Spike Lee: Clockers (1995) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
7Sep/140

Spike Lee: Clockers (1995)

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Strike is a clocker, one of the many 24-hour drug dealers who works the courtyard of his block.  His boss orders the death of a thieving subordinate and the thief is dead on the ground before dawn.  Homicide Detective Rocco takes the case and quickly finds out that there is more going on with this case than he is willing to admit.  Spike Lee adapts Clockers from the novel of the same name written by Richard Price.

Up on the blockAndrewCommentaryBannerSpike Lee's Clockers has an unfortunate place in media history.  Taken entirely on its own merits, Clockers is a great film with Spike pushing his stylistic boundaries with Malik Hassan Sayeed, the cinematographer who shifts Spike's visual tone away from the big emotions of Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing and toward a colorful and grainy style that works superbly with the moral dilemma at the center of Clockers.  The performances, ranging from the still underexposed Mekhi Phifer and the always excellent Keith David, give muscle to the community that the drug dealers simultaneously support, tear down, and protect from the economic and social forces still trying to keep them down.  Harvey Keitel channels a self-righteousness that he doesn't realize is harming the community as much as he thinks he is helping as some kind of guardian detective, and provides an oblivious counterexample to David's more pragmatic and involved officer.

All that said, it's hard not to see Clockers as a footnote to better works by anyone involved or as an evolution to what came before.  Clockers premiered in 1995, right when a handful of long-running shows involving law and order in varying stripes, such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order, were hitting creative strides in their runs on television.  Spike's film is a concentration of style from these shows, if not content, as it takes that gritty street reality and filters it through a hell that persists through day and night in Sayeed's choice of harsh film stocks with the aforementioned bright colors.  But the film, with its good careful consideration of the lives of criminals as opposed to the police officers, ends up as a prelude to shows like The Wire which would take this balanced look to an extreme and dense conclusion.  In fact, Richard Price, who wrote the book and co-wrote the screenplay for Clockers, would end up taking parts of the novel that weren't used in the film and later quoted them directly for some of the best scenes of David Simon's show The Wire.Approaching the sceneI love Clockers, but there is only one aspect of the film that I can point to which is preferable to any of the media which preceded or followed it.  That all comes from Spike, who continues the evolution of the hopeful street-drama that he started with Crooklyn, and instead of presenting a heaven on the curbside instead has everyone in grainy, miserable, hell.  Instead of letting everyone wallow in that misery or learn their lessons solely through violence, transformation comes from people realizing their contribution to a system which is hastening their self-destruction, in spite of the violence that their actions sometimes cause.  It's a more complex portrayal of the ripples throughout the criminal and justice systems than, say, Boyz n the Hood, but no less dramatic or effective because of its split-focus between the criminals and the cops.

Even with all that good I can't help but feel like I'm underselling an "A" movie just because there are "A+" options available.  Some sequences in Clockers certainly push it in that direction, and I'm wondering if you'll be able to temper my hazy love with some exultation or other criticism.‏Free to roam the railsKyle Commentary BannerI'm with you 100% on Clockers seeming like a reference point for a lot of later shows like The Wire, but I'd still put it up there as one of Lee's best so far. One of the reasons it stands out so much for me is the way it does act as an evolution of his own style, opting for some more subtle touches that work really well with the subject. An early scene involving the murder central to the film's plot stuck with me the whole time: Strike, played by Mekhi Phifer, is supposed to kill a man for his drug dealer boss to prove that he's ready to move up the chain in the trade. He paces around outside the fast food restaurant where the man works, then heads instead to a bar across the street. There he finds his brother Victor, and concocts a terrible story about the man (which I just realized may or may not be true—we never know) to convince Victor to kill the man himself. Victor responds that he may know “a guy” and Strike leaves, the situation still unresolved, only to go back to the restaurant and confront the man he's supposed to kill.

This last scene has the man ridiculing Strike with music ratcheting up along with the tension, and quick cuts back to Strike's face each time he weathers another insult. At the point where the tension is about to become overwhelming, Lee shifts to Keitel and his partner driving to the crime scene. We don't get the actual outburst of violence and the momentary catharsis that would provide (not for the characters, but for an audience used to violence acting in such a way in the movies), and while that is due in part to the fact that there is supposed to be a bit of mystery around who actually killed the man until much later in the film, the effect is an extended unease—a buildup of anger and anxiety that the movie never lets go, and that underscores everything that follows.A fighter watchesWhen we do finally get a firm answer on who shot the man, it almost doesn't matter. This later scene shows the actual shooting, but now it's anti-climactic. Early scenes immediately following those I described above show the police examining the dead man's body in a detached, almost game-like fashion, as if he's a puzzle-solving product and not a person—and these moments are infinitely more horrifying than when we finally see the killing itself, which follows exactly the sequence of events the cops casually describe early on.

I like that Lee implicates the audience in the raw emotional moment that may have led to the murder, and then turns around and immediately implicates us in the detached and dehumanizing nature of the detective work that follows. And even though we see the police in the first scenes as antagonists (showing up to harass Strike and his crew with random searches) and as having no respect for the neighborhood (Keitel and Turturro are throwing trash and bottles out the window of their cruiser in their first scene), Lee doesn't allow such a simple, one-sided view of them to emerge either.Puzzling bodyNewer Andrew cutout commentary‏The detached investigative style of the officers is one of the changes from the novel to the screen that works well, and I like how the cutoff points for the interrogation threads leave just enough information to implicate without enough to prove anything.  It fits the way Spike portrays the officers because they are not antagonists because they are inherently bad or have it out for the neighborhood, but because they tend to ignore the facts in front of them to play off of their ingrained prejudice.  That's what makes Keitel's overview of Tyrone's crime at the end so fascinating, by making a choice to sculpt a story with Tyrone on how he ended up in a position to kill Errol, he has the same realization that he is breaking up families who are doing what they have to against otherwise nasty people.

Spike's way of implicating the audience in leaping to those conclusion along with Rocco comes to a glorious head in the first double-dolly shot of the film when Tyrone shoots Errol.  Instead of keeping the camera entirely on Tyrone as he bikes up to Errol, we pan in and away from Strike as he approaches a fence and hides from Errol.  The view swoops into Tyrone's front from Strike's back, making the visual connection that Tyrone is now taking over what needs to be done from Strike, a choice that signaled by Ruth Carter's excellent costume work as the elder Strike and Tyrone are wearing almost the same outfit.  I also like that Tyrone's clothes are a bit too large on him, giving us another visual queue that the task he's assigned to himself is for a world that doesn't fit him.

Never ready for this

That dynamic camera work transforms the normal double-dolly shot from a character going off to face their destiny to something where each character is implicated in the "inevitable".  Strike could have continued on or listened to Tyrone, Tyrone could have turned his bike away, or Errol could have not been the person to be blocking their path.  But that misguided aggression from the police slowly creeps into the interrogation afterward as Strike may have kept it cool if he wasn't being pushed around, wouldn't have been flung into Rodney's orbit if Rodney had the same opportunities as the cops growing up, and Tyrone may have found inspiration in the cops instead of Strike if they took all the tower kids seriously instead of communicating a condescending sense of moral superiority over the crew there.

Easy conclusions are rare in Spike's films, and I like how Spike casts himself as a bystander who pretty much says to Rocco, "I don't know anything that will help, so don't ask."  But in the grand scope of the film the construction worker that Spike plays isn't talking about the murders at the beginning or end.  Instead he's saying that he has no answers for how to solve the cycle of abuse and violence.  It's a rare bit of humility in that Spike steps to the side a bit, and allows Price's exhaustively researched look at the streets to provide clues in empathy and understanding that may not be legal, but are ultimately more helpful than a bunch of heavies coming in and knocking the clockers around every day.‏Director don't know nothin'Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe relationship between Strike and Tyrone—and also Strike and his two paternal figures, Rodney and Andre—is another interesting point where the story provides no clear-cut good/bad roles. It's safe to say that Rodney has had a mostly bad influence on Strike and that Andre is acting in what is at least intended to be a positive capacity—but you can't boil down Strike's problems as extending directly from listening or not listening to either one of these men. And they both act out violently in the end against Strike when they perceive him as not fulfilling their expectations of him—Rodney by death threats and destroying his car with a baseball bat, and Andre by delivering a public beating.

This sense of being a failure no matter what he does feeds into Strike's anxiety—if he had refused Rodney's request that he kill the man at the beginning (or possibly arrange the killing), then he'd have less guilt and legal trouble, but he'd have disappointed the man who called him his “son.” Yet by trying to obey Andre and staying out of Tyrone's life, he inadvertently contributed to another murder. There's no salvation or resolution at the movie's end because there can't be.

There's an especially troubling sequence around the midpoint where Strike is with Tyrone in his apartment, first showing him his train set and acting as a more traditional, “wholesome” role model. Then he's showing him his gun, talking with the same sense of pride to be imparting his knowledge on someone who looks up to him. The scene plays without any cues that what we're seeing is right or wrong—Strike is simply showing Tyrone what he knows. He doesn't have the manipulative, predatory instincts of Rodney, or Andre's sense of protectiveness—and it's this lack of even a push and pull between these two polar opposites that makes the scene interesting.‏For fathers and sonsNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI also like how that moment shows the difference between the growing up in a suburban neighborhood of Crooklyn versus the closer-knit urban community of Clockers that I mentioned at the start.  The Virginia sequences in Crooklyn showed how the extra space between the homes and gentrification of abnormal (read: urban / black lifestyles) ends with the homogenized white zone of the suburb reigning supreme and Troy seeing that everyone has to adapt accordingly.  In Clockers, the compact spaces of the towers and the communal gathering spot of the courtyard forces everyone, whether they like it or not, to mingle in some way and be aware of what the other is up to.  Strike gets his morals from all the people in his community, and just happens to take the strongest queues from Andre and Rodney before passing his lessons on to Tyrone.

The montage of crime scenes and graffiti at the beginning speak to this closeness as well.  Each murder in Clockers sends immediate shock-waves throughout the neighborhood so that even the people who "don't know anything", do know and have a moral response to what is taken out of their community.  Clockers shows how, economically, there is someone who is going to fill the void left by a murder immediately, this person's death may also leave an artistic mark on the city as taggers leave portraits and inspired designs in tribute to their fallen friends, and the personal effect because of the tight nature of the community.The harsh glare of unrealityThis plays off in Clockers by showing the exterior world in a more naturalistic fashion with energetic camera work that shifts from the different characters.  There is also an absence of the unnatural, extremely harsh glare of the interrogation lamps or the police lights which are present in the interior scenes with the cops, which Spike films in primarily static shots.  The urban world of the clockers and their families is always in flux but with their needs and emotions playing right out in the open.  Police that enter their territory are coming from a more fixed viewpoint where good and bad are so clear that it nearly blinds their vision.

Lighting like this is why I'm glad Spike has never embraced subtlety as a director.  Sets in Clockers benefit from this as well, my favorite detail being the gigantic, steam puffing, gaudily lit whale above Ahab's that serves as a beacon to the police and a distraction to the community.  Some of the prop work is questionable, especially the virtual reality machine that Strike buys for Tyrone and gives a perhaps too-obvious look into what Tyrone admires.  But I like that it allows the restless Spike to work animation into Clockers as well.  The only decision that outright takes me out of the film is the soundtrack, which has an awful lot of Seal.  I know he was still riding high from his first two albums and "Kiss From A Rose" became ubiquitous after 1994, but every time I heard his breathy hum on the soundtrack I was paying more attention to his singing than whatever was taking place onscreen.  I'd chalk this up to more of a personal music taste issue, because I love Seal and it's hard for me not to pay attention to him, but the sound-mixing has the song dominate the dialogue more often than not, and ruptures the reality of the film a bit too much.‏

Hellish advertisement to uploadTiny Kyle CommentaryI'm glad you brought that up, because the way Lee uses and often depends on music in his films has been on my mind for a while now. It's hit a peak with Crooklyn and now Clockers, but he seemingly can't go more than a 2 or so scenes without needing the soundtrack to kick back up in the background. With Crooklyn it fit, as the songs were serving as nostalgic touch-points that helped convey the significance of the events going on in Troy's life—and with Do the Right Thing, for different but obvious reasons—but with Clockers the songs are often at odds with what's happening in the scenes they play over.

Tense scenes of conflict or Strike's inner turmoil do not mesh well with Seal's dreamy crooning (that's probably inaccurate, but I am not a fan of Seal)—it seems almost ironic, which is not the effect Lee is going for. It also gives the movie a strange, almost classically tragic quality at some points. The calm, almost wistful sound of the music laid over so much escalating tension and violence makes it seem like looking for a solution is a fool's errand—as if everything is predetermined, which I guess in many ways it is.‏Can't see across the gulfNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI suppose there are also worse things in the world to score Clockers to (it's not like Spike is throwing Pearl Jam and Garth Brooks on).  But throughout our conversation I've noticed both of us bringing up Crooklyn quite a bit, and I think that helps solve my dilemma from the start about how Clockers fits in with the media which came before and after.

Clockers and Crooklyn work as a dual-image of growing up in an urban environment through different, but accompanying, lenses.  Troy gets to grow up in New York with a loving family and neighborhood of kids still interested in exploring and play.  Strike has to settle for surrogate fathers and sons in an environment that's dead set in either killing or locking him up because of a dearth of other options.  They both have strong economic subtexts about how the opportunities presented are not given much control over those living them, and how authorities expect them to adhere to a certain standard of behavior even without those options present.  In Crooklyn we get a glimpse of Heaven and in Clockers of Hell.  Spike did a superb job in crafting them both but either can be taken without the other if needed.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI’m building more interest to check out the music documentaries eventually, seeing as how he obviously has a strong connection there, even though I don’t always love how prominent it is in the films we’ve watched so far. And I know you wanted to talk about intertextuality and the connections/carry-overs between films—He Got Game will offer a good opportunity to come back to the paternal relationships that are so important to Clockers without ever being explicitly examined.

We're at a point where Lee's films are about to change-up significantly if memory serves me right, and yet it also seems like we're at the point where what makes the narrative structure and worldview of his films so distinct couldn't be stronger. Maybe my memory is faulty (totally possible in this case), but if not I do think we've hit a peak that we'll need and want to revisit later (adding Summer of Sam and 25th Hour to this list as well, all for slightly different reasons).‏

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Posted by Andrew

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