' ' Cinema Romantico: The Final Insult

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.

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