Kanye West’s “Runaway” film offers an arresting brew of sound and imagery, punctuated by one dialogue-heavy scene: ‘Ye sits with a winged creature called a phoenix (played by model Selita Ebanks) as she confesses that she must destroy herself in a quest to return to her fantastical world.
“All of the statues that we see, where do you think they came from?” she asks him.
“I think that artists carved them years and years ago,” West replies.
“No, they are phoenix turned to stone,” Ebanks responds. “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different, you try to change. You try to tear it down. You rip the wings off the phoenix and they turn to stone. And if I don’t burn, I will turn to stone. If I don’t burn, I can’t go back to my world.”
Those lines are the key to understanding “Runaway,” which premiered Saturday night on MTV. The short film was shot at a pivotal time in West’s career, as he seeks to remake his career from the ashes of controversy. And rather than being a straightforward piece of popcorn entertainment, “Runaway” has unapologetically artistic aspirations. That’s why we turned to a performance artist with a bit of notoriety herself — Aliza Shvarts, who became embroiled in an abortion-as-art controversy at Yale in 2008 — to help us further decipher its true meaning and the phoenix’s desire for a fiery rebirth.
“Insofar as this is a film about remaking, it’s a film about a very scary and painful and overwhelming sense of remaking,” Shvarts said. “The image of the fire in those instances is really a powerful and terrifying image. I think what that maybe says about this larger project of Kanye’s and how he might invest himself in these particular images and how these images might relate to a process he himself has felt — it doesn’t make any apologies or offer any assurances about the unmaking the artist goes through in order to remake themselves.”
And in the process, Shvarts said, Kanye is attempting to reach what she termed “the transcendent sublime,” the notion that “somehow we have to be open to unmaking ourselves to remake ourselves in other ways.”
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