The Geography of Rocket Man

'Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kid'

Thomas Cross examines how relational space is communicated through animation, and demonstrates how animation and geography share an understanding of space.

Released in 1972, Elton John’s Rocket Man rose to no. 2 in the UK singles chart and went on to be certified Platinum in 2019. In 2017 it was one of three Elton John’s songs chosen for filmmakers to submit music videos for as part of the Elton John: The Cut competition. Rocket Man was designated for the animation category, and the animated music video created by Majid Adin and Stephen McNally won.

The video was inspired by Adin’s experiences as a refugee crossing Europe and arriving in England. Adin had left Iran to escape persecution for his writings and cartoons that criticised religious conservatism.

When it was first released Rocket Man addressed alienation through the context of space travel and science fiction aesthetics. Adin’s video builds on this, evoking exile, migration and diasporic cultural identity whilst retaining the science fiction aesthetic. New meaning is generated through heteroglossia; the video translates across culture, expressing authorial intentions but in a refracted way.

Additionally, an interesting geographical aspect of the video is the depiction of relational space. The video portrays space in a ‘non-linear, fluid manner’ (Perrot 2019, 135), as an ongoing production and subjectively experienced. In effect, it serves to highlight ideas of relational space developed by Doreen Massey.

Space for Massey is not a smooth, continuous, surface; rather it is the product of interrelations and interactions. Importantly, space varies with experience meaning space is multiple. The space of a child’s journey to school changes over time: whilst the distance remains the same, corporeal experience changes over time.

Consequently, the experience of the space, and the space itself, is changed. Further, two children making the same journey may do so through different spaces, since experience of space is mediated through a complex mix of racism, colonialism, gender relations and relative wealth. Fundamentally, the space is relationally experienced. The space of the journey to school, and the school, is constituted by movement and flows, it is these that give places their identities. For places are not bounded entities, but rather dynamic processes whose specificity derives from particular relations at a particular locus; they have no singular, fixed, identity.

People are differentially positioned (in terms of power) to flows; some move a lot but have no control whilst others do not move but control the flows. It is not simply a question of who moves and who does not; migrants do a lot of moving but are not in charge of the flows.

In addition, John Allen has emphasised how space can be thought along topological lines. It can be thought of as distorted and crumpled. The global is inclusive of the local in a spatial landscape that is removed from the ‘clear-cut coordinates of Cartesian space’ (Allen 2016, 33). Distortion of space means ‘power relationships compose the distances’ (Allen 2016, 37) of space, making certain things possible and rendering others impossible; distance is relational.

This process of spatial distortion allows power from centralized authorities to be exercised intensively at great physical distance and means that power’s reach is about presence rather than distance. Practices of bordering and detention illustrate this. Despite the dispersal and offshoring of migrant detention facilities, the power of the state remains continuous, or even heightened, under transformation.

Thus space is distorted by power in a way that changes the experience of both (but again experience is multiple). In sum, space is open, multiple, relational, unfinished, and always becoming (Massey 2005, 59), distorted, making distance relational, and experience of these is determined by power(lessness).

Space in animation is different to cinema space. Cinema space is based on space as empty, whilst animation has the ability to avoid static constructions of space and draw attention to spatial transitions and change. Accordingly, space in animation is conceptualised as reverberated, emphasising how space is continuously constructed, fluid, and marked by heterogeneity; something that visibly reforms and mutates. This concept aligns with geographers’ understandings of space, both emphasise the multiplicity of space that comes with differential experiences.

Animation can give movement to inanimate objects and figures and show how space can be at once certain and uncertain. The importance of animation is its ability to capture space ‘in the act of changing’ (Wood, 133); it uniquely enables a depiction of relational space. The ability of animation to ‘capture’ space in flux is found in Rocket Man.

Rocket Man has a drawn from memory aesthetic, achieved by the hand-drawn form of its imagery. Use of the watercolour bleeding technique enhance this. The combination of the two evokes a direct connection to the hand of the artist and consequently his subjective memories. But this effect is not limited to evoking the subjectivity of memory; it also evokes aspects of relational space. The transitions between scenes involve a ‘dreamlike transformation’ (Perrot 2019, 135) where the spatial contours are fluid and non-linear.

This can be seen in the sequence from 0:22-0:32, where the video transitions from depicting a man leaving a migrant camp (a reference to the Calais Jungle camp where Adin stayed for a period) to the Iranian countryside and an astronaut leaving his family in a fluid burst of watercolour. Not only is time is folded through space, but the polysemic nature of place, here specifically a border, is illustrated.

Borders have hybrid meaning since they are ‘situated in a particular set of experiences’ (Bauder 2011, 1129); the same border for a tourist and a refugee is a very different space. For the protagonist in the video, his powerlessness renders the movement across the border equivalence with space travel. Science fiction aesthetics are utilised to convey the experiences of danger, powerlessness, and isolation endured by refugees crossing borders, a clear example of heteroglossia.

Further, these aesthetics illustrate how space varies with experience. In a long sequence from 1:44-2:11, the astronaut falls to Earth, past high-rise buildings, before landing in London. The imagery here is reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Earth, combining with the lyrics ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kid’ to create ‘a visual-lyrical sensation of landing on a foreign planet’ (Perrot 2019, 136). This provides an example of how space is relationally experienced.

London’s space becomes defamiliarised through the metaphor of the place as a foreign planet; recognisable visual tropes such as London buses and the Houses of Parliament become estranged through motifs of science fiction. Loneliness and alienation is evoked, but so too is the fluidity and multiplicity of space. Places, such as London, have no singular, fixed, identity; it not only varies with experience but also continuously evolves through flows.

'And I think it's going to be a long long time'

Finally, the visual tropes of space travel illustrate how power distorts space, to make distance relational. In the sequence from 3:38-4:00, the video transitions from the astronaut on a London tube platform to his family in the Iranian countryside gazing at a distant planet. The figure of the astronaut bleeds over the scene to show him on that planet, alone, gazing back at Earth. The lyrics ‘and I think it’s gonna be a long long time’ repeat, pronouncing this image of loneliness. This serves as a depiction of how power composes distances.

Power has the ability to crumple space to make the remote present or make the already remote even more removed; in Rocket Man we find the later effect. The powerlessness of the astronaut means space is stretched to make the distance between London and Iran comparable to the enormity of the gulf between planets in regard to the ability to reunite with his family.  The fluidity of space and importance of power), in experience of it, is illustrated through science fiction aesthetics.

Image courtesy of Vevo

Overall, Rocket Man serves as an example of how new meaning can be produced through heteroglossia. Not only does the video reflect the experiences of migration, it provides a depiction of how geographers understand space.

Allen, J. (2016) Topologies of Power. Routledge: Abingdon, New York : 33, emphasis in original, 37.

Bauder, H. (2011) ‘Toward a Critical Geography of the Border: Engaging the Dialectic of Practice and Meaning’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101(5), pp.1126–1139: 1129.

Massey, D (2005) For Space. Sage Publications Ltd: London, California, New Dehli: 59, emphasis added.

Perrott, L (2019) ‘Accented’ Music Video: Animating Memories of Migration in ‘Rocket Man’. Music, Sound and the Moving Image, 13(2), pp.123–254: 135, 136.

Wood, A. (2006) ‘Re-Animating Space’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1, 2, pp.133-152: 133.

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