I wanted to lose myself in Dirty Computer (dir. Andrew Donoho & Chuck Lightning, 2018). I anticipated an emotion picture that lived up to the potential of its name — one that harbored roiling bodies, illicit contact and cavernous parties. I thought Monae would take advantage of the cinematic quality she couldn’t access at the start of her career (when she wasn’t a Hollywood starlet). Her finished product committed a travesty instead: it stirred my imagination with its rhapsodic trailer and never sated it.
As a companion and prequel to her previous projects, I expected Monae’s hyped 2018 film to flourish in detail and precision. I was disappointed when she traded in her rich, underground ethos for a hollow, pop-music gourd — echoing the prevalent feminist discourse of its time without further commentary. Rather than exceeding its lofty ancestor, Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927), in sound, vision and insight, Computer was ensnared by excessive moderation. It seemed that Monae had yet to internalize some lessons from Lang’s masterpiece:
- Cinematic scores are most effective when they not only complement narratives, but become them. A film’s music should follow (rather than prescribe) the swells and recessions of its characters emotions. The incompatibility of Computer’s score with its sci-fi universe gives the impression of sloppy, unintentional artifice. I believe this is a directional issue arising from Computer’s categorical indecision. (Would it be a crockpot of music videos, a cohesive film, both?) The obfuscatory emotion picture label doesn’t mask this conflict.
- Masterpieces take time. Lang may have gone overboard in his strenuous directorial approach, but he was onto something. His Metropolis became a classic by focusing on cultural dynamics (workers’ rights, class solidarities, infiltrations of political movements, etc.) as opposed to soundbitten cultural moments. I wish Monae had mulled over Computer for a while — to tighten its story — instead of bowing to pressure for new, ‘vulnerable’ music. (As if she hadn’t already shared herself in tender performances as Cindi Mayweather; see: ‘Ghetto Woman,’ ‘Mushrooms & Roses.’) Artists have a right to create as we see fit, but it’s also our responsibility to temper external voices with our own tastes. Lang, for example, was criticized for creating a film as elaborate as Metropolis, but in the long-run its legacy endured. Artworks are often more masterful in hindsight than in their immediate receptions.
- Effective dystopias have distinct, immersive settings. Some Dirty Computer fans (including the artist herself) may disagree with me, but I learned very little about Monae’s Metropolis from her feature-length emotion picture. I was far more convinced by the world-building of her first picture, Many Moons (dir. Alan Ferguson and The Wondaland Arts Society, 2013), despite it being under 7 minutes long. It uncovered subtle and overt social dynamics between humans and androids, and its soundscape matched its imagery with ease.
As Monae continues making emotion pictures, stretching dystopian and utopian concepts, I hope she’s inspired by her old daring. I’d like to see her get gritty for real next time — cultivating her ‘dirt’ instead of gesturing to it. If she doesn’t, I’ll accept that she’s begun an era that isn’t for me.
*Metropolis and Dirty Computer can be streamed for free on YouTube
TEXT: ‘MOVIE REVIEW: “Metropolis”’ by Kenneth Turan (in response to the film’s 2010 restoration)
VIDEO: ‘Metropolis 1927 Movie Review – Analysis w/ Spoilers’ (Retro Nerd Girl, 2017)
VIDEO: Four Music Videos I’d Reference for a Dirty Computer Remake — ‘FKA twigs – home with you’ (2019); ‘Tinashe – Die A Little Bit ft. Ms Banks’ (2019); ‘Tinashe – Die a Little Bit (Remix)’ (2020); ‘Janet Jackson – Got ‘Til It’s Gone (feat. Q-Tip, Joni Mitchell)’ (1997)
TEXT: ‘Janelle Monáe’s body of work is a masterpiece of modern science fiction’ by Aja Romano (2018)
TEXT: ‘“You don’t own or control me”: Janelle Monáe on her music, politics and undefinable sexuality’ by Rebecca Bengal (2018)
TEXT: ‘Review: Cindi Mayweather ascends’ by Daniel (2019)
VIDEO: ‘Janelle Monáe – Turntables [Emotion Picture]’ (dir. Child, 2020)
TEXT: ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ by John Perry Barlow, of the Grateful Dead band (1996); this manifesto is worthy of critique, but it has some compelling statements that complement Monae’s politics