Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In defense of Spike Lee...sort of.

Spike are you listening? you get a lot of flack from the white community, sometimes self imposed, most often not. This is my attempt to examine the parallels and double standards of race in this business as they relate to your work. Roll tape.

The man is a polarizing figure to most, yet he remains one of our premier filmmakers. The man has an impeccable resume: Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, among many others.
He never told the same story twice, and branched out onto documentary just as successfully. Spike Lee opened the doors for black film, and in the process revolutionized film culture through his convex of racial politics, ideology, and cinematic language. The fact that the progress he has made for African American arts has been devalued by the acceptance of commercialism as a means to an end makes the current state all the more saddening. There was one time where progressive social politics MEANT something to film culture, and Spike was at the forefront of this examination through his work.

I can mention Spike in the same sentence as Woody Allen, Scorsese and Spielberg and not miss a beat. This may sound like a love letter to Spike, no it's an affirmation of his contribution to film culture. A culture that is sadly in decline. Mediocrity is the new cancer, playing it safe at the hands of nothing to offer. How many times have you been to the movies in the last ten years and truly came away inspired and changed?

I remember my first summer in America, the summer of 89'. I lived in the Bronx at the time, and recalled the poster for Do The Right Thing at the local bus stop. I remember looking at that poster, and the characters looking up at me. I didn't understand it at the time, what that image meant to convey. Years later I saw the movie, and that summer vividly replayed among my young eyes. This was my introduction to Spike Lee.

Later in eight grade I bought the screenplay to Do The Right Thing and was more interested in reading that in class than any bullshit they wanted to teach me. I would get lost in the colorful language and the scenes, it was something within me. I saw it as "this is it", this is my calling. Sweet Dick Willie couldn't put it better.

Film is the defining art form of the times, and now more than ever it's in trouble. It's power to move people and inspire their emotions remains the best vehicle of self expression. The language of telling stories has evolved, but storytelling has been impacted, taken a step back to mere technique.

Wanna know what pisses me off? critics. Critics think they know everything when they fucking don't know from A to B. Audiences have changed, and it's harder than ever to engage them when 90% of what they want is just want escapism. That and the driven cost of films has made it harder than ever for a filmmaker like Spike Lee to tell his brand of stories. Lesser filmmakers are handed out bigger budgets (Wes Anderson comes to mind) to craft their idiosyncratic visions, even if his films only play to art school sophisticated hipsters. Everyone has an opinion. Bloggers get down on their knees and suck up to the system in exchange for a free pass. Seems like no one wants to critique work with a balanced view anymore, since intellectual exercise has been replaced by juvenile "youtube" comments. It can be argued that film criticism is dead, packaged, morphed into a popularity game of admiration and bottom floor condescension. No film by any contemporary American filmmaker faces more derision and deviance than a Spike Lee film. Oh folks are equally pissed and entranced at a Spike Lee joint. That's part of what's great and part of what's...sad about our movie going culture. His detractors are usually film critics who take personal issue at his reputation while overlooking his craft at telling a story. When you're as vocal as he is and pigeonholed as the angry black man, no one cares how good your films are. Film criticism has no place anymore, because personal dogma has replaced what used to be known as artistic merit.

The posturing of the "angry black man" is like a curse that haunts every production he makes. Somehow critics, and the audience by large, can't separate the man from his films. I'm afraid this is a reason his films don't do as well commercially as they should because of that. Then again, few filmmakers have cemented a reputation in the public and artistic side like Spike has. There's a sociopolitical identification with his work that engages the audience and makes them asks the same questions his characters live through. His media visibility overshadows that of his films, although in recent times he's learned to be smarter and take a back seat. I argue that because he is black and makes movies about blacks, he gets attacked on those grounds. Well, if 90% of all stories are told from white people's point of view, where's the balance to illicit such strong reaction? people focus on the bullshit and overlook the craft and passion even his less successful movies contain. Sure, his record is hit or miss, but he never plays down the integrity of the story the rules for the sake of dishonesty, something 90% of American films are guilty of doing. Every film he's made could not have been made by anyone else.

Look at an film like The 25th Hour. Very underrated film. It's a story of predominately white people. Any white director could have made that film. What distinguishes it is the insight which informs his best work. The language of new york, the beauty of the characters interactions. In a Spike lee film, people say what often you and I feel about people but don't often express. It could only come from having that unique sensibility. He's had bad films before, but even the bad ones contain elements as good as any.

In a broader spectrum, it can be argued that black film's aim is no longer to shed a light on the African American experience. Capitalism is the new god, so times have changed. I believe art still has a place in this world, even if the bar has been set so low that it has no place to go. Social discourse is solely missing in our cinema. Black cinema embraced the backwards buffoons and racial stereotypes that people take as the construct of our reality. This is what the media wants colored people to represent, evidenced by all the garbage that plays on our screens. The politics of change don't wheel forward unless its from within, and that plays to our fundamental understanding of how we feel about ourselves. The screen is the truth that represents how we are viewed.

Things are changing, with the world becoming more ethnically integrated than ever before. A black man is running for office, and America has come a long way from the days of OJ and Rodney King. Racism still exists, and it always will. The relationship of race and it's discontents are at the heart of his work. However didactic and heavy handed a Spike Lee film can get, the messages they carry are urgent and full of plight. He does not glamorize the trappings of black people, instead offering social commentary on how these trappings bind the black experience in social and cultural struggle. That's anthropology to you and me.

Spike makes what he wants, and he's done more to articulate the race issues that divide this country than anyone with a voice that needs to be heard would. Other black filmmakers chose to glamorize capitalism and materialism as the means to an end for them, that's a cultural shift and a gradual change of the times. Spike's integrity permits him to focus on the black experience instead of the stereotype.

What Spike has accomplished for black film, and for film in general, should not be understated. This is a town that paints in the same color, and excludes everyone else.

Anyone remember driving miss daisy? that film won an Oscar the same year Do The Right Thing was released. Do The Right Thing remains a benchmark film, and didn't even get a best picture nomination. Same could be said for Malcolm X, both remain his best movies to date.

This is where the praise ends, and the subject begins.

I've read the definitive book on Spike (That's my story and I'm sticking to it). It's a remarkable read, and one of the most honest studies of an artist I've read. To understand his work one must understand the man who made them, and the book paints the nuances in a satisfying light. As the book notes, Spike is a man whose complexity far justifies the intentions behind his artistry. He is a bit of an asshole, and self serving, specially to his collaborators. Then again which filmmaker isn't self serving? it's in their DNA. I would not have written this article without gathering an understand of his work. I revisit his films with inspiration and a point of view.

To make the long story conclude, I respect Spike Lee as a filmmaker and think he's great. Call him a racist or a bad filmmaker if you must, but don't deny he's a fucking great storyteller. Even I sometimes disagree with his methodology, but always enjoy the film.

Keep doing what you're doing, Spike. Fuck the establishment, it will never change.

Do the right thing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cut it within an inch of it's life, Fincher.

I love David Fincher's films, except for Zodiac. The man is a genius, no pun intended.

But I also beleive that long doesn't necessarily mean better, and incline towards a streamlined approach in what I'm watching. You see, I'm a film editor, so naturally this topic is right up my alley.

Some films are just too long. I've seen movies that are three hours (Casino comes to mind) that fly faster than anything under 94 minutes, either because they're so engaging that you're glued or fascinating in the way the story is told. Hitchcock said it best to consider your film's running time by genre expectations, audience expectation, and their bowel movements.

Everyone has a bowel, not every filmmaker is successful at telling a story. If they where, every film would be a masterpiece.

The bigger the filmmaker, the longer the film. There's examples of this in every good filmmaker, Spike Lee, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson come to mind.

That's the cliche. Good directors know how well a film will play to the audience because they command the language to engage their senses before they even edit it. Good directors stage their scenes with maximum efficiency instead of shooting the shit out of it till something good pops out. The only one who's above all this is teh late, great Stanley Kubrick. His films where long, but every edit was perfect. Others work differently and rely on an editor's sanity to rescue their story from total incoherence. Action films don't subject to this formula, as coherence is not a basis for engagement. An hackeyed action film such as The Bourne Supremacy ends up Winnin the editing Oscar versus measured and seamless pieces like Children Of Men. This goes to prove that you don't need to be up there to know that idiots run the show.

Remember the days of Oliver Stone? he's a reason film editors exist...often at the mercy of the director. If form follows function, good editing is the chess game of intentions.

The secret goal of a film editor is to bring in a film fat free, to trim away all the directorial excess and keep the story told as lean as possible while maintaining the vision of that story. Easier said than done, it takes a lot of skill to do this. During this time, questions are asked, accidents happen, and films are shaped in ways that resemble the script, or radically depart from it. What is essential is how efficient can a story be told without disrupting it's emotional core? that's a director's job ideally. A questioned later answered at the bay...or at the script stage. So many directors don't understand editing, and watching even great movies made by even great filmmakers narrative leaks and edits exist. Every cut is a decision made in the service of telling that story.

Even one frame can make a difference whether a film drags or feels just right, but only people that do what I do notice that. We're the gods between the details.

David Fincher, top 5 greatest Director alive, has been in a locked battle over the lenght of his new 175 million epic, Benjamin Button. The film stars Brad Pitt as a man who ages backwards. It's the move I look forward to seeing the most this holiday season. Now if you've seen Zodiac and aren't a cinephile, you probably found it as laborious to sit through as I did. That movie is what prompted me to write this blog.

You see, Fincher is uncompromising. This is the man who notoriously has his way with the studios, and makes the films he wants to make. This is his best and worse quality as a filmmaker, but I'm a subscriber to the "lenght is dictated by how you stage it" theory. Quoting Fincher, a movie "makes a pact with it's audience". Every bit of information is informed by every cut. The thematic threads of the story and the context of the emotions are formed by the choice of shots, their staging, the performances, and when and how the edit is applied. Sorta like how your brain engages the intellect, if you possess it.

Zodiac's running time was 158 minutes (162 in the DVD). It is neither a historical epic nor does it contain multiple narrative threads. It is also a story with no resolution, given that it's based on the case of the Zodiac which was never solved.

Fincher had final cut in the film, which means after a studio mandated lenght all the creative decisions are his. When you have millions invested in a property, wouldn't you also want your investment to play to as broader an audience as possible? this is the argument that underlines film vs movies, art vs commerce. The both are not mutually exclusive because they must join in order to exist. Back to the movie.

Now, 158 minutes is a lot of time to devote to a movie without a clear resolution. This to me is the main reason why the movie failed at the box office. The movie just lacks momentum, and this is informed by the way Fincher chose to tell the story. Out of my experience with my own work and working with someone else, I often have an internal discussion about how it's playing. I structure the footage six ways to sunday until every single creative avenue has been explored, and the end result is the connective end of all these roads. Reports from a 20 minute preview point out the obvious, that the film poses a challenge to mainstream audiences accustomed to having everything fed to them at a steady pace. Fincher's contract with Paramount (and Warner Bros) gives him final cut at 2 1/2 hours. It was reported that the film irks closer to three hours, and the studio demands more cuts to keep it under 2 1/2. Judging by the trailer, it's a sweeping epic which covers a man's entire lifeline, hence the lenght might be necessary to tell that kind of story. If the movie resembles the pacing of Zodiac in any way, audiences are in for a rude awakening. Bring plenty of coffee, because great films can be ruined by poor pacing. Ever told someone a story and before you got to it they just want to know what happened? audiences are conditioned to read a film this way, because most entertainment is designed this way. Hollywood films are escapist entertainment, but Fincher's films toe the line between art and commerce more successfully without compromising either. Every one of his films are made within an inch of their life, save for Zodiac and his Alien movie (that one doesn't count).

Does the article FEEL long? that's the whole purpose. If it feels long, then it must be long. But is it necessary to tell the story? only time will tell. This is the longest I've had to write to say so little, could it be told by anyone else?

Cut it within an inch of it's life, Fincher, don't let the scenes go on too long.

Trailer for Brad Pitt as an old man below:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Off topic: Gay rights vs Immigrant reform.

Today I got into an interesting discussion with fellow thespians at IMDB regarding Stephen Spielberg's contribution to help strike down Proposition 8 in California.

The news led me to examine the cause, and add a few opinions to the topic at hand.

It beleive it is a worthy cause to contribute to equal rights, and I support gay marriage.

But I also beleive this country, and the world for that matter, has deeper problems than solidifying Gay equality. Being Gay is a lifestyle choice, not a legal matter. Racism still exists, and so does the cancer of ignorance. Inner city children, for example, could use that money Spielberg donated to build after school facilities or donate a film program helping those who want to be filmmakers and are underprivileged. I suppose the donation was at the urge of his fellow friends who asked for a drop in the bucked to help their cause. Gay people have come a long way, and I think their intergration to society will one day become permanent if that say hasn't already arrived. I wish for that, but I also wish that immigrantion was reformed, and that powerful people like Spielberg will also focus their attention to giving minorities opportunities to level the field. Bill Gates is a good example of this, and has dedicated his wealth to further education. That to me is more important than the Gay agenda. Children and immigrants are the future of this country, whether you agree with me or not.

Don't know what part of the country you live at, but it is likely that the people who cook your food at your local restaurant works illegally because he / she cannot become an American citizen unless they marry one. One is not more important than the other, but they are all the root of the problem. A question of priority over social advancement. People who are illegal immigrants do the jobs you and I won't do, and should have the same rights accorded to them that any law abiding citizen should. Yet they will not be able to advance that way due to the roadblocks of immigration. Gays in America don't have this problem. Subject to persecution and discrimination happens to anybody, as does reverse racism. The world has become ethnically integrated, and that pisses some people who don't embrace change.

America is the only place in the world where all cultures and ethnicities can prosper, yet I am not satisfied with what this means because the laws don't often work in this favor. Because it's all on paper and statistics are futile. Everyone does and should have their right to accord, yet it's not that simple.

I also don't think if McCain and Plain get elected they will change anything. Legislation for Gay marriage is a state by state basis, as is Roe vs Wade a supreme court one. Ten years ago being Gay was still socially Taboo in the majority of the world, specifically in America. A lot has been done since then, but still don't know quite what to do with the increase in ethnic population. I don't claim to have all the answers neither do I think I'm right. I just think immigration reform has more gravity than Gay rights, because Gay rights are not the rights of equality if being Gay is a lifestyle of choice. The needs of children are way more important than the rights of alternate lifestyles that are an accepted part of society. That is a generalization, but necessary to state it.

What this country does is constantly turn a deaf ear on immigration plea, yet welcomes the workforce that they provide.

What I think we as citizens need to ask ourselves is: What is the meaning of change, and how do we relate to a world that's constantly being changed by opposing forces?

Any time a discussion involving Gay rights come up it's sure to be a divisive one. The same goes if discussing if Hasidic Jews prefer their own and exclude minorities is considered Anti semitic. Being Gay is neither an ethnicity nor a racial group, like many classify themselves as such. People classify everything as the hate speech bandwagon so easily these days once any critical questioning falls on the table. What is missing in this social discourse are the meaning behind social agendas, and offering no ideas to moderate it is not a ticket to discussing it. The sanction of marriage and what it entails should not be limited only by what god says, but that's another discussion.

But if you ask me, I'll tell you that immigration reform has more gravity than Gay rights.

It is more relevant to the future of this country at this time. I wish Spielberg made that donation towards helping people that clean his toilet instead of those who don't need it. Statement concluded.