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Month: January, 2015

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing is a beautiful example of the American independent film movement of the 80s and 90s. Its provocative story, unique aesthetic, diverse cast and production crew, and singular vision are unimaginable in a big studio film. There’s a momentum to the film where you can feel that Spike Lee is just going for it. He isn’t censoring anything and he’s taking experimental risks that, through their assurance and bravado, come off spectacularly.

Lee calls his shot in the film’s remarkable credit sequence in which Rosie Perez dances solo for the nearly 5 minute running time of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. The dance is clearly a riff off of the title sequence to The Cosby Show, where the various cast members dance on a blank stage.

Watching Do the Right Thing, it isn’t hard to imagine the Lee might have a problem with the way The Cosby Show depicted modern black life. While The Cosby Show‘s intro is antiseptic and benign, Do the Right Thing’s is antagonistic, with Perez’s exaggerated, overtly sexual moves playing off Public Enemy’s anger. It’s clear we aren’t going to get a sugar-coated picture of Black American experience.

The artificial, meta nature of these titles gets replicated a few times throughout the film, most famously in two sequences: the first, in which five characters give racist monologues against another racial group, and second, when Radio Raheem preaches about love and hate. In this particular sequence, Lee begins by framing Radio Raheem and Mookie in a two-shot from the side, but as Radio begins, the camera slides into Mookie’s place so that the soliloquy can come straight to the audience. When Radio finishes, the camera slides back and Mookie retakes his place. He could have simply cut to the first person perspective, but there’s something beautifully performative about letting the camera do that work. Although the film is known for its Dutch angles, it is the way Lee selectively uses camera movement that I think is more interesting and playful.

The film is designed on a foundational level to provoke discussion and opinion. Although many feared it would cause riots and racial unrest, the strength of the screenplay is its ability to present a clear, nuanced portrait of each character and their actions. It invites judgment only to immediately complicate that judgment. Of course, most discussion centers around the film’s famous climax and whether Mookie’s decision to throw the garbage can through Sal’s and the resulting riot were justified. But throughout the film, we are given similar sequences. When a yuppie white resident scuffs Buggin’ Out’s Jordans, it seems like Buggin’ Out might be overreacting. Yet, the yuppie doesn’t seem to care about the brazen way he ran into Buggin’ Out, and his sense of entitlement quickly sides us with Buggin’ Out. Part of me wishes that Spike Lee would just take a stance, but that would defeat the provocative purpose of the film.

My favorite aspect of Do the Right Thing is the way it depicts a neighborhood. This feels like a real, lived-in world, with each character playing a unique role to Bed Stuy. I love the way characters float in and out of the backgrounds, even if they don’t have lines or any part of the narrative action. Lee establishes these characters so quickly: sometimes it’s through clothing, and other times through dialogue. But he doesn’t waste any time, even if it feels like the movie is mostly plotless. Each sequence serves a purpose in illustrating the psychology of the neighborhood. You just feel that these are all people the Spike Lee grew up with; they’ve been living in his head for decades and he was just waiting until this film to let them out. Luckily, he gets great performances across the board from people that also seem to intimately know the people they are playing.

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Breathless

As my film classes moved into the sixties, I thought it was essential that they get exposed to the French New Wave, thus we watched Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless. Now, Breathless isn’t my favorite Godard; it probably isn’t even in my Top 10. Stylistically, it doesn’t really resemble the rest of his work, and it certainly doesn’t resemble his more important work thematically. But there’s a spirit to Breathless that is undeniable, and that spirit definitely lingers throughout Godard’s films and the rest of the New Wave (especially his pre-1968 work). There’s an antagonistic, revolutionary spirit that has always been why Godard is my favorite director.
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Breathless is probably most famous for its use of the jump-cut, an editing trick that was supposedly the solution to an over-length first cut. With the rise of YouTube and Vine, the jump-cut has become so superfluous today that I’m not sure the impact is still tangible. But even so, it isn’t really used the way Godard uses it. I find most Vlogs insufferable for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the use of the type of jump-cut employed here:

I can’t figure out the logic of this type of editing. The practical answer would be that the edits are linking together distinct “takes”, but it seems clear that this is a single take, with small bursts edited out. Perhaps, then, the goal here is just to shorten the video by taking out any gaps in speech or action.

The logic is that the YouTube audiences are easily bored, and any unnecessary screentime increases the likelihood of someone clicking off the video. But again, it seems like the amount of time actually being edited out is minuscule and time isn’t actually being saved. For me, the edits are purely stylistic and serve more to create the illusion of speed than to actually save time. Often, the edits happen after every sentence, so 1 sentence = 1 shot. The edit, then, really just serves as a visual period marking the end of a single thought, and a new thought gets a new take. This doesn’t actually condense time, it just creates a jarring hiccup that makes us feel like we are jumping forward when we actually aren’t.

Godard’s jump-cuts don’t work like this. Most of his jump-cuts are non-sequitors. They don’t move us more quickly to the point of a scene, but rather, they often move us further away from it. My favorite example is a sequence in which Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is attempting to steal a car. As he investigates the dash of a convertible in the foreground, we can see the car’s owner emerge in the background. He sizes up Michel and moves towards him. There’s a sudden cut, and Michel is now at a different car. Through the jump-cut, Godard has implied a conflict without actually showing one. Throughout the film, his jump-cuts are jarring, in that they move us significantly forward in time and space, not just a few seconds, but they don’t propel us towards plot developments or action. In this case, they actually eliminate it.

Throughout Breathless, Godard plays these kinds of games. That’s what made the film so appealing to me as an angsty teen. Godard is screwing with his audience and testing the conventions of films. If most films use plot points to move the film, what happens when I spend all my time between those points? What happens when a “major plot point” drops, but I pretend it didn’t, such as the scene where Patricia (Jean Seberg) reveals she’s pregnant, and the characters basically ignore it?

Viewers respond to this in two ways (generally): they either see it as a joke and fall under the film’s spell or they get frustrated at the lack of plot or character development. For Godard, plots are arbitrary (and actually suspicious), so their absence shouldn’t really matter. Getting over these things is probably the biggest hurdle to diving into non-Hollywood cinema. The great directors of Europe and Asia just aren’t as interested in plot as we normally conceive it. For many, the things they were interested weren’t best explored through conventional narratives. Like Breathless, the plotting often just serves as a backdrop for larger philosophical, moral, or aesthetic concerns.

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