Bieber, the Leviathan
The camera darts under water, resurfaces. Harsh wind sounds and loud distortion assault the digital camera's in-built microphone. Drops on the lens blur and streak the image, rendering it abstract. A film assembled like it is scraps, ruins from the factory floor. It's that (over)acclaimed documentary of 'immersive sensory ethnography', Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel, 2012), right? No, it is the emergence of singer Justin Bieber as his own auteur, 18 years old at the time, in the clip for Beauty and a Beat (2012) — four minutes and fifty-two seconds of pure cinema.
Beauty and a Beat presents itself, in a contemporary conceit familiar from horror movies such as the Paranormal Activity (2007-2013) series, as "three hours of personal footage" stolen from Bieber, that has later emerged, illegally, on-line. This allows for a disjointed opening section of glimpses of Justin B. mucking about with his homeys, and a 'sudden death', cut-off ending. In-between comes the song. And here comes the second, major conceit. Presenting itself (in the boastful credits scrawled in chalk on a table-tennis top) as "written, directed and shot" by the Wonder Boy himself, the clip makes a semi-serious attempt at passing itself off as a one-shot epic manoeuvred into being by his own hand: his outstretched arm, and his furtive looks behind him wherever he goes, testify to this.
Of course, there are moments where another, more professional hand behind the camera is clearly taking over: for an expressive pull-back during the water-dance, and other such highlights. And there are expertly disguised cuts: Bieber is obviously a keen scholar of Hitchcock's Rope (1948) in this regard. But the clip works just as it is meant to: it's a headlong race through lines of hundreds of cavorting, bikini-clad dancing girls and body-popping guys in various extravagant formations; down a ramp to find Nicki Minaj lost in a Buñuelian free-associative rap about "beautiful confessions of the priest" (?); and, most surreally, a line of small cameras under the water showing — what else? — our star's face as he mimes on about the only two things one needs in life (and he is quite profoundly right about this).
Bieber works the ambiguities of point-of-view like the arty makers of Leviathan. In that film — which has more blood and guts than Beauty and a Beat, as well a faux-Biblical title font and a vaguely ecological message — it's hard to know, at most points, where and how the camera is located: whether it's a unmanned video-eyeball left to roll around on the floor and atop the water, or something unfussily stuck to the hat or arm of a boatman, or some fiddly, agitated Grandrieux-type-moves from the anthropological artistes themselves. These ambiguities are what make the film intermittently interesting. In fact, the work of related members of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab joins up with Biebermania in Libbie Dina Cohn & J.P. Snaidecki's People's Park (2012), an eighty-minute one-take-stroll through people doing nothing much in China on a Sunday afternoon.
"This special one-shot film exploring the park was the perfect way to capture the joy, the intensity, the freedom, and the history of the vibrant sociality that makes up People's Park", declare the filmmakers. Fair enough. But for my concentrated dose today (but not every day) of intensity, freedom and vibrant sociality — as well as tricky pictorial ambiguity, kineticism and pop-spectacle — I pick the true Leviathan, Justin Bieber, and his Beauty and a Beat. And to return to Biblical mode:
Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words?
Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?
Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?
If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
(Job 41: 3-5, 8)