Spike Lee: 25th Hour (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: 25th Hour (2002)

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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?‏

A prison of longingI'm in a little bit of a different spot, as I re-watched 25th Hour a few years ago and had a similar experience to the one you describe—once you strip away Monty's superficial “redemption” (a nice bit of trickery inherent in the form and structure of the story), there's a really bitter irony underneath. It's one Philip Seymour Hoffman's character helps to throw into stark relief for me, but I'll get to that in a minute.

When you break down all the main characters—not just the three men, but also Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and Monty's father (Brian Cox)—they're all hung up on some sense of a past either not fulfilled, or not properly fulfilled. There's a lot of the obligatory talk about how Monty “could have had so much more” and “threw it all away,” but everyone in his life is in some way also complicit—and complicit usually by their own admission. They either failed to speak up or quietly looked the other way in order to enjoy some of the fruits of his success.

They've also got their own issues. The teacher, Jacob Elinsky (Hoffman), is disgusted with himself for lusting after a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) in class, but we get the sense he's affected not as much by his own fantasies as he is by the realization he isn't, and never will be, similarly desired. He's interested in Mary D'Annunzio because she's young and cool, something he isn't and, we suspect, never got the chance to be.  Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) embodies the familiar Wall Street mentality—he's aggressively masculine, projects an air of success rooted solely in money, subtly undercuts others with displays of over-confident sexuality—but in doing so seems perpetually to be proving something, the need for which never goes away.

So while the film poses these issues as conflicts each of the characters has to work out, it's how they do so that creates a different endpoint than the redemptive one we both remember from our first viewings. Elinsky, who's convinced himself Mary's obviously ironic flirting is genuine interest to perversely reclaim or confirm some kind of self worth, arguably forces himself on a teenage girl for whom he's an authority figure. Slaughtery talks big about how Monty is getting what he deserves in order to confirm his own choices are ethical and correct by comparison, but in the end he's reduced to a tearful breakdown, having the chance to literally beat some sense into his friend.

And this is where I still absolutely love Cox's monologue at the end—because the narrative he's spinning is on the surface one of redemption via the clichéd “one last chance,” and that's how Lee films it (and that sequence is some of the best cinematography and editing of any of his films for my money). But it rests on the notion that one more bad decision will somehow give way to a string of exclusively good ones. The irony of the last line—that “this life came so close to never happening”—is one could say that about the situations of ANY of the main characters at the start of the film, and they still can't get it right. The final sequence has so much power not because it's a realistic alternative for Monty, but because of how compelling it is for him (and the audience, as we've both demonstrated) to invest in his moral worth through a fantasy rather than a cumulative history that's led to this moment.‏

One last timeNewer Andrew cutout commentaryWhile I don't agree with the way you describe Mary and Jacob's relationship, I do follow you that Jacob is the real moral center of 25th Hour Spike is fighting over.  On the one hand, you have Frank's constant pushing for Jacob to be the alpha male and force himself up the ladder of bachelorhood by basically taking whatever they feel is theirs.  Monty's pushing is a lot more subtle, and just listen to the coercive way Norton enunciates when Monty tells Jacob that Naturelle was not much older than Mary when Monty and Naturelle started dating.  There are no angels on Jacob's shoulder, just two different devils with different ways of getting to their goal.

Which brings me back to Mary and Jacob.  Mary's flirting isn't ironic, it's naïve and out of control.  Spike films her coming off the dance floor in an incredible high, using his signature double-dolly shot to watch as she glides back toward Jacob.  She's clearly not in control when she mounts Jacob and starts to rub her hands over him - she's acting out a fantasy she doesn't understand the consequences of.  Look at the lighting in this scene, the way Jacob and Mary are framed in the corner, it's not a safe space but it's cordoned off as a private one.  Anything which happens at this moment can stay in this moment, dropped in the corner of the club, and forgotten.

That's what makes Jacob's eventual decision to go after her the moral point of no return.  Spike and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto light the bathroom in a deep red, and put the camera just far enough away so we can see the full body language of Mary and Jacob.  This isn't Mary's fantasy anymore, it's Jacob's, and by her body language we can see how scared she is.  When Jacob finally kisses her and pulls away in horror Spike concludes the sequence by providing a mirror double-dolly of the same glide we watched Mary approach Jacob with.  I like the way Hoffman is staring up as he goes away from Mary, almost begging for God to step in when he only had devils giving him advice so he wouldn't end up making this mistake.

I believe this fits well with your idea that these characters have to invest their moral worth through fantasy rather than dealing with the results of their actions.  Mary recognizes the danger of living this way quickly, and Jacob realizes this when it's too late.  If the monologue at the end is the best scene (and I agree it is) then this whole sequence is easily the second best.  It also showcases how Spike is able to calm his usual kinetic style while keeping all of his signature flourishes, something I believe Prieto, whose other work as a cinematographer includes Babel and Brokeback Mountain, was able to tone down to near perfection.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIf the visual style distills many of Lee's common moves in a way which is toned down and stronger for it, then 25th Hour also reaches a kind of perfection by taking his frequent and overt use of music and letting it run seemingly uninhibited. The score is not subtle—it's right up in your face from the first shot onward, mournful, political, and operatic. It's the kind of decision that could be disastrous if Lee didn't “calm his usual kinetic style,” as you mentioned.

But accompanying a story as subdued as this one is, his technique of employing music in nearly every scene—and here the score is almost always lingering under conversations or transition scenes—has the effect of maintaining the impending sense of dread and loss. It serves to underline Monty's mindset, and it creates more emotional resonance for the moments where the music kicks back up to 11—often so suddenly and forcefully the movie seems like it's going burst.

The Aaron Copland score in He Got Game had sometimes similar effects for mostly different reasons—but they're both instances where Lee is using the score to evoke mythically huge themes in the everyday lives of his characters. It's one of the things that has stuck with me since the first time I watched 25th Hour, and one of the only aspects of the movie my opinion hasn't ever changed on.‏Memorial wallNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt's especially noticeable when Spike has shots focusing on the everyday people doing mundane things after a horrific tragedy.  The most notable surge for me was when Jacob and Frank were looking out over at Ground Zero.  Spike punches the music up here, but it's for actions like people switching lights on so they can get a better view of what they're clearing away, brushing some of the debris, or using the equipment to clear away the remnants of the towers.  Keeping in with your idea of people living a fantasy rather than dealing with the results of their actions, this scene of common workers cleaning is the result of an American fantasy of invincibility shattered.

Making this as good a time as any to discuss what's probably the third best scene in the film, when Monty goes into the bathroom at his father's bar and sees "Fuck you" scrawled on the mirror.  What's always struck me about the monologue which follows is Monty's reflection is the one doing all of the talking and Monty seems resigned to slump over the sink in self-pity.  This is where some of that, at the time, American post-9/11 resentment toward anything out of the ordinary reaches depths of anger which seem harsh even in light of the similar scene in Do the Right Thing.

In Do the Right Thing there at least existed the possibility these people, all operating on stereotypes of one another, may eventually come to some kind of understanding or truce.  No one is spared from Monty's rage, and the changes to this monologue from the novel make it explicitly sharper, such as the way he won't say anything about the Puerto Ricans because they make the Dominicans look good.  Notably, he also tells off Osama bin Laden and how he hopes he roasts in hell along with the Jesus who only had to suffer for a day when Monty has to go suffer for seven years.  Funny thing is, this doesn't end in a moment of self-reflection, because instead of having true remorse for his actions and wanting to apologize for everything he's done Monty just tells himself to fuck off because he had it all and he threw it away.

This, to me, is what makes looking at the film as a parallel for the perception of Americans post-9/11 such an effective and sad reading.  Because the truth is we pissed away the goodwill and outpouring of sympathy from the rest of the world to go play cowboy in Iraq.  If Monty stands in for America then we come across as xenophobic, homophobic, ageist, and self-appointed kings of everything who apologize to no one when the towers come crumbling down.  Given everything that's happened in the last year, it's hard for me to think otherwise.‏

Tiny Kyle Commentary The anger in that scene also varies distinctly from Do the Right Thing as it all comes directly from Monty—we're seeing an outpouring of hate from which no one is safe, as opposed to a mosaic of toxic but mutually recognized stereotypes which create the texture of life on a particular street. Monty's not sorry for anything—and never is, even by the end of the movie—he's just angry at what he's about to lose.

It's in line with the post-9/11 mentality you're talking about, where there's this great, vague groundswell of pride for New York City and anger at the destruction and loss of the attack—but here the characters' sense of loss, manifested in various ways and projected at both themselves and others, is predicated always on some idealized alternative. Considering everyone pretty much agrees—including Monty—that his life is effectively over once he reports for sentencing, the final lines also acts to hammer home a figurative death. “This life”—the one he's currently living—DID happen, and it brings up a sad inverse of your first question: how much does the loss of such a life matter?

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Next week, She Hate Me.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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