Meant to upload this when BlacKkKlansman was released late last summer, but honoring Lee’s long-delayed, much-deserved nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (even for a film I wasn’t crazy about) seems as good a reason to post this as any!
On the surface, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour vibrates with a haunted, hushed sense of gloom that begets genuine introspection, a sensibility of almost Bressonian sangfroid which thoroughly and contrapuntally rejects the bristling, sharply corrugated kinetic energy of Lee’s most famous films, hot and sweaty works that might melt the wounded 25th Hour on contact. But this most guarded film, by Lee standards, radiates its own intensity, a kind which, through its comparative silences, rejects the usual charge that Lee’s orientation is all bluster hawking snake-oil. Even Lee’s most scrambled, inelegant films have an internal coherence, and, conversely, the ostensibly calm and collected – even too conspicuously composed – 25th Hour only seems sure of itself; its comparative restraint belies a severe inner anxiety about both the value of personal self-observation in the face of consequence and the relationship between self and the wider nation.
Because, as Lee (never the most muted of filmmakers) makes apparent from the get-go, his protagonist’s ostensible assurance, inescapably masking apprehension, in turn signals, or at least rhymes with, director Spike Lee wrestling to cope with a now-lesioned New York after 9/11 in this, his more direct but also knottiest tribute to his home-city ever. Like any Lee film, it’s more sinuous than subtle when it comes to exorcising the directors demons, and the film’s meditations on mourning the phantom of the past – not to mention the dialectics of personal and national, private and political tragedy – are immediately apparent in the opening credits, which hover over the absent World Trade Center, spectrally approximated as an after-image in the form of the “Tribute in Light” commemoration which here evokes not triumph but the Towers as a kind of phantom-limb. Continue reading
Wrote this a while ago but someone never got around to posting it. With If Beale Street Could Talk, the first cinematic adaptation of a published James Baldwin story, currently gracing the screen, I decided now was as good a time as any to share.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is revelatory precisely because of how little it reveals, or at least how little it reveals through the traditional pathways of film documentary revelation. By this I mean two things: what it reveals about its subjects, race in America and James Baldwin (in that order), is polyphonic, and the pathways of revelation – the film’s way of revealing – are ever-elusive, fragmented, drawn as much to the fissures in documentary form as its capacity to crystallize interpretation. To explain by example, the most immediately striking aspect of Peck’s film is how it rescinds the offer to rely on institutionalized experts, arbiters of truth, synchronized appraisals of Baldwin’s value, and professorial orifices scrubbed relatively clean of the stench of action in the trenches. I Am Not Your Negro is disobedient to these edicts, more interested in Baldwin’s and its own diffuse uncertainties than in crystallizing a portrait of a man who the film appraises as more of a bricolage, even an exquisite corpse: a collection of restless energies and stylistic vulgarities pulled from many sources and idioms, a life as vigorously asymmetrical as the film’s presentation of that life.
Or, at times, its seeming willful refusal to present. Baldwin’s most disobedient gesture, and the film’s greatest consecration of Baldwin (by way of a refusal to consecrate), is how he seems to evaporate from his own picture, to resist whatever form the film might impose upon him, to retain his opacity even to the point of severe frustration. In its disownership of conventional documentary form, in fact, I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t even seem to be consciously presenting Baldwin as an enigma in the studied, now-all-too-common modernist-biography sense of willfully presenting a self-alienated human who doesn’t even know themselves or who has replaced their soul with a pictorial approximation of some concept, e.g. “celebrity”. No, the vaporous Baldwin disowns even that psychological solution for the problem of depicting character; it never sacrifices Baldwin’s prickliness to calcify him as a “concept,” nor does it necormance an image of a man who self-consciously transfigured himself into one. Sometimes even resisting edification entirely, the film fingers the subject of James Baldwin quite like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial “jagged grain”. Continue reading
Although easy to theorize, to analyze as a thesis mounted and then proven over 90 minutes, David Lowery’s new film is more infernal, more rule-breaking, than any such academic beast. It’s a sensualist masterpiece best understood not in reference to its prescriptive logic, but to its descriptive tangibles (or intangibles): as a canvas of embryonic moods and free-floating shudders, improvised shivers and pregnant, primal feelings costumed as both a horror film and a poetically impenetrable work of high-art theory. And a film as sinister as it is sad, and often for the same reason. Like all of Lowery’s films – including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon – it cannot be solved or deciphered, its holes plugged up by meaning or answered with solutions that tie it down.
But any argument that this film is completely impenetrable is already unnecessarily enrobing itself in the itself-impregnable logic of theory. Although rife with mediations on circular time and existential belonging (a bookshelf provides key insights, and the film doesn’t always do itself favors in its more self-consciously intellectual back-half), A Ghost Story is primarily a tone-poem, not an argument to unpack but a gloriously beguiling, metaphysical menace that seems to exist in perpetual detour from its answer, yet finds truth in its own errancy. This ghost story is a liquid-solid work, slow-going but always in drift, hard-hitting but diaphanous, thematically united but essentially resistant to completion. Continue reading