There’s something heartening in the fact that the two top grossing movies last week were Michael Jackson in This is It and that incredibly cheap movie about ghosts attacking people with their own bed sheets (surely this must be an homage to the only other known paranormal bed clothing attack in the cinema, H.G. Lewis’ Something Weird ). As most people know, This Is It consists primarily of rather cursory rehearsal footage probably intended for a DVD bonus feature, so its “budget” was minimal (if we exclude it from the overall budget of MJ’s doomed gig at the O2 arena). Meanwhile, if you check the box office stats, you can have the thrill of seeing Paranormal Activity’s budget presented as “$0.015” (expressed in millions). Surrogates, meanwhile, is sucking wind at 30 million—so all and all it was a good week for those hoping to see a different cost to suckitude ratio emerge in Hollywood.
Beyond the miniscule budgets, This is It and Paranormal are also thematically related in that each purports to be a documentary about a ghost. Paranormal does this Blair-Witch style through a low-res home video look, demonstrating that the mise-en-scene of the domestic haunting has finally completed its transition from Victorian shadow to suburban night-vision. This is It, meanwhile, produces its uncanny by focusing on Jackson as a living dead man, or as the inevitable headline reads in several reviews: “Dead man Moonwalking.”
If more proof were actually needed, This is It demonstrates just how impossible it is to distinguish “text” and “context.” If MJ were still alive, the film would be an insult. With MJ dead, it becomes “haunting” in various senses of the word. Much is being made about the film’s ability to reveal the “real” MJ as the consummate professional dedicated to his craft. There is some of that in the movie, to be sure. We get to see MJ coaching his dancers on their routines, debating the music director about tempo, and telling his guitarist (“with love”) that his read on Billy Jean isn’t quite funky enough yet. We also get to see a seriously miffed Jackson complaining about his monitor mix (although there is the suspicion that he’s simply tired of having to make the obligatory run through the old Jackson 5 medley). Of course it’s impossible to watch the film and not keep thinking that MJ would be dead in just a matter of weeks, or that he was going home after these rehearsals to visit the sweet oblivion provided by Propofol on tap.
This is It is certainly worth seeing if you have any interest in the whole MJ saga, or if you are curious to witness perhaps the most extraordinary talent ever to commit himself so completely to a life of kitsch (at one point he emerges from a giant mechanical spider…I kid you not). But the film pales in comparison to an earlier take on “dead” MJ by artist Slater Bradley. In his Doppelganger Trilogy (2005), Bradley staged three extraordinarily convincing “fake” performances: Ian Curtis leading Joy Division in what looks to be a crowded underground club; Kurt Cobain and Nirvana at an outdoor music festival; and Michael Jackson rehearsing alone and in silence on a dimly lit stage (all three icons played by Bradley’s own “doppelganger,” Benjamin Brock). Each is impressive in capturing, not just the material look of the performer and his era, but also the variants of doom, tragedy, and melancholy that have become so central to the cultural memory of these fallen pop stars. There is a sick joke here as well: two of the performers are already dead, while Jackson (circa 2005) might as well be. One might call Bradley’s piece “prescient,” but then again, who actually thought MJ could or would live much longer? This is what makes Bradley’s portrait of him so spooky. Displayed alongside the dead Curtis and Cobain, MJ’s distant pantomime of his characteristic dance moves on a deserted stage is a reminder that the King of Pop checked out long, long ago.