Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Horse as Emotional Signifier

I'm always fascinated by pop culture turning to horses when in need of emotional shorthand. Last year I wrote about the film Michael Clayton and its deliberate use of horses to convey the pain of someone finally facing the harsh, damaging reality of their circumstances. This morning I saw Rihanna's new music video, promoting the first single, Diamonds, to be released from her forthcoming record.

In this frame, Rihanna is turning in the vastness of an (inevitable) desert plain toward the vision of a shining black horse galloping over an open road toward another horse stretched flat out on the ground. The Diamonds video is broken into motifs, in a way, and the horses might be considered motif number two, with the other two being post-apocalyptic flamey and quiet bedroom pensive. Because I'm a cynic, I'm pretty sure Rihanna and the horses were never in the same place at the same time. She conveys her pathos screen right and the horses, they do their horse things screen left, signifying her emotion, enacting its essence.

I like Rihanna. I think she has talent bigger than her choices and may grow to be an astonishingly good singer eventually. She's devoted her last couple of albums to, in part, grinding over the controversial stories that have dogged her through the last few years. It's easy to watch any of her videos in that context, and Diamonds is no different. But in the end, it's just a love song, and it's the horses that gave me pause. Somehow, they often seem to be an easy choice when emotional resonance is what's on tap. But what does that say about them, especially to people that have never been next to one, patted one, sat on one?

I think of the crew in the L.A. editing room, too, cutting back and forth between Rihanna and the black horses for maximum effect. Because they could cut it like that, and did, as though images of horses are a powerful formula that always works well when applied by skilled hands. Do I have to assume, though, that the editors knew the thing that is horses and that they shivered at the beauty of the one running, his muscles literally rippling back in the light, or thrilled at the strength of the one rising up from the ground, dust encircling like smoke?

That's what I don't know. What if what they saw had nothing to do with them knowing horses at all? What is that, then? Whatever it is, it's what makes horses inherently compelling whether we know them or not. It's why some of us have to have them in our lives and why others cannily turn to them to express emotions otherwise elusive of words.