' ' Cinema Romantico: A Toast to Spike

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Toast to Spike

I loved Movies from a very young age and still love Movies whole-heartedly. I don’t capitalize Movies flippantly but to suggest something along the lines of Hollywood; Movies as escapism, Movies as trash, Movies as Movie Stars and Red Carpets and Search Lights. I love all that stuff. I do. I love Movies for the Phantasms they are and I love that when I was really little I was once confused about when Han Solo and Princess Leia found time to go to the bathroom because wasn’t this all, like, happening as is? Spike Lee, however, bless his Joints forever and ever, was my introduction to Cinema, to what directing really, truly meant, to paying attention to what the camera was doing and what the auteur was doing behind it. When Denzel Washington seemed to be floating on air while talking to the Audubon Ballroom for the tragically climactic moment of “Malcolm X”, I wondered what in the world I was seeing. I knew what was coming and so it felt like a moment in which he was already in the midst of ascending to the Promised Land, like he knew what was coming. But even more than that, I wanted to know how Spike Lee achieved that shot.

But it goes beyond technical tricks like the Double Dolly Shot. It goes to the very end of “Malcolm X” when Lee chooses to essentially step outside the constraints of the biopic narrative and conclude the film with Nelson Mandela reciting Brother Malcolm’s most famous oration for a group of school kids before cutting back to archival footage of the real thing for the money quote (“by any means necessary”). I was confused and enraptured. You could do this? You could break out of the movie telling a story to go to the here and now with a guy who was very much real and not an actor? You could, and by doing so, Lee had brought Malcolm X with him; in that moment, he still lived and breathed. I became consciously aware of the decision the director made to render what I was feeling. Maybe that should sound small time, now, here, however million billion movies I’m into my Confraternity of Cinematic Doctrine, but it doesn’t. It still feels huge, like suddenly just being able to read another language.

The color palettes of “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo' Better Blues” blew my mind just as the way each section of Malcolm X's life was given a different hue to better highlight his evolving person. And yet none of those quite astounded me like the one in “Crooklyn” when the little girl played so wonderfully by Zelda Harris was sent from New York to live with relatives in faraway Virginia and Spike deliberately compressed the images on screen, distorting the characters wildly, making them appear squeezed and boxed in and making it seem as if we are watching the movie in the wrong scope all as a means to get across Harris’s character’s mental state. To this day, I’m not sure I liked that choice. But whether I do or don’t isn’t the point; it was the choice itself. It was that he could do it and that he did it.

Like when he slapped Aaron Copland’s exuberant “Hoedown” over the pickup basketball game near the beginning of “He Got Game.” That was an aesthetic choice I’m not entirely sure any other director could conjure. It was an angry movie in so many ways, jumping off from Lee’s infamous comments in “Hoop Dreams”, taking direct aim on the sport he adores so much, chastising it for the way it exploits the kids it so relentlessly recruits for its own gains. But there, on the makeshift court under an urban moon, away from all the pushers and peddlers and Coaches Of Young Men, Lee permits himself belief in what he perceives as the most beautiful game, invoking that beauty with Copland’s score.

“Summer of Sam”, though, was where, for me, Mr. Lee really went haywire, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He used everything; he did everything; he showed everything; he wanted to include footage of Willie Mays’ catch and so he did. “There’s no reason for this to be here,” I wanted to shout as Mays went back and to the wall, “ and that’s why I love it so!” All of this filmmaking chicanery, all its kinetic editing, whether effective or not, and most of it is, works in harmony with the film’s frenzied tone covering all manner of characters and situations from that intense and sweltering summer in New York when the Son of Sam was loose and the power went out. Lee himself has said the real life summer of ’77, one in which he spent filming on an old Super 8 camera, was the impetus for his eventually assuming the director’s chair, and you can feel that sentimentality for a life-changing time. There is joy and paranoia and weirdness in equal doses. I watched “Summer of Sam” feeling the glory and folly of an auteur who’s more or less run amok in the best sense of the term, wanting to encompass everything because it all means so much to him. I couldn’t get enough even if it was too much. I’ve seen so many better films (“Do the Right Thing” included); I haven’t seen a lot of films that had such a distinctive pulse.

Today Spike Lee is being honored at the Governor’s Award ceremony in Hollywood, California with an Honorary Oscar. The ceremony isn’t televised and Spike will probably get about 2 seconds of screen time at the Academy Awards next February (God, I hope Chris Rock says something about that) and so I wanted to proffer a few considered ideas emit a bunch of soul glop here about him today and the way he made me sit up and not just watch a movie but see a movie.

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