Madonna: Truth or Dare

(aka In Bed with Madonna, Alek Keshishian, USA, 1991)


In Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour fou (1968), there is a great play between the classically sedate coverage of action shot on 35mm, and a more nervy, intrusive, on-the-run capturing of the same events on 16mm. Every time Rivette cuts in a moment of the grainy 16mm material, it’s like an electric shock: materially, we experience the device as a moment of psychodramatic reality, even (as Rivette described it) as “sickness” or “persecution”. (1)


Twenty-three years on, such moments of truth are exponentially harder to achieve in a photographic and dramatic medium like cinema. Material jolts of graininess, messiness and spontaneity have been simulated, codified, commodified and reproduced so many times since the ‘60s (in music videos and slick TV ads) that they usually hit us now as little more than merely stylish effects, easily submerged within an overall image-flow.


Madonna: Truth or Dare is an extraordinary example of this process at work. The film is structured around the alternation of 16mm black-and-white documentary footage with glossy, 35mm concert material, all captured during the “Blond Ambition” world tour. Mostly, the relation of these two types is rather orderly: in fact, arranged in the manner of a classic Hollywood musical, where the backstage sequences signify everyday reality – thereby enabling the songs and dances to burst forth in heightened, magical, choreographed colour and precision.


Director Alek Keshishian tries for his moment of truth by mixing up this order of materials: first, in a (all too brief) colour sequence of Madonna’s microphone intermittently cutting out while she sings; and second, in a wonderfully frantic black-and-white insert of the star readying to spring out of a forbidding piece of stage machinery and into the spotlight. Yet even this moment seems calculated, easy, smooth – in true postmodern style, not what Roland Barthes called a reality effect but the second-hand quotation of such an effect.


Everthing about Madonna – her music, videos, films, and especially her ever-changing image – is dauntingly difficult to discuss in a way that seems adequate or appropriate. It sometimes seems that, almost singlehandedly, she has inadvertently brought about both the Rise and the Fall of the field that has become known as Cultural Studies. Madonna inspires a daunting amount of speculation among cultural commentators at all levels, journalistic and academic: speculation on the nature of a media-mad society, on the postmodern circulation of images, on the performance of female sexuality, on the processes of viewer identification.


Yet at the very moment that any of these commentators publicly manage to get in bed with Madonna – either to hail her as the vanguard of tomorrow’s popular culture (the rap of the postmodern/pop intellectual, for instance E. Ann Kaplan) or to damn her as its most regressive symptom (Phillip Adams in The Australian) – just about everything they say seems somehow wrong, unconvincing, too heavy or too light, too dreamy or too moralistic. Not to mention the disquieting fact that all critical positions on Madonna always seem to arrive in print about a year too late – as if miserably destined to be pulped, parodied and superseded like every other passing image in her career, turned into a nostalgic, kitschy, borrowed effect.


Consequently, Madonna’s fans (of which I am one) rightly sense that what can be currently said about her at any given moment doesn’t really take – and perhaps they doubt, ultimately, whether the truth of this cultural phenomenon can or will ever be spoken (in postmodern lingo, this is the ‘Madonna is not a real person, only a shifting configuration of signs’ defense). But that is not always a particularly reassuring sensation, particularly to those who have grown well and truly tired of the endless, mindless celebration of pop culture as the unproblematic best of all possible worlds.


As a text for cultural studies, Madonna: Truth or Dare is absolutely all over the place. Even her most devoted apologists blanch at the naïveté she displays in its supposedly candid sections: the bizarre proclamations of her “artistic integrity”, and the “really political” New Age message she offers to the masses that they can be whoever they want to be. How to assess Madonna’s much vaunted smartness, her intuitive cultural savvy, from the evidence she so openly lays out for us here? Madonna is often seen – and clearly sees herself – as an advocate, an activist. But what the hell is she advocating (or, for that matter, activating)?


All of Madonna’s intended messages are invariably mixed or mad. Indelible memory from a televised concert: at the end of “Papa Don’t Preach”, slides taken from the song’s video blur first into images of the Pope (Madonna aggressively telling the Holy Papa not to preach to women) and then the boldly graphic slogan SAFE SEX (Madonna, and/or maybe the Pope, preaching to the audience). Similarly wild fluctuations between her real, imaginary and symbolic Papa-figures occur in Madonna: Truth or Dare. I don’t offer this as a putdown (on the contrary, much of the pleasure I derive from her work is encapsulated in such vacillations); only as a suggestion that she belongs, more than is usually acknowledged, to a merrily scattershot tradition of showbiz populism. (2)


Eric Michaels once thought he detected in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video “suspiciously academic references to Lacan’s essay about ‘the Gaze’, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, the feminist critique of woman’s film image, and other citations too scholarly too believe but too precise to dismiss”. (3) His words capture well the mad, impossible, dissociated position of the critic trying to sound neither too innocent nor too pretentious in front of a Madonna text. Likewise, Madonna: Truth or Dare itself comes on (a little unnervingly) as if it were devised in the plenary session of one of the many “Between Documentary and Fiction” conferences of the 1980s.


Just as Warhol began his Pop Art from the assumption that Modernism had destroyed art for good and that the ruins were laying around waiting to be indifferently iconicised, Madonna: Truth or Dare proceeds from the cool conviction that the classic, heroic documentary film-form – specifically the cinéma-vérité documentary – is dead, a long lost illusion of innocence and transparency. So Madonna and Keshishian do their vogueing dance, for just over two hours, around its pale corpse. In interviews, Madonna is effortlessly fluent with the Wildean paradoxes of this post-documentary pose: according to her, she never stops performing, so you’ll never get to see the real person … the only truth lies in the unflinching recording of her falsity. The Powers of the False!


The film is not too bothered about figuring out exactly where it is or what it’s doing in that uncertain zone between documentary and fiction. Its big moments, the ones that most self-consciously dramatise the doco/fiction paradox – such as the truth-and-dare game (complete with the perfect, artless moment where camera and microphone almost miss Madonna’s poignant revelation about her feelings for Sean Penn), or Warren Beatty’s running analytical commentary (“Why do anything if the camera’s not on?”) – get swallowed up, like everything else, in the flow. Sure, it plays with (widely discredited) notions of documentary form – but is anything at stake in this game beyond the Pop determination to be above anything and everything deemed old or outmoded?


One of the routes along which one can track what gets ploughed under in Madonna: Truth or Dare is the photographic, i.e., the history of certain codified, commodified photographic styles, and the use to which their connotations are put. A Life cover (December 1986) brandished “That Fabulous Couple: Madonna and the Camera”; indeed, one could hardly find a more extreme consummation of the relation between a public woman celebrity and the image-making apparatuses of mass culture. In a spookily Faustian contract, Madonna intimately surrenders herself to the omnipresent camera (this is the very premise of Keshishian’s film) so as to have bestowed upon her its vaunted magic: the ability to re-incarnate the auras of previous, glamorous stars caught and archived in images.


If this sounds as questionable as anything else written about Madonna, consider the strange, morbid emphasis placed on death in Madonna: Truth or Dare. As ever, Madonna leaves carefully casual evidence as to her showbiz-cum-spiritual affinity with Marilyn Monroe. At certain moments in Madonna’s career, this identification with Monroe (as with Judy Holliday in the Who’s That Girl [1987] period) has stressed the idol’s indomitable strength, her unfairly overlooked talent, and the real brain behind the exploited bimbo/bombshell exterior.


In Madonna: Truth or Dare, however, the Monroe identification has shunted over to pure, voluptuous death-wish fantasy: the incredible moment of Madonna’s neck seemingly broken during massage (during which one viewer was heard to yell out :“She’s dead!”), and the rather silly MTV-style montage of her playing at being a sublime corpse at her mother’s grave. Enhancing this necrophiliac ambience is not only the usual display of signs of Madonna’s Roman Catholicism, but also, and especially, the choice of photographic texture. The grainy black-and-white used here comes in the wake of Bruce Weber, particularly his ultra-photographic films Broken Noses (1987) and Let’s Get Lost (1988). As in Weber, everyone and everything (but especially the Star) is filmed as if already dead, memorialised, fetishised, passed Body and Soul into an image-archive.


For me, the most stimulating contemporaneous intertext for Madonna: Truth or Dare was provided by the Andy Warhol film retrospective in Melbourne (1991). My mind raced at the free-associative idea of Madonna at last putting aside her Marilyn fixation and instead revisiting and re-incarnating the Factory of the ‘60s. Perhaps this is where her death-drive will inexorably take her. For – all hokey New Age positivity aside – Madonna could be at once both Edie Sedgwick and Andy: both the puppet who is so decadently on-high, so perenially stared at by the camera, that she can no longer tell what register of reality or performance she is in at any given moment; and the puppet-master who collects sexually confused young dancers and manipulates then into camp, tawdry, BDSM scenarios … endlessly recording the whole social scene on video.


Rescued at last from oblivion, Warhol films including Beauty #2 (1965) and Vinyl (1965) turn out to be beyond good and evil, beyond life and death, beyond documentary and fiction in ways not even hinted at by Madonna: Truth or Dare. Which suggests that, after all, there might still be some cultural ground worth exploring after a decade of jaded, sampled, Pop effects.


parody: Medusa: Dare to be Truthful


MORE Madonna: Body of Evidence, The Next Best Thing




1. Jacques Rivette et al, “Time Overflowing”, in Rivette: Texts and Interviews (British Film Institute, 1977). back


2. See William D. Routt and Richard Thompson, “‘Keep Young and Beautiful’: Surplus and Subversion in Roman Scandals”, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 42 No. 1 (Spring 1990). back


3. Eric Michaels, “My Essay on Postmodernity”, Art & Text, no. 25 (June-August 1987). Reprinted as a Postscript chapter with the altered title “My Essay on Postmodernism” in the posthumous essay collection Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 177-182. back

© Adrian Martin August 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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