Spike Lee: Kobe Doin' Work (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Kobe Doin’ Work (2009)

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Kobe Bryant, partnering with Spike Lee, let cameras on the floor and in the gym to capture a day of leadership and basketball.  This is Kobe Doin' Work.

Planning the attackI'm not a big sports fan, so Kobe Doin' Work didn't hold any immediate appeal for me. I'd be curious to hear what someone who is really into basketball thinks, because what I found to be the most interesting parts are probably pretty obvious and self-evident to someone who knows how the game works at a professional level. This isn't really a documentary about Kobe Bryant so much as what it means to be a leading player on a professional basketball team—and not “what it means” in a sappy how-can-we-use-this-athlete-to-evoke-personal-myths-of-success sort of way (the way sports is typically made to function), but literally what that work looks like before, during, and after games.

That was pretty interesting to me—to see the type of constant strategy and communication that goes into this level of play.  Spike Lee gets dialogue and sound between the player on-court while the game is going, and this works to demystify the way sports (and great players) are often presented as just possessing great intuitive abilities. The point is obviously to show Bryant as not just a player of enormous talent, but also as a leader and decision maker on the court having just as much say and influence as coach Phil Jackson.

There are some other mildly interesting things going on here formally, but this is primarily Spike's attempt to deconstruct what makes a basketball player one of “the greats.” While his approach is an effective one, I'm always going to be a biased audience here. It's engaging for a time to learn what really goes into playing a game at a professional level, but more engaging would be a look at how those expectations of greatness form and translate off the court. We see a few representations of Bryant as a cultural and media symbol—and one quick scene of him seeing himself in that way on a TV broadcast before the game—but Spike isn't interested in following that idea any further. (And doing so would necessarily complicate the image of Bryant as simply “one of the most driven, passionate athletes playing today.”) On one hand, I can't fault Spike for not wanting to make a totally different movie, but on the other, the movie he chose to make tops out at a lower level.‏Scoutin' the neighborhoodI'm actually surprised that you were able to pull that much from Kobe Doin' Work, but I can't entirely disagree.  The basic problem I have when approaching Kobe Doin' Work is it's almost philosophically impossible for me to care much about Kobe or Spike here.  The distancing away from Kobe's iconic status is so effective that there's not much left to communicate about him as a person.  The audio, as you mentioned, of him frequently giving instruction and guidance to his teammates is effective at showing how on the fly the different plays can be, but I'll be damned if I understood just what many of those plays were.

Spike and Kobe don't do much to integrate an unfamiliar viewer into the world of basketball.  Now, I don't mean this as a negative against the film, because since Spike was allowed full access to the court and the locker room he is able to communicate a clear picture about what's going on in the game.  Depending on the narrative it can be important to have a little chaos, but since this is literally about Kobe the workhorse it's important to "keep an eye on the ball", so to speak, and not lose any of the movements or communication in the chaos of the game.  In this sense I almost wish the audio was a little less clear as the audience chatter is lowered in Spike's mix and aside from the frequent cries from the cheerleaders I didn't hear much else other than Kobe.  Again, good technique in focusing on Kobe's workmanlike approach to basketball here, but we deal with personal and professional struggles in day-to-day business - how does Kobe deal with those?

So while Kobe Doin' Work is great at exactly what it does, I can't help but wish it was doing more.  Now, I make it a point in my reviews to try and focus solely on what the movie is doing instead of what I wish it was doing, but Kobe Doin' Work created its own hypothetical paths in a few seemingly throwaway scenes that hint at more footage we aren't seeing.  Early in the film there's a sequence where Kobe talks about the harsh words and profanity on the court and, honestly, if that's the case then what we see in the film is conflict which rarely rises above the level of high school gym shenanigans.  Then there's a warm moment toward the end where Kobe meets his family and he talks about how he's just another guy singing "Thriller" with his kids on the way home.  Part of being a workhorse is learning when to decompress, so that's the sort of subtle moment which would have developed a more layered image of Kobe.  Finally there's his relationship with Spike, which in the tangentially related introduction and epilogue appears to be contentious fun for both parties (as is befitting Spike's usual relationship to basketball).  Where's that tension in the film, and why bother introducing those elements in the opening and closing if nothing is done with them?‏Showing some loveTiny Kyle CommentaryYeah I agree wholeheartedly with that. Spike essentially wants to remind us that there's a person behind the sports megastar symbol. And in one way he does this by pointing to the literal on-court “work” that we've both mentioned—but then at the same time he focuses exclusively on his athletic merits and accomplishments. The final images of Bryant and his family driving away from the stadium are even overlaid with text about how he was named MVP for the 2007/2008 season.

The movie presents an interesting issue for me—it's clear that Spike's concern is with Kobe the athlete more than Kobe the person, even as he throws in a few reminders that not all of his life is basketball. If this approach were taken to a work by an author, artist, filmmaker, etc.—and each game is essentially the analogue here for an athlete—then I'd be fine with the personal details being left out. Spike wants to dissect what makes a player and a team great on a technical level—ok, stick with an analysis of the game then, no problem.

But athletes aren't artists, authors, filmmakers, etc.—they're cultural symbols whose import may be superficially granted by their technical abilities, but is really constructed at a marketing level. The game Spike records and dissects here—and the same is true for all games—has no value objectively. If the players are all faceless unknowns who bring no public personas or recognizable elements to identify with, then it ceases to have any interest beyond the analytical. People watch sports not because the games are objectively interesting, but because the created public personas around the players and teams provide opportunities for deeper attachment. Bryant as presented in Spike's film is an archetypal leader we love to see portrayed in stories, because it's an image that confirms the best in ourselves—a perfect collision of natural ability, hard work that's paid off, a clear strategic mind, and a down-to-earth family man.

This image may be convenient for sports fans, but it isn't particularly interesting, and the fact that Bryant was accused of rape in 2003—the charges dropped only because the victim's personal information had been leaked to the press and she was afraid to testify at the trial—makes the moments where Spike tries to tack on easy humanizing elements irresponsible more than just clunky. I understand Spike's approach: he wants to celebrate a great technician at work in a sport they both love. It's just hard for me to join in that kind of celebration when it's that very separation between person and athlete that's exploited by the industry to enable so many athletes to be terrible people.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryIt's funny that I'm coming around on this, but I'm starting to feel that Kobe Doin' Work isn't really demystifying the process of being a sports star at all.  We have to look at what's included in a film as well as what's excluded or the avenues introduced but not followed.  By suggesting a family life, potential contentious relationships on the court, and other aspects of Kobe's day to day life and not completely dealing with them then we're left with a sports personality able to leave everything behind.  Thoughts of family, or if the other team's words are harmful, aren't on the soundtrack because Kobe has become a basketball 4-star general on the court.  If it doesn't have to do with the game, it doesn't bother him, and that's the sort of single-minded focus most of our mythic sports heroes are built up around.

This made me grasp for the details which made him human, the parts I felt were lacking in my previous response.  I think it's important you bring up the rape, because if there's one thing Spike has unfortunately gravitated towards it's stories which minimize the psychic scars of rape.  But if that was included in this film, would it have made Kobe an enigmatic villain instead of the wunderkind player and leader we see in Kobe Doin' Work?  Hard to say, but the details surrounding the rape accusations almost seem ripped from another Spike Lee story, one where perhaps the idea of handling with a victim's real emotions proved to be too much for someone who's pretended to be so distant from what people are feeling.

In that sense, maybe Kobe Doin' Work was the perfect project to follow-up Passing Strange.  He was able to approach something he loved, film it in a pleasing and uncomplicated way, then present it to a network who is just interested in a positive portrait with no controversy.  This is a far cry from the characters of Passing Strange who constantly questioned their identity in a world hostile to them while still realizing that they are afforded advantages unavailable in previous generations.  Kobe Doin' Work is uncomplicated, and maybe that's what Spike needed.  I don't have to like it, but it's hard to dislike it, and I can register its existence with these few positive notes before we move on.‏

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Next week, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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