Saturday, August 12, 2006

Without You (Days Go By)

This is a post about the video for the Dirty Vegas song, "Days Go By" . Below, at the end of this post, is a link to the Youtube version of the video.

It was released years ago, and I was living and teaching in Florida at the time, at Florida International University.

I was walking through a department store in West Miami, and walked by a bank of TV sets on sale, electronic doodads, cell phones, video games, whatnot, and this video, "Days Go By" was playing on one of the wide screen TVs.

Very cinematic piece: a Black man in a business suit, yet, oddly, also wearing beat up old sneakers (high top 'Chucks'?) with duct tape wrapped around one sneaker, arrives out front of a diner somewhere in what looks like West Los Angeles, California. Palm trees ubiquitous and somewhat cadaverous in the back ground, traffic, sun beating down. It's a lightweight suit. Tie. Suspenders underneath. He's carrying a boom box and a folded up section of cardboard. He lays the cardboard down on the ground. The music from his boombox is a very mournful sort of corrido--a Mexican song of lament and grief. It has a very African beat, driving beat, but not mindless thumping--a heartbeat. Organic. Soulful. He starts to dance on the cardboard--break dancing, the robot, the electric slide, Arabic pirouette. Passersby stop, and watch him, wondering what is going on here, and engaged, made curious by the beauty of it.

A woman says to a man standing there "There he goes again." The looks at her. A sub titular text flashes over the images--"He shows up same day every year, and dances from sunrise to sunset." It is the woman whispering to the man about the dancer. "I heard," the woman and the subtitle (in the longer version of the video) continues as the dancer dances, "It's some kind of ritual. He used to dance here back in the day." Another man walks up, watching. He contributes to the discussion, saying, "They were in love. But he couldn't stop. So one day she left. No one knows where she went. I heard she got struck by lightening." The woman says, "I thought she got hit by a truck." The man says, "Yeah, well, whatever, she just didn't show up." The subtitle then intrudes again, over the image of the dancer: "Now he dances to bring her back. End of story."

All the while the Black dancer is dancing gracefully, with a striking kind of dignity; a ritualized, stylized dancing with elements of break dance, locking, street dance, and Arabic dance. In one startling passage of the video (a wonderfully done transition shot rather than a more conventional cut) he transforms into his younger self in sweat clothes, achieved by the older man jumping backward out of the frame and the younger dancer jumping back in: old, red sneakers with tape repair and the pant legs of a suit are replaced by brand new sneakers, and the legs of sweatpants. Thence, there comes a short flashback sequence of him as a boy with the lost lover.

The lyrics of the song are also being sung throughout all of this (very multi-media):

You are still a whisper on my lips/A feeling at my fingertips/That's pulling at my skin/
You leave me when I'm at my worst/Feeling as if I've been cursed/Bitter cold within/
Days go by and still I think of you/Days when I couldn't live my life without you/Days go by and still I think of you/Days when I couldn't live my life without you/Without you/Without you

A subtext of the video narrative is the intermittent cut to the members of the group, Dirty Vegas themselves, who are sitting in shadow, under the awning of a bodega, across the street from the dancer, watching. The quality of their gaze is in fact quite intense; it is as if they are seeking an essence, but not in the usual, racist, exoticizing of Black culture that White pop groups indulge. Rather, they seem to be moved by what they see, and are very much watching, and unlike the other watchers who are much closer to the dancer, Vegas seems to also be SEEING. The distinction between WATCHING and SEEING permeates the spiritus of this video, making a profound point about the nature and culture of multiculturalism-- the reality, not the bullshit product of mass media babble. The sense of insight and of compassion that is the gaze of the video itself is the next frame outward from the gave that is the gaze of Dirty Vegas. The gaze of the sidewalk audience is a third level of the gaze, while there is even an intimation that the dancer himself exerts a gaze, and has a POV (his gaze fixes momentarily, upon people in the sidewalk audience as one of them makes a more overtly dumb comment) but he never breaks his reflexivity; he dances and maintains his primary concentration upon that dance, while offering a mask of detachment to the outside world. One other moment of his breaking through that frame of spectation focused upon him, from which he is seemingly detached, is when he suddenly shoots his gaze across the street at the members of Dirty Vegas who are watching him. This is ambiguous, however, for a sudden cut shows him now looking at the younger version of his lost love, whose ghost stands before him. The denouement of the narrative then has him transforming again into his younger self, creating the impression that they two are reunited, but, no. He walks away, as the younger self, carrying the boom box with him, but alone. She is gone.

I remember that I was frozen by the spectacle of this video. I saw it as performance art. It was galvanizing. Everybody in the store around me near enough to see and hear this video stopped like me, watching. This achieved an eerie sort of performance art effect reminiscent of the kind of existential effects of the works of Warhol, Duchamp, or of Judy Chicago: dig, there was a supraliminal frame added to the several frames of spectatorship INSIDE the video, and that was this last frame OUTSIDE the video--the frame constituted by myself and the people in the department store who were stopping to look at the video. I noticed how we were mirroring the sidewalk audience INSIDE the spacetime of the video (Life imitating art?). Like the people inside the video watching the dancer, people in the store watching the video, looked wistful, even touched by the video's spectacle and narrative. Mostly Cuban Americans and Haitians, of course, because this was West Miami.

I felt sort of pierced by it this video. I was in love with and living with an Italian-American girlfriend (Peri Giovannucci) at the time; a very stable long-term relationship, but this image of the dancing Black man made me feel a hollow place in me where I missed Black women I had loved in the past.

Anyway, I recently saw this video again when it became widely available for download on the Internet--it's a cult video apparently.

It still creates in me a surprisingly strong feeling of ennui. Dirty Vegas is as much a performance art group as a pop group, a very interesting group of people. Their presence in the video, in the shadow of a street bodega, is fascinating. Are there intimations of the omniscient POV of the gaze of the ancient dramatist, Euripides, who often appeared as a character in his own dramas, bearing symbolically the gaze of the author?