The Healing Power of Transformation

I’m fascinated with examining why I like something, and if I may pat myself on the back a little (shouldn’t we all?), it’s usually because something is really good.  “Good” is a subjective term, of course, so it requires analysis, and learning what constitutes a good story is what has driven us all to read the STC! books and read the Friday blogs week after week, plumbing the depths of Blake Snyder’s wisdom.  Any story, short or long, can be good (or bad), in any conceivable genre, but when it comes to movies I find it especially interesting to examine wordless stories to see how the story is driven by the action of the image, and the music, and how those interact, which to me is the essence of cinema.  I also find that looking at shorts is instructive by virtue of their compression.

Spike Jonze’s four minute ad for the Apple Homepod called “Welcome Home” is unquestionably good. I know because I loved it. I think it’s a fantastic example of (nearly) wordless, highly cinematic and concentrated storytelling.  I don’t know who conceived of the piece, or who wrote it (it is choreographed by Ryan Heffington and performed by the accomplished dancer FKA Twigs), but it’s directed by Spike Jonze and I think it’s safe to say he is the primary artist at work.  He is also an Academy Award®-winning screenwriter of the film Her, which expertly tells its story in a classical way. He knows how to Save the Cat and all things related to it.

Before we dive into an analysis it’s worth saying a few words about advertising. Essentially, advertising exists to sell a product, usually by suggesting a need that the product will address and showing how purchasing it will enhance the customer’s life. That’s advertising in a nutshell and that’s what plays out here. Let’s take a look.

Opening Image (0:00 – 0:17): We see a young woman riding a crowded subway. This is Twigs. She appears tired and depressed. Everything about the image, from the drab colors to the crammed quarters and turned-away faces, supports the idea of isolation and melancholy. Next we see her huddled under her umbrella, swiftly walking through traffic on a stormy night. Finally we see her in the back of a crowded elevator, pressing through an indifferent crowd when it’s her time to exit. Three shots, 17 seconds, depicting an ordinary world where stasis unequivocally equals death.

Set-Up (0:18 – 1:08): She enters her dark apartment and turns on a light, settling in. It’s somewhat drab, certainly dim. In the first of only two lines of dialogue, she absently says, “Hey, Siri, play me something I’d like.” It is said with such rote disengagement that it’s clear this woman is barely going through the motions of life. We cutaway to a shot of the Homepod on a side table, and Siri’s voice responds, “Okay.” After this exchange there is no more dialogue. However, there is music, which soon begins, and a song, and lyrics, so it’s not quite fair calling this “wordless.” There are words and they play an important part.

Another series of three shots: Twigs standing alone, looking down, in a different place in her apartment each time, a reiteration of her almost comatose, barren existence, the Things That Need Fixing.

The song begins — a new song from Anderson .Paak called “Til It’s Over,” a song about the excitement and challenges of relationships.  A love song. It’s both skeptical and hopeful, concerning the difficult realities of life and love while hoping for more. It has a great groove. Twigs listens to the singer’s voice, a man’s voice:

You know I talk about you highly
I’m fascinated for the time being
We can laugh until the morning
Or we can dance in the hallway

Catalyst (1:09): She begins to show signs of life. She’s sitting on her sofa now, having made herself a drink, swaying to the music. Then, responding to the lyric “or we can dance in the hallway” (foreshadowing, it turns out), she sways hard to the right — her first dance-like move — and makes a sharp gesture with her glass, and something sudden and inexplicable happens:

The table extends underneath her hand, in synch with her motion, as if by magic.  This introduces the premise: music and song, delivered through the mechanism of the Homepod, can be a source of powerful transformation. In this case, it is at first physical, and miraculous. And unexplained. Who needs to explain dreams?

Debate (1:09 – 1:13): The woman registers momentary surprise, momentary hesitation, but she quickly recovers. This beat only lasts 4 seconds, but it’s present.

Break into Two / Fun and Games / Promise of the Premise (1:13 – 2:32): Thus begins a sequence I’ll call “Exploration of Powers.” She figures out that it was her movement that caused the table to extend, so she puts this power to the test by jumping up and extending it further, and then, with her dancer body (she is an amazing dancer), she “widens” the room across one axis (width) with the power of choreography alone. Colors streak along the line where the lengthening, or stretching, originates, and this brings color into the room — and into her life — in a totally unexpected way. She delights in the discovery. Transformation.

She looks at a wall and makes an elbow movement, expecting the wall to obey.  It doesn’t.  This is subtle, but it’s important: her goals are not achieved effortlessly, not at first. Her experience with this new magic isn’t without conflict, no matter how softly or playfully expressed. It just makes things more interesting and demonstrates growth: she has to learn how to tame her environment; she has to learn how to use her powers.

She whispers to the wall, some kind of instruction, or incantation, and when she repositions herself and executes a big move, the wall extends in obedience. This is the Promise of the Premise and the nature of the Fun & Games on full display: the room grows and changes space (“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew!”), now across another axis (length), and then yet another as it curves outward in an altered direction, all in echo of Twigs’ expressive dancing. The curving motion coincides with the song’s first chorus, which is also its name:

I’ma ride it
til it’s over

Which is a lyric that ostensibly speaks about relationships, but here, quite literally, also refers to Twigs herself riding this amazing and dreamlike experience wherever it might lead. The room is now an explosion of abstract color.

She pushes the wall out with her hip, and it responds to the command, moving away from her, but then “pushes back” towards her. She has to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. More conflict. She tries again, a different tactic: slower, deeper, more seductive, then turns her back and gives the wall “full booty” — extending the wall — a huge swath of it — across a new axis: depth. She keeps “pushing” in this magical way, with different choreographed motions, different body parts, extending the wall a huge distance, and then the camera races backwards to reveal the newly created space: a cavernous hallway of riotous, exuberant color, a kaleidoscopic vortex.

Fun & Games! (2:12 – 2:30): Inspired by this new space, we see Twigs unleashed as a dancer and performer exhibiting a whole new level of kinetic expressiveness. She commands the lights, much like Mickey Mouse commanding the stars in the heavens in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and similarly to that classic short, this section is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the promise of the premise. The camera motion is faster, too, and the cutting, the shot selection more various, all in support of and in synch with the pulsating kaleidoscope. This is true creative energy, in front of and behind the camera. Artists are at play — “dancing in the hallway”!

I’ma ride it
I’m a ride it
I’m a ride it til it’s over

Midpoint / Bad Guys Close In (2:32 – 3:10): Twigs “opens” the wall at the end of a hallway to reveal — not a new space, but another wall: a wall with a mirror on it.

This is a disconcerting surprise as she’s not pleased by what she sees, a distinct character beat and getting to the root of the Six Things That Need Fixing: she’s dissatisfied and critical of herself. There is hardly a more primal or universal problem. Her relationship with herself is the B Story, so A and B stories cross here in the mirror at the midpoint. The worst Bad Guy of all is often simply insecurity.

With a displeased swipe of her hand the mirror moves away across the wall, only to bounce back to its point of origin. Push back again. She’s forced to look at herself. Twigs 1 regards her reflection, Twigs 2.

With a new idea, Twigs 1 expands the mirror diagonally so that it reveals her entire body and a second hallway behind Twigs 2, in effect magically doubling the space in the frame. Twigs 1 begins to dance with herself, with Twigs 2. She can lose herself in the dance, a form of escape from examining herself too deeply, perhaps? They are perfect mirror images of each other until Twigs 2 begins to move independently (more magic!), beckoning Twigs 1 to “her side” of the reflection. Is this “bad”? Forbidden? Not to be trusted? We don’t know. Twigs 1 looks over her shoulder as if she’s about to do something ill-advised, and then magically steps through the partition — right through the mirror — across the barrier into the mirror world. The lyrics give expressive commentary:

Would you stay if your
heart had the power
Would you run and find
another life to imitate

Again, the lyrics are about relationship, but in this case, relationship with self; identity, longing, escape. There’s that word again: escape. The lights dim as the camera reorients to the side that’s inside the mirror, which suggests mystery, uncertainty, vulnerability. Is Badness Closing In? Again, we’re not sure.

Twigs 2 immediately takes a leadership role, explicitly “speaking” to Twigs 1 by lip-synching the words of the song. This is dialogue without being dialogue per se, yet works as an explicit message:

It’s important that we make the best
of a short time
You can never be my
one and only anyway

I mentioned that the words were important, right? So important that right here we have a strong candidate for a Theme Stated — that being, making the best of a short time, and not expecting overmuch from any relationship — but let’s keep going:

Break into Three (3:10 – 3:25): In a stirring expression of integration, Twigs 1 and Twigs 2 dance together into the darkening space in perfect unison (though Twigs 2 is still “in the lead,” a half step ahead), both fully enjoying this relationship with the other, laughing and trading playful dance steps, culminating when Twigs 2 grabs Twigs 1 by both arms and they go twirling round and round together further into the darkness as one. O, joyful synthesis!

Imma ride it
Imma ride it

Notice there is no All Is Lost and no Dark Night of the Soul. Sure, there is a hint of mystery and darkness (and a “darkening” courtesy of lighting changes), but there is a limit to how dark things will go. This isn’t a thriller or a horror film, there is no Monster in the House. And though this has psychology impressive for a four-minute entertainment intended to promote a brand, the artists choose to skip those beats and compress a Five Point Finale into three swift actions that synch with the song. In short narratives of all kinds, if there is compression of structure it’s most often found here at the race to the finish.

Finale (3:27 – 3:52): They separate and we follow Twigs 2 (see that? We follow Twigs 2, the reflection, not Twigs 1) as she spins and pirouettes, followed by a spotlight, while it’s revealed that Twigs 1 stands by herself, holding back, alone in the half-light. Twigs 2 seems unconcerned by this and continues spinning forward as a spotlight reveals the couch from her apartment moving out of the darkness into place, and she falls backwards onto it.

Final Image #1 (3:36 – 3:40): Twigs 2 is smiling and out of breath as the lighting shifts and we’re back inside Twigs’ apartment (Transformation!) just as the song ends, and all is just as it was before the music began and the dream commenced, a monochromatic apartment with unexceptional lighting, except that now Twigs is in possession of the memory of a magical imaginary experience, in stark contrast to how we found her at the Opening Image, all thanks to–

Final Image #2 (3:45 – 3:48): The Homepod, which we see again just as it was on the side table when it was first introduced to us, when it said “Okay” and played a song upon request to please its owner; the “perfect song,” as befits a “perfect product” that can essentially read its owner’s mind. The appearance of the Apple logo signals the end, just short of the four minute mark.

Final Thoughts

Above and beyond the classically structured story, the spectacle of the production, the astonishing array of creativity and imagination springing from every department, and of course the great song and the incredible dancing and performance by Twigs, let me circle back to Theme Stated.

Blake told us that the key to the theme is the nature of the transformation, and what we have in “Welcome Home” is a character that changes from depressed and diminished to actualized and empowered. Her primary flaw is her disconnectedness with everything including herself, a self she harshly judges, but if she learns to embrace herself then she can embrace life. That is what unfolds in this storyline, and I think its most brilliant touch is how it dramatizes the acceptance and integration, embedded into the storyline not as a single moment but a process, as Twigs 1 steps through the looking glass into the mirror world, the world of Twigs 2, but then stays inside the mirror world as we follow Twigs 2 out of it, back into the real world from the dream via the sofa.

The transformation that happens, on camera, both visibly and invisibly at the same time, is that at the end Twigs 1 and Twigs 2 have merged; these two are now one — just when “the lights turn on.” Right when we re-enter the apartment there is no longer any distinction: we are seeing the integrated person. This is genius in both its subtlety and also its clarity. And it’s totally visual.

This story also succeeds brilliantly as a piece of advertising for the same reasons: in both very subtle and very clear fashion, it casts the product as the vehicle for the transformation, a device that can transport someone out of a difficult, exhausting, and uninspired existence and be made whole with a quietly uttered command, and a new song. Two genres meet here: Golden Fleece, where the “prize” sought is the most primal urge of self-acceptance, and also Buddy Love, where “an incomplete hero” is made complete again (literally complete by merging with herself) by the virtually magical properties of a new product.

That is the essence of advertising — your life will change if you buy this, something you cannot live without. Finally, as a story irrespective of its raison d’etre to sell an Apple device, it is a classic example of the primal power of transformation, and when that transformation concerns integration of self, it can powerfully communicate healing in a way that’s both subliminal and sublime. I can’t ever remember seeing an ad that comes as close to fine art as it does here.

Welcome Home, one and all.