Monday, January 16, 2006

Trapped in the Closet

I was planning on writing more about Superman this week - and believe me, I will - but I came across something else of interest this weekend, and it occurred to me that it might just be of interest to those who read this blog.

(Incidentally, is there anything more nerdy in all the world than arguing over the best Superman? As much fun as these types of conversations can be, I always feel a bit guilty that I'm not exerting my mental energies on something else. But you go where the muse* takes you, as it were . . . I haven't been buying many new comics lately, so I get stuck thinking about old, crappy comics that probably don't deserve the effort to begin with. But, c'est la vie.)

Anyway, this weekend, thanks to the glory that is Netflix, I finally saw R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet Parts 1-12. Man, this thing is nuts. There really is no other word to adequately describe something so willfully odd. It is so weird it crosses over into the realm of absolutely compelling, and I think it's probably one of the most memorable things I've seen in quite some time.

Now, let me say that I'm not an R. Kelly fan. I think the vast majority of modern R&B is pure crap. I think, furthermore, that R. Kelly himself is something of a loathsome individual, based on his well-publicized predilection for peeing on underage girls. (Of course, consensual sex with a minor - even bizarre sex acts like those - is still only statutory rape. Therefore, while it may be far from "good", it's still an order of magnitude less loathsome than outright rape or molestation. As such, I think that R. Kelly is probably less than outright sinister, more like a little bit disturbed from having been in the Famous People Bubble for so long. I bet if you had thousands of women and girls literally throwing themselves at you for decades on end, you'd probably have some weird and self-justified ideas about sex as well. I say all of this not to absolve or ameliorate but merely to contextualize.)

And hoo-boy, does Trapped in the Closet offer some context. It's impossible to watch the series without keeping Kelly's offstage exploits in mind, and really, I think that it would be counter-indicated to do so. Anyone who keeps an eye on the music business (and everyone who reads this blog knows that I devote a large portion of my energies to that field as well as comics) has seen R. Kelly's output explode in the last few years. He was already a prolific artist, but since the sex tape and other related allegations surfaced, he's been recording, touring and producing like a man possessed. Considering how deracinated and anesthetized most modern pop is, R. Kelly's recent output has been remarkable for its not-so-subtle ongoing subtext. The ongoing conflict between his public shenanigans and his private conflict reaches its zenith with the Trapped in the Closet series.

It was interesting for me to watch the series and see Kelly's fevered, circuitous and slightly loopy storytelling unfold. He narrates the story - sung over a single instrumental bed throughout - in a combination of a past tense first-person and omniscient third-person. The main character is named "Sylvester", placing him a thinly-veiled step removed from Kelly. The series begins with a fairly straightforward recitation of events but eventually we see the invisible narrator as a separate entity from "Sylvester", stepping into the narrative and even stopping the story to insert plot points and comment on the ongoing action.

The story is structured as an episodic cliffhanger. Each segment is the length of a pop-song, and picks up right where the previous episode's cliffhanger leaves off. The result - complete with the constant reiteration of established information and the implacable narrative momentum - bears not so much a resemblance to the traditional soap-opera as the superhero comic book.

The narrative arc throughout Trapped in the Closet is, like most ongoing superhero stories, open-ended. Episode twelve ends not with any closure but another cliffhanger, and the promise of an indefinite number of future episodes. Every new chapter opens up further information in such a way that it becomes possible to catch glimpses of a larger meta-story outside of the actual character's view - a vague conspiracy featuring ties to organized crime and the police department - but only when the meta-story crosses-over with the personal soap-opera adventure that provides the main source of momentum. In this way Kelly is using the dynamic of a domestic farce - albeit as wacky and exaggerated a farce as can be imagined - to open up connections to a broader, more cosmic storyline just outside the perception of any one individual participant.

Meanwhile, the soap-opera itself touches upon a number of tertiary issues unrelated to either the main plot or the subplot - opening up subtextual tangents on issues such as gay life in the black community, religious hypocrisy, interracial marriage, the relationship between law enforcement and the black community, and even the stereotypical media portrayal of young black men as violent ex-cons. (Don't ask me to explain the midget.) I seriously doubt that any of these issues will be accorded full thematic closure by the end of the series. But just including these hot-button issues in the scope of the narrative - and certainly Kelly knows full well these are hot-buttons - opens up the scope of the story to another level of cultural commentary.

The hottest thing going right now in terms of blogosphere-wide criticism and discussion is Grant Morrison's ongoing Seven Soldiers of Victory project. I've noted on a number of occasions that after buying the first few issues I gave up on the story - not out of any dissatisfaction with the quality thereof, but more a general sense of disinterest with the subject matter, as well as the personal disappointment that Morrison is still doing superheroes. (I admit this is a highly subjective and arbitrary opinion - he's not my personal slave, he has every right to do what he wants with his talent, just as I have every right to be disinterested when he continues to toil in the superhero mines.) I imagine I'll probably catch Seven Soldiers one of these days, after the hype had died down, and when that happens I'll probably even enjoy it.

But anyone who is actively following Seven Soldiers, and especially those participating in the ongoing discussion / group explication thereof, owes it to themselves to rent Trapped in the Closet. Through some strange cosmic confluence, R. Kelly has become the Grant Morrison of R&B. It's undoubtedly the sheerest of coincidences - Kelly doesn't strike me as a -ahem- closet comic fan - but Closet offers a glimpse of another artist in another hybrid genre (the music video is a hybrid of both music and video, whereas comics are hybrids of words and pictures) using a remarkably similar metatextual and postmodern storytelling palette to achieve strikingly similar means. The recurring rupture of the "fourth wall" barrier even points to the possibility of an Animal Man-esque meta-climax. Whether or not Closet is any good is another matter entirely - but it is simply too weird too ignore.

*The blogging muse is a cranky old broad who really, really likes it when people complain about All Star Batman and Robin. She's got half a dozen nasty-ass STDs and anyone who lays with her is scarred for life.

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