Duranalysis: Union of the Snake

Watching the video for Duran Duran’s “Union of the Snake” is like coming into the middle of some obscure science-fiction film, where you have no earthly idea who the characters are or what they’re supposed to be doing, or even whether the film is any damn good. Still, you keep watching, because the images are intriguing enough to hold your attention, even as the cogs in your brain spin in vain, trying to make coherent sense of it all and coming up with… I don’t know, marshmallow fluff.

Yeah. It’s sort of like that.

While “Union of the Snake” (1983) has all the hallmarks of a Russell Mulcahy video (heavy on plot, plenty of evocative imagery, totally bonkers), it was actually directed by Simon Milne. Apparently, Mulcahy came up with the story concept, but when outside commitments prevented him from directing it, Milne stepped in. And where I write “apparently,” go ahead and read that as “According to Wikipedia” and thus proceed under the assumption that the preceding information may be, as is so often the case with Wikipedia, nothing more than a passel of lies. Example: Just last week, some wag altered Nick Rhodes’s Wikipedia entry to describe him as a “blonde synth princess” from a “planet made entirely of waffles,” which is rubbish; everybody knows Planet Nick is composed of all things shiny and sparkly. Point being, if you’re working on your doctoral thesis on Duran Duran, maybe this blog shouldn’t be cited as a primary reference.

In the opening scenes, John, Roger and Simon trudge across a sandy, barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland (which is also known by the name “Australia”). A green-painted naked guy with spiky green hair and vaguely snakelike prosthetics glued to his face slinks around on all fours, mugging for the camera while dogging the boys across the desert. He’s making no attempt to hide, but either they don’t notice him, or they’re too cool to care. Naked green snake-man. Whatever.


The boys scramble down a sandy bluff and discover a stalled pickup truck with a dead body in the front seat.


I really like John's outfit. Based on the individual components, it should be a mismatched monstrosity -- glossy black button-down shirt, blue striped shawl, shiny silver belt, red leather gloves -- but somehow when it’s all put together, it looks comfortable and stylish and flattering.


That may have more to do with the wearer than the ensemble, actually.

In the distance, Simon spots a mysterious brunette riding a horse. Fair warning: This video is teeming with mysterious brunettes.

While investigating, Roger starts to look woozy, then crumples to the ground in exhaustion. Shortly thereafter, John conks out in the front seat of the truck. It’s all a wee bit abrupt and random. Oh, sure, they’ve been trudging across a sun-baked wasteland, and it’s not hard to imagine they’d be dead on their pretty feet, but they both look as dewy and fresh as English roses. No sweat-drenched hair, no sunburned noses, no icky pit stains.


Night falls. Simon drags Roger into a makeshift shelter and is preparing to haul a still-zonked John out of the truck when he’s accosted by Mysterious Brunette #2. This one is dressed in a sexy red bellhop uniform. Like every woman who’s ever appeared in a Duran Duran video, she looks like she just stepped out of a Nagel painting.


So Simon cheerfully abandons his (unconscious, defenseless) friends and follows the sexy lady to a glass elevator in the middle of the nowhere. The snake-man, by the way, is now hanging out on top of the elevator. Simon? Doesn’t notice, doesn’t care.

There’s a small flock of colorful birds inside the elevator. A quick nod to Barbarella, yes?


Simon and the sexy bellhop take the elevator down into a vast underground structure. They pass by lots of: a) rickety scaffolding, and b) loincloth-clad dancing men. Between this video and “Wild Boys,” this seems to be Duran Duran shorthand for “post-apocalyptic lair.” In fact, in many ways, this video seems like a low-key dress rehearsal for the full-tilt gonzo lunacy of the “Wild Boys” video, which would be released the following year.


A small, white-robed urchin throws open huge double doors and ushers Simon and the sexy bellhop into a spacious temple of some sort, which is filled with nonsensical crap: tents, dressmaker dummies, open umbrellas, more loincloth-clad dancing men, more small urchins in white robes, and, yes, a mime, who’s juggling with a set of gigantic dice.


There’s a high-backed chair at the far end of the room, like a throne, with a man holding a scepter seated upon it. We never see him clearly -- in fact, apart from a blurry glimpse in one long shot, we never see him at all. And hey, there’s Nick! Nick strolls the length of the room and sits across from the man, his back to Simon.


Nick, more waiflike and ethereal than ever, appears to be swaddled in a gigantic tweed Snuggie®, and his hairstyle can only be described as mullet-ish, and yet he still manages to look regal and aloof and impossibly glamorous. Nick is magical.


Nick and the unseen man are deep in earnest discussion about the contents of some scrolls. Since we never see Nick’s conversation partner, it gets a little confusing (really, “it gets a little confusing” is a statement that can be pretty much slotted into any place in any description of any Duran Duran video). The first time (okay, first few times) I watched this, I assumed Our Nick was babbling to himself, which also seemed to make a certain amount of sense. But no, he’s definitely talking to someone, someone who keeps tossing around one of the mime-juggler’s giant dice in a fingerless-gloved hand, and the video is taking pains to make sure we never see who it is.


At one point, Nick glances over his shoulder and spots Simon, who’s looking around the chamber with due caution.

Nick looks down at a stylized… map? drawing?, and grows visibly agitated.


Behind him, Simon becomes alarmed and starts backing up toward the doors. Alarmed at the sight of Nick? Of the map? Of whomever Nick’s chatting with? We’ll never know.

The loincloth-clad men start prowling toward Simon, who, led by one of the urchins, bolts for the exit. Nick rolls up the map and stuffs it inside the unseen man’s scepter, which also functions as a sort of poster tube. Unclear-yet-dramatic things start happening: A nearby candelabra has been extinguished, and flickering lights flash across Nick’s pretty face.

Simon and the urchin make it to the elevator.


The loincloth-clad men in the scaffolding keep leaping into each other’s arms while fighting -- or, really, “fighting” -- in this weird, stylized, balletic manner. You know one staple of 1980s music videos that really hasn’t stood the test of time? Dance-fighting. Big dance-fighting numbers are never a good idea, unless they involve a switchblade-wielding George Chakiris squaring off against Russ Tamblyn. Still, you used to see this sort of thing a lot in music videos -- “Beat It” and “Love is a Battlefield” are the chief offenders, but “Union of the Snake” certainly stumbles into the trap, too. It was fine at the time. Almost thirty years on, it’s a little dorky.


Oh, look, there’s Andy. I have no idea what Andy’s role is in this video. Andy has no idea what his role is in this video. He’s just sort of… hanging out in the scaffolding. At one point, he whisks one of the white-robed urchins out of the way of the dance-fighting loincloth guys, so… that’s sort of a purpose, right? Andy, it must be said, looks like hell: sunglasses on, long hair greased back and winched into a tight ponytail. I don’t think it’s coincidence that in most shots he’s at least partially obscured by the scaffolding. It’s like he decided the best way to rebel against the sophisticated, glamorous, meticulously-groomed, luxuriously-coiffed Duran Duran image was to show up for the video shoot with really bad hair.


Sometimes I doubt Andy’s commitment to Sparkle Motion.


As Simon rises up in the elevator, he passes Mysterious Brunette #3, who wears a sexily tattered dress and poses with colorful birds. She writhes at him in a sexy and mysterious manner. This video might overdo it on the Mysterious Brunette front, actually.


And for some reason we don’t get to see, Simon can’t take the elevator all the way up to the surface. All of a sudden, he’s climbing up through a tangle of plastic exhaust tubes to freedom.

On the surface, Roger and John, who, thankfully, haven’t died of exposure or been eaten by the snake-man while they were out cold, load up the pickup truck with supplies. They see Simon wriggle out of the tubes and collapse in a heap.


While John sticks with the truck, Roger goes to lug Simon to safety. He’s interrupted by a series of pretty pink explosions coming from the underground lair.


Pink rocket trails light up the sky. Mysterious Brunette #1 -- that’s the one on the horse, remember -- rides by.


Simon staggers to his feet and watches the explosions. He starts to stagger back in the direction of the underground lair, then collapses again.


A lot of people collapse for no particular reason in this video.

Daylight breaks. Simon regains consciousness. The scepter with the map hidden in it, which we last saw in Nick’s possession, is resting beside him. Roger and John have taken off in the pickup truck without him. I’d label them callous bastards, but Simon did leave them behind, unconscious and defenseless, when he went down the rabbit hole.


Mysterious Brunette #1 gallops up again and gives Simon a lift up onto her horse. They trot off together into the horizon.


Okay! That was the whole thing! It’s weird, right? Lots of unanswered questions, starting with “What did I just watch?” and ending with “What the heck was Andy’s problem, anyway?” Don’t get me wrong, I like the video, but it’s a mystery, a single lonely piece in a board game that got sold at a yard sale thirty years ago. And we’ll never know the solution.


Comments

Ingrid Richter said…
Love your Duran Duran reviews, Morgan!

I assume the Union of the Snake ("is on the climb") is the genetic modifications of humans/lizards (very Island of Dr. Moreau) and their eventual conquering of the above-ground world?

Did Simon or Nick (or the mysterious man) cause the destruction of the lair of the Union of the Snake?

My own theory on all of this (over morning coffee) is that the mysterious man on the throne is future Simon. The meeting of current Simon and future Simon (as told by sparkly priest Nick and his translation of the scroll) caused the destruction of the project. Of course, it will start all over again with current Simon finding the scroll.

And I don't blame Roger or John for ditching Simon at the end. Here's hoping they ran into the Men at Work gang and spent the rest of of the time chugging beer and smoking pot ("head full of zombie").
Morgan Richter said…
I like to think Andy firebombed the secret lair, just because I desperately want him to have some purpose in the video other than "guy who hangs out in the scaffolding."

Per the Duran Duran Wiki, the video "...was to be the first of a trilogy involving a lost document and subterranean worlds." There's no source cited for that info, so I don't know how accurate it is, but if it's true, we've been forever cheated out of two other videos that might have cleared things up. I assume: 1) the underground lair is bad news, and 2) Nick is a secret ally (he must've left the scepter for Simon at the end). I don't have a reasonable guess about the identity of the man on the throne. Somebody who wears fingerless gloves, which, amongst this lot, really doesn't narrow it down.
Ingrid Richter said…
I think the only reasonable thing we can do now is find Russell Mulcahy and ask him what his plans were for the other two parts.

I like the idea of Andy causing the destruction of the lair - that makes sense. Of course, the killing of tons of children who don't seem to be all that evil seems a tad bit cruel, but they went out in pink neon, at least.

Also: strange dead man in the car at the beginning. Maybe he's the unknown person on the throne and the elevator is an analogy for death? Roger and John left Simon behind because he was dead, not because they were fed up with him?

Heh. I love flipping these things around. Didn't you mention that there's a Rubik's cube somewhere in the video?
Morgan Richter said…
Didn't you mention that there's a Rubik's cube somewhere in the video?

That was my first thought, but on close scrutiny it seems to be one of the mime-juggler's gigantic dice. Look at my screencap of Nick reading the scroll -- at the left side of the frame, you can see the mystery man's hand, tossing one of the dice.

We'll just assume Andy and/or Nick smuggled all the white-clad urchins to safety during some part of the video we didn't get to see...
Ingrid Richter said…
Or that the children were infected and in the process of turning into lizard men.

But I'd like to think of a kinder world where the kids were cute and innocent and made their way safely out of the exploding underground lair.

Juggling cubes - how 80s!
Morgan Richter said…
See, I'm not convinced the snake-man was connected with the underground lair in any way. He just seemed to be happily doing his own snake-man thing on the surface, just off on his own. Post-apocalyptic world, naturally there'd be snake-men running around, no big deal.

It just didn't seem like the underground temple people would be at all concerned with doing weird genetic modifications (or, y'know, anything to do with "science") -- they just seemed to like lurking around in loincloths in a vaguely menacing manner while having their own strange, unfathomable internal battles. It was much more like a weird and sinister religious cult (little white-clad urchins and all) than any sort of laboratory.
DKoren said…
Stopping by to tell you your reviews are WONDERFUL and funny and are spot on about these fabulous videos. I just read them all and couldn't stop grinning. Thank you! (All the accompanying pics are nice too.)
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you so much, DKoren! It's good to hear you're enjoying the reviews!
willow23 said…
Well I am slowly working my way through these as promised. Loved Night Boat. Strangely one of my favourite DD videos but I really don't like the song. But this one, yes it always baffled me too. Love your Donnie Darko/Sparkle Motion reference. So glad I found your blog! ;0)
Morgan Richter said…
Love your Donnie Darko/Sparkle Motion reference.

Heh. Glad you caught that reference! I like this video a lot; I just have no clue what any of it means. I'm not at all convinced anyone involved with making this video knows what it means, either. Still, it's sure nice to look at...
juanfra said…
Excelente blog Ingrid, he estado traduciendo la mayoría de tus Duranalysis y son notables las interpretaciones que les das a todos los detalles de los videos. También soy un fanático de Duran Duran y creo que sus videos y canciones también esconden mucho más de lo que vemos a simple vista.

Saludos cordiales Ingrid y visita mi blog también jofsis.blogspot.com.
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you, Juanfra! This is actually my site; Ingrid is my sister. I'm glad you've been enjoying my Duranalysis posts. I visited your website -- your artwork is beautiful.
Ingrid Richter said…
Drat! And here I was hoping to get credit for all your awesome reviews, Morgan :-)

Gorgeous blog, juanfra!
khanada said…
i'm so glad i'm not the only one who thought union of the snake was a dress rehearsal for the wild boys. the videos do share some similarities, of course the main one being that neither makes any sense.
juanfra said…
Hola Morgan, cómo estás? he estado leyendo con más detenimiento tus duranalysis y las opiniones acerca de ellos de parte de los visitantes y he notado que hay mucho más por hablar y aportar. Los videos de DD son un enigma en sí casi todos y siento que hay mucho más por aportar y también para opinar. Este video principalmente me llama la atención porque es del corte de un film post apocalíptico al estilo Mad Max, muy recurrente en las temáticas de los 80. Espero que sigas realizando tus duranalysis y ojalá sigas con los videos más recientes de los discos Astronaut y de All You Need Is Now. Saludos desde Chile.
juanfra said…
Se me olvidaba comentarte que te estoy siguiendo en Twitter también. Aparezco como @jofsis
Morgan Richter said…
Thanks, Juanfra. I'm planning on analyzing more Duran Duran videos soon. Next up will probably be "Falling Down" from Red Carpet Massacre, because that's a pretty great video.
Lee Mather said…
Morgan, speaking of future Duranalyses, you should YouTube "First Duran Duran interview." So worthy of a Duranalysis!
Morgan Richter said…
Lee, that's a fantastic suggestion for a Duranalysis, and I may very well take you up on it. Love that interview. (I watched a handful of Notorious-Big Thing-Liberty-era videos yesterday with an eye toward future Duranalyses, and... No. Pretty mediocre across the board. I have no idea why their videos became so uninspired in the latter half of the eighties. Very disappointing.)

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