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Michael Rapaport (#110 of 4)

Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

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Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee
Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

“In 1989, 10 films got awards [at the Cannes Film Festival] and Do the Right Thing wasn’t one of them. I don’t use awards as validation, but when all is said and done, if the choice is between a director like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, they’ll give it to the golden white boy every time.” These words were spoken by Spike Lee following the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where his new film Jungle Fever had just lost the Palme d’Or to the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Several writers, including Gene Siskel, weren’t fans of Lee’s “straight talk,” which led Siskel to ask: “Does [Lee] stop to think before he speaks?”

Todd McGowan’s new book remains largely inconsiderate of Lee’s public persona, instead focusing the analysis exclusively on the director’s films, seeking a link that unites them. For McGowan, excess and its negotiation is the defining unity of Lee’s filmmaking—an excess that “draws the spectator’s attention to form” and “disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together.” However, McGowan seeks to move past prior understandings of excess and claims that a new theory is needed to understand Lee’s films, “one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion.”

15 Famous Detroit Movies

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15 Famous Detroit Movies
15 Famous Detroit Movies

This weekend’s hot doc is Detropia, the latest from Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. A painterly ode to a recession-ravaged empire, the movie explores the rock-bottom state of Detroit, and questions whether or not it has the stuff to rebuild itself. A unique metropolis, Motor City is one offbeat cinematic setting, far from the glamor of New York and the commonness of Toronto, Hollywood’s go-to stand-in town. Only a handful of films have been set in Detroit (and even fewer have actually been filmed there), but we scrounged up an eclectic selection, boasting the likes of Clint Eastwood, Carl Weathers, Warren Beatty, and Eminem.

The Conversations: Bamboozled

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The Conversations: Bamboozled
The Conversations: Bamboozled

Ed Howard: Towards the end of Spike Lee’s viciously funny media parody Bamboozled, there’s a shootout between the police and a militant rap group in which all the black members of the group are quickly killed, leaving behind the one white guy (played by MC Serch of real-life hip-hop outfit 3rd Bass). As the cops put him in cuffs, this one survivor repeatedly cries out to them, “Why didn’t you shoot me?” It’s such a poignant moment because he seems to be pleading with them, begging them to treat him the way they’d treated the black members of the group, demanding that he not be spared because of the color of his skin. He’s so upset, not only because his friends are all dead, but because he’s realized an essential truth that Lee is getting at in this movie: no matter how well he’d fit in with his black peers, no matter how fully he’d been accepted by them and participated in their work, he was still separated from them, cut off from their experience of the world at a very basic level over which he could have no control.

Throughout the film, Lee has multiple characters try to take on the attributes of a race other than the one indicated by the color of their skin: black people trying to sound white, white people trying to sound black, and of course many people of various races donning blackface as a TV-inspired fad. For the most part, Lee has nothing but contempt for these characters; MC Serch’s character is the one arguable exception, and in the end he can no more escape the color of his skin and what it means than anyone else in the film. I’m starting at the end, to some degree, because this sequence is so suggestive of the film’s themes, and also because we should probably admit up front that we’re two white guys about to discuss a film that has a very provocative and challenging view of race and racism. It’s a film that’s at least in part about how it’s all but impossible for one race to understand the experience of another—especially whites thinking they understand what it means to be black.

Bamboozled follows the black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as he develops a blackface minstrel show that he thinks will expose the racist attitudes of the media but only winds up feeding into and inflaming that racism. I didn’t entirely know what to make of this movie when it came out in 2000, but I’ve come to believe that it’s one of Lee’s best, right up there with Do the Right Thing. A bold satire that doesn’t pull any punches, Bamboozled is a deeply discomfiting film that’s purposefully exaggerated and outlandish and yet is packed with real-world references that ground its satire—even that shootout with the white survivor is based on real events. Lee is exploring the history of racist entertainment in the US, and as the closing montage makes clear, he’s suggesting that the same forces that made Birth of a Nation and the vaudeville caricatures of comics like Mantan Moreland so popular are still very much present, in a more covert way, in the modern American entertainment industry. As a result, Bamboozled does what great satire always does: it takes a scenario that should seem ridiculous—it’s hard to imagine an actual blackface variety show being aired on American TV today—and uses it to explore the submerged but very real racial attitudes that underpin all sorts of entertainment that only seems less racist than Delacroix’s Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

Film Review: Special

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Film Review: <em>Special</em>
Film Review: <em>Special</em>

[Special opens today at Manhattan’s Sunshine Cinema. Click here for more information. It is also playing on Time/Warner & Comcast Video-on-Demand. Check local listings.]

Special is good enough in various particulars that its token theatrical release—nearly three years after its Sundance Film Festival debut—is more than slightly bittersweet. Co-writers/co-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore rest their depressive character study on the able shoulders of actor Michael Rapaport, who pushes the film forward even as its jittery, hand-held aesthetic frequently marks time.

As Les Franken, an introverted meterman convinced, after ingesting an experimental depression medication, that he has superpowers, Rapaport grounds Special’s numerous flights of fancy within a painfully physical realm. Haberman and Passmore take a page from the cartoonist Bill Watterson, who noted of the tiger protagonist in his great Calvin & Hobbes, “The nature of [the character’s] reality doesn’t interest me, and each story goes out of its way to avoid resolving the issue. ... I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it.” So when Les demonstrates his “ability” to run through walls, we see him do just that. But we also see some telling aftereffects (a bloody nose; a rapidly expanding bruise) or alternate character perspectives (say those of pot-smoking, comic book store-running brothers Joey (Josh Peck) and Everett (Robert Baker)) that throw the veracity of Les’ beliefs into harsh relief.