Spectacular Attractions Podcast #9


[Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)]

This podcast contains strong language. But then, in some ways it’s about strong language, the way words become weaponised and reveal inadequacies of self-expression that might spill over into exasperated physical violence. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing deals with race and racism in contentious, provocative style but with a wit that is often disarming, and a complexity that belies its more brusque and partisan grandstanding moments. The podcast features excerpts from Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and dialogue from the film itself. It is, consequently, not for tender. My own language, on the other hand, is as clean as a whistle made of Cillit Bang.

There will be one more podcast next week, and then I’ll be taking a break from the recordings. I’ll polish up the old recordings and repost them on iTunes with a proper feed and other technical tricks I haven’t figured out yet (it’s actually a little more complicated than I thought at first, which is why, you may have noticed, iTunes only hosts five of my podcasts at a time. I’ll rectify this and come back a little more learned. There’s still nothing to stop you downloading them all directly from this site, though. Thanks for your support. Suggestions for future shows are still welcomed.

DOWNLOAD: Spectacular Attractions Podcast #9

[Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here. Read the original article on Do the Right Thing here.]

Precious


I don’t have a lot to say about Precious. I thought it might be a good topic for a “Build Your Own Review” post, since I had expected it to be far more contentious than I ultimately found it. There are some aspects of it which are unquestionably fine. Gabourey Sidibesculpts a compelling portrait of an inarticulate, obese teenager out of terse dialogue, stolid passivity (initially at least) and bursts of radiance that are so fleeting and far between that you long for the next one to come along. I very rarely cry at movies, but I don’t mind admitting that a shed a hard-won tear during one of Precious’s despairing moments. But don’t tell anyone – I think I managed to blame it on the air-conditioning. [Next week, if you behave yourself, I’ll tell you about the only other film that made me cry this month. Watch this space…] Mo’Nique is not quite the saviour of acting that some reviews might have you believe, since her role as Precious’s maniacal, abusive mother is rather too irredeemably nasty to allow for much modulation of tone; the mechanics of the performance are clearly visible, but later that becomes the point: performing for a visiting social worker, she softens her voice, covers her hair and all but bows in her determination to keep the welfare coming, and even in her monumental confessional scene she hints that it’s still for show. Credit where it’s due – I couldn’t tell whether it was a great performance of flaking resolve, or just a forced, flaking performance. The other plus is that, although the empowerment-through-education plot was exasperatingly hackneyed and the inspirational teacher forgettably virtuous, the camaraderie between classmates is infectious, natural and at times genuinely funny without ever being mawkish. The history of this genre would suggest that this is not an easy thing to pull off. But let’s not pretend that this is an unproblematic, air-kissing, redemptive triumph.

According to your taste, you’ll either find the extreme close ups of Precious’s face, and the way her body is made to occupy most of the frame in some shots, a cruel objectification, or a challenging reminder that you never see protagonists like Precious given the time of day – lacking the sass or the smart mouth to endear through pluck, she magnetises audience sympathy by the sheer catalogue of abuses she is made to endure. Now, that’s a pretty easy way to get the viewer onside – you’d have to be some kind of monster not to want Precious to break the cycle of violence and intimidation that slows, cows and weighs her down: less has been made of Precious’s weight than her race (of which more shortly), but the film uses obesity as a metaphor for the vicious control her mother exerts. Cooking and caring for her mother, Precious reverses the expected parent/child relationship, but the supply of food is central to the power imbalance in the household – its what keeps Precious housebound, tied to the stove like the whipped wife of the abusive husband her mother resents her for “stealing” (the incest runs deep around here), and the surfeit of greasy food that is shown in nauseating close-ups approach the grotesqueries of Svankmajer‘s food films at times. I was reminded of the importance of food by the fact that It’s Complicated was playing next door. Surely one of the whitest films ever made, It’s Complicated is the kind of romantic comedy that builds a dilemma out of a woman’s agonising decision over whether to shag the lawyer or the architect, whether to extend her home or her social life. It also plays out corporeal anxieties, with pudgening late middle-age folks embarrassed about their sagging midriffs, but it still portrays the blissed-out over-consumption of food as a joy not a scourge, a world of croissants and red wine against Precious‘s buckets of chicken and pig’s feet. Here, in the space (as thick as the walls in a multiplex) between these two films, is staked out the turf of a class war.

Or is it a racial conflict? Note my provocative use of “white” to describe It’s Complicated (hey, anyone would believe I was thinking ahead whenever I started writing! I assure you it’s not the case…), a film which constructs the temporary pretence that romantic selection is enough of a social problem to make a film about. Sure, it also takes one of Hollywood’s abject bodies (the fifty-something woman) and gives her some self-respect back (by letting her eat, screw and do drugs without fear of social consequence), but it’s all protected by a buffer zone of wealth and influence that is never posited as the privilege of whiteness. Precious on the other hand, has to bear the brunt of being seen in some quarters as a poverty-porn enactment of African-America’s incestuous (and therefore self-annihilating and circular) degradation, a teaching tool that shows the need for black youth to be taken in hand by professionals with lighter skin than their own. Is this fair? Does Precious make a spectacular problem out of a stereotypical image of nested cycles of black-on-black stagnation? Am I inadvertently voicing the naive view of a middle-class white guy if I say I don’t think so? Actually, I’m undecided. On the plus side, Precious’s classmates are a fabulous group of unsanctified role-models without pretension or condescension. Precious herself never conforms. Unlike the likes of Dangerous Minds, her redemption is not about the inspiration of the white literary canon, and is unleavened by improved health or release from the hard life that undoubtedly lies ahead for her. The final image is not one of levity. She still has to carry her children, but she realises that counselling and the opportunity to hear her mother’s confessions are no substitutes for voicing her own feelings. For once, the testy contrarianism of critic Armond White encapsulates a valid critique, instead of merely taking up a provocative opinion for the sake of standing out from the journalistic herd:

Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy. […] Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel.

I don’t necessarily agree, and White’s celebration of Norbit is a barking mad contradiction if he means to condemn ethnic stereotypes across the board, but it certainly drops a payload of problem on the critical circle-jerk: this is definitely a film that people can congratulate themselves for loving as they patrol the red carpets hoovering up the plaudits for going there without permanently “going there” (director Lee Daniels admits he cast Sidibe instead of a “real” child of the ghetto because they would simply have been unprepared for the rigours of acting in a movie to a strict schedule). Armond White, with his eye for the outrageous main chance, is easy to dismiss, but how about Ishmael Reed’s excoriation of the film in the New York Times:

The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film. […] Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans. Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility.

And what about Jill Nelson’s skewering of the self-promotion of those attaching themselves to the film’s bandwagon?:

I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority, or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant Black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest, and black people hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths. Ditto efforts by director Lee Daniels, executive producers Oprah and Tyler Perry, and Mo’Nique to legitimize the movie “Precious”  – and deflect criticism – by  attesting to their own sexual abuse. Can you imagine Meryl Streep revealing she used to be a bushy tailed, carnivorous mammal or editor-in-chief of Vogue to market the authenticity of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “The Devil Wears Prada”? I ain’t Precious, and I’m proud of it.

I feel more comforted (and acknowledge my own run for cover) by Teresa Wiltz’s conclusion that Precious should not be seen as a universal tale, but an invitation to witness the experiences of a character whose story is seldom told, whose race, class, gender and lack of self-belief exclude her from the zone of cultural interest:

She’s fat, female and black, and for many, she doesn’t exist, except as an object of pity or scorn. And the genius of this movie is that it makes you feel with her, through her. […] Oprah, who serves as executive producer along with Tyler Perry, has pushed the film hard, and she is to be commended for throwing her weight behind a little film. It deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stuart Smalley moments on SNL. No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.

Is it a cop-out to conclude that Precious‘s racial politics might be neither here nor there, but instead necessarily ambiguous, contentious and up for debate. If a social problem film (an old-fashioned concept, but undoubtedly, melodramatically what we have here) is not something to argue about, in terms of its causes and solutions, it must surely have missed its own point.

Digesting Avatar


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I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.

Read on…

Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate


Tarzan-1932-poster[This post refers to the first two Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)]

Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head.  I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.

Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:

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It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:

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Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.

Poster - Tarzan and His MateLooking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and  their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:

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You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:

Tarzan the Ape Man Vignette

If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:

Tarzan the Ape Man

Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream:

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Do the Right Thing: “There it is. Love and Hate.”


Do the Right Thing poster

Do the Right Thing is motivated by and structured around ambiguities of knowledge, clashes of righteous views and irreconcilable communication problems. At one point, an argument between Mookie and his sister Jade (played by Lee’s own sister, Joie, herself a writer/director/producer) takes place in front of a wall that is shown to be graffiti’d with the statement “Tawana told the truth”. This refers to the Tawana Brawley rape allegations that surfaced in 1987. You can read the Grand Jury’s report on the investigation here, but the gist of it is that Brawley accused an unnamed group of white men of abducting her and subjecting her four days of sexual abuse in the woods before returning her in a rubbish bag. The Grand Jury found evidence to contradict her claims, and a New York prosector alleged to have been one of the attackers countered by successfully sueing for defamation.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee, Joie Lee

What are we to make of the slogan’s inclusion in the film? Is it one of Lee’s editorial flourishes, like the “Dump Koch” graffiti that represents the director’s admitted hopes for the outcome of the New York Mayoral elections? Is Lee so certain about Brawley’s allegations that he can confidently side with her in this way? Or is it a more subtle ploy? The argument undermines Mookie’s/Lee’s authority, and so the tension of the exchange fights with the unequivocal tone of the backdrop, where an assertion made publicly goes unchallenged. Whatever one’s opinions on the Brawley case, the inconsistencies in her story are enough to raise serious doubts. If you’ve ever read an interview with Spike Lee (there are some links at the bottom of this post), you’ll know that he’s a sparky character with very strong views that he’s not shy about sharing but, to his credit, Do the Right Thing shows the destructive, disunifying effects of entrenched prejudices and misdirected enmity. It shows a community under pressure from heat, disenfranchisement and municipal authorities whose petty problems pull the lids off deeply held historical resentments and create an explosion of violence that ends to nobody’s advantage.

The film finishes on the following pair of quotations, worth repeating here:

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-xViolence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence. (Malcolm X)

The two activists are often portrayed as polarised in their views on how best to achieve civil rights for African-Americans, and Lee uses the two quotations to suggest the ambiguities and conflicts in the debate, but the picture  (above) that Smiley pins up in the smouldering shell of Sal’s pizzeria shows them united, harmonised, as if non-violence and direct action could be interchangeable selections from the same menu, or as if an insoluble difference of approaches to the same problem might be transcended by common cause. This is surely Lee’s most compelling, gripping film to date: he’s managed to balance the tonal diversity of his earliest elements to paint a nuanced portrait of a time and place where good people lose control. Most of the characters oscillate between worthiness, righteous indignation and ignoble inaction, making it difficult to take sides.

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Even if one sympathises with Buggin’ Out’s plea for pictures of black cultural heroes on Sal’s Wall of Fame (it is, after all, a justifiable wish for proportional representation), he’s an obnoxious, aggravating figure who ignores the similar lack of Korean or Puerto Rican icons in the pizzeria. Nobody would support the chokehold killing of Radio Raheem by the police, but Lee refuses to make him a noble innocent; throughout the film he is an aggressive, threatening presence, accentuated by the closer-and-closer close-ups that the director pushes on the viewer.

Do the Right Thing: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)

This confrontational style is a key part of the film. Always fond of some direct address, Lee frequently makes his characters talk directly to the camera, or uses canted angles to dynamise dialogue scenes.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Leevlcsnap-169887

These techniques really come to the fore in a famous scene in which an argument over cultural representation between Mookie and Pino (John Turturro) reaches a stalemate and gives way to a montage of direct-to-camera torrents of racial abuse from various members of the community:

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Ed Guerrero is very eloquent on the topic of the racial slur montage:

By pitting various races, identities and groups against each other on the rawest emotional level, regurgitating the vilest, innermost thoughts and stereotypes about one another, Do the Right Thing depicts the danger and futility of bigotry and racism at a personal level, from which no social formation is exempt. As importantly, this montage works to reveal the how of racism while not necessarily addressing the racism’s greater structural and strategic why. That is to say, this litany of racial slurs functions to show how racism works on the interpersonal level, between individuals as targets, representatives of groups, while, perhaps inadvertently, masking the greater why of racism’s workings at an institutional, structural level, as a strategy of hidden elites – “the powers that be” – to keep races, classes and movements divided and fighting among each other, thus distracted from the ignored or concealed, truth of their mutual exploitation. Notably, all of the participants of this montage as working-class males share the same gendered, social orientation. Rather than following Do the Right Thing‘s thematic hip-hop call to “fight the power”, these angry, isolated figures representing different races scapegoat and fight each other instead.

In these lists of racial slurs, many of the attacks resort to insults to cultural icons: Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, etc., and this thread runs through the film as characters use them as visible markers of ethnic difference. Buggin’ Out extrapolates a territorial argument from the scuffing of his Air Jordans, and then objects to the pictures of Italian Americans on Sal’s Wall of Fame; Mookie takes Pino to task for mouthing racist language while appreciating black athletes and musicians; Radio Raheem battles a group of Puerto Ricans over the relative volume of their music. INn all these instances cultural iconography seems to be territorial tags, masks for deeper ethnic hatred: it’s a struggle over the equal representation of cultural preferences, but also a transference of furious energy onto prominent symbols. This is summed up in a verse from Public Enemy‘s Fight the Power, which plays several times in the film:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes dont appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Dont worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, cmon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

The film’s title is a firm injunction to act positively, to take a stand, but it’s never quite clear what doing the “right thing” might be. Everyone seems to have a personal opinion about what is right. The most prominently contentious moment is when Mookie instigates the final assault on Sal’s by throwing a dustbin through the front window. This might be an altruistic gesture to divert attention from Sal and his sons, saving them from a mob attack, or he might just be taking sides, marking definitively his refusal to keep acting as neutral mediator between Sal and his objectors. But if this is taking a stand and “doing the right thing”, then it certainly doesn’t solve the roots of the problem. Just as with the team-up of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it suggests that there might be many right things, and that right things are rarely easy, and might not make everything OK.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee

Links:

For a complete change of tone, one of my colleagues put me onto this great little mash-up of Do the Right Thing and Sesame Street (not suitable for kids – it really is brought to you by the letter “F”):

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