' ' Cinema Romantico

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

When I revisited “The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)”, I was surprised to recall how the plot of such a ludicrous movie turned on something as relevant as clean energy. In this case, the chief villains represented atomic, coal and oil energy, all determined to stop renewable energy before it can get started. That’s not me Reading Too Much Into It; that’s right there on the surface; that’s right there in the text. In one of the multitudinous hilarious moments, the movie’s John Sununu introduces a few energy suppliers at a White House dinner, like Terrence Baggett, “head of the Society of Petroleum Industry Leaders, better known as SPIL.”

That the series’ chief character, Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) of Police Squad, was a buffoon did not really have anything to do with his being a cop. He had to be a buffoon because that’s what made the jokes work. Still, dig just a little deeper and you find some comically serious shots across the bow, a movie that in its way takes a stronger stand for police reform than ostensible dramas, darkly lampooning rather than just mindlessly lionizing. At that same White House Dinner, in fact, Lt. Drebin is honored by the Washington D.C. Police Commissioner (Jacqueline Brooks) for his 1,000th drug dealer killed. “In all honesty,” he says, “the last two I backed over with my car. Luckily, they turned out to be drug dealers.” It echoes a moment from the first movie in the series, from 1988, when Drebin is briefly relieved of his position. “Just think,” Drebin says in a sorely disappointed tone, “next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested.”

I thought of Frank Drebin the other day when video of Moundsville, West Virginia (population: 9, 318) rolled out a $1m armored tank. After all, when Police Squad and an accompanying SWAT team has surrounded the house where Hector Savage (Anthony James) is making his last stand, Frank climbs into a SWAT tank. “You can’t drive that!” Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) implores. “You’re not checked out on it!” Frank drives it anyway, plowing through the house and then the back wall and, eventually the zoo, freeing the animals who wreak havoc on Washington D.C., making a mess of everything. “Do you realize,” the Police Commissioner asks Frank later that night, “that because of you this city is overrun by baboons?” “Isn’t that the fault of the voters?” Frank asks.

Eh, sometimes.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Lenny Cooke

The 2013 documentary “Lenny Cooke” takes its name from the athletic phenom who in 2001 was the highest rated high school basketball player in the country, ahead of such future luminaries as Carmelo Anthony and, yes, even LeBron James. That’s why a filmmaker, Adam Shopkorn, followed Cooke around in 2001 with a camera, subsequently losing touch with his subject right around the time, it would seem, when Cooke’s bright prospects took a hit. A decade later, however, Shopkorn got in touch with the Safdie Brothers, Benny and Josh, basketball fans as their recent “Uncut Gems” goes to show, about helping finish the film. The Safdies poured through the footage, tracked Cooke down and captured the ex-ballplayer a decade out from his ostensible glory days. If that suggests a disconnected documentary, “Lenny Cooke” entirely hangs together, even when stock footage of the 2002 NBA Draft where Cooke is not picked betrays that he has gone MIA and crude analog video of the doc’s first half gives way to a more professional looking back half. If anything, this denotes the two distinct acts in Cooke’s still-young life, underlining all the ways in which he has changed and those in which he has not seemed to change much at all. This is made explicit in the transition from youthful, baby-faced Lenny to the filled-out adult version, cruelly conveying what it means to get old in an instant, like the daguerreotype in “A Quiet Passion.” “Lenny Cooke”, it turns out, isn’t so much about Lenny Cooke as it is about a conversation between two Lenny Cookes.

The Brothers Safdie admirably eschew many of the traditional sports documentary trappings, mostly forgoing talking head interviews to almost entirely construct “Lenny Cooke” through archival footage, rendering less an overview of the person than a dramatic film with Lenny as the main character. Whole scenes play out at length and backstory is intrinsic, like Lenny waiting in a bus station with his kid which is the moment we realize he has a kid, letting the audience wrap its head around this revelation in real time, providing a crucial sense of intimacy, like we are in on Lenny’s story rather than having it relayed to us through a hazy or gauzy filter. Occasionally, Lenny talks to the camera but these moments never come across like interviews, more like monologues, not rehearsed but unfiltered, sometimes so much that you swear you even catch him in the moment, by a look on his face, not exactly buying what he’s selling.

The basketball footage is mostly limited to summer camps, those untoward congregations of players, coaches, agents, hangers-on, etc. In workouts, Lenny’s indifferent work ethic readily manifests itself, not just in being late and not-so-sneakily opting out of mandatory push-ups but his mischievous smile, where he just looks like a kid who thinks he knows best. The centerpiece, though, is a camp showdown with the future King, LeBron, like a ghost in “Lenny Cooke”, what we know he will turn into hovering. And LeBron gets the best of Lenny, winning their game on a last-second shot while his rival struggles, appearing, to untrained eyes, frequently a step slow, a sequence scored to Yusef Lateef’s 1969 Like It Is, evoking the sorrowful sensation of something slipping away. And the track becomes Lenny’s leitmotif, returning in the Twenty-Tens footage where a bigger, slower Lenny balls out with his friends, the music evincing pain amid playfulness. And though in one soliloquy to the camera Lenny claims basketball was never his passion, in a late night scene, on his couch and getting a jump on a hangover with a snack, he watches LeBron highlights on TV, his melancholy laid bare in the look washing over his face.

This image of Lenny beneath the blankets, watching LeBron, demonstrates how Benny Safdie, who edited the movie, finds echoes between their footage and Shopkorn’s. This moment arrives at the end of Cooke’s 30th birthday party, a scene juxtaposed against his 20th birthday at a restaurant in Brooklyn where he declares that he will spurn college, sign with an agent and enter the NBA Draft where, alas, he is not selected. The latter is also where Shopkorn loses touch with Cooke, save for a brief curbside scene where Lenny consults with his agent, a guy who comes across more like a boiler-room stock salesman; you don’t have to see anything else to know his client is getting screwed.

There is a moment young Lenny listens to NBA coach Mike Fratello lecture on the financial rigors of adulthood. And if afterwards Lenny says the message made a mark, older Lenny essentially says it did not leave a mark at all. The moment looms even larger when we learn Lenny has become a motivational speaker, a living, breathing representation of Fratello’s warning. But then, the only person we see Cooke motivating is, through an impressive bout of special effects, his younger self, a stunning, sorrowful evocation of the age-old question If You Could Go Back In Time, What Would You Tell Yourself? It doesn’t really look like young Lenny is listening.

Monday, July 06, 2020

The Last Dance

The ten-part ESPN/Netflix co-production “The Last Dance” opens and closes with Michael Jordan, in some luxurious oceanfront property, smoking a cigar and staring out across the water. It is his world, in other words, both as a transcendent athlete and unprecedented celebrity. If, however, these images would seem to suggest the greatest basketball player of all time as content, they go hand in hand with another shot in Episode 8 where Jordan, after losing a playoff game to a trash-talking former teammate, sits in the locker room, looking less like a basketball player than a mob enforcer, smoking a cigar and wielding a baseball bat. He explains that anyone can talk trash when the game is over but real men talk trash when it’s 0-0. Perhaps, but what is “The Last Dance” if not Jordan talking trash, over and over and over, long after winning, ensuring he gets the last word over everyone? Indeed, throughout director Jason Hehir plays footage of other interviewees in the doc for Jordan on a laptop and then lets his subject literally get the last word, refraining from serious follow-up questions. That’s why it’s crucial to think of Hehir less as a director than an autobiographical ghost writer, not challenging or even really investigating Jordan but acting as a myth-cementing agent.

The documentary’s title is culled from Bulls coach Phil Jackson christening the team’s sixth title season, 1998, as The Last Dance in light of the curious, premeditated decision by the front office to essentially disband the incredible dynasty at year’s end, championship or not. This looming break-up informs the entire movie but is never exactly explained, then-owner Jerry Reinsdorf let off the hook in interviews, seemingly because Hehir – nay, Jordan – are intent to wholly lay blame on General Manager Jerry Krause. This portrayal is not entirely unfair, the doc credibly arguing that Krause wanted to remake the organization as a way to demonstrate his own genius in contrast to Jordan’s. But because Krause passed away in 2017, he is unable to speak for himself aside from isolated clips, mostly rendered as a short, paunch punching bag with innumerable scenes of MJ ridiculing his GM right to his face, an emphatic and emphatically un-empathetic portrayal of Krause as the black hat to Jordan’s white hat.

Part of the doc’s ostensible allure is behind-the-scenes footage, heretofore unseen, that was shot by a film crew throughout the 1998 season. It is often underwhelming, sometimes incisive, occasionally even poetic, in its own way, like an out of nowhere inadvertent black and white beer ad where prominent players imbibe post-game Miller Lites. Mostly, though, this footage just feels tacked on, never the point, and it is easy to imagine a more lyrical filmmaker, like Brett Morgen, chiseling an aesthetically fascinating documentary strictly from the archives. There is a shot of 1993 Jordan lazing on a hotel couch, hiding from the adoring, frenzied throngs outside that all on its own says more about the literally frightening scale of his popularity than anything anyone dutifully recites on camera.

No, “The Last Dance”, in taking us through all six championship seasons as well as the interval when Jordan retired to play baseball, prefers the typical ESPN house style of alternating between banal post game press conference-type insights and game action, the latter sometimes scored to SportsCenter anchor footage, literally rendering it as a glorified highlight reel, compelling in the manner of a history book providing the broadest overview of a pivotal era. If Hehir transcends this basic approach, it is in how he jumps around in time, admirably refusing to tell a linear story. (I’d like to know how many people who struggled with the time jumps in “Little Women” also struggled with these.) By doing so, he finds both historical rhymes, how emotional and physical burnout culminating In Jordan’s first retirement also culminates in his second, suggesting the price he pays for such hyper-focus and celebrity, as well as its echoes. No footage is as moving as the 1998 All Star Game where we see a young Kobe Bryant juxtaposed not only against an older Jordan but a retired Bird and Magic, rendering it less as a locker room than the Lodge.

There are even rhymes the movie does not quite see, like the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas’s shifting story on why his teamed walked off the floor without exchanging traditional post game handshakes in 1991, none of which Jordan buys, unintentionally paralleling Jordan’s own shifting story about his “Republicans buys sneakers too” quote, which he has said he never said but seems to indicate in “The Last Dance” that he did say…just as a joke. If these time jumps periodically allow for other players to take center stage, like MJ’s wingman Scottie Pippen and his 1998 contract dispute and legendary eccentric Dennis Rodman and his going on walkabout to Vegas with then-girlfriend Carmen Electra, each one of them nevertheless ends framed through Jordan’s eyes, diagnosing Scottie’s selfishness or being the hero in bringing Dennis back to be with the team. They are satellites in “The Last Dance”, orbiting around him. Even Steve Kerr, hero of Game 6 in the 1997 NBA Finals, who gets the best and most moving individual passage in Episode 9, puts a period on it with a self-deprecating story about #23.

[*Removes Critic Hat* *Puts On Dennis Rodman Spurs Jersey From High School* While the doc portrays the 1996 Finals turning on Seattle coach George Karl ostensibly slighting Jordan, that six-game series sealing the title for the legendary 72-win Bulls had as much to do with the play of Dennis Rodman. Read any contemporary account. *Takes Off Dennis Rodman Spurs Jersey From High School* *Puts Critic Hat Back On*]

That isn’t entirely wrong. As “The Last Dance” outlines, Jordan entered the league onto a Bulls team that was nothing and remade it in his image, imploring those around to keep up and get out. Still, despite overly focusing on him, this is not exactly a complex portrayal of Jordan the man, more content to skim the psychological surface and allow brief overviews of the more unsavory parts of his past to suffice. Talking head interviews not there to scrutinize, never mind dispute, but mostly just nod along with what we already know or what Jordan.

If “The Last Dance” marshals any argument about Jordan, other than He Sure Was Good At Basketball, it's that his pathological intensity directly contributed to his success. The story of Michael Jordan punching Steve Kerr in the face at practice, dutifully recounted here, is canon, but Hehir gives time to every grudge and every slight, real or imagined, and every on-court reprisal and in-practice dust-up. Scott Burrell, a hardly remembered member of the 1998 squad, becomes a major supporting player, a frequent target of MJ’s ire in NSFW language in an attempt to build his unheralded teammate into a more valuable one. It does not work, as Jordan acknowledges, and these bullying tactics are an interesting juxtaposition to Jordan citing his beloved father’s advice about turning a negative into a positive, an irony that goes unnoticed much like those unseen rhymes.

One of the frequent criticisms lobbed at “The Last Dance” involved Jordan’s editorial insight. It is valid and speaks to the documentary’s lack of psychological insight as well as the curious absence of his family, save for a few cursory moments near the end. But then, the lack of his family only underscores Jordan’s sense of self-sacrifice in the name of winning just as his editorial oversight underscores the dictatorial tendencies he also displayed to continually achieve victory. And that’s all “The Last Dance” goes to show, dusting off the old quote that Vince Lombardi may or may not have said about winning being the only thing. Hehir never asks Jordan if it was all worth it. Why would he? The documentary is confirmation that it was.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner died on Monday at the age of 98. He was an entertainment legend who came up under the wing of Sid Caesar, created “The Dick Van Dyke” show, helped devise some of those classic early Steve Martin kooky comedies, including one with a cameo so brilliant this blog names its annual random came award after it, and appeared in the Ocean’s remakes, including the ingenious “Twelve” (2004), where his saying “You’re all aces in my book” is one of the myriad movie lines I sometimes say aloud to myself for no reason at all. But. Loyal frustrated followers know the place “Summer Rental” (1985) holds in this blog’s heart and has held since the day way back when I first watched it with my Mom and my Sister when my Dad, a teacher, was away for the State Debate Tournament in Council Bluffs. Carl Reiner directed “Summer Rental”, of course. I considered writing a few new words about it but then though, nah. I already wrote what I wanted to write about it five years ago. So here it is, slightly revised, again. Because I can think of no better way to say goodbye to Carl Reiner. RIP


The demarcation line in “Summer Rental” (1985) is a scene between Jack Chester (John Candy), an air traffic controller forced into an unsuccessful vacation, and Scully (Rip Torn), piratical proprietor of a mostly unpopulated restaurant/bar situated on a rundown schooner. “Do you know what it’s like to peak when you’re  eighteen?” Jack demands. At this point, Scully, a character who comes across so much like Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa that it is deliberately difficult to tell whether or not it’s all a gigantic put-on, assumes an entirely earnest expression, suggesting that inside this caricature lurks something very real. “Yes,” Scully says, “I do.” That solemnity in his voice makes you believe him. And so a movie that has, up until this point, been primarily slapstick metamorphoses into the sweet at-sea comeback of a middle-aged man finding his sea legs, evinced by Candy with simultaneous loud hilarity and quiet pathos as only he could, and giving the family he clearly loves a reason to buck up and feel proud.

I used to identify so much more with the first half of “Summer Rental.” I was raised, as I have said so many times before, on “Star Wars”, Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventures and John Candy comedies. “Summer Rental” was a cherished favorite of my mom, my sister and me. We rented it on VHS multiple times and never failed to chortle at the sight of a hapless Jack Chester cracking eggs on the dashboard of his car or seeing him shoo away a nosy kid that’s not his with a fly swatter.

But then, at that age I had no comprehension of what vacation meant. I enjoyed family vacations, don’t get me wrong, but as a worn-out, embattled parent might say, “What do you have to get away from?” Catching lightning bugs in jars? Staying up late to watch this strange David Letterman show on NBC? Listening to Q-102’s nightly Top 10 countdown? This endless assortment of gags in the first 45 minutes of director Carl Reiner’s comedy were comical to my youthful mind but I missed what they were intended to represent for people of, shall we say, a more advanced age.

The initial passages in “Summer Rental” revolve Jack’s professional burn out. Air traffic controller is a job ripe for burn out, of course, but that job could well have been anything, merely the means to demonstrate a middle-aged man worn down to the nub. And so the film, smartly establishing his exhaustion and then swiftly moving on, packs up Jack and his wife and daughter and son and sends them on a getaway to Citrus Cove, Florida. Of course, even there Jack can’t re-find his center. Jack gets sunburned. Jack breaks his leg. It’s supposed to be humorous but through the prism of age it’s terrifying, a blessed sabbatical revealing itself to be cursed.

What’s more, Reiner injects his easygoing comedy with distinct notes of class tension, gently deepening Jack’s plight. Our hapless vacationer eventually acquires a nemesis in the form of local sailor Al Pellet (Richard Crenna) whose omnipresent Captain’s hat, fancy yacht and reserved table at a hot-to-trot lobster restaurant that doesn’t take reservations transforms him into a snooty emblem of the rich & semi-famous. Jack, on other hand, symbolizes the fatigued working class, forced to re-locate, courtesy of a comical mix-up, from a nice place on Beach Lane to the proper shanty on Beach Road with his whole family sadly looking on. And when it turns out Pellet owns the shanty and threatens to jettison the Chester clan, Jack’s kids run off in disappointment, leaving their father genuinely hurt, a man trying to do his best who just can’t get it right.

That’s what makes the final forty minutes not so much funny as cathartic, as Jack challenges Pellet in the local regatta, and scrimps and scrawls with his wife and kids in tow, everyone pitching in and having fun, re-lighting a flame. It’s something so much more moving than any “Vacation” movie. They win the regatta, sure, they have to, and good for them, but Jack’s already made peace before the finish line and his family’s already come around to have a good time.

“The film,” Janet Maslin wrote in her original review for The New York Times, “doesn’t even have an ending; after the regatta is won, it simply stops.” She meant this as a criticism; I disagree. What’s the worst part of vacation? Why the post-vacation letdown, of course, and that letdown usually starts happening while the vacation remains in progress and its finish line has appeared on the horizon. “Summer Rental”, on the other hand, concludes at the pinnacle, in the midst of the emotional retreat’s finest hour, that transcendent place we all wish we could stay forever.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

The most haunting image in Charles Burnett’s 2003 documentary “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” is one that already existed – a wanted poster that appeared in the wake of Turner famously leading an 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia. There is no known image of the real Turner, so this is as close as we’re ever gonna get, and what we are left with isn’t all that much, hardly a face at all, just a crude impression of one beneath a black hat, putting a face to the idea of African-American slaves’ facelessness. As Burnett’s film points out, the white people slaughtered in Turner’s uprising were dutifully remembered by history, though the Black people slaughtered in retaliation were not, demonstrating which historical record was considered more valuable. And so even if Turner’s revolt was and remains well known, little is known of Turner himself, leaving historians, as one of them interviewed explains, to peel back the historical onion and find the real person. Burnett, however, is a filmmaker, not a historian, and so what he renders here is not a search for the truth but a demonstration of how the lack of truth has transformed Turner into an emblem. “A Troublesome Property”, then, brings that notion to life by casting multiple actors as Turner in various historical re-creations but purposely hiding his face when staging scenes culled from actual history; he is no one and everyone.

Most accounts of Turner drawn from his so-called Confessions, written by a lawyer named Thomas H. Gray who interviewed the insurrectionist in jail. “Over and over again,” Alfre Woodard tells us as narrator, “those who search for the meaning of Nat Turner begin their inquiry with a search for the meaning of the Confessions.” So “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Party” begins there too. As several historians tell us, these Confessions are no longer accepted as gospel, and in his recreation of them, Burnett first has Gray pause outside Turner’s jail cell, turn to the camera and speak directly to us, a stagy flourish suggesting it’s all for show. And as the subsequent scene between the two men plays out, Gray writing down what Turner is saying, Burnett cuts back and forth between historians, not debating the veracity of these, cough cough, confessions but, real, invented or in-between, their emergent meaning.

Nothing is settled. A descendant of a victim of the revolt suggests Turner would have been remembered in a fonder light had he refrained from killing women and children (would he have been remembered at all?) while a descendant of Turner himself notes that the only way to destroy an institution as evil as slavery was “to make the price so high that those who were practicing slavery would eventually sue for peace and say, ‘We cannot keep slavery because it will cost us too much.’” If one historian cites Turner’s equating himself with Christ being crucified as among the greatest moments in human history, the novelist William Styron implicitly states it’s difficult not to come away thinking Turner is a lunatic. Indeed, as the recreation of Gray’s interview ends, he turns again to the camera, deeming Turner a fanatic, as if putting his stamp on the predominant presentation of his ostensible subject passed down through generations.

That sort of folklore is glimpsed in a recreated interview from the New Deal Federal Writers Project, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives, where a former slave talks about having heard the stories of Turner from his elders. In the advance of the Civil War, noted abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison framed Turner’s story in a heroic light, as someone embodying the ideals of the American revolution more than white men who obliviously celebrated every 4th of July, while whites presented it as a savage cautionary title, dueling points of view you can still see through today, as the interviewees, half-black and half-white, evince, and render him as a convenient metaphor, whatever your argument, as novelist William Styron notes.

Styron wrote “Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), the explosive Pulitzer Prize winning book of admitted fiction which is discussed at length for its explosive reaction stemming from familiar stereotypes, fictionalizing a sexually charged relationship between Turner and one of his victims, an 18 year old girl. If Styron cites no less an authority than James Baldwin encouraging him to write from the perspective of a Black man, it does not necessarily leave his Black critics, like Ossie Davis, content. Styron argues his rendering of Turner was meant to imbue “human dimension” though Davis counters that he already viewed Turner as human, suggesting fictional license can be as much an impediment to empathy as an agent.

Burnett, though, is not condemning the limitations of a White man trying to write from a Black man’s perspective but demonstrating the limits of an alternate perspective in the first place. In point of fact, Burnett presents himself on camera being interviewed and filming one of his reenactments, not auteurist vanity but an admission that his own documentary is tagged with his own perspective, sort of an eternal loop feeding back into what is not so much a conundrum as the infuriating truth of slavery and how one’s very humanity was dispossessed. “After his death,” Woodard says of Turner, “his words became the property of others, as his body was during his life.”

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Glass Shield

If Charles Burnett’s “The Glass Shield” put the LAPD under the microscope in the wake of the L.A. Riots (L.A. Rebellion), so too does it put Hollywood under the microscope and its penchant for conveying police departments less as assemblies of peacekeepers than renegade heroes. That lie is immediately illustrated, literally, as the film’s titles are run over panels of a fictional comic book in which a black cop saves the day. “Your shield is made of gold!” his white superior tells him. It is this sort of callow worldview that Rookie Deputy J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), the only person of color in the L.A. Sheriff’s office, mirroring a real person from the 1970s, initially expresses, embodied in Boatman’s eager smile and epitomized in a shot where he stands in front of his police locker, practically beaming, while a nameless cop over his shoulder in the background juggles nightsticks, like the whole thing is just some big show and he’s finally been cast. It’s also, tellingly, the only moment in “The Glass Shield” when Burnett resorts to slow motion, mocking the nominal heroism typically inherent in that device and pointedly telegraphing his renunciation of such clich├ęs, eschewing car chases, slides over the hoods of cabs, even, swear words. And if the bad cops are portrayed with little complexity, Burnett is leaving no room for holding them up as anti-heroes, stripping away any of the violent romanticism peddled by movies like “Dirty Harry” or “Training Day”, calling a bunch of spades a bunch of spades.

If J.J. is surrounded by racists, he is also given a chance, in the department’s own kind of way, at essentially becoming colorless, coached to be one of them, “not a brother”, brought home in a traffic stop where he lets a black woman go with a warning only to have his partner track her right back down. Played with just the right amount of willful naivety, he goes along until it becomes obvious he’s being played, as the narrative coalesces around a young man, Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), pulled over just for being black and subsequently fingered for a crime he didn’t commit, leading to a trial and J.J.’s crisis of conscience. His own moral failings in the case are not written off even as he finally opens his eyes, so to speak, and takes a stand. And even when he takes a stand, Burnett forgoes the One Tough Cop fairy tale. No, J.J. works not just with the department’s only woman, Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), viewed with as much contempt as J.J., but a White whistleblower, briefly blurring those color lines, and a Black attorney (Bernie Casey) fighting for Teddy, evoking a collective as balm, similar to Burnett documentaries covered earlier this week.

If “The Glass Shield” was inspired by a true story, Burnett is less inspired by realism, preferring an almost expressionistic approach, deeming the emotion of scenes more important than authenticity. Indeed, if it begins with that clever bout of slow motion to convey J.J.’s initial callowness, Burnett then effectively utilizes color and shadow to impart J.J.’s professional descent into the muck. Using blinds to cast shadows like prison bars is not new but has rarely been deployed as memorably here, especially in an early conversation between Deborah and J.J. where she challenges him on his Pollyanna-ish attitude, as if he doesn’t even realize he’s locked himself inside and thrown away the key. This becomes even more poetically figurative later, after he’s turned against his department and is locked up to prevent him from causing further trouble. The cell is lit in a frightful, blazing orange which, contrasted against a cold blue just outside, makes him look for all the world like a person sentenced to his own personal hell.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Final Insult

As Charles Burnett’s 55-minute short “The Final Insult” (1997) begins, Box Brown (Ayuko Babu) steers his old clunker of a car doubling as his home down the freeway, singing to himself even as newer, faster cars fly by, a fitting emblem for the plight of the homeless, there but not there, noticed but not seen, just obstacles to circumvent. Box, as he explains in voiceover, was named for a slave who escaped to the North by having himself shipped in a box. “Life,” this Box Brown says, “was simpler then.” It’s a line that’ll stop you short, not suggesting that life was happier, of course, but that to escape your grossly unjust circumstances you could just ship yourself off to some sort of possible promised land. This Box, on the other hand, is just stuck, emblemized in his temporary gig as an accountant where, in cruel, cosmic irony, he recommends banks hire temporary employees rather than permanent ones to cut costs, mired in a system designed to lead him right back to where he is.

Box is a fictional character but “The Final Insult” is not a fictional film, or not entirely one, a hybrid between fiction and documentary. Occasionally it’s difficult to tell where one begins and one ends, like a multilingual troubadour whose scenes with people on the street feel conspicuously staged, feeling too much like possible sleight of cinematic hand rather than a challenging of our perspective. A woman by the side of the road, however, wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of a different Depression, Betty Boop, comes across genuine and hard to shake. “Will you help me?” she asks to the camera. Eleven years earlier, John Carpenter filmed scenes on L.A.’s real skid row for his “They Live” and the film’s pivotal moment involved a brawl over whether to put on a pair of sunglasses, a symbolic means to see the truth of an unjust social order. In “The Final Insult”, Burnett’s camera is the sunglasses. By including real homeless, Burnett is not letting us off the hook, not allowing us to simply write this off as a fantasy that is far, far away but an urgent matter that is right in our face.

If there is a story in “The Final Insult”, it involves Box trying to track down his brother Reggie in order to give him his diagnosis of HIV positive, a quiet nod to how two epidemics often went/go hand in hand. The scene, though, in which Box finally confronts his brother is not really a confrontation at all, a weirdly effective blending of comedy and horror as Box is made to scale a highway buttress at a 45 degree angle to find Reggie where he lives beneath an overpass. As Box makes the ascent and then the descent, traffic roars by below, not simply adding to the danger but alluding to how persistent outside noise is the soundtrack of homelessness. Box’s quest is all for naught, Reggie telling him off by telling him he’s going to die either way, content to be left alone, eerily echoing another scene where Box’s car sputters to a stop in an affluent neighborhood and pointedly no one comes out to help, as if they are all hiding inside.

It suggests a world in which we are all on our own, one which Box fights back against as the movie closes, gathering a few people and preaching collective action. All that comes to, though, is a few young men from off to the side violently rushing Box. The scene feels staged, as does an earlier moment in which Box is the victim of sudden violence, though no less effective. If Burnett has been fuzzing reality throughout “The Final Insult”, here he departs it completely as Box is sent rolling down a hill in a shopping cart, cutting to a nighttime scene where characters hold candles above the cart where he still lies, seeming to mourn him, evoking a strange twist on a funeral pyre, like Box has been sacrificed for no damn reason at all.