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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"


Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.

So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen infidelity, I choose to celebrate the fidelity onscreen--that is the relationship between the music, the images of Lemonade and the cinema itself.


The biggest influence present in Lemonade, is that of the great Terrence Malick. Imagery from his films To The Wonder and The Tree of Life (in particular a standout sequence involving a bedroom underwater) definitely inspired a lot of the overall tone of introspection and spiritual reflection that Beyoncé is striving for here. One of Lemonade's directors, Kahlil Joseph, shot B-roll on Malick's To The Wonder, so the impressionistic style of filmmaking has obviously carried over.


Colors play a crucial part in Lemonade, and none more bold than the redness found in the opening passage showing Beyoncé alone onstage in an auditorium. It's reminiscent of the red curtains found in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. "No hay bande," speaks the man from the stage in Mulholland Drive. There is no band. It sets up Beyoncé's lone quest to seek reconciliation with the implied betrayal she is faced with. It's also important to acknowledge the layer of surrealism that some of the Lemonade's passages evoke; the Twin Peaks parallel here, adds to that idea.


Pipilotti Rist's video art installation Ever Is Over All is the blueprint for the "Hold Up" song passage in Lemonade. In this passage Beyoncé strolls down a sidewalk on a sunny day only to wreak havoc on the windows of parked cars. Rist's art piece must've struck a chord with Beyoncé and her filmmaking team, as the images of empowerment and destruction gel together nicely with the song's lyrics of suspecting wrongdoing from one's lover: "I smell your secrets. I'm not too perfect--to ever feel this worthless."


Whether or not Cameron Jamie's short dance film Massage The History came up during the conception of Lemonade is moot. The sequence featuring Beyoncé and Serena Williams in an empty mansion grinding around furniture juxtaposes nicely with Jamie's piece that coincidentally shows only young men performing suggestive dances around the furniture in their empty home. During this section of my video essay, watch how the parallel clips seem to dance with each other, woman and man, in a primal ritual of lust and sexual appetite. It's a ripe section, one that suggests finding solace in carnal revenge fucking. "I ain't thinkin' 'bout you!" declares Beyoncé.


In a nakedly personal passage, one that seemingly recreates Beyoncé's old home movies, one can't help but look to the prolific personal found footage filmography of Jonas Mekas. Like Mekas, Beyoncé provides voice-over narration to the fragmented and often fleeting film clips of her family and friends from ages ago, as if trying to make sense of where things ended up. How did we get to this point? It's a question we all ask in times of strife, and the power of Mekas' personal cinema is how he learns to accept the present, in all its crude beauty, by looking to the past and acknowledging that this is what he's been preparing for all along.


Terence Nance--whose feature debut An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty was, ironically enough, executive produced by Jay Z--goes to exciting heights of the "confessional documentary" and exploring Afro-futurism in his musical short Swimming In Your Skin Again. Beyoncé looks to be on the same wavelength as Nance in some of the closing passages of Lemonade. Imagery of powerful church sessions, body painting, the swamp, the southern heat and ritualistic, soul-cleansing dances are all prominent here.

It's an appropriate climaxing of all the raw and unearthed feelings that Lemonade stirs for nearly its 66-minute run. Whether or not the real life scenario of infidelity sticks, one thing is certain: Beyoncé has created an exciting, exposing and elevating work of pop culture art.