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Can't Stop the Movies

Spike Lee: She Hate Me (2004)

Hello dreams

John Armstrong works at a pharmaceutical company ready to go live with a revolutionary cure.  When a friendly coworker suddenly commits suicide on the eve of this momentous news, John begins to suspect something is wrong with his company.  After some digging he uncovers a plot to cover up the less than stellar results from the drug test.  Now, without a job, John has to resort to impregnating women at $10,000 each to make ends meet.  Spike Lee directs She Hate Me from a screenplay written by Spike and Michael Genet, starring Anthony Mackie Kerry Washington, and Jim Brown.

Hello dreamsOne thing must be established before we get into talking about She Hate Me - I will never forgive you for this. I forgive Spike Lee, though he's on thin ice for the rest of the 2000s, but I may never forgive you for making the both of us talk in-depth about this baffling gruel of a movie. “She Hate Me?” you could have said, when we came to this point in Lee's filmography, “I don't know what you're talking about. Hate is a strong word, Kyle, let's focus on something like suckers—free suckers, Sucker Free City our next film in the Spike Lee project.” And with that, crisis would have been averted.

All joking aside though, let's get into the film itself—this is a shit movie. I thumbed to the last chapter of Spike's That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It as the credits rolled, desperate for him to explain himself. It's as if he had an idea two distinct stories—one about the tolerance of corporate malfeasance and punishment of whistle-blowing, and another about interrogating gender roles within shifting family structures—then decided to add a troubling male sex fantasy at the center and throw it all in the blender.

The connections to Spike's other films and commonly revisited themes are there: you've got echoes of Jungle Fever in the way John Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is discarded from his own company by other white executives; likewise John Turturro's cameo as a mob boss with reservations about his daughter having a black man's child; you've got a surface-level desire (and failure) to empower female characters by showing them owning their sexuality; there's a drive to reach back into the past to form connections that help illustrate continued systemic racism in the present.

What was most surprising to me watching She Hate Me was not the “what the hell was Spike thinking?” reaction put forth by most critics—it was how many ideas are swirling around here, ideas that would have made better movies given their own distinct story and focus. But Spike  jumps all over the place—from a bizarre opening wherein a comic-book drug-company-executive German scientist (who wears a lab coat in his goddamn office) throws himself out a window to his death following an obscure conversation embedded with key details to a plot we don't yet know exists, to isolated scenes like the one where Armstrong's father, a now-disabled ex-sports star played by Jim Brown, screams from his crutches up at his estranged wife something along the lines of “woman, I didn't ask to get the diabeetus!”

I don't even know where to start here. The most obvious points would seem to be either the almost hilariously Spike-you-can't-possibly-have-thought-this-was-ok homophobia/sexism cocktail, or the surreal and genuinely hilarious appearance of Richard Nixon halfway through the movie. Pick your poison Andrew.‏


Spike Lee: 25th Hour (2002)

I've been touched

Monty Brogan is finished.  He's been the king of his section of New York, supplying drugs and keeping the cash flowing while charming his way through every bar in town.  But charm is not a strong legal defense, and when the Feds come pounding on his door he knows this is the end of his "career".  Monty summons his best friends and girlfriend for one last night of fun before he spends his seven years in jail.  Spike Lee directs 25th Hour from a screenplay by David Benioff, starring Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, and Brian Cox.

I've been touched25th Hour was my first Spike Lee joint.  This was long before I knew about his promotional campaigns as Mars Blackmon, or even how that role originated in She's Gotta Have It, and how he had a controversial relationship with just about everyone.  This was almost fifteen years ago, and using the timeline in 25th Hour Monty Brogan would be out of jail around six years.  When I watched 25th Hour with my virgin eyes and ears I thought it was a redemption tale, a story of one man trying to make it right before he goes into jail.  Now I'm a bit older, I look at the way Monty spends his final day, and wonder, with all the talk of second chances and missed opportunities, if Monty deserves one.

But watching 25th Hour solely as Monty's story understates how powerful and conflicting an experience it was to come back to over a decade later.  From the opening, where a chorus of light beams surge into the night only to be pared away into two solid shafts, there's no getting away from the shadow of 9/11 in 25th Hour.  With Monty's success as a drug dealer tied directly to the American flag in a few scenes, to say nothing of the way Frank makes money by hoping for fewer people to have jobs, Spike is drawing some uncomfortable parallels between not only that horrible day but pondering the actions leading up to it.

This, maybe, is why we don't talk about 25th Hour in the same reverence as Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X.  Spike's film does not directly say one way or another whether the punishment fit the crime.  Those thousands who died in the 9/11 attacks didn't deserve to be killed in the name of someone else's holy war - just like the people who died in the wake of Monty's success didn't deserve to die in the gutter.  Maybe we don't talk about 25th Hour as much because, on some level, we all see through Monty's attempts at being selfless, and 25th Hour is really about how removing his toxic influence on his friends and loved ones may be the one of the only good things he ever does.

I admit coming to this realization late, and as this is only my second viewing of 25th Hour there's plenty of room to fine tune it.  But in the scope of Spike's career, where second chances rarely end well, I couldn't help but think Spike was suggesting neither America nor Monty deserved one.  A harsh idea, but one I'll be thinking about during our conversation today.  How did this second viewing treat you?‏


After Ego Death: Final thoughts on the films of Stan Brakhage

Final thoughts

Final thoughtsI began watching Stan Brakhage's films in June of 2013.  Barely two weeks after I started the project my body suffered a major catastrophe.  A 5mm x 8mm x 13mm kidney stone was growing in my left kidney, and over the next few months I was mishandled by my urologist.  I was left with drugs and a two month waiting period before I could have surgery for the stone.  During this time my body deteriorated, and to this day I am still combating the cumulative effect those months now stretched into years have had on my body.

This is to say, I was a much different person when I started watching Brakhage's films.  I've never been shy about my ego and in all honesty I started the project mostly so I could have some "film buff cred" and say I watched all of Brakhage's films.  After my health crisis, having "cred" with a group of hypothetical people who would have interest in Brakhage seemed more pathetic than anything else.  So why did I go back to watching his films?

I realized I was stuck in a rut with my writing and needed to shake up my perception of film.  So on June 11th, 2014, a year after I watched my second Brakhage, I began watching two films of his a week to see if he was the talent to expand my perception of film.  My ego needed to be set aside before I could watch his films with an honest and careful eye.  Fitting, then, that ego death is a concept I learned more about in the near two years since I started this project and became a recurring motif in Brakhage's films.


Aziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden (2015)

Not the usual kind of cowboy

Aziz Ansari, fresh from his starring role in the recently completed Parks and Recreation, returns to the standup stage in his fourth comedy special.

Live At Madison Square Garden is currently streaming on Netflix.

Not the usual kind of cowboy"I don't think we're as amazing as our parents are."

A whistle-heavy western tune leans into the soundtrack as the black and white film stock catch a glimpse of Aziz stepping off of a freight elevator on his way to the main stage.  Despite the semi-mythic opening, the motionless camera watches Aziz Ansari walk by on the concrete and catches him in a split-second moment of panic.  His eyes go wide and he smiles so quickly and broadly his face seems ready to leap off his body.  But he makes his way to the stage, a dark figure against a setting sun, and the first thing he does is express appreciation for these people who came out to see him.

The western motif makes sense when he finally launches into his set, where barely ten minutes in he utters the line I emphasized above.  For him, and the rest of our generation, our opportunities to conquer new frontiers have to be entirely self-made.  There are no more global unknowns, no more places for the hopeless to toss the die and hope they end up somewhere with opportunity, and Aziz's frontier is where he's most comfortable - the stage.


Spike Lee: A Huey P. Newton Story (2001)

Gotta face it somehow

Roger Guenveur Smith, a longtime performer in Spike Lee's films, wrote and performed a one-man show about the private fears, insecurities, hope, and rage of Huey P. Newton.  Huey was one of the co-founders of The Black Panther Party in 1966, led demonstrations and fought existing laws in the name of civil freedom, and eventually became Dr. Newton by getting his Ph.D in Social Science.  Spike Lee directs A Huey P. Newton Story, which received a Peabody award, "For exploring events from our past in a provocative, challenging and enlightening manner..."

Currently, A Huey P. Newton Story is available in-full on Youtube.

Gotta face it somehowA Huey P. Newton Story is an interesting entry in Spike Lee's line of performance films, especially when considered against Freak. The latter was a mostly a “traditional” stage performance, with basic on-stage props and camerawork that, while maintaining more control over the audience than the theatrical crowd would have been subject to, still viewed Leguizamo mostly from the front (ie, the position of the theatrical crowd)—A Huey P. Newton Story see's Roger Guenveur Smith from more cinematic angles, in constantly altered lighting and focus, sometimes performing against a backdrop of the studio audience (who we rarely see in anything other than dark outlines) and others against projected footage of the times he's recalling. Where Leguizamo evokes his specific world by drawing recognizable characters and sketches for the audience, Guenveur Smith jumps immediately into Newton's ideology, hitting moments in his personal history non-chronologically as needed—if the audience doesn't know the historical basics going in, that's their problem.

It's easy to see why Spike found Guenveur Smith's one-man show so ripe for production—it offers a chance to cinematically represent a mindset and an outlook from which such strong ideology extended. More than any other film since—and including in some ways—Malcolm X, A Huey P. Newton Story seems to perfectly match laser-focused, unassailably articulated anger with representations of strength and empowerment. The major strength of Guenveur's performance is the way he embodies Newton's unstoppable drive to redefine (often historically) wrong representations used to oppress—the major strength of Spike's production is how he uses cinematic techniques and stock footage (a talk show where a host tells him “people are afraid of you, Huey” works at an especially successful moment) to reflect Newton's “scary” persona before yielding formal control over to Guenveur Smith, who undercuts these impressions with explanations of his actual philosophy and examples of how it was put into action.

I don't think this is a flawless movie—and I have a feeling you'll like it more than me in the end—but it does seem like an incredibly important one for Lee, especially at a point where he's working through a transition from 100% fictional narratives into more documentary territory.‏