There are a lot of narratives going on in this video – sexuality, emotional entrapment, distance/separation, what aggression and sadness have to do with all of these things. It’s the kind of video that’s too good to write a thinkpiece on within 24 hours of its release. But this is the internet and it’s time for this particular content harvest, so here goes.
Sia said on Twitter last night that “Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play / These two warring ‘sia’ self states.” “Only” is major – Maddie Ziegler isn’t the only phenomenally talented child dancer – Shia LeBeouf is not a dancer at all and hardly a particularly noted actor. But they’re both – and I mean this in the greatest, most respectful possible use of what has essentially become a pejorative – reality stars. Maddie Ziegler literally – Shia LeBeouf in a more high art sense. They aren’t famous for what they do on paper so much as for the fact that they do it. And in that sense they’re the only ones who could possibly play their own roles – the same way that only Kim Kardashian could break the internet, or that only Barack Obama could be the current president of the United States.
More specifically, their particular “only-ness” falls under the category “child star.” Child stars, perhaps more than anyone else, understand the reality of existing for their entire lives in their own individual only-ness – from the start of their conscious existence to their death they will always be “that one” highly recognizable (and highly constructed) person. Maddie is still in her developmental phase – Shia basks in the bizarreness of the qualifier “former.” Maddie is phenomenally talented, but nevertheless exists on television more for her stunning breakdowns than her stunning dance performances. Shia – who, like all grown-up child stars, was already a punchline by his first DUI – has since channeled his obscurity and embarrassment into one of the great art experiments of the 21st century (#metamodernism). However they’ve done it, though, they’ve both managed to make it so that when you see Maddie Ziegler and Shia LeBeouf in a cage performing an act that falls somewhere between hand-to-hand combat and sexual aggression, you only see Maddie Ziegler and Shia LeBeouf. Character is abolished and there in front of you it’s the girl from “Dance Moms” and and the guy from “Even Stevens,” maybe almost having sex.
That’s incredibly hard to watch, and the pedophilia accusations that are already being flung in full force are more than justified. But, as Sia admits herself, disturbed sexuality is such an obvious theme here that I don’t know what anyone calling “pedophile” is trying to expose (that’s like accusing “Deliverance” of depicting rape). It’s horrible to watch any sort of tension play out on screen between an 11-year-old and a 28-year-old – especially when, to my subjective gaze, they’re both real people.
I had a professor in college who talked about the vastly under-acknowledged “Nausicaa” trope in contemporary narratives. Odysseus, naked and fucked up and somewhere near dying, washes up on the shore of Phaeacia where he stumbles across King Alcinous’s young and beautiful daughter Nausicaa tossing a ball around in the woods. Nausicaa, instead of running away screaming, brings him home and cleans him up and gets him set up on his way back to Ithaca. As things so often go in these situations, Nausicaa gets the idea in her head that Odysseus probably has a crush on her and proceeds to try and marry him. Odysseus, already married and fully aware of how way-to-good-and-innocent she is for him, eloquently rebuffs her – it’s not in the book but I have to imagine that she runs off to her room, crying. Before leaving Phaeacia, though, Odysseus turns back to her and, in what I think is one of the most affecting moments in all of literature, says –
“Nausikaa, daughter of great-hearted Alkinoös / even so may Zeus, high-thundering husband of Hera, / grant me to reach my house and see my day of homecoming. / So even when I am there I will pray to you, as to a goddess / all the days of my life. For, maiden, my life was your gift.”
I’ve always imagined Odysseus as washed-up naked Shia LeBeouf with a beard, something I didn’t realize until yesterday but I’m so happy to now know is true. There’s something so incredibly poignant to me about an older person coming back from the horror of life and finding grace for a minute in the straight-up goodness of a little kid. It doesn’t have to be a man and a girl, but in literature it so often is – “Travellin’ Soldier,” “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” the adoration of St. Therese, the entire early career of Natalie Portman. It’s the acknowledgement of a tension that the nature of sexual power politics forces into existence but is nevertheless made completely, for the moment, irrelevant. Nausicaa forgets, for a second, that Odysseus is old and fucked up. Odysseus forgets, for a second, that Nausicaa is a stupid teen. They look at each other as two autonomous people, one who needs help and one who can provide it. For that second, everything washes away and the only thing left is simple goodness.
You see all of that play itself out, albeit in a more hopeless form, in “Elastic Heart.” Maddie, still small enough to slip through the cage, gets out – Shia, too grown up and broken to do anything but grab at the bars, stays trapped. She’s young enough still to be okay – he’s never going to get out. It’s not until that the realization hits that we see anything resembling pathos between the two of them. The video ends with Shia, broken down, arms through the bars, grabbing halfheartedly at Maddie as she stands on his thighs and rocks back and forth, laughing uproariously. Shia drops his arm in defeat. But instead of slipping away, Maddie grabs his wrist and wraps it around her waist. As if to say – “Keep fighting. This is fun.”
This is 2015 Nausicaa. The thing worth saving is long past being saved – the horror of human existence is too far gone. Odysseus can’t go home cleaned up anymore – his past is out there, exposed and impossibly present no matter how hard he tries to run from it. Nausicaa’s future isn’t all that much better, and the thing she finds interesting in Odysseus is the very fucked-up-ness that she knows she’ll eventually realize in herself. This is especially true when Odysseus and Nausicaa are semi-universally recognizable meta-stars whose very existences lies in the fact of their public exhibition. But there’s still enough goodness, no matter how dirty, no matter how hopeless, in all of that to make the fight worth fighting. “Elastic Heart” is a dance, after all, and dancing, no matter how bad you are at it, has to be a good thing. If that’s not true I don’t know what is. There’s something worth saving and a reason for saving it, and whatever those are they’re present for a moment in Shia’s arm and Maddie’s hand in that last silent shot.