days, I know, but let's review just in case) Persephone was a goddess of nature and fertility that Hades, the dark god of the underworld, fell in love with--or at least in lust with. In typical Greek God fashion, instead of asking her on a date like a normal, well adjusted God, he just rode out of the realm of the dead, scooped the screaming goddess up, and dragged her straight to hell, as it were. Charming. Her mother, Demeter, understandably freaked the fuck out and killed basically all the vegetation until an exasperated Zeus finally agreed to get off his ass and make a bargain with his creepy basement-dwelling brother to let the poor goddess go. They made a deal where Persephone would hang out in the world's largest basement dwelling neckbeard den for half the year, and the other half would live in the world of sunlight and so forth. Her mother, true to form, freaked out again every year, which is why Pennsylvania's roads are either covered in ice, or covered in road crews, depending on the season.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Wait, where was I?

Oh, right, Persephone.

Now, what's interesting about this is that Persephone's stories is one of a larger class of stories about death and rebirth--cyclical fertility stories, if you will--that often depended upon the idea of a god sacrificing himself and then returning to life. We see this even more overtly with Adonis, with Osiris, and, yes, with Jesus Christ.

Except... this video isn't exactly doing it right, is it? Do you see, at the end of the video, any hint of rebirth? Nooot really. As soon as our red head, ridden by Satan, jams her bull horns (another symbol of fertility and virility, incidentally) into her lover it does start raining, of course, but the watching old creeps react by putting on their veils and hats again and heading for dryer pastures. The grimy kids hang about gathering up the coins left behind, which doesn't strike me as a particularly optimistic symbol of rebirth. (Note also that the coins are rather reminiscent of the silver paid to Judas in return for his betrayal of Christ.) Our sacrificial lamb does smile at the end, but there sure doesn't seem to be much to indicate that his smile--and, presumably, the hope it carries of some meaning to the death--is anything more than dying delusion, and we're left with a shot of our protagonist sitting in the rain crying tears of blood.

Everything here indicates to me that this is not a resurrection right but a failed, perverse echo of an ancient hope in a blasted post-civilization wasteland. It is not a fertility rite, it is an infertility rite, with sterile coins tossed by sterile crones at children murdering each other for what amounts to empty entertainment. Whether it be Christ or Persephone, the old myths, the old rites, have no meaning here. What's more, sacrifice here seems sanctioned not by some higher divinity but by the malignant, possessing perversity of Hell, as our protagonist is ridden and reduced to bestial fury by some occult force.

It's a stunningly bleak video that has, as its aim, the creation of a dark mythology, a mythology that Lovecraft would doubtless recognize: the myth of a world where the only divinity you're likely to find is the divine presence of horrors that toy with humanity for their languid amusement.


And that's the essay Emily wanted me to write. Not my longest or my best work, I don't think, but it digs into the video effectively enough, and I think I've uncovered some themes that might not be as immediately apparent. It would be easy, after all, to just read the video as a fertility rite, missing the heavy irony suggested by the final image and the dirgelike tone of the music.

I finished up this analysis satisfied that I had done all I needed to do.

But then, like a moron, I scrolled down to look at the YouTube comments. My reactions ran something like this:

"thank all my fans, means a lot to raise awareness of our feelings and human decadence, but we know that love is always hope ..."

Alright, first comment, pretty damn incoherent, actually. It doesn't even really work grammatically, but hey, it's possible this is their second language. Whatever, moving on...

"This is about the old pagan rites for fertility.The old women represent the crone..the pregnant one, the mother..the young one the maiden.The young man is the corn or wheat God who must die to be reborn.For the sake of the land.Hence the rain..the planting.They mourn his death..celebrate his rebirth."

Yeah, kind of a shallow reading that doesn't take into account the full range of the symbols, but I like the whole three women motif, that's an interesting bit of analysis.

"Lol, the video matches with the song so well that i tend to forget that is actually a Mylene Farmer video. Even though i like the original background song."

...Uh oh.

Looks like my homework assignment just got doubled.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it turns out that this is NOT a Dead Can Dance video at all. It is a video produced for a French artist Mylène Farmer, for her song Sans Logique--a song from 1988, if you can believe it. Yes, that's a video from the late 80s, when American videos were still just a bunch of people in odd clothes dancing. Hm.

Let's take a look:

Now, there's two things this video shows us. The first is that music videos are fundamentally, inextricably linked to their music, far more so than other cinema. This is partly because of how elements like the title and lyrics alter the meaning of the video. Here, for example, the change to Farmer's lyrics and title emphasize not the idea of the failed, barren rite but the sheer absurdity of the whole situation and the war within the female protagonist. She seems to struggle with the rising force of unreason and diabolical possession within a world that has long since disintegrated.

The music, too, transforms from dirgelike medieval groaning to a danceable cabaret rhythm that heightens not the desolation of the world at large but the perversity of the protagonist's struggles, and the warped nature of the event. There is no longer the sense of hopeless inevitability, but it is replaced not by an new sense of hope but by a sense of the absurd randomness of the world. Freedom amidst absolute chaos and capriciousness, after all, is no better than an inevitable, ritualized fate--you still can't successfully control your life or even choose your own poison. Yikes.

So, the change doesn't make the video any less bleak, but it dramatically alters our understanding of the video's message. And, while we're at it, it's worth pointing out that the video has countless other possible interpretations that are generated by its pairing to Farmer's score--and, by extension, the pairing to Dead Can Dance should at the very least double that number. The simple act of changing the tune and making the few other minor cuts necessary to extend the video to the required length can make visible a whole new range of meanings that might not have been initially visible.

And that's pretty freaking cool.

But there's a second lesson here:

The history of Music Videos is totally unwritten, and might already have passed the point where we can make sense of it.

See, unless that heroic YouTuber had mentioned the fact that this was originally a video for a totally different song, I would have no way of knowing one way or another. Documentation of music videos is horrifically sloppy even in databases like Wikipedia which categorize every other damn trivial bit of information about an artist. There's no easy way to confirm that there ISN'T a video for Dead Can Dance's "Persephone"--in fact, it never occurred to me to even try. There's just too little record of who is producing music videos, and recognizing a reworked video can be downright impossible, especially when the video is, as here, devoid of anyone actively singing the song.

On top of that, there is an overwhelming amount of information to sift through, and any historian of music videos is going to immediately be faced with the problem of specialized, localized knowledge. I had never heard of Farmer, for example, despite the fact that she was doing, two decades ago, what I've been analyzing in Lady Gaga videos for the past year or so. I mean, everything that I've praised Gaga's videos for, their willingness to push the boundaries of possibility, their length, their production value, their unique aesthetic and European arthouse sensibilities... all of that is present in Farmer's work. It's really, really worth checking out if you're at all interested in the medium, in other words.

But there's no way for the casual viewer to know that this stuff exists, because the information is so piecemeal.

And WOW is that exciting.

See, this might be a staggeringly daunting task, but it's also a sign that this field is absolutely rife with possibilities. As we critics start to build up a preliminary history, more and more gems will be unearthed from the sludge, more and more interesting material that hasn't crossed the Atlantic, or that hasn't spread out of particular genres (I just spent the day discovering the brilliance that is early rap and hip hop, for example) is going to start seeing the light of day. It's an exciting time to be looking at music videos, because everywhere you turn there's something new.

And that's not even taking into account the myriad possibilities of interpretation within each video.

So, I think there's a wonderful kind of irony to this bleak video. Although its message is one largely of confusion and hopelessness, it also represents a different kind of confusion. It demonstrates the fertile Precambrian chaos, the fecund disorder, of the Music Video medium. Dig into the soil and you'll find all sorts of life scuttling around. And as you do, please, leave a record of your discoveries. Don't let the myths fall into disrepair over the grinding ages--let's share the secrets that we find.

Oh, and if you, like my sister, want me to dig into a particular work, let me know. I'm always looking for new things to explore, and it's always more fun to go exploring when you've got a companion.

 You can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

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