We Were Once a Fairytale
Directed by Spike Jonze
After Kanye West snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift in the scene-stealing debacle at the MTV Video Music Awards, the dumbstruck 19-year-old singer stood speechless. So did the rest of the nation. Seconds later, it was a media frenzy. YouTube videos of the outburst cropped up within moments, some receiving over 500,000 views in twenty minutes time before MTV’s parent company, Viacom, could flag and pull them. We learned in a leaked tweet that even President Obama—the leader of the free world—called West a jackass for filching the spotlight from the lovable teenybopper. Obviously, all eyes are on Kanye. But did the stunt ultimately backfire in the eyes of the famously egotistical rap-god?
In a bizarre move, Kanye recently released a short film entitled We Were Once A Fairytale. Oddly enough, it was directed by none other than Spike Jonze, whose dark adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are hit theaters last weekend. Whether or not you care for West’s tabloid antics, Spike Jonze’s mysterious vision of Kanye’s situation deserves analysis.
First things first: Japanese suicide. Kanye lost his mother two years ago due to complications after plastic surgery, and her death reportedly drove him to the brink of suicide. Sources say he fell into a deep depression after the VMA fiasco and was on suicide watch again. After an awkward next-day apology on Jay Leno, in which Leno flogged West with questions like, “What do you think [your mother] would have said about this?”, West expressed that the incident “wasn’t a spectacle” and that he was genuinely apologetic. Spike Jonze takes West’s history—fame, arrogance, thoughts of suicide, remorse—to create We Were Once A Fairytale, a ten-minute short film, which features the song “See You in My Nightmares” from Kanye’s latest studio album 808s & Heartbreak.
At the cryptic end of the film, Kanye plunges a large knife into his stomach, producing a symbolic flow of Japanese rose petals, which smatter the tile floor with the sound of blood. It seems a bizarre and painful way to kill oneself; even Elliot Smith aimed for his heart. Indeed, Jonze seems to be referencing a specific form of self-destruction—seppuku. Seppuku is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Also called ‘hara-kiri,’ it was used by samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. It is also a form of punishment for Samurai who have committed grave offenses, or for reasons that shamed them. Seppuku is performed by plunging a sword into the abdomen and conducting a slicing motion. This ritual rings true in Mr. West’s situation. The seppuku suicide rite was exclusively performed by Samurai warriors—in other words, by an elite social class; one might even call them celebrities of old Japanese culture.
In Jonze’s remarkably serious vision, Kanye is the celebrity in question, performing this ancient, self-destructive ritual. The action is a self-inflicted punishment for his offenses—for reasons that shamed him (i.e. controversial VMA disaster, excessive ego, Katrina “Bush” outburst, stage crashing Justice at the EMAs, feeling inadvertently responsible for his mother’s death). Importantly, the practice of committing seppuku at the death of one’s master, known as oibara, follows a similar ritual. When Kayne slices open his stomach, he rips from his body a small, rodent-like creature. This is when things get interesting.
As soon as Kanye severs the umbilical cord-like flesh that connects him to the monster, the lonely piano of Beethoven’s popular “Moonlight Sonata” begins to play. Beethoven’s actual name for the piece, “Quasi una fantasia” (Italian for “Almost a Fantasy”), is quite appropriate for We Were Once A Fairytale in name and style. In “Quasi una fantasia,” Beethoven deviates from the traditional sonata form. By placing the most dramatic segment at the end of the piece, he intensifies the drama inherent in the form. The sonata then “possesses an end-weighted trajectory; the climax is held off until the third movement.” Spike Jonze utilizes this same technique to add dramatic weight to his weird-puppet climax. In other words, to make the monster scene believable, he had to make Kanye’s “real life” unbelievable, in the sense that a film traditionally requires of its audience an equilibrated suspension of belief. To do so, he had to find a way sully the V.I.P. lifestyle that most people watching We Were Once A Fairytale consider tantamount to heaven.
Dozens of exotic women, bottomless Bacardi, couture from an Yves Saint Laurent ad, a sapphire dance party pulsating with music he created: this is the quotidian existence of Kanye West. Jonze had the precarious duty of making this “Quasi una fantasia” undesirable. He does so subtly—by keeping Kanye at a distance from his own world. By excluding West from conversations, blurring his vision with handheld, close camera lenses, and dressing him in a conspicuous white tux jacket (by the way, samurai performed the seppuku ritual while dressed in white robes), we see Kanye as a foreigner to his own stomping grounds. He even demands to pay for complimentary bottles of champagne, insisting that he doesn’t want any “special treatment.” All the time, his song blasts on the club speakers.
“This is my song, Ivan!” West shouts at a friend. “I know,” Ivan demurely replies. West then stumbles drunkenly from group to group, tail between his legs, repulsing people left and right. On the dance floor, he collapses onto a stranger’s shoulder, crying. Eventually, he wanders into a back room. In the background, the “See You In My Nightmare” music fades into “When I Said Goodbye” by Mayer Hawthorne who croons, “I’m half the man I was.” A nameless, seductive woman woos Kanye to the couch, and they have a quickie. A figure of romantic disappointment, West wakes up alone, in his underwear. He stumbles through the paparazzi-like light bulbs of the dance floor once again before finally sprinting for the bathroom.
He’s throwing up Japanese rose petals like there's a leaf blower in his throat. After crashing on the floor, discovering the knife, and making the seppuku cut in his stomach, he wrestles from the fresh wound a small, sweet-looking monster. He hands the little demon a small knife and indicates that the creature is to perform the seppuku ritual as well. Hesitantly, the thing commits suicide by slicing itself open. This is a metaphor for the death of Kanye’s cute ego—something both endearing and warped.
If you can’t take Kanye serious as a person, Spike Jonze’s short allows us to treat him as a character. Something larger than life. It’s interesting that West had to reach a level of real depravity in order for someone like Jonze to approach his story. Filmmakers love tragedy, and there’s an inherent indictment in the film—a subtext that both disapproves of West and vies for his redemption. Could the whole thing be a sham? A clever media push? I don’t think so, although this sort of self-deprecation hardly elicits boos. As a matter of fact, we’re most apt to praise West for his bravery in the film, which begs the question: is this fairytale really over?