After a brief hiatus, film club was able to resume this week, and we picked up where we left off, specifically with Spike Lee. Our choice this week was 25th Hour (2002).
Like Do the Right Thing before it, 25th Hour can be read as a long exercise in the practice of empathy. The two take pretty different approaches, though. Do the Right Thing introduces a wide variety of characters and places them in interpersonal conflictsince all of them, on one level or another, can be thought of sympathetically, we (can) watch these conflicts with a degree of empathy towards all parties involved. 25th Hour avoids this method: opting instead to work with a smaller palette of characters, and to ratchet the interpersonal conflicts way downthe main characters are not individuals forced to interact by the dictates of neighborhood geography but rather a set of old friends. (It's true that their long-running friendship is accompanied by the usual long-running suppressed resentments, and also true that these resentments bubble over into outright hostility at times, but this is still a far cry from the screaming-fights-in-the-street that punctuate Do the Right Thing.)
The primary way Lee elicits our empathy here, then, is through showing us sympathetic characters in conflict not with one another but in conflict with an impartial State. It's not for no reason that our protagonist, Edward Norton's Montgomery Brogan, has a Cool Hand Luke poster up in his apartment:
Monty, we learn fairly early, is a drug dealer, and although he's got a whole set of fairly reasonableor at least symaptheticreasons for getting into the drug dealing business, he learns pretty quickly (once nabbed by the DEA), that there's a whole set of Statist mechanisms in place, the Rockefeller Laws, that are designed to render these motivations pretty much meaningless, in the pursuit of impartiality. He learns about these laws in this room, production-designed to be the very picture of Impartial Objectivity in action:
The other primary character who's up against Impartial Law is high school English teacher Jacob Elinksy, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Grade A squirrelly repressed weirdo mode. What Elinsky wants / doesn't want, is to sleep with his student, Mary D'Annunzio:
She's 17, so sleeping with her would be statutory rape, but the film takes pains to make the point that Mary is not exactly the portrait of untrammeled innocence:
Of course, that doesn't matter, in the eyes of the Law (whether it should or should not is another question all together). Point is, the film rather daringly asks us, for over two hours, to extend our sympathies to what we'd traditionally think of as the lowest of society's lows: a (convicted) drug dealer and a (potential) statutory rapist. An exercise in empathy indeed. It helps, of course, not only that Lee provides them with motivating backstories (Brogan more so than Elinsky) but also that they are articulate, intelligent white dudes... whether this is intended as subtle commentary by Lee is anybody's guess.
So the film wants us to expand our own empathy, to get it broad enough to the point where it can include these two. This transition is mirrored by an expansion of empathy taking place in Monty's own sensorium over the course of the film. On his last night of freedom, Monty is inspired by a piece of bathroom graffiti ("Fuck You") to embark upon a monologue reminiscent of both the inflammatory invective in Do the Right Thing and Travis Bickle's diary-rants in Taxi Driver (1976). Monty's monologue is surprisingly completist; stereotyping nearly every ethnic group in the city:
This is significant, because it's precisely this crazy-diverse panoply of New Yorkers who Monty will be separated from when he's imprisoned the next morning: the hell of imprisonment is precisely the hell of being separated from the richness of an everyday experience involving others. Monty eventually learns this, towards the film's final moments, but not before he's gone through a set of transformative experiences. As Monty suffers, he learns. (My film club compatriot, Skunkcabbage, argues that this is the key to the 9/11 imagery that circulates within this film: that Monty's suffering is an allegory for America's, and that Monty's epiphanythat the world contains others, and that his comfort is predicated at least partially on the suffering of otherscould be the same epiphany that a post-9/11 America could, optimistically, reach.)
Two final notes:
1. This film may represent part of Lee's effort to increase his own personal empathy: there are times when he seems to have set himself a project of making at least one film about every ethnic subculture in New York. Summer of Sam (1999) is Lee's "Italian" film; this one is his "Irish" film.... [?]
2. All this empathy-building aside, there's still a Monstrous Other in this film, specifically the other convicts that presumably lie in wait for Edward Norton to join them. The specter of homosexual jail-rape is evoked about every ten minutes in this film, with both suicide and disfigurement being raised as potentially desirable alternatives. The film's moving final sequence presents a narrative bifurcationtwo possible pathswere I to cynically reduce this bifurcation to a formula it would be "Americana Vs. Male Rape."