Tag Archives: Spike Lee

Dream projects: Spike Lee

The idea here is to pick a work of literature just waiting to be filmed, and pick the filmmaker who should do it. The first pick was David Cronenberg for a Junichiro Tanizaki novella. Today’s pick is . . .

SPIKE LEE: Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, by Charles Mingus.

“Stormy” is a word frequently used to describe jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979); it also applies to his 1971 stream-of-consciousness memoir, which is literary equivalent to one of his more ambitious compositions. Just as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” alternates swinging passages of hard bop with chaotic free jazz interludes, Beneath the Underdog staggers through long rants and digressions, sometimes alternating passages of brilliant clarity with tedious accounts of sexual exploits and random digressions. As a factual account of a man’s life, Beneath the Underdog is at best dubious, but as a record of the thoughts and preoccupations of one of America’s greatest composers, it’s fascinating.

I don’t think a direct film adaptation of Beneath the Underdog is possible or even advisable, but the book would be a fine springboard for a biographical Beneath the Underdogfilm about the man. After training up in the Forties with touring groups under Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory in the Forties, Mingus emerged as a bandleader in the Fifties, forming a very loose, ever-shifting collection of musicians he called the Jazz Workshop. His career bridged the commercial decline of the big jazz bands and the rise of the boppers, just as his life spanned the overwhelming transformations of the civil rights era.  As Brian Priestley notes in his 1982 critical biography (still the best and most reliable work on the composer), Mingus was part of “the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.” His rage over the slights dealt to him as a black man, combined with his readiness to joust with record companies and the music industry at large, often made Mingus a menace to his own career, as when he blew his chance to play in the orchestra of his composing idol, Duke Ellington. The account Mingus gives in Beneath the Underdog is self-serving, but the pain and humiliation of the setback is all there on the page:

This is the hero and this is the band you don’t quit, but this time you’re asked to leave because of an incident with a trombone player and arranger named Juan Tizol. Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways that he is different is that HE IS WHITE. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room and proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.

“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me — you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile — I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play bu instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously — he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles — I’ve never fired anybody — you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”

The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.

There are at least three reasons why Spike Lee should tackle a film about Charles Mingus. Lee’s filmic biography of Malcolm X is one of his best works, Spike Leeand I’d like to see him return to the jazz milieu he explored in Mo Better Blues.  Most of all, Lee would be unflinching about the ways racism distorted Mingus’ life and career. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird, which offered viewers some comic relief by devoting lots of screen time to Parker’s 1949 tour with Red Rodney — during which Parker presented Rodney, a white man, as “Albino Red” — Lee’s film would be gutsy enough to keep the racial theme as uncomfortable as possible. And there’s no question that the splendor of the composer’s music guarantees a monster of a soundtrack .

Laugh if you will, but I can picture Ice Cube playing Mingus. The rapper is a better actor than he gets credit for — his multilayered performance as Doughboy is the main reason anyone remembers Boyz N The Hood — and his glowering presence is a close match for Mingus at his most forbidding.

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Dream projects: David Cronenberg

Since books and movies are my two most frequently blogged-about subjects, I’m going to spend the next several days combining the two in a semi-meme. More of a challenge than a meme. The point is to identify a work of literature that ought to be made into a film and point to the living director best suited for the job. I invite any and all lit-bloggers and film-bloggers to weigh in with their own choices and let me know so I can link to their posts. I’ve got books in mind for, among others, Spike Lee, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, and Carroll Ballard, but I’m going to get things rolling with a nightmarish dream project, an extreme choice for one of our best and most extreme filmmakers.

DAVID CRONENBERG: The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

In a review of Dead Ringers, a New Yorker critic described David Cronenberg’s storytelling mode as “debonair cruelty.” That’s a pretty Tanizakigood description of Junichiro Tanizaki’s blackly comic 1935 novella about a sixteenth-century Japanese warlord whose feats of valor on the battlefield are rooted in a bizarre erotic obsession  formed when, as a boy, he watched women preparing the severed heads of enemy soldiers taken as trophies in battle. In particular, his fixation centered on a young woman’s enigmatic smile as she prepared a “woman-head” for presentation. In order to experience the rapture of this vision once again, the budding warlord becomes the catalyst for a revenge plot that changes the course of a small, extremely bloody piece of history during the period of Warring States.

Tanizaki’s novella couches this tale in a parody of tediously didactic Confucian history — sort of the Asian version of Parson Weems — that upends the idea of ignoring a hero’s faults and listing only his virtues for moral instruction, and the lecturing tone gets drier and funnier as the exploits get ever more outrageous. Since just about every Tanizaki story except The Makioka Sisters (his best known work outside Japan) hinges on some kind of outre sexual obsession, the author is offering his readers an exceptionally shrewd self-parody as well.

The mingling of beauty, grotesquerie, and cynical humor in The Secret CronenbergHistory of the Lord of Musashi would be right up Cronenberg’s alley. He may have replenished his bank account with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but we’ve already seen how commercial success only whets his appetite for extreme material. This is, after all, the man who followed relatively conventional genre films like The Dead Zone and The Fly with Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, then detoured for a Broadway adaptation (M. Butterfly) before heading right back to the edge with Crash. Watch the bondage scene in Dead Ringers, then imagine how Cronenberg would handle a scene like this:

When Hoshimaru arrived at the attic on the third night, an extraordinary head lay before the girl. It was that of a young samurai of twenty-one or -two, but, strangely, the nose was missing. It was an attractive face. The complexion was wonderfully pale, the freshly shaven places glowed, and the glossy black hair was as splendid as that which draped luxuriously over the girl’s shoulders and down her back. No doubt the warrior had been an extremely handsome man. His eyes and mouth were of classic form and there was a certain delicacy in the firm, well proportioned, masculine features. Had there been a fine, straight nose in the middle, the face would have been the epitome of the young warrior, just as a master dollmaker might conceive it. But, for some reason, the nose was missing, as if it had been sliced off with a sharp blade, bone and all, from the brow to the upper lip. A pug nose might not have been so sorely missed; but one would expect to find a sculpturesque protuberance soaring from the middle of this splendid face. Instead, that vital feature had been cleanly removed, as if scooped off with a spatula, leaving a flat, crimson wound. s a result the face was uglier and more comical than those of ordinary ugly men. The girl carefully ran her comb through the noseless head’s lustrous black hair and retied the topknot; then, as she always did, she gazed at the center of the face, where the nose should have been, and smiled. As usual, the boy was enchanted by her expression, but the surge of emotion he experienced at that moment was far stronger than any he had felt before. Juxtaposed with the mutilated head, the girl’s face glowed with the pride and the joy of the living, the embodiment of flawless beauty. And her smile, precisely because it was so girlish and unaffected, now appeared to be brimming with the most cynical malice, and provided the boy with a wheel on which to spin endless fantasies. He thought he would never tire of gazing at her smiling face. The fantasies it inspired were inexhaustible and, before he was aware of it, had lured his soul away to a land of ambrosial dreams where he himself had become this noseless head and was living with the girl in a world inhabited only by the two of them. This fantasy was very much to his liking. It made him happier than he had ever been before.

I’m imagining Cronenberg’s eye for color and texture at work among the silk robes, polished floors and bloody carnage. I’m also imagining the blend of lushness and austerity Howard Shore could bring to the soundtrack music. Until he broke the bank with The Lord of the Rings, Shore’s best and most challenging work was done for Cronenberg, and he needs another challenge. And I’d like to see the actress who could play Lady Kikyo, the tormented noblewoman whose wish for vengeance allows the hero to realize his deepest wish, and provides a closing tableau that would give the definitive answer to anyone who wondered if Cronenberg could manage to come up with anything wilder than Crash.

ADDENDUM: If Cronenberg doesn’t want the job, second choice would be David Lynch. From Blue Velvet to silk kimonos would be a natural evolution for Lynch.

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Spike’s peak

Do the Right Thing

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. release of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s third and still best film. Watching it again, I found that unlike a lot of other movies I saw in 1989, Do the Right Thing has neither diminished nor grown in my opinion over the course of two decades. What struck me as great and near-great the first time around remained that way; what struck me as crass, shallow and manipulative back then still sticks in my craw today. Its blend of technical brilliance and artistic confusion still crackles and throws off sparks, and the fact that a sippy-cup of Geritol like Driving Miss Daisy was even nominated, much less chosen, for that year’s best picture Oscar is a badge of shame for the academy. “We wuz robbed,” Lee said at the time. He was right. Aside from My Left Foot, none of the other Best Picture nominees deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Do the Right Thing.      

And yet Do the Right Thing might have been designed to illustrate Pauline Kael’s dictum that great movies are seldom perfect movies. Perfect this movie ain’t. All of Lee’s strengths and weaknesses are on display here. The film’s overheated look, carefully and thoroughly worked out with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, is enough to make you break into a sweat no matter what time of the year you’re watching it. The viruoso weave of characters and incidents, in which small resentments and misunderstandings in the pressure-cooker heat of a summer day culminate in a riot that leaves one man dead and the neighborhood even worse off, is as gripping as ever. Lee was rightly knocked for omitting drugs from his sometimes too rosy neighborhood scenario, and the abrupt tonal shifts from realism to theatricality (including the out-of-nowhere homage to The Night of the Hunter delivered by Radio Raheem) were an early warning that Lee was never going to be a filmmaker inclined to self-edit his worst ideas. But this film is alive and kicking from first moment to last.

The casting was and is superlative: breakout performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Robin Harris, Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito; career grace notes from Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; subtle turns from Frankie Faison and Martin Lawrence that returned to nag at the memory when you saw their subsequent work in films or television. Lee’s reliance on vivid actors to fill in his extremely sketchy, one-note characters was already established.

But in terms of its writing, Do the Right Thing is a deeply confused film. Characters act in ways that reflect the director’s needs rather than any internal consistency, so that a man who expresses reluctant admiration for a Korean grocer in one scene leads a mob to burn down the grocery in the next, or an affable local kid suddenly goes on the offensive against the local drunk because Lee needs someone to take him down a couple of pegs. Like Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and Lou Reed’s New York album, Do the Right Thing is a time capsule of the late Eighties: Reagan going out, Bush I coming in, Bernie Goetz, dog whistle politics in full effect while the crack wars were destroying inner city neighborhoods, racist incidents on the rise even as civil rights rhetoric was being used on behalf of obvious frauds like Tawana Brawley. To me, the film’s most emblematic scene comes when the neighborhood’s sole white resident, a herald of gentrification played by John Savage, accidentally jostles Esposito’s Buggin Out and leaves a nearly microscopic scuff mark on his snow-white sneakers. The ensuing comic-menacing confrontation, in which mutual incomprehension leaves each speaker convinced the other is insane, nicely sums up the overheated racial mood of the times.   

It’s a measure of the antagonism in the air that the 1989 release of Do the Right Thing sparked hysterical warnings of ethnic calamity from the likes of Joe Klein.  Lee only added to the confusion by ending the film with paired quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, one eschewing violence, the other endorsing it in terms of “self-defense.” Like many viewers, I wasted far too much time trying to reconcile those quotes with what I’d seen on the screen. The play of events in Do the Right Thing is far too complex to be slotted into either choice. Spike Lee may have thought otherwise — between his tie-in book and the pissing-match interviews he favored at the time, there was no avoiding what he thought — but listening to the art instead of the artist is always the way to go.

So what doesn the art of Do the Right Thing tell us? That the tensions of poverty and racism create an environment in which a petty dispute over the absence of black celebrities on the pizzeria “wall of fame” leads to a deadly brawl. That the instigator of the confrontation is a neurotic clown viewed with a kind of exasperated fondness by the rest of the neighborhood. That an angry mob will turn on any convenient target, appropriate or otherwise, even if it means everyone will be worse off once the smoke clears. That rage over police brutality turns the slain Radio Raheem from an intimidating neighborhood pest into a folk hero literally overnight. That Raheem, while he certainly didn’t deserve his fate, just as certainly contributed to it by trying to kill Sal. 

From all accounts we have Danny Aiello to thank for the nuanced depiction of pizzeria owner Sal. The initial script painted Sal as a redneck plantation overseer, prompting Aiello to demand (and get) changes that allowed us to understand why Sal was determined to remain in Bed-Stuy. One of my biggest problems with the film is that Lee didn’t take those nuances into account for the riot scene, so when the firemen trying to save the burning pizzeria use their hoses to push back the attacking mob, Lee’s attempt to evoke Bull Connor’s thugs spraying down civil-rights marchers is cheap and rather disgusting.       

Do the Right Thing is also inextricably tied in with Public Enemy’s masterpiece, which appears over a dozen times during the film’s action and remains available in unbleeped form (and with a Branford Marsalis sax solo) on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack disc. Frankly, I can’t decide which makes a better video for “Fight the Power” — the opening credits of Do the Right Thing, with Rosie Perez tearing it up . . .

. . . of the official “Fight the Power” video, which Spike Lee also directed:

So far the most interesting Web response I’ve yet seen is over at The Root, which has a package of Do the Right Thing-themed stories: why trying to boycott Sal’s pizza joint was the wrong idea, what has and hasn’t changed in Bed-Stuy over the past two decades, Spike Lee’s astute use of hip hop on the soundtrack, and the irony of the confrontational Do the Right Thing serving as the First Couple’s first serious date movie. There’s also an article and interview by Henry Louis Gates, and a reminder that Lee’s use of women in his movies remains a dodgy matter. I honestly had no idea Rosie Perez was so angry about the way Lee used her in the ice cube scene, which seemed like exactly the kind of bedroom play lovers would try on a swelteringly hot afternoon.

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Blue Monday (Good hair day edition)

This musical number from Spike Lee’s School Daze was the first thing that came to mind when I read this piece about Good Hair,  Chris Rock’s new documentary about the reason the local RiteAid has a mile-long aisle of hair-care products for African-Americans, and this piece about the associations conjured up by Michelle Obama’s straight coif. Maybe it’s time to listen to India Arie:

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Blue Monday

Not an old school blues tune — merely the greatest pop song of the Eighties. Spike Lee directed the video, as you may remember.

One of my fondest concert memories is seeing Public Enemy at the Spectrum, topping a bill of Kid N’Play, Digital Underground, Heavy D and, of course, P.E. The SWs were all togged out in white Navy dress uniforms. Chuck D marched out onto the stage and everyone in the hockey barn started shouting out the lyrics to “Welcome to the Terrordome” as he rapped. Quite a show.   

The “authorized” history of Public Enemy, Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, is already out in the U.K., with an American edition slated for March. The reviews overseas have been lukewarm, but I’m still interested. In the late 1980 and early 1990s, hip-hop was virtually the only pop music I listened to, until the rise of gangsta rap, and P.E. was one of the genre’s prime movers.

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