religion, mythology, and fucking like an animal: inside the 'closer' video

by terry hickman

As luck would have it, my first exposure to Nine Inch Nails was the MTV video of "Closer." Because I heard and saw them together from the very beginning, the song and the video have always been inseparable in my memory and thinking. That first viewing made my hair stand on end. It was also my first exposure to anything resembling "Industrial" music, and I felt I'd finally Come Home. I had no idea anybody was making music using machines, industrial noises, traffic sounds, all of that. I'd always thought I was a little weird for hearing music in trains' wheels clacking, in printing presses rotating, in chains rattling and wind humming through power lines. Here there was a whole musical field created around those things I'd secretly responded to all my life!

But more than that, "Closer" was the first video I'd seen that looked as if its makers (director Mark Romanek and Trent Reznor) really had a sense of what a music video could achieve, and also had a sense of history, of culture (not Culture!), and of self-knowledge. What little I could learn of its creation revealed that they borrowed styles and concepts from several recent and contemporary artists, among them Man Ray, Joel-Peter Witkin, and the Brothers Quay. I'm not familiar with most of the Brothers' work, but the first two artists are definitely grounded in Western art history in their own works, if only as a point of departure. Regardless of how much of the historical sensibility is "borrowed," I still think that "Closer" is the best music video I've ever seen, hands down.

There are two parts to any work of art: the message, and the medium. In "Closer," the message reaches down into our collective memory, our prehistoric consciousness, and pulls out images which lend forceful resonance to the lyrics, and it's all enhanced by sounds and music from a medium that mainstream intelligentsia dismiss as noise.

It wasn't long before I'd obtained copies of several uncensored NIN videos, including "Closer." I was delighted to finally get a look at the "missing scenes" and MTV-altered moments the broadcast censors thought to protect us from. In all but one case I could understand, though not agree with, their logic. (I'm still baffled as to why a long shot of Reznor -- not tied, but with the ball gag in place -- sitting in a chair against the laboratory wall was replaced by a "Scene Missing" card. He's fully clothed, he's not doing anything, he's not even moving. Strange, censorship.)


Shortly thereafter I picked up a book, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture, by William Irwin Thompson (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1989). I was amazed to find illumination in Thompson's ruminations for many of the themes and images in "Closer." It's an extremely interesting book, and I'd recommend it to anyone whose curiosity is piqued by the title. There is far too much to discuss here, going way beyond the subject of this article, but here are just a few of the insights I gained:

In prehistoric times the horns of cattle were associated with the crescent moon. The cycles of female fertility and menstruation were thought to be connected with lunar cycles, therefore bovine horns became a symbol of female power and reproduction. Notice in "Closer" how often the steer's skull appears, both alone and with the enigmatic, naked woman. There's also an ox yoke on the wall near the piano Reznor plays at the end.

The very environment in which "Closer" is set is a visual synthesis of fundamental, seemingly contradictory ways of experiencing life and the world. Given the superficial subject -- frustrated lust with a dash of religion -- why then is it played out in a scientific laboratory (albeit a very dusty, neglected one)? The carnal, the spiritual, and the intellectual may not be as mutually exclusive as we've been taught to think: "The truth is that myth and art create the preconditions of consciousness out of which science arises," Thompson says, "Myth is an expression of knowing in a science yet unborn." This is one of the significant themes of this book and again, I encourage you to read it for further insight into this video.

Speaking of "unborn", that infant's (foetus's?) skeleton at the beginning of the video is a sight not easily accepted. A baby is the embodiment of the future; we look at an infant and our minds drift happily to its unimaginable future life. This tiny skeleton lops off those thoughts, brutally. It's Hope, denied... and yet... and yet... this frail skeleton thus preserved will endure many more years than the individual would have lived. It's a wordless poem unto itself...if not of eternal life, at least of eternal questions. (Among many, many things I would love to ask the makers of this video is how and where they got that skeleton. It's not something you can get at any old pawn shop. There may even be legalities involved in possessing such an artifact.)

Scattered throughout Thompson's book are references and lore concerning many more images found in "Closer." But the myth most salient here is from a 20th-century trance-medium, Randall Stevens, concerning the myth of the creation and fall of Adam. His story goes that when God first made Adam and Eve, they were pure spirit, and they were one, twinned being. He created them out of boredom, as it were, with being endlessly praised by his perfect creations, the Angels. One of them, "Arbal-Jesus" (Satan), was jealous, and he tricked Adam into "trying on" this physical body, then trapped him in it, thus separating Adam from his spirit-twin, Eve. Then Satan entertained himself by subjecting the trapped Adam to unmentionable sexual tortures, while poor Eve the spirit roamed all over Creation trying to find Adam and figure out how to get him back, so they could again be one, as God intended.

This story irresistibly reminds me of those S&M scenes of Reznor hanging naked, thrashing, and screaming. Far from being mere titillation, are they really the direct expression of a soul desperately trying to reattain God's intent for him? Pay close attention next time you see it, to the words he's delivering when those shots are shown.

Thompson's book gave me much to think about, and satisfied me that there is, indeed, a great deal more going on in this five-minute rock'n'roll video than it's given credit for, even among NIN's fans.


Only recently did I decide to dig into the video in a technical way. I'd hesitated, fearing it would destroy the magic for me. But curiosity to know why it's so powerful, wanting to know something about how they used structure to convey and reinforce its dense symbology, overcame my hesitation. I'm not a musician or a recording technician. I'm a writer. I don't have the jargon to analyze a video as a video director would. I had to dig into the thing as I would in analyzing a story or a novel, and use methods that would make its structure visible to my untrained eye.

Using my VCR and the Pause button, I noted every (I think) image in the video, in order, to its place in relation to the lyrics. There are at least 172 scenes -- I may have missed one or two, and it depends on how you count them. Occasionally they deliberately made it look as if the film slipped its sprockets so you get the same image, jerkily, several times.

Then I recreated my handmade table (lyrics down one column, scene descriptions in my own shorthand down the other) on a spreadsheet, and numbered the scenes. Printed that out and studied it a little. The first thing I did was to think about what are the most eye-catching scenes (this of course will vary among viewers). I wanted to translate the ebb and flow of the visual interest level to see if there would be a pattern, an actual rise-and-fall, if I put it into a graph.

I decided that the five most arresting images were these:

  1. Trent suspended, clothed, on his back in mid-air, spinning in a circle with "no visible means of support." I assigned that a value of 10.
  2. Trent, bound and gagged, clothed, seated in a chair -- value of 8.
  3. Trent, apparently naked except for long black leather gloves and a blindfold, hanging by the wrists from the ceiling -- 7.
  4. Trent in silhouette at an oddly shaped and old-fashioned-looking microphone* (of a kind normally used to mic bass drums), against a background of shelves of extremely dusty old books and skulls -- 5.
  5. Trent in a wind tunnel wearing old-fashioned aviator goggles, always in closeup or extreme closeup -- 3.

*The microphone itself is an interesting visual element. It's fat and rounded, with a button on the tip -- it could be interpreted as either phallic or mammary.

I made a graph numbered 1 through 172 across the horizontal axis, and ranked the interest-level values up the side. If Scene 24 had been assigned an interest level of 5, I made a bar reaching that level, sprouting from the number 24 graph notch. I graphed all the interest shots in this manner.

The first thing that stood out was that the three "Trent spinning" scenes divide the graph into four almost equal parts -- they're very evenly spaced. The second was the cyclical buildup of visual interest -- 5, 5, 5,... 3, 3, 3... 10! Then a gap, and higher "excitement": 3, 3, 3,... 7, 7, 7,... 10! Then a shorter gap, and a 5, 8, 5, 8, 5, 5, 5,... 10! Then it declines, visually, in excitement (as I defined it), with a few rather widely spaced, lesser peaks, until the last 3. It's a fairly classic graph of the dramatic tension in a novel or a short story.

This dynamic is somewhat different from what the music is doing, at an emotional level. An incredibly sexual buildup of musical energy starts around scene 90. Scenes 106-129 are mixed with an eight-line poem that is almost obscured by the music. At frame 130 the music begins its completely "instrumental" phase, and the energy level really takes off, building maddeningly until scene 168 -- when all music stops except for an electronic piano that sounds, in single notes, the simple, melancholy final theme.


I reviewed the list of scenes again to see how each scene used visual symbols to express the song's themes -- and to try to identify what those themes were. It seems to me that they are Sex, Conscience, Authority, and Religion. Interesting, I think -- are our actions and thoughts not driven by 1) our bodies, 2) our own moral codes, 3) society's pressures, and 4) God, or the idea of one? Pretty neat. I assigned each theme a color: Sex -- pink (of course), Conscience -- yellow, Authority -- blue, and Religion -- green. My choices of which recurring scenes represented which themes were admittedly arbitrary. Someone else might come up with completely different ones. But mine were like this:

  1. Sex: a slender, completely hairless, unclothed young woman (I, Beavis-like, call her the Naked Chick).
  2. Conscience: the head of a pig spiked onto an old iron contraption which, when a turnwheel cranks, spins the head around.**
  3. Authority: a group of dry-looking, hard-looking, grim old men with very short haircuts and very conservative suits. One reviewer called them "elderly Nazis," and I think that's right on.
  4. Religion: a live Rhesus monkey tied to a cross. (Do keep in mind that he wasn't actually being hurt, and his total film time is much less than one minute. He isn't a happy monkey, though.)

**The pig was a fascinating revelation. Any Nine Inch Nails fan knows that Reznor has a Thing about pigs -- they are mentioned often in his songs, and what they represent varies. Sometimes they're the media, sometimes an abandoning lover, sometimes "fans" or record company execs. The way the pig is used in this video led me to conclude that, this time, it's his own internal value system. What made the connection for me occurs late in the video. A rubber-gloved hand from off-camera, removing an apple from the pig's mouth, is followed quickly by a shot of Reznor with the round, red ball gag in his mouth. Once I noticed that, I went back and watched again, and it seems to me that the pig's delirious whirling accelerates proportionately with "Adam's" moral confusion. Naturally, it also mirrors Reznor's spinning.

Then I turned my graph sideways and with the assigned colored highlighters, drew a line at each frame number where each symbol appears in the video. I wanted to see, again, if there are any visual patterns. And there are! Looking only at the colored lines (ignoring the "Interest level" bars and the lyrics for the moment), what you see first is a Religion line, then two Sex lines, then a section that encompasses about one quarter of the song in which the only colors are blue and green -- Authority and Religion. Next is another chunk of about one quarter of the video's total length, of pink and yellow -- Sex and Conscience. There's a gap, then a smaller section with only Authority and Conscience, then two lines of Sex, which launches another section of Religion and Authority (Religion gives out first). There are five or six pink lines toward the end -- Sex wins out.

I think of these chunks as "Conflict Blocks." It was fun seeing how just a little jolt of Sex seems to excite standing waves of Religion, Authority and Conscience -- hey, just like real life.


What I think is fascinating is that the first theme presented is Religion, followed immediately by two shots of Sex, which seem to set off a barrage of Religion and Authority (right in the middle of which is the first 10-level scene of Trent spinning in midair). Another shot of Sex sets off a battle between Sex and Conscience, which ends with another 10-level Trent-spinning scene. Then Authority and Conscience grapple until another double dose of Sex shows up, at which point Religion and Authority pile on. In the middle of the changeover comes the final Trent-spinning shot, but now his limbs hang limp as if in defeat. Soon after that, Religion bows out, leaving Authority to fight on alone until the last sequence of Sex frames.

I've thought all along that the song wasn't titled "Closer" by accident, even though the line everybody gets excited about is "I want to fuck you like an animal." The entire chorus says, "I want to fuck you like an animal / My whole existence is flawed / You get me closer to God." The whole point of the thing is this person's struggle with spirituality and the flesh, and how sex gets him "closer to God." But "closer" is not "to": Closure never happens, perfection is never achieved, and all the restraints -- Religion, Authority, and Conscience -- fall away, leaving only Sex. The music goes through ever-escalating cycles of tension until the last, orgiastic instrumental buildup, resolving not in a climax but in the lonely, simple, minor-key cyclical theme tune -- which itself ends with an upward, sad, questioning note. It's almost an aural echo of the visually haunting infant's skeleton.

Humankind is stuck here, separated not only from God but from each other, by forces we can't control and barely understand. Still the quest goes on. I take the recurring scenes of eggs to be symbols of hope. And the minor-key ending melody, while sounding lonesome and failed, also ends with an upturned note, leaving the emotional vector at least open-ended. Besides, the protagonist is still alive -- he'll live to struggle with all of it another day. One of Thompson's premises is that all of human history and prehistory is one long spiral (he even has several diagrams depicting spirals -- both "downward" and "upward" -- to illustrate his concepts), along which we as a race travel through time, and attempt again and again to regain the starting point -- unity with God.

Another notion I've long held is that "Closer" is a near cousin to another of Reznor's songs, "Something I Can Never Have." It's as if the earlier song were a wistful groping toward resolution of an unnamed loss, the singer not even knowing how the "something" could be of help, but knowing he'd never get it. "Closer," it seems to me, is a mature, fully realized manifestation of what it was that was haunting that younger man, just how elusive it really is, the full cost of pursuing and missing it, and the inescapable imperative to keep trying.

Terry Hickman lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Her article "A Trilogy of Terror: The Happiness in Slavery Suite" appeared in Hope and Vaseline #8. Write to her care of