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Hinduism and alternative rock: a novelist's interpretation of Arcade Fire's Black Mirror
If you haven't yet seen the second interactive video supporting Neon Bible then you're missing something.
And not just for the novelty of watching the video against a drums-only version of the song. The interactive part, where you can remove and reinstate different audio tracks, is not really an intrinsic part of the experience.
But Olivier Groulx and Tracy Maurice's video have recreated that feel of early Surrealist cinema quite marvellously.
But what does it all mean Well, Olivier and Tracy directed us towards an extraordinary shot-by-shot interpretation of the video's symbolism by science fiction writer Daniel Brenton.
And although it is no longer up on his website, Mr Brenton has kindly permitted PromoNews to re-publish his amazing analysis of Black Mirror. So for your enlightenment, here it is:
The "Black Mirror" School of Enlightenment
by Daniel Brenton
It is extremely rare that I find myself compelled by a piece of popular music -- as well as the accompanying video -- but in the case of "Black Mirror" by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, I have.
And, to my surprise, this video has a level of spiritual meaning which to me was totally unexpected.
The dancy, string and synthesizer-flavored alternative rock tune, is a perfect match for the video crafted for it, a song-length but otherwise silent film that hearkens back to the Surrealist films of the early twentieth century. Though, fortunately, "Black Mirror" lacks moments, such as in Bunuel and Dali's "The Andalusian Dog," that shock or revolt. It does, however, perplex.
Back in my late teens, I was pretty fussy about the music I listened to, and I suppose I still am, because I hardly listen to any. Most rock sounded pretty much the same to me, but a few bands really stood out. I went through a period of really enjoying (yes, this dates me) The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd, and then "graduated" to Yes, Peter Gabriel's Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and King Crimson.
Frequently the ambitious music of the latter groups would actually capture me, and I would find it utterly compelling. I was not the kind of person to have on music in the background - it had to seize me sufficiently that I would give it my full attention and listen to the intricacies of it.
I found myself wondering why "Black Mirror" was particularly compelling to me, and I finally put my finger on it.
I think this imagery is, in a sense, an old friend to me personally. In my late teen years in high school and college, I became openly contemptuous of my Christian upbringing for the obvious reasons, but mostly because it justified the actions of hypocrites. Still, the need to find meaning in my life drove me, and I began to look elsewhere. I skirted the edges of the Art crowd during those years, and being in the Bay Area, I was exposed to the real Art scene in San Francisco.
Most of the contemporary work I spent any time with struck me as lacking craftsmanship and meaning - and smelled more like the work of cultural con artists - but work of the Surrealists caught my attention.
What this work did for me, I think, is open me to thinking differently, to begin understanding the power of symbols, and in turn to using the experience of interacting with the puzzle of artistic works as a kind of personal Rorschach Test. These could cut through my intellect to stir deeper parts of me that, here and there, would strike on some symbol that had personal meaning.
Oddly - or perhaps, not oddly - a "black mirror" is a tool used in magick for "scrying," which is, as Wikipedia tells us, "a magic practice that involves seeing things supernaturally in a medium, usually for purposes of divination or fortune-telling."
In my mind, this sounds like a practice devised to help an individual access his or her intuitive faculties.
In a flash, I realized what this video was about.
Now, I'm a writer. I deal with words, symbols, feelings, and the ways these can be used to create different responses. So what I see here may not be the "real" answer, if there is such a thing, but it is an answer that suits me. I would like to suggest that it is entirely possible that this video was created without any conscious recognition of any underlying message. (You can't tell me this kind of thing doesn't happen. The unconscious mind is a powerful thing.)
I'd like to note that I am ignoring the lyrics, which I feel are written to generate an ambiance of prophetic doom which, it seems clear to me, the video is not about.
- The video opens with a steamship at sea, and we see the question mark over the smokestack. The ship is, of course, alone in the vast expanse, which represents the endless enigma of our existence, protecting those on board from having to experience it.
- Someone approaches a porthole of the ship (probably our protagonist that we meet shortly), and through it can see an enormous head, iceberg-like, rise from the sea. This may represent the awakening of self-awareness.
- We see a bottle roll across the floor of the ship, filled with a glowing liquid. This is Atman, the divine spark, which can only be discovered after self-awareness occurs. The Atman leads to Brahman, the Godhead, like a stream leads to the ocean.
- Our protagonist apparently awakens in a lifeboat, presumably the survivor of the ship having sunk. His fellow survivor in the lifeboat, oddly, has a head that is actually a television set, which shows an outline of a person shrinking in size, or possibly into the distance. Our protagonist is carrying the bottle with the glowing substance in a satchel over his chest protectively, and he looks at it, and realizes it has an over sized label showing the same outline of a person shrinking as the television head is showing him. The survivors in nearby lifeboats see that he has this bottle, and glare at him threateningly. Seeing this, the protagonist jumps out of the boat and starts swimming, as it turns out, toward the giant head.
I am interpreting the survivor with the television head as a teacher (in the spiritual sense), and the image he/she is showing of of the outline of a person shrinking as an illustration of a connection between the giant head (which is most likely attached to something, probably a body to make it a god-like giant) and a normally-sized person. The protagonist realizes the connection between normal humans and the giant head is that Brahman must be within it, and that he must go there. When the other survivors see our protagonist has this bottle of glowing substance, the divine spark, and has understood the giant head is where they all need to go, they are hostile because, despite being lost in the enigma of their existence, they don't want to see anything that would threaten them as they are.
- Our protagonist swims to the giant head, and presumably is swallowed by it.
- He finds himself in a dark cavern-like area, presumably inside the giant head. With the bottle as his only light, he begins to explore.
- He discovers he is surrounded by a number of odd creatures with three-sided pyramids for bodies and sinister faces embedded in their sides. Wielding two-pronged pitchforks, they goad him on to a conveyor belt, and he begins to slide helplessly deeper into the cavern.
I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest these strange creatures are either demons set to destroy him - but fail to do so, as we see in a moment -- or to "try" him by challenges to test his worthiness to find Brahman.
- Our protagonist slides down the conveyor until it ends, and, seeing he is unhurt, turns and is drawn by something he sees deeper in the cavern.
- He finds a well or pool filled with glowing liquid, not unlike the substance in the bottle he has been carrying. This is Brahman. As he beholds Brahman, we see the dancers, first in black hooded tights, and then in white versions of the same clothing, set against a black background.
We no longer see the protagonist, so I am interpreting this that he has merged with Brahman, and has become the dance, the divine play of existence and non-existence. Fittingly, we end with a shot of the television screen, a reminder of the message to hold on to Atman and seek Brahman.
So there you have it - Hinduism and alternative rock. Timeless wisdom in a music video.
Who'd a thunk it
I suspect there may be some who would think my reading any meaning into this is utterly ridiculous. To those individuals I say: which is more ridiculous - me writing it, or you reading it all the way to the end
© 2008, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
|Production Company||1976 Productions Montreal|
|Director||Olivier Groulx and Tracy Maurice|
|Director of Photography||Jean|
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