Spike Lee: Freak (1998) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Jan/150

Spike Lee: Freak (1998)

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In 1998, John Leguizamo's success one-man Broadway show was brought to the screen by Spike Lee.  As Leguizamo jumps from one end of the stage to the other, he takes the audience through the start of his life through to the present day.

Lovely boyAfter such a long absence from the project, Freak was an interesting movie to come back on. As a one-man show, it doesn't give Spike Lee the opportunity to make the same kind and level of stylistic decisions he would have at his disposal with a standard feature (or even a documentary)—at a glance it could seem like an odd re-entry point into a project primarily concerned with a director's developing technique. Where Freak is fairly straightforward in technical execution though—and that's not to say it's completely devoid of any of Spike's characteristic stylistic touches—it's easy to see how the content of John Leguizamo's show would have appealed to the director in phase 2 of his career.

The overarching theme of the show—and what provides often the most effective moments—concerns Leguizamo's relationship with his father throughout his early years from childhood into early adulthood. Spike has often worked with stories involving fathers or father figures trying to exert influence over children and younger characters, and a strong commonality with Leguizamo's story in Freak is the way these figures are presented as uniquely flawed, trying to provide guidance in the best way they know while often this guidance has unintended consequences. For Spike, the end-point isn't always fixed: with someone like Bleek from Mo' Better Blues, the character learns and evolves from the disciplinary style of his parents and by the end of the film has come to a “better” (though muddled and problematic) place; Mookie tries to provide for his son as best he can in Do the Right Thing, despite being mostly absent as a result; Woody is a loving and supportive father to Troy in Crooklyn; Strike selflessly and genuinely wants to mentor Tyrone about the life he knows in Clockers—which may have negative effects on the boy's view of violence—just like Rocco selfishly wants to “mentor” Strike from an outsider's viewpoint, which definitely has negative effects on everyone.

Leguizamo's relationship with his father throughout Freak seems right in line with one of Lee's primary concerns, then, as he moves from a point of playfully excusing the abuse he suffered in childhood—often employing the “dad kicked my ass because I did something stupid” trope—to one of defiance and independence, standing up for himself and his family against a man who uses them to feel better about his own failings. That Leguizamo is able to chart this path in a complicated way—which leaves enough nuance for us to understand his love for his father even in the end without excusing or explaining away the abuse—seems the strongest indicator of how this film fits into Lee's career.

There are some other common concerns as well—what it means to be raised in a multi-cultural America, the intersection of many different voices and dialects, even the direct address to the audience we see in many of Lee's fiction films. How did Freak seem to fit into Lee's filmography for you?Keeping a smile in the darkFreak was an easy film to step back into Spike's career with, but that's also because I'm more familiar with the concert films and documentaries that are to come.  What impresses me about Freak, and the challenge the medium creates for Spike, is how to film the show in such a way that it maintains visual momentum.  There's a lot of colorful lighting changes and background displays already integrated into Leguizamo's show that appeals visually but it's the way Spike sets up his cameras that keep Leguizamo engaging.

At no point in the show is Leguizamo talking to the audience from the side of his mouth, and Spike rarely shows less than a 3/4 profile of Leguizamo.  Because of this there's never a point in the show that it feels like Leguizamo is abandoning the audience.  Whether it's the people in the crowd or the folks watching on their televisions, he's telling this story straight to the viewer.  I don't think the amount of prep-work in filming something like this effectively is appreciated as much as it should be as Spike would have had to see the show a few times and work closely with the design crew to think of optimum camera placement.

Think about the moment when Leguizamo scales the ladder and sits with the audience as he recalls his days sneaking into theaters during the second act.  Spike could have set up a camera among those seats and filmed him in extreme close-up, but chooses to shoot Leguizamo's ascent from the ground and from a camera far enough away to see the people's reactions around Leguizamo.  Since Leguizamo's story is about how he was trying not to get caught, while simultaneously getting so caught up in the production that his emotions made him a target, Spike's camera placement emphasizes Leguizamo's estrangement as he tells the story by isolating Leguizamo as this living cartoon amongst Freak's crowd.

For Leguizamo himself, Freak makes me desperately wish that Spike and Leguizamo worked more together.  I could look at it cynically, about how this energetic and hilarious Puerto Rican man helped Spike address some of the criticisms of how he treated Puerto Ricans in his work.  But the results are more like Spike discovering a lost limb that fits so perfectly into Spike's high energy and densely styled world.  There are the broad surface parallels, and it's impossible not to think of Spike's troubled relationship with Bill Lee as Leguizamo tells stories about his drunk and sometimes violent father, but their styles are perfectly in synch.  One of the most effective moments in the show comes when Leguizamo tells the story of him and his father driving to a fast food joint so that Leguizamo's father can get him a hooker.  Leguizamo is lit in a deep, blood-red light, harshly on the right side to emphasize his hands pretending to smoke a cigarette while his left side is lost in shadow.  This would be a perfect Spike moment normally, and here it perfectly encapsulates the danger and mystery Leguizamo's father presented to him.Some balcony loveTiny Kyle CommentaryIt does seem especially odd now that they didn't work more together, though it also may speak to how undervalued Leguizamo is that (apparently based solely on Summer of Sam) I thought he was in a number of Spike's movies up to and around early 2000.

It also strikes me now that the direct-to-the-audience style of address you see played with in various ways in Spike's earlier movies helps chart another connection with the documentary work that becomes a more defining aspect of his later career. His storytelling style from the beginning has always been fairly didactic, preferring to be up-front and center with the social and political issues he's engaging with rather than hiding them in symbolism or allegory—a jump to forms that more traditionally allow for this kind of direct address seems fitting.

That said, there's an interesting difference in the way Spike can employ his own formal touches here versus the documentaries. One of the things I was most interested in when it came to the formal elements of 4 Little Girls was the way Lee used combinations of interview audio, interview visuals, and stock footage/photos to criticize and contextualize what some of the participants were saying without ever truly altering their own words. With Freak his involvement is more obvious on a stylistic level. As you pointed out, he works with camera angles and placement to create a distinct experience from that of the actual audience members watching Leguizamo live, but not forming a new message or inserting a critical undercurrent, Spike's primarily helping to better deliver Leguizamo's own message to an audience interacting with the show in a different form here.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryThe fact that Leguizamo has something funny, touching, and ultimately sad, doesn't hurt.  I watched Freak the same day as Nick Offerman: American Ham, and the difference couldn't be plainer.  Offerman is a great performer but ends up spending most of the time muttering something about pussy to his feet, discusses how awesome his life is in different ways, and embraces some hard-hitting opinions like the Bible isn't nice to gay people ("Amirite folks?").  Leguizamo is a multicultural whirlwind here and part of the joy of Freak is we can never tell what direction his story is going to go next.  His story is enhanced by his failures and rough upbringing.  When he talks about the night his family devolved into a violent spectacle of wrestling and spit we're simultaneously impressed by his virtuoso physical performance and just how hard it must have been for Leguizamo to get to a point where he can laugh about all this.

And thank the heavens that Leguizamo got to a point where he could laugh about his life, because if Freak was in any way in good taste it would have been in terrible taste.  But Leguizamo had me rolling in laughter so many times that I already want to watch it again just to see and hear what I missed because it constantly felt like I was missing jokes from laughing at his physical humor.  Early in the show we see how quickly and deeply he can drop into character as he feeds "himself" baby food as his mother.  His words encouraging little Leguizamo to become a Latin king are funny enough, but look at the way he acts out his mother becoming more interested in eating the baby food than talking to baby Leguizamo.

He does this, with different characters of completely different backgrounds and ethnicities, in half a second.  All the while he stays completely humble.  If he suddenly developed a strong ego in his work it would have been disastrous to some bits, like when he is embracing a Nubian goddess and he realized, "There I was, in my Fruit of the Looms, glowing like some kind of UFO."  His raw talent, willingness to go to extremes at any moment, and Spike's deft direction put recent Netflix specials like American Ham to shame.  That said, our current model of standup distribution does make it a lot easier to see these artists at work, and something like Freak is a true collaboration instead of one person getting up on stage and doing their thing.  I just can't help but feel disappointed at the wave of specials coming out and wish that they had just a drop of the ambition Freak does.My fruit of the loomsTiny Kyle CommentaryIt seems like the more narrative-driven one-person show has fallen out of favor to straightforward stand-up in the last decade or so, but maybe that's because, as you said, stand-up has been easier to distribute—maybe we'll see that change with Netflix and on-demand services.

You've hit on a lot of what I wanted to talk about, but the last thing we haven't explicitly mentioned is Leguizamo's talent for defining characters in broad, recognizable strokes before moving on to develop them as distinct individuals with complex behaviors and motivations. Lines like “it seemed like every time my father was about to say something the subway would roll by” capture that unique way we tend to remember people by taking small but persistent details and inflating them to the level of caricature. He plays with racial stereotypes in a lot of the same ways, in moments that don't carry any of the hate or hurt that employing those stereotypes often does, but instead call up the way he as kid growing up frequently saw his world through clear and sometimes definitive difference.

Again, the themes are all in line with Spike's own interests, and from what I remember of Summer of Sam, this has all been a good lead in to some of what we'll see next week. More than that even, I'm curious to see Spike and Leguizamo work together on a feature—Leguizamo's energy seems like something Spike's been going for since Do the Right Thing, so I'm glad they got matched up late rather than never.

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Next, Summer of Sam.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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