13.5.08

A Clockwork Grand Theft Justice - The Kourtrajme Crew and Justice's "Stress" Video

"Is it real?" A lot of people asked me that after they watched the Romain Gavras directed music video for Justice's track "Stress". The video for the French electro-DJ-duo's track has spread about the internet by way of Kanye West's blog* and is now surrounded by online chatter thanks to its graphic violence.

So, is it real? Who cares. Yes. That one dude puked on himself. It is real. The Kourtrajme Crew are guerilla filmmakers - Larry Charles ("Borat" director) with a chip on their shoulder. But that's beside the point. More importantly, let's talk about what, if anything, watching young kids in Paris beating people up accomplishes. Does it need to accomplish anything?

Might as well start at the beginning: The band and the song's title. A professor of mine once corrected a statement I made about the first sentence in a book being the most important by noting that the book's title might make a claim to that significance as well. In the case of Justice's "Stress" that is definitely the case. Those two words, "Justice" and "Stress," are so present during the track they may as well have been watermarked over the whole video's footage.

Whose stress does the title address? It is present in at least two forms; the stress of the group of kids, out of which comes the catharsis of beatings and robbery, and the stress which is felt by the recipients of that violence. The only moment when the kids feel stress - most of their action is cool and composed, effective and vigilant - is when they are confronted at the elevator by the police like a Roman legion and a Carthaginian horde meeting mid-battlefield. At that moment, the kids erupt in screams, push back on the police wall and then disperse. They are guerillas; hit and run tacticians effective when striking and disappearing quickly. When they get a cop alone, separate him from the strength of the group, they beat the shit out of him and take off.

Justice leaves a more elusive mark on the footage. Stress is fairly objective. The evidence is almost quantifiable. Justice is subjective. A very lazy person can make a case that will be widely accepted that the term "Justice" here is sarcastic, heretical. "There is no justice, they're just hooligans," they will say. But we are not lazy people. Watch the faces of the people in "Stress". What stands in starkest opposition is how calm the kids are as they slap a bewildered diner in the face, rough up a couple pedestrians (one of whom pukes on himself out of, what, fear? confusion?), and smash some Asian tourist's camera to the ground.

The black and white faces of the kids are placid, the faces of the people they encounter are wracked by confusion and dread. Language appears to fail these people. Their jaws hang slack. Their brows are furrowed as if they have just heard the voice of God and this is the moment before their over-matched brains explode like Matt Damon's in "Dogma".

Are those looks of shock, incomprehension, the "why me?" attitude, that far off from how it must feel to have the shit-dumb-luck to be born and raised in the notorious Clichy-sous-Bois to Arab or African or Arab-African parents who struggle to find work in Paris?

The catharsis in "Stress" is not the simple release of frustration through violence. The catharsis is in the familiarity of the twisted up I-don't-understand sensation that you have felt your whole life, manifested on someone else's face. Just for the few seconds the look is on that face, that person understands what it means to have shit-dumb-luck. The person knows how it feels to not deserve what you know you've got coming. The catharsis isn't for those kids. If they're willing to accept it, if we're willing to accept it, it's the first step to catharsis for the people they beat up.

We have no objective information that tells us that these kids come from French ghettos and are economically and emotionally depressed. Yes, the video starts in a Parisian slum that looks like Clichy-sous-Bois, but who knows, maybe these kids just go there to hang out and group up after their school day at some prestigious French high school ends. Maybe all their parents are computer programmers and lawyers. But I doubt it.

If we take our narrators - Justice and Romain Gavras - at their word, then the terms "Justice" and "Stress" are as sincere as the footage in the music video. We are watching Justice born from Stress.

"The only thing you need to understand is that there are only three ways out of the ghetto for people like us: sports, music or fashion," said Guy Diaz, a first generation son of Ivory Coast parents, who lives in Clichy-sous-Bois, to Frontline reporter Darren Foster in 2005, shortly after Paris' last big round of ghetto-born riots. Do those words sound familiar?

It was only - what, fifteen years ago? - that Notorious B.I.G. cemented into the hip-hop psyche that, "the streets is a short stop; either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot." Bed-Stuy is different now. Not because the problems that plagued Biggie's upbringing were solved, or addressed, but because they were shipped upstate; to prisons, and towns like Schenectady (places that aren't dissimilar). The violence and riots in Paris' recent past betray similar problems there that were, and still are, unaddressed. Problems that take death and riots to acquire attention that is, at that point, reactionary and unproductive. Attention that seeks to meet out justice rather than address the causes of stress.

The end of the video shows the kids burn a car before turning on the camera filming them. Not the cameraman, but the actual camera. One kid spits on the lens while another brings a glass bottle down on the lens as well. The cameraman is not the subject of their rage, the camera is. How do we understand this? The camera is dangerous, the footage it contains is dangerous for the kids. But it also provides them with voice, an outlet; we are watching the footage after all. I think that the assault on the camera is an assault on us watching the video. It's confusing, why are they hitting the camera? And so you wind up with the same screwed up look on your face, "huh?" that every other victim in the video does. You've been met with random violence you don't understand. It's left, then, in your hands. Do you react to the action, or consider the cause?

When you ask "is it real?" to the video "Stress," you're asking the right question and you might not even know it. The answer, regardless, is yes.

*Bizarre, yes. But perhaps it was a bit of recompense on Kanye's part after he ripped off ODB's patented "Excuse Me While I Interrupt Your Lame Ass Acceptance Speech And Explain Why I Am Better And, Oh, By The Way, That Wu-Tang Is For The Children"-Move at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2006 when Jeremie Rozan accepted best music video award for Justice's track "We Are Your Friends" and Kanye begged to, publicly and at that moment, differ.

No comments: