Monday, August 13, 2007

do the right thing, by spike lee

After last week—in which our two-man film club looked at Mathieu Kassovitz's depiction of culture and tension in the Parisian banlieues—it seemed only appropriate to move on to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), still one of the best films ever made about urban life.

The first shot in the film (not counting the nondigetic "Fight the Power" dance sequence) opens in a radio DJ's booth and slowly pulls back, out through the window, to end here:

The final shot in the film (not counting the nondigetic still photo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X ) is this:

These two shots roughly establish our narrative environment—the built world of our film, to stick with the terminology I was using on Saturday. One of the many strokes of genius in this film is that Lee keeps his world essentially narrow: everything that occurs in the film occurs within walking distance of everything else. Lee not only narrows the scope in terms of space, but also in terms of time—the entire narrative takes place in a single 24-hour period.

By resisting the temptations of going wide, Lee is able to go deep: he crams the world of the film with at least 20 characters who recur throughout the course of the day. Even the more minor characters are incredibly well-realized and vivid, bordering on the indelible. If you've seen the film, you probably remember many of them:

By packing many different characters into the narrow space-time frame of the film, the end result is density. I can think of only precious few films that approach or supersede this one in terms of narrative density (you could make a good argument for Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), a film a little broader in the time dimension, but even more narrow in the spatial dimension). This density yields a sense that the world is a layered sheaf of simultaneous narratives—precisely the sensation that emerges when one is alert to life in an urban environment (or a globalized world). (As an aside, it's also the experience I've been trying to capture in my own creative writing (Exhibit A, Exhibit B).)

This alertness, if approached compassionately, can give rise to a deep understanding of / sympathy to the nature and motives of others, and Lee not only possesses this understanding, but has effectively transferred it to the screen. Every character in this film, from Spike Lee's own deliveryman alter ego all the way down to the thuggish white cops, is both sympathetic and flawed. In giving over the entire run-time of his film to having sympathetic (yet flawed) characters observe, comment upon, and ultimately clash against the flaws of the other (sympathetic) characters, Lee nails the way that conflict—and tragedy—can emerge even when everyone involved imagines their own motivations to be morally justified (hence the title). This is the human dilemma, captured precisely, elegantly, and succinctly. As fine a piece of moral art as anyone could ever wish for.

Skunkcabbage's write-up (contains spoilers!) is here.

No comments: