Friday, August 17, 2007

malcolm x, by spike lee

For our film club this week, we decided to stick with the Spike Lee trajectory begun last week, and so we watched his terrific, uncompromising biopic Malcolm X (1992), which I'd not seen before.

On one level, the film is an extended examination of persuasion: specifically, it looks at the difference between persuasion and coercion.

Persuasion can be powerful, but when power itself is the means of persuasion we cross a line into coercion. The film is very interested in how people and institutions weild power, as it announces baldly in its opening juxtaposition:

The Rodney King tape is, of course, among some of the most iconic coercive footage ever shot, but the early portion of the film has no shortage of additional examples. For instance, here's someone making a point to Malcolm's mother:

And here's someone making a point to the young Malcolm himself:

These experiences are illuminating; they inform a person how power works, how to establish your place in hierarchies founded upon dominance. The young Malcolm learns this lesson well, as we can see from the way he settles a dispute early in the film:

So, on one level, the story of Malcolm's development is a story of renouncing coercion in favor of persuasion: doing work through lectures and argument, using the intellect as the tool rather than the body (or a club, or a gun):

The film is at its most interesting, however, when it blurs the dividing line between these two modes. The turning point in Malcolm's experience, as readers of the Autobiography will know, is his stint in prison and subsequent conversion to Islam. In the film, the catalyst for this is a mentor figure named Baines (invented for the film), who steers Malcolm, with a firm hand, to some tools of intellectual power:

The experience is undoubtedly positive for Malcolm—but as with any mentorship, it is not free of hierarchy, and it comes with its own dynamic of dominance and submission (the sequence culminates with a resistant Malcolm learning to kneel in submission before Allah). The difference would appear to be that the submission here, ultimately, is given voluntarily, without threat of force, but the territory is getting tricky all of a sudden.

Even more interesting is the sequence when one of the Nation of Islam brothers is injured by police and taken to prison without medical care. Malcolm goes to the police station and demands to be taken to see the injured party. The police consent, but it certainly helps that Malcolm has this force waiting outside:

Is this coercive? Is it the threat of violence that these ranked men (might) represent that causes the police to submit to Malcolm's request? Is it morally right to use coercion to save a man's life?

Further complicating this scene is the fact that the Nation of Islam members, in fact, act as a restraint on the even more coercive force represented by an inflamed crowd of people who gather outside of the hospital, demanding justice:

Cops, a black man wounded by those same cops, and an angry mob: this is the same formula we have at the conclusion of Do the Right Thing, and it is precisely the addition of the Nation of Islam members that allows the scenario to be reimagined as triumph rather than as tragedy. Whether this is because they represent reason instead of force or reason in addition to force is perhaps the key question involved with understanding Malcolm X, the figure. The film, to its credit, provides no easy answer.

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.

Friday, August 3, 2007

la haine, by mathieu kassovitz

Picking up on the black-and-white dystopian vibe of last week's selection, Alphaville, this week Skunkcabbage chose for us to take a look at Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film La Haine (aka Hate), a film which follows three friends through the aftermath of a neighborhood riot.

Kassovitz proves, pretty quickly, that he has an unerring eye for the dystopian zones built into the contemporary French urban landscape:

The film takes place over the course of a single day, and follows three friends as they wander through this environment, having a set of episodic encounters, clashing with police, rival gangs, and one another, and generally riffing. In this way, La Haine invites comparison some other films from around the same time period, such as Larry Clark's Kids (1995), or any of early Richard Linklater's films (Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995)). The attention to social turmoil and class tensions also recalls Spike Lee's similarly-structured Do the Right Thing (1989).

As in many of these films, it's not entirely clear whether our sympathies are fully intended to lie with the young people the film observes. Kassovitz looks at certain aspects of their cultural life in a way that's unmistakably affectionate:

But there's also a degree of dramatic irony happening here: the battles that our protagonists engage in with the police or other authority figures lack any real strategic value. Here they are, for instance, pointlessly harrassing a grocery store clerk:

If the primary flaw in our protagonists is that they don't know how to choose their battles (or, perhaps more accurately, they don't have access to a battle worth choosing) this flaw is amplified when one of them, Vinz, gets his hands on this:

Remember the cliche: when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Updated for this film, it's a little closer to "when all you have is a gun, every problem looks like something that needs shooting"—

This is pretty much the basic Chekovian tension: once we've seen the gun, it's a given that it'll go off, the only question that remains is exactly when and where. And, perhaps, whether it will be likely to actually improve anyone's lot. If your answer to that last question is "probably not," La Haine may be your type of film.

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.