There is a pinnacle moment in the 1997 film “Ghosts” in which Michael, as the loveable but quirky and eccentric character “The Maestro” faces down with the very cantankerous and anal, white mayor of the town, hereafter known simply as The Mayor. As the two stare each other down coldly, face to face, the mayor warns The Maestro of what will happen to him if he doesn’t comply with his demands to get out of town.
“Back to the circus, you freak!”
The Maestro, who up to this point has made light of the uptight mayor’s demands, starts to show his first real signs of fear, as he realizes this guy is not playing a game. He’s dead serious.
“You really are trying to scare me, aren’t you?”
It’s an entertaning scene from an entertaining short film, but what many may not realize on first viewing is that Michael himself actually played all of the major roles in the film-not just The Maestro, who is recognized as the artist Michael Jackson and is pretty much a strightforward representation of himself, but also (via a ton of makeup, a gray wig, a fat suit and a totally different voice) The Mayor and several of the ghouls.
The choice of Michael to play all of the major roles in “Ghosts”-including the polar opposites of The Maestro and The Mayor-seems to have been not so much about ego, as an artistic statement on human duality and oppositions. In “Ghosts,” Michael uses the film as a vehicle in which to explore, in a fun way, all sides of himself, including his identity as artist vs. “The Freak” vs…well, whatever Label-Of-The-Week had been hung on him.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written on “Ghosts.” I first wrote about how Michael’s staged death scene (but ultimate resurrection) in “Ghosts” seemed to eerily prophesize his real death and how the public would react to it-the only difference, of course, being that in the fantasy world of film, where anything is possible, the magic of wishful thinking always brings him back (it was a theme also echoed in “Moonwalker.”). I later wrote about how The Maestro character seemed to parallel many of Johnny Depp’s characters, leading me to speculate a strong possibility of a direct influence (and for those of you who don’t know, Michael was actually Tim Burton’s first choice for the role of Edward Scissorhands!).
Recently, a viewing of the VH1 special on “The Making Of Ghosts” rekindled my interest in taking a deeper look at this film and how Michael was actually using it to make a very powerful statement about his art, his persona (or perhaps, more aptly, personas) and the public’s perception of all of the above. The film also became a powerful commentary on the ever-elusive mystery, the mystery that everyone, it seemed, was consumed with trying to figure out. Just exactly who is this guy Michael Jackson, anyway?
Back in November, I did a piece entitled “Teaching Michael Jackson In The College Classroom” which recounted my experiences with incorporating Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video into my curriculum.
As I mentioned in that article, our discussion almost always includes an analysis of Rev. Barbara Kaufmann’s excellent essay, “Black and White and Proud” which examines how Michael used coded symbolism in that particular short film to impart a powerful message about black pride (a message, in fact, often lost on mainstream audiences who simply see “Black or White” as a catchy celebration of racial harmony; it is that, of course, but there are also many deeper layers to the song and film’s actual message about race relations).
In the course of Kaufmann’s article, she also makes a passing reference to the film “Ghosts” which, according to her, bears many similarly racially charged themes-for example, the reference to the Klan (in the very first shot, we see “the lynch mob” arriving at The Maestro’s home with burning torches). The implied message is that The Maestro is a black man who, via his antics (whether “harmless” or not) has refused to stay “in his place.” In this regard, The Mayor could also be seen as a kind of Imperial Wizard, an unlikeable and evil little white man who has led the lynch mob with the intent of facing down The Maestro. When The Mayor snidely remarks that if The Maestro doesn’t leave of his own accord, they will be forced to “get rough” with him, it sends the appropriate chill, for history has taught us what the KKK means when they threaten to “get rough” with an unwanted black man. (And, as if to further emphasize the point, Michael’s voice as The Mayor character even takes on a very pronounced Southern accent, no doubt an exaggeration of Michael’s own slight, Southern drawl).
Since Kaufmann’s article does drop the reference to “Ghosts” I have lately begun to insert at least this one scene from the film into my lesson, to help provide some sense of context for my students. Although time usually does not permit for the full showing of both films, I have discovered that “Black or White” and “Ghosts” make great companion pieces for discussing Michael’s themes on race and racial injustice.
But since time is always a factor, and by necessity I must pick and choose those random excerpts that best exemplify the point of the lesson, I almost always come back to the face-to-face showdown between The Maestro and The Mayor.
Of course, the major themes of “Ghosts” cannot be boiled down to just race. However, as an African-American man who had achieved phenomeonal global success in a music industry dominated by whites, there’s no denying that race is a major aspect of the showdown scene, just as with the entire film. The Mayor snarls, “Back to the circus, you freak!” and frequently uses the put-down moniker of “Freaky Boy.” All of these seem to be thinly veiled references to see the too-succesful black man returned to the status of a minstrel show performer, or better yet, back to the zoo where he can “entertain” safely for the masses from within the safe confines of a cage!
I have always suspected that The Mayor character was very much a parody of Michael’s real life nemesis, Santa Barbara DA Tom Sneddon. It’s no secret that Sneddon had a vendetta against Michael-and one that may well have been, at least in part, racially motivated. By 1997, Michael’s career had rebounded quite well from the Chandler scandal of ’93, but he was still haunted by the spectacle and the negative press coverage, as well as the emotional beating he had taken from the investigation and Sneddon’s zealous prosecution. Additionally, no matter how much his career may have rebounded commercially by 1997, he was still haunted by having been branded as a “child molestor” in the eyes of the public. And even without the additional burden of false allegations, the media’s campaign of “Wacko Jacko” was in full swing. Like a wildfire already raging out of control, the public lynching of Michael Jackson needed no further fuel.
But in 1997, Michael had not yet allowed himself to become defeated by it all. After 2005, it would become increasingly difficult for him to keep up the fight. After the trial, he was very much a shell of his former self-acquitted, yes; a free man, yes. But also, a man who was spiritually and emotionally beaten in the aftermath. At the time of “Ghosts,” however, he was still in “fight mode.” As he had also proven on his hugely succesful “HIStory” album, he had managed to wrest all of his trials, tribulations, and personal demons into the stuff of great art. In so doing, he joined the long pantheon of artists who have managed to create great art out of personal darkness and suffering.
The sad irony in watching “Ghosts” now, however, is the hindsight which audiences in 1997 could not have been privy to. Although Tom Sneddon would never get his much-desired Michael Jackson conviction, it would only be a few short years before Sneddon would succeed in at least one of his major goals, that of running Michael out of Neverland and out of Santa Barbara for good. “They don’t want you here,” is what Tom Mesereau eventually had to tell Michael, who further advised him that his best bet was to give up Neverland and any hope of being able to return to a peaceable life there. Michael had to eventaully accept that if he remained at Neverland, the price would be constant hounding from Sneddon and his cronies. Although much has been made of Michael’s desire ‘to never return to Neverland” it was, perhaps, this final realization and the words of Thomas Mesereau that hammered the final nails into the coffin.
Yet the showdown scene in “Ghosts” reveals that, as early as 1997, Michael was already well aware of how things would eventually play out. In “Ghosts” it is not the kids or even their parents who truly want The Maestro run out of town and run from his home-it is the politicians and those “in control,” as embodied in The Mayor. The townspeople “think” they know what they want because people like The Mayor have told them what to think of The Maestro, precisely the same way that the media told the public what to think of Michael Jackson. Only when the townspeople actually meet The Maestro and get to know him do they realize that they actually like him. He’s fun; he’s magical-and, other than being a little strange and having a need to scare people, is not a bad guy at all. Yet, despite having come to this realization, they still go along with The Mayor. This seems to be the lesson imparted by the death scene.
“You want me to go? Okay, then. I’ll go.” At that point, The Maestro simply lies down on the floor, and dies. And, thanks to the magic of special effects, quickly disintegrates to nothingness. In that moment, the looks on the faces of the kids and their parents tells the whole story. They realize they have allowed something very magical to slip away; there is a sense of regret that they did not stand up and fight harder to keep him. They look down upon the bare spot on the floor, which is cold and empty. Even The Mayor now does not sound very triumphant or convincing as he weakly implores, “Let’s go.” The mission has been accomplished, but at what cost?
As I had written in my previous post on this topic, it seems that Michael was in some ways prophesying the reality of his own demise-and how both the public and media would react.
But there are still many other elements of “Ghosts” that remain a bit puzzling, and worthy of analysis. Perhaps Michael simply thought it would be fun and challenging to take on all of the roles in the film, including The Mayor. I’m sure he thought it would be great fun to create a character that no one (without being told) would ever guess was him! But once we know that Michael is, in fact, playing both roles, it lends an interesting depth and extra layer to the showdown scene that simply could not have been possible had the role of The Mayor been played by another actor. While The Maestro is obviously and unmistakably Michael-both in appearance and character-it is much more difficult to perceive that the fat man behind the nerdy glasses and gray suit is also Michael.
Yet, he is a totally different side of Michael from any we had ever seen. He is more than just the stereotypical, uptight little white man in a suit and tie-there is something sinister; inherently evil about this man. He puts up a pretense of moral righteousness, yet we sense he is a man who does not necessarily walk his talk. He knows that running The Undesirable out of town will win him popularity and votes (provided he can continue to convince everyone that he is right and justified in his actions) but we sense he himself is not necessarily a man above the law.
Converesly, however, speaking through the guise of The Mayor puts Michael squarely on “the other side.” I love how the camera shot of their showdown scene plays up this duality. We see both The Maestro and The Mayor (both of whom are Michael and simply enacting two different sides of Michael) staring each other down, face to face. The scene gives one the sense that both men are staring into a mirror, each realizing he is addressing a mirror image of himself-only just as what happens when one actually stares into a mirror, everything they are seeing is an opposite. Both externally and internally, these two men are polar opposites, yet both are the same man underneath.
It’s no coincidence that this was also the era in which many of Michael’s songs began to reflect the oppositions of his public persona. In many songs from this era, Michael seemed to be posing the question: Am I really the monster you want/need me to be? In one of the three songs featured from “Ghosts”-“Is It Scary?”-he uses the perception of himself as a “monster” or “freak” as a mirror that is held to the faces of all of us.
“If you want to see eccentric oddities
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes…”-Michael Jackson, “Is It Scary?”
Just like the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who was initially benign and only became a monster after being conditioned by society to see himself as nothing but a monster, Michael seems to be saying in songs like “Is It Scary?” that he will become, in essence, whatever we project on him to be.
Interestingly, a review of the song from critic Neil Strauss that appeared in the May 20, 1997 issue of The New York Times compared the song’s darkness and angst to the works of Marilyn Manson!
Stars Adrift: Further Out, Further In
By NEIL STRAUSS
Published: May 20, 1997
The least interesting music on Michael Jackson’s new remix CD, ”Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix,” released today on Epic records, is the remixes themselves, all of new songs from his recent double-album, ”HIStory-Past, Present, Future: Book I.” The strength of this CD is in its five new songs, which put Mr. Jackson halfway on the road to a very interesting concept album. There is real pain and pathos in these new songs, feelings difficult to convey underneath so much studio production and gloss.
Mr. Jackson’s pain is often the world’s merriment, [my emphasis]and this is probably true of his new songs, which fret about painkillers, sexual promiscuity and public image. In many of them, Mr. Jackson seems like the elephant man, screaming that he is a human being. Of course, the public is willing to accept Mr. Jackson as a human being. But is he a human being like everyone else? ”Am I scary for you?” Mr. Jackson asks in ”Is It Scary,” sounding more like the ghoulish rocker Marilyn Manson than the Motown prodigy that he is. ”If you want to see eccentric oddities,” he continues, ”I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.” (my emphasis).
It is interesting that, hidden safely beneath the layers of the fat suit, beneath the artificially applied wrinkles, gray hair, and white skin, Michael is able to look his own public persona sqaurely in the eye and to ask the really hard questions, as well as addressing the observations and judgements that he knows the world has already passed on him. “You’re weird…you’re strange” he says, looking deep into his own eyes; addressing his own image, “and I don’t like you.”
I think there is a good reason why Michael takes on so many roles in “Ghosts.” We see him as artist; as someone capable of giving delight and magic. Yet we also see him as a ghoul and as an evil man. Even the amiable Maestro takes on a sinister quality when he finds himself ultimately cornered and threatened. He seems to genuinely enjoy his guests, yet let’s not overlook that he also locks them inside his house, cuts off their escape, and that when he says, “Game time!” there is a definite hint of menace to it. As an audience, we’re never quite sure where we stand with this guy…or just who the “real” Maestro is. Much as we dislike The Mayor, could there be some justification for his fears about this guy? Or is it that his own evilness simply provokes the worst in The Maestro’s character (in, perhaps, much the same way as Michael’s darker and angrier persona came about as a direct result of all he had endured at the hands of people like Tom Sneddon and Evan Chandler?).
Years before, in “Thriller,” Michael had similarly played with the ideas of dual roles and the opposition of both the “good boy” and “bad boy” within himself. Jim Curtis wrote an execellent analysis of Michael’s dual persona in “Thriller” in his 1984 book Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society 1954-1984, which I, in turn, analyzed in my article “Duality and Michael Jackson: How One Rock Critic’s Perspective From The early 80’s Proved Startlingly Prophetic”:
As Curtis noted, in “Thriller” Michael presented himself as both werewolf/ghoul and as the ordinary, shy, nice boy who could be any girl’s perfect prom date. In the end, though he is transformed back into the nice boy, the last image we get is of him looking slyly over his shoulder at us, the audience, with demonic cat eyes. That, as Curtis notes, is Michael’s sly wink to us that things are not necessarily what they seem-and that the intent is to keep us guessing about who the “real” Michael is.
By the time of “Ghosts” this theme had become much more intensely personal. If the youthful Michael of “Thriller” era had found fun in keeping us guessing, by the time of “Ghosts” it had in some ways become both an obsession and a necessity for his artistic survival. It was necessary for Michael to adopt many masks in order to stay three steps ahead of the game. Between the lynch mob, the tabloid press and their manufactured “Wacko Jacko”; between those who desired to keep him “in his place,” and those who desired to brand who he was and the limits of his capabilities as an artist, perhaps Michael felt more strongly than ever that it was important to keep us guessing.
The Face-off, or Showdown, scene in “Ghosts” between The Maestro and The Mayor stands out as probably one of the most brilliantly executed examples of Michael’s many-faceted persona. Here we have two men, both of them played flawlessly by Michael; both as different from each other as night and day, yet somehow each recognizing what they fear most in the other-and perhaps, what they both most fear becoming.
As I am finishing up this post tonight, the Academy Awards are playing in the background. Its a sad reminder that when Michael died, we lost more than just a great dancer, singer, and composer. We also lost a brilliantly underrated actor. Films like “Ghosts” remain a testament to his vast, untapped potential and talent in the field of motion pictures.