08 November 2007
The first Spike Lee movie I ever saw was Do the Right Thing, which I must have seen 3-4 times in different classes while I was a college student. DTRT is still my favorite Spike Lee movie, and it's really tough even to begin deciding which one's my next favorite. Tonight, though, it may be Crooklyn.
The first time I saw Crooklyn, I was kinda like, eh, whatever. I mean, it has no plot, it doesn't pound you with socio-political conundrums, and Public Enemy is scarce. It just kind of seemed boring, I hate to admit.
I'm not sure what's changed, but now I find Crooklyn to be one of Lee's most moving and profound movies. And it's taught me how to look at some of his other films, as well.
Spike Lee simply distrusts narrative.
Anyone who has grown up on American movies is trained from infancy to understand the "rules" that govern cinematic narrative. There's the conventional order, disorder, restoration of order conflict line. The protagonist has a very clear problem to solve, and the only mystery (if there is any mystery) is whether it will be resolved successfully (comedy) or unsuccessfully (tragedy). There are fireworks and swelling violins to let you know when an event of narrative significance is transpiring (just in case you were sleeping or considering whether to go out and get some more popcorn). The characters are easily categorized as good or bad, protagonist or antagonist, right or wrong, likable or unlikable, etc. If the movie has any importance at all, its "moral" should be as easily identifiable as the one in an Aesop's fable.
That's ok. There are thousands of really wonderful movies that fit that description pretty well (although I'd argue that even the most conventional films are complex enough to contain a wealth of contradiction).
But if there's one thing that Spike Lee repeats endlessly when he speaks about his movies, it's that he wants to tell stories about his life, about his world, and he feels obligated to perform that mission with faith and integrity.
It may be that anyone who sets out to tell the story of her life or her world in film would produce the kind of messy, ambiguous, multivalent kinds of movies that Spike Lee makes. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's something about Spike Lee's critical social consciousness that makes him almost unable to make a standard Hollywood flick. I'll go so far as to say that Lee's ethnocentric perspective is a crucial part of this critical consciousness, but I want to avoid forcing him into a small box marked "black director"--Lee is bigger than that.
What do conventions do for movies? They make the job of watching the movie easy, comfortable, pleasing to the audience. This is of desperate importance in a film industry as completely commercial as America's is. Most US filmmakers who aren't interested first and foremost in making the people feel good either fail abjectly or get relegated to some sort of marginalized status ("art film" or "cult film" or something). Even our tragedies have offer a satisfying blend of longing and bittersweetness that makes us feel "right" when we leave the theater, even if we're also feeling grief, sadness, or loss.
Spike Lee has just about no interest in making his audiences comfortable, pleased, or satisfied, let along happy. It's not that he's contemptuous of the audience, though. In fact, the exact opposite is true. He thinks so much of his audience that he believes fully that if he rips the conventions of film out from under them, they'll figure out what to do anyway, somehow.
Narrative is the first comfort to go in Lee's body of work. Even in Do the Right Thing, many of my film students complain that nothing really happens until the violence at the end of the movie. Crooklyn takes this blank narrative pallet even further.
What is the plot of Crooklyn? It's not really an easy question to answer. I could tell you what Crooklyn is about: it's about a summer in the life of a young girl, her family, and her neighborhood. But that's not a plot--it's a subject. Doubtless, it's a "coming of age" story as well, but even that doesn't get you very far toward defining a "plot."
But things happen in Crooklyn: Troy fights with her brothers, wonders when her body will start developing like the bodies of her friends, experiences mystifying bouts of sleepwalking (and sleep peeing), starts noticing the tensions that plague her parents' relationship, lives in fear of the two glue-sniffing teenagers who terrorize the neighborhood children, fails as a shoplifter, realizes that adult life is filled with anxieties about money and responsibility, watches cartoons, steals her brother's buffalo nickel collection, visits her militantly middle class relatives in suburban Virginia, suffers the death of her mother, takes care of her younger brother, and much more. And that's just some of the things that are most important to Troy herself--the movie also shows us countless moments that are far more important to the people around her than they are to Troy herself (Clinton's decision to go to the NBA championship instead of his father's jazz concert comes to mind).
Put these together in a particular way, and you could have a typical Hollywood bildungsroman. But in Spike Lee's anti-narrative world, the death of Aunt Song's dog gets as much screen time as the death of Troy's mother, and more time is spent on neighborhood children playing dozens of games than on Carolyn and Woody Carmichaels' separation and reconciliation.
It's kind of like Spike Lee's making a connect the dots puzzle. He provides scores of plot points, and then lets us string them together to create the narrative we'd like to see. The wonderful thing is that we can make a different narrative every time we watch the movie--this time it's about a father-daughter relationship, this time it's about the problem of poverty, this time it's about the differences between people and the tensions that result, this time it's about hope and resilience, this time it's a coded autobiography of Spike Lee's family, this time it's a story about everybody's family, this time it's about growing up black in Brooklyn in the 1970s, this time it's about growing up (period), this time it's simply about Troy's summer, and so on.
In some of Spike Lee's movies, like Do the Right Thing, School Daze, She's Gotta Have It, or Bamboozled, the act of connecting the dots is an intensely socio-political act. It's almost impossible to participate in that puzzling out without talking about race, violence, US history, poverty, urban blight, media representation, social justice, stereotypes, city politics, etc. That's actually why some people reject Lee, arguing that he's too "preachy." (I myself never got that--Lee may be socially and politically minded, but he rarely has an agenda to push, other than the need to think about the problems we face as a nation today and how they relate to our history and our future.)
In Crooklyn, you can think about politics and justice if you want, but I think most people who love Crooklyn love it because the work/play of dot-connecting makes them think about their own families and their own childhood--the joys, the sadness, the confusion, the fear, the beauty. People who don't like Crooklyn either want their dots connected for them, or they think Spike Lee "sold out" or "went soft" by making a puzzle that's more about nostalgia and familial love than it is about "politics" (narrowly defined).
Think about it: our own lives don't naturally align themselves according to the rules of narrative. We don't always know which moments are important while they're happening (there's no swelling soundtrack or zooming camera-work). No, our life is just a bunch of plot points, and we construct our sense of selves and our sense of history (and future) by connecting the dots. Sometimes I think that if I spent more time doing that and less time waiting for my life to start transitioning from disorder to order restored, I'd be a happier (or at least a more mature) person.
Spike Lee is, most likely, capable of making a movie that ends with climax, falling action, and resolution. But he doesn't make movies about things that are "done." For the most part, he makes movies about things that are happening right now (Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, Jungle Fever, School Daze, even Malcolm X), or about snapshot moments in a life that stretches on for years both before and after the 120 minutes of film time (He Got Game, Crooklyn, Summer of Sam, Mo' Better Blues, She's Gotta Have It) or both. To end a movie with a sense of completeness would be an act of hateful disrespect. Can you end Do the Right Thing with a sense of closure when racism, violence, poverty, and injustice continue unabated? Can Crooklyn tell the story of Troy as if her life ends at the end of a crazy summer or as if no other summer will ever be crazy again?
Spike's right--we shouldn't trust the tricks of pre-fab narrative. No one's life comes pre-labeled with plot elements--exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, or whatever. If our life is to be squeezed and forced and folded into a narrative structure, that's a job each of us had better do ourselves because leaving our life stories in the hands of others (advertisers, politicians, busybodies, but also parents, children, pastors, teachers, and friends) is even worse than expecting our filmmakers to do the whole job of storytelling for us when we turn out the lights and press "play."