Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spike Lee & McBride do Good, not Great.




Okay, here's my ruminatant...moist cud spit for your inspection. That America is more tribalized than ever is axiomatic. The Sarah Palin white folks. Tyler Perry bamas (opposite sides of the same...er...coin). The former being the majority, don't look for EA's Call of Duty to incorporate a story line about black combat troops led in segregated units by incompetent, indifferent or outright racist officers into suicide missions. Or Nisei, for that matter--thrust into the most hellish of battles while their families are locked up in our own former Guantanmo, the "Internment camps" of Arizona. Call of Duty's still locked into the mythology that D-Day was the holy battle that decided WWII, when every day on the Russian Front and in the Pacific was Normandy. And thus...

Check the comments on Spike Lee on imdb.com and tell me the average white filmgoer "gets" him. Is that is own fault? Yes and no. Spike bought the rights to the deep and bitter sweet and unassuming novel by James McBride, my historical novel role model (since Michener's dead), Miracle at St. Anna. Yes, there's a lot of usual Spike preachyness and heavy-handed allegory...ego, lack of editing. But hey, he's Spike and James was likely so happy to be coopted by Hollywood, well, you know the story. And while Spike's attack on Clint Eastwood vis. Flags of Our Fathers was yet another indication that he's still got his head up his narrow ass, I'll say this time, he had the balls and credibility to back it, primarily because no one has ever addressed this aspect of our history. Yeah, there's a taste here in there in mawkish films like Glory, or underfunded, poorly written and acted (but for Danny Glover) crap like Buffalo Soldiers. White people don't like to viddy this schizophrenia that is America, especially when it comes to African Americans and this nation's wars. Clint touched on it in Flags by showing meek Pullman porters tending to the manufactured celebrities of Mt. Suribachi, and perhaps that what set off Spike's big mouth. Not Clint's intent to be superficial. Hardly. But he could have addressed this stuff as, for example, Spike did deftly (deft isn't often used with regard to Spike, who usually smacks you across the face) with a short scene. 70 year old Hector Negron silently watches John Wayne in the D-Day epic The Longest Day in all the Duke's cheezy patriotic mythic whatever-adjective -your -ass wants to add persona.

But there's vintage Spike in the rest of this film as he tackles these themes: religion as a function of individual sacrifice, redemption, love rather than tribal dogma. The racism of America versus that of the Third Reich. This dude is the only filmmaker in America who can be genius and annoying simultaneously. Yet these themes are reality based. German POWs welcomed in a Southern town's ice cream shop whilst black GIs are threatened at gunpoint, for example. But there are amazing craft points presented which you'd have never thought possible if you're as old as me and remember going to see She's Gotta have It on a Friday date with a silly girl. Lush cinematography. Complex subtitled scenes with Tuscan villagers, Italian partisans, an old strega (an Italian witch) and of course Germans (nice touch using Max Malestesta and Alexandra Maria Lara from my favorite Hitler flick, Downfall...with the beautiful and pouty Alexandra as "Axis Sally," exhorting black soldiers to throw down their guns "and dance," eat fried chicken and greens in her propaganda broadcasts). Things like that. I was impressed. I bet Clint is, so's Spielberg. The contemporary scenes (ca. 1983 per the book's plot) are much better, grittier and tighter (okay--due again to the book's plot) and less pat-syrup than anything from the look-at-the-old-men-as granddads now arcs in Flags or Private Ryan. Okay, maybe the last ten minutes are way to tear-jerking and fake, but hey...

The performances carry the flick when the over the top Spike Lee-ness over- or underwhelms you. Laz Alonso, Derek Luke and about three other dudes ...lord they are channeling Denzel in various persona, at various times in Denzel's career. And that's a good thing. Homage, fune-tuning, not imitation. Ex-Halle Berry beau Michael Ely is amazing. Omar Benson Miller as Train, the "Chocolate Giant" in the horror-addled fantasy of a little Italian boy, is out- Forrest Whittakering Forrest himself. Again I say imitation as homage, not copying, and pantomime, and his is about as close to McBride's vision in the novel as any character's. Yeah, there's Italian T & A (with Ely and buttery-bodied Valentina Cervi getting busy). Some anachronistic language. A view factual lapses (i.e. the 92nd Inf. wasn't a "liberal" experiment but rather the consolidation of venerable Buffalo Soldier regiments dating back to the end of the Civil War; the Germans along the Serchio River were crack parachute troops and panzergrenadiers who're veterans of North Africa, Sicily, even the Russian Front--not mud-humping greenhorn conscripts).

And then there's the 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre. Here Spike shows you just how he's as much as auteur and master as any in our American pantheon of Scorsese, Spielberg, Jewison, Altman et al. Yeah, I said it. Hate him if you must, but give the little devil his due. And I say pantheon because once you remove comedy directors like Judd Aptow and Ben Stiller from the mix (and they are getting annoying too, despite Tropic Thunder), all you have is the rest of the clowns who think they are directing music vidoes or computer games like Tour of Duty. World War Two, at it's most terrible, unfolds in forty seconds as the SS murders babies, children, grandparents. Sorry, angry right wing New York Jews--I'd bet your nemesis Spike could do justice to a gut-wrenching Holocaust film, or something on the 1948 War in Palestine. Hell, maybe remake Exodus...

...but there'd be no Exodus without Paul Newman. And that's the next story...

25 comments:

66mustangwrangler said...

I disagree. I think it was The Longest Day, with African Americans instead of Red Buttons and John Wayne. That is Spike Lee's m.o.

Monica said...

I'll check out Miracle even though I'm not a Spike Lee fan...I hate his portrayal of women.

I thought that you were going to recommend books that you liked?

Christopher Chambers said...

Yep--Song yet Sung by Mr. McBribe. Much better than Miracle, in my opinion.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I know Spike has his issues but what I do respect is that he is a filmmaker. In world filled with hacks, you can tell he loves the art form.

Also his docs, FOUR LITTLE GIRLS and WHEN THE LEEVES BROKE were brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I wish he'd learn how to edit. Not everything needs to be shown or said!!

lincolnperry said...

Yes, I enjoyed Miracle, went to see it instead of the debate on friday. Yes, spike needs to work on the editing, he does better work, when he is producing someone elses screenplay or book. He tries to tell all our stories in one film, we have so much neglected history that he Desperately tries to cover in one film. This could have been actually three films instead of one.
The other problem is....to many of us high minded uppity negroes don't support these films...that this film only made a paltry 3.5mm this weekend. I could have seen this story and film easily co-op by the Cinesate or Italia FHM or another european independent company. But Spike with all his flaws...go it made!
Think Cavemans Valentine...grossed less than Soul Plane, go figure. so I digress and so yeah, I squirm through 2:40 minutes of bad editing, but after seeing Os performance later on that morning. I think Miracle at St Anna was a welcome reprieve!

Ochyming said...

I think it is childish to argue that Spike Lee's joints flaws editing!
It is the same with saying that Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings are all unfinished.
You argument parallels those by crazy feminists that insist that P. Picasso is worthless because he treated women badly.

The name you mentioned as USA masters are perhaps more entertainers than ARTISTs.

In art you take a STAND, you PREACH!
All great Directors WORK, from Alexandro Jorodowsky, A. Kurosawa, Federico Fellinii, Pier Paolo Pasolini to Ingmar Bergman "do" PREACH.
That is because ART becomes an extension of themselves!

The GREAT USA directors [living ones], Lynch, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, and the BEST of them all Matthew Barney do preach!


My problem with Spike is MUSIC, to much music! Any good director can make a movie without the music or sound at all!

But Spike most annoying problem is the same problem you see with MOST Afro-American artists, and it was apparent on his masterpiece Summer of Sam [which editing was SUPERB!], regarding CBGB crowd as with one of your pieces here regarding Ramones and UK music scene, he know very little of the culture outside A-American or USA mainstream.


@Monica

That is A weak argument!
Maybe those women ARE women he really knows, don't you think?
Can anyone portrait correctly EVERY women that ever lived?

lauren said...

When I was at HU for a funeral this past Tuesday,I popped into MS to see some of my old buddies whilst they lunched. I asked them if they had seen this flick, and they said that they hadnt, and that they had only heard bad reviews. I mentioned your review, and your name, (man, folks really know you!) and whilst they were impressed by you...they werent by the flick.

I havent been to the movies in so long, I was going to treat myself to the Tyler Perry flick (my first, cause Im no fan of chitlin circut acting) because it got ok reviews, now that I read about his union-busting activities...I might just have to see the Spike flick instead. Pray for me.

L

lauren said...

GOD DAMMIT, BLOGGER GOT ME UNDER THE WRONG FREAKIN NAME!! GRRRRRR!!!!

L

Ochyming said...

Spike Lee and Miracle at St Anna - New Film Interview by Kam Williams
Via NathanielTurner.Com

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