Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ Film: A High-Culture Cheat Sheet

We break down the highbrow inspirations behind 'Ye's short film.

Now that you’ve finally seen [artist id="1230523"]Kanye West’s[/artist] ultra-arty “Runaway” film, you’re probably wondering what it really means. We might not be able to tell you exactly what was going on in Kanye’s brain when he made the film, but we can help you pick out some of the highbrow references within. And there are an awful lot of them.

We’ve done things like this in the past for big-ticket videos like Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and My Chemical Romance’s “Na Na Na,” but those were pop-culture cheat sheets.” For “Runaway” — an ambitious film with equally ambitious influences — we’ve gone even deeper. What follows is our high-culture cheat sheet, an alphabetized, exhaustively researched list of all the painters, dance troupes and conceptual performance artists ‘Ye references in the video. It may not help you understand the film any better, but it will certainly make you sound smarter at your next cocktail party.

So, from Yemi Akinyemi to Leonardo da Vinci, here’s our artful guide to Kanye West’s “Runaway”:

Akinyemi, Yemi: Czech-born choreographer responsible for the elaborate dance sequence in “Runaway.” Also runs the JAD Dance company in Prague.

Beecroft, Vanessa: Italian contemporary artist who specializes in large-scale performance-art pieces, most of which feature nude female models. The phoenix in “Runaway” is indebted to her work, as is the film’s dinner sequence, which is reminiscent of her controversial “Last Supper” piece, which featured African immigrants wearing suits and seated at a banquet table laden with chicken.

Breuning, Olaf: Swiss-born artist who works in several mediums. In “Runaway,” his photograph “Smoke Bombs” — which shows a series of smoke bombs emitting multi-hued plumes — is recalled in the scene of a child running toward the camera while holding a flare aloft.

Cirque Garuda: Czechoslovakian performance troupe specializing in acrobatics and pyrotechnics. Several of their members can be seen whirling around West and the phoenix in the lead-up to the “All of the Lights”/ Michael Jackson scene .

Corbijn, Anton: Famed Dutch photographer and director. His video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” which features hooded figures prostrating themselves before images of late frontman Ian Curtis, clearly influenced the “Runaway” Michael Jackson parade scene. Or, if you prefer to call them Klansmen, well, Corbijn famously featured a little girl wearing a Klan robe in his iconic video for Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”

Crewdson, Gregory: American photographer famous for his elaborately staged, supremely surreal portraits of suburban life. Many scenes in “Runaway” — particularly those in which the phoenix sits contemplatively in West’s backyard — seem to have been taken directly from his portfolio.

Dia de los Muertos: Holiday celebrated in Mexico (and, in varying forms, throughout the rest of the world) to remember family members and friends who have died. Often, parades are held, featuring towering skeletons, marching bands and papier-mâché skulls (called calavera), all of which sort of remind us of the Michael Jackson parade in “Runaway.”

Guo-Qiang, Cai: Chinese contemporary artist famed for his gunpowder drawings and so-called “explosion events,” large-scale performance pieces in which stuff is blown up, usually in unison, leaving only smoke and charred earth in its wake. Since roughly one-third of “Runaway” is slow-motion shots of explosions and fireworks, the connection is easy.

Koons, Jeff: American artist and prankster famed for his garish reproductions of banal, household items and a series of life-size, porcelain-and-gold-leaf statues of Michael Jackson cuddling his pet chimp, Bubbles (one of which sold for $5.6 million in a Sotheby’s auction). The giant Jackson head in the “Runaway” parade scene looks strangely similar to the head of Koons’ sculptures.

Kubrick, Stanley: Hugely important American filmmaker who West himself cited as an influence on “Runaway.” Case in point, the languid tracking shots, slightly off-kilter framing or even the elaborate dinner sequence, all of which recall Kubrick films like “The Shining,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Arguably the greatest composer to ever live. A portion of his unfinished “Requiem” piece can be heard playing at the beginning of “Runaway.”

MTX Tatra V8: Czech-produced “supercar” with gull-wing doors and an engine positioned over the rear axle. Not surprisingly, they are incredibly fast and exceedingly rare.

The National Theatre: Vaunted Czechoslovakian institution that is home to three artistic ensembles: opera, drama and ballet. A handful of ballerinas in “Runaway” are also members of the National Theatre’s 2010 ensemble, including Jade Clayton and Ivanna Illeyenko.

Phoenix: Mythological firebird referenced in early works by the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. Known for its colorful plumage, the phoenix lives for anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years, at which time it builds a nest for itself and ignites. A new phoenix arises out of the ashes. Subsequently, it has become a symbol for rebirth, immortality and renewal. And the namesake of the capital of Arizona.

“Swan Lake”: Celebrated Russian ballet about a princess transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. In the third act, said evil sorcerer tricks a kind-hearted prince into confessing his love for his daughter by dressing her as a black swan. Kind of like all the ballerinas in “Runaway.”

Tarsem: Indian director famous for his artfully abstract, hyper-detailed and lavishly staged productions, most notably R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religon” video, which seems to have influenced the cinematography — and some of the biblical body language of the dinner guests — in the “Runaway” dinner scene.

Von Trier, Lars: Danish filmmaker famous for his artful, oft-brutal films, perhaps none more artful (or brutal) than 2009′s “Antichrist,” which — much like “Runaway” — features a scene with a deer that doesn’t seem all that afraid of humans. Of course, unlike “Antichrist,” the deer in “Runaway” doesn’t have a dead fawn hanging halfway out of its womb.

Da Vinci, Leonardo:
Italian-born painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and mathematician (to name just a few of his endeavors) who created famed works like “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” The latter work is referenced in the “Runaway” dinner scene, most obviously in the hushed conversations of the guests and Kanye, who, of course, is seated at the very center, just like Jesus.

Did we miss anything? Share the high-culture references you noticed.