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Jungle Fever (#110 of 4)

Summer of ’91 Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

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Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

Universal Pictures

Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

The interracial love story that anchors Jungle Fever is the least interesting element of Spike Lee’s 1991 joint. It’s the dull circle from which more compelling plot tangents offshoot. While the director is game for a surface-level exploration of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love, his once-controversial subject matter is merely a selling point designed to get asses into theater seats. Once Lee hooks his audience with the promise of sin, he pivots his social commentary to a tragic secondary character, just as Douglas Sirk did in Imitation of Life. This is appropriate, because Jungle Fever is the equivalent of a 1950s message picture. Expertly wielding his influences, Lee throws a dash of Delbert Mann and a soupcon of Stanley Kramer into the proceedings. Though the outcome is at times woefully dated, it’s also the origin of several ideas Lee would return to in subsequent films.

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.

Review: Spike Lee and Jason Matloff’s Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing

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Review: Spike Lee and Jason Matloff’s Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing
Review: Spike Lee and Jason Matloff’s Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing

As I wrote two summers ago, I watch Do the Right Thing on an annual basis. It’s as much a staple of my summertime movie-watching diet as It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story are part of many people’s December viewing log. Much as I’d love to watch it more often than that, it just seems a little inappropriate to screen it amid giant snowstorms like the ones that have plagued much of the U.S. this year. But what else are you going to do while cooped up inside? You could always get inside the film on the page.

Do the Right Thing is the subject of a new largely pictorial tome from Ammo Books, and it not only serves as a viewing companion for the movie itself, but also, I found, a worthy addition to the growing collection of critical and supplemental material on the making of this landmark film, including the various DVD commentary tracks and Ed Guerrero’s BFI monograph on the film. But most of all, it serves as a nice counterpoint to St. Claire Bourne’s intimate behind-the-scenes documentary “Making Do the Right Thing” (which can be found on both Criterion’s and Universal’s latest R1 DVD releases).