Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Talk with Spike Lee

This is a reprint of my interview with Spike Lee, printed in the Georgia State University's newspaper The Signal (as part of their features section Tuesday Magazine) on February 9, 1988. The interview was part of a promotional tour for Mr. Lee's then-new film School Daze, which was filmed in Atlanta, GA. The interview itself was conducted on a cold January day in a suite at Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton. 

Those who expect Spike Lee to be like Mars Blackmon, the affably clownish character he played in his directorial debut She's Gotta Have It, would be in for a jolt were they to come face to face with him. In reality, Lee is a reserved man on the sharp edge of cool. He makes few jokes and the laughs he does reach for come not from snappy one-liners, but from organic facial expressions, personal swagger and, occasionally, a juicy slang word.

Not that the 30-year-old Lee is sedate; he is simply considerate--a thinker. He sits back and lets ideas wash over him. If he doesn't agree, he'll speak his mind, but without raising his measured voice. He's shrewd enough to know that the first man who raises his voice has already lost the argument. He was also shrewd enough to realize, back in 1984 that, where black people were concerned, there was a bottomless void in the film industry. With few exceptions, their stories were not being told on cinema screens.

A year after he had graduated from New York University with his master's degree in film and a Student Academy Award for his thesis short film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee began to get antsy--he hadn't picked up a camera for months. So he cranked up the gears and began courting financiers for one of the two screenplays he'd written. When plans fell through for Messenger, a film about a Brooklyn bike courier's family life (possibly his next project), Spike Lee started over, swallowing the bitter hurt along with the weeks of intense rehearsal time he and his cast had spent on the movie.

Next time around, he penned a script he thought might be more appealing to investors--one that dealt with sex and the crippling double standard men place on women in that realm. That film, She's Gotta Have It, took six months to write. During that time, Lee was obsessed with getting the $175,000 he needed to complete the film. "It was a struggle trying to raise the money," Lee says. "I always had a lot of people telling me I could never do it, so I had to keep myself pumped up all the time." With a great deal of help from a number of New York arts councils and Island Films, the company that distributed the completed picture, Lee put the final touches on She's Gotta Have It on his 29th  birthday. That same day, he was invited to Director's Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was given the prize for Best New Director.

Now Spike Lee has finished his second feature, a musical comedy-drama titled School Daze. Shot entirely on the campuses of Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Clark College, and Lee's own alma mater, Morehouse College (where he graduated with a degree in mass communications), the movie follows an ensemble of black students through homecoming weekend at the fictional Southern black institution called Mission College. Lee has no problem admitting the autobiographical nature of the film, which he wrote right after leaving NYU. "School Daze is my four years at Morehouse in a two-hour film. But the film is not really about Morehouse as much as the whole college experience."

Fraternities and sororities are part of that experience but Lee's portrayal of Greeks in School Daze is far from adoring. In the film, Lee plays Half-Pint, a scrawny Gamma Phi Gamma pledge who is made to endure a slate of degrading humiliations before being accepted by the Gammas and their leader, Julian "Big Brother Almighty" Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito). Through this probing, Lee gets to vent his ill feelings about the Greek system. "The whole concept and meaning of fraternities--I'm talking specifically about black fraternities because that's what I know--has been corrupted over the years. I mean, what do fraternities do? These people, they're full of shit. Y'know, they say they're supposed to do all this community work. My experience is, the only community work they ever do is they might collect a couple of cans at Thanksgiving. And that was it." The filmmaker doesn't even agree with the conviction--at least, not in principle--that fraternities give certain social advantages to those who pledge. "I think a person's gonna have to try to find in themselves the things that will make them a better person and not go looking in a an organization or another person. I mean, you think because now you're wearing purple and gold because you're an Omega or black and gold because you're an Alpha or red and white because you're a Kappa, all of a sudden you're a better person? That's a fuckin' lie."

In spite of his innate feelings towards the Greeks, Spike Lee (who, of course, never pledged a fraternity) made a concerted effort to be fair in the film. He even went so far as to hire what's billed as a "Fraternity Life Technical Advisor” ("His name is Zelmer Bothic III--Z-Dog," Lee says, smiling. "We had a mass communications class together at Morehouse and I remember him not being able to sit down in class because he had hemorrhoids from all the paddlings. He also has twelve Omega brands on his body.") Clearly, to Lee's thinking, the attempts at even-handedness panned out. In fact, the director thinks his treatment of the Greeks in School Daze might even be a bit lenient. "There was a lot of stuff we put in this film about the nasty stuff they do, but we left it out. You got guys tying other guys up to chairs and pushing them down stairs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that shit's crazy."

But while part of the controversy surrounding School Daze is directed towards the film's anti-frat attitude, the more potent portion of criticism will probably be pointed towards Lee's exploration of the differences that separate blacks from other blacks--those of a financial, class-based, educational or political nature. And, yes, it's the internal schisms related to skin color that will most likely inform white audiences and inflame black ones. Lee wrote two rival groups into the film: the Greek-oriented, blue-eyed, light-skinned blacks called the Wannabees, and the independent, nappy-headed, dark-skinned blacks called the Jigaboos. The former represents the black person's striving for success in a predominantly white world, even if that success means giving up authentic beliefs and background. The latter reflects the mirror image of that attitude: the retaining of the black heritage, even at the expense of mad economic success. Lee kept the actors playing the Wannabees and the Jigaboos in separate hotels during filming “so they wouldn't get chummy with each other." The tactic worked; an on-screen fight between the two factions was totally spontaneous.

Perhaps the film's most amazing feature is its refusal to take sides, regardless of its subject matter and the strong opinions of the man behind the camera. Lee, however, says that he, himself, does take sides. "I just don't put it up on screen. I don't hate anybody, either." Still, he believes that School Daze is going to upset a lot of black people. "We touch on taboo things that a lot of people think shouldn't be discussed, especially not in a film for the whole world to see."

That, in fact, is exactly the attitude that the Atlanta University Center administration took when they decided to bar Lee from filming on campus a few weeks after production had begun. The now-retired president of Morehouse, Hugh Gloster, had heard rumblings that the film was derogatory towards black colleges and contained, as Lee says he called it, "the M-F word." Gloster called Lee into his office and delivered an ultimatum: either he let him read the script or risk being thrown off the campus. Lee, thinking it would be futile to let Gloster judge his screenplay, refused. The production promptly ground to a halt long enough for a shift to Atlanta University, which was the only campus that had signed a location agreement. Lee says that the decision hurt him "but only for a minute." He then had to get down to the nagging business of finishing the film. Months later, he regards the decision with a mixture of humor and puzzled anger. "What they really wanted me to do was a documentary about black colleges that would have no cursing, no sex, students who look like they just walked out of Mademoiselle and GQ, talking very proper. That's not the school life. President Gloster really showed me how much he was out of touch with reality and with his students for him to think that students don't curse. And to think that parents wouldn't send their children to Morehouse just because they heard “motherfucker” in School Daze! I don't understand that kind of thinking. It's backwards."

At present, Spike Lee is trying to build up a new relationship with the AU Center's faculty. Nonetheless, he still harbors ill feelings towards many administration officials. "The woman who was acting president of Spelman last year was so ignorant, she wouldn't let us set foot on Spelman's campus. She hadn't even seen She's Gotta Have It 'cause people told her it was pornographic.” Even the students at AU Center now incur Lee's wrath. "They're asleep, for the most part. They didn't say nothin'. When I went there, if a young black filmmaker would've come to Morehouse and the administration shut them out, we would've had a fit. But people were a lot more active then. Right now, it's just about graduating, getting a corporate job, getting an M.B.A., a BMW, and making $35,000 a year."

Spike Lee carted School Daze to Columbia Pictures during producer David Putnam's short but productive reign as its chairman. Independent outfit Island Pictures was originally set to finance and distribute the film, but the financially-troubled company pulled out when budget estimates for the film zoomed towards $6 million. In his move to the Columbia roster, Lee brought with him two of his longtime collaborators, photographer Ernest Dickerson and jazz artist Bill Lee, who also happens to be Spike's father and, by admission, one of his top influences (Spike Lee doesn't acknowledge any filmmaking mentors, though he does admire Martin Scorsese's style). Lee is quite adamant, but still realistic, about his relationship with both artists. "I've done small stuff without Ernest," he says, "but I'd be very leery to do a feature film without him. We were classmates at NYU and, since we met, he's shot all my stuff, plus Brother From Another Planet and Raw. He's a fine cinematographer. Now, my father I want to use as much as I can, but there's going to be times where the type of music that he does best won't be the right music for that film. He's a jazz purist. He won't do any kind of electronic or rap music at all." It's Bill Lee who provides most of the music for his son's newest movie, including the exuberant songs that are performed by the young cast (although the movie's hit party song "Da Butt" is not an example of his work--that spirited number was penned and performed by Experience Unlimited, aka EU).

Spike also brought to School Daze an energetic cast, divided evenly between veteran actors--like Ossie Davis, Art Evans, Samuel Jackson, Joe Seneca, and Larry Fishburne--and newly minted performers. Lee was especially eager to work closely with his actors. The 15-day shooting schedule for She's Gotta Have It was usurped with technical problems, so time spent with the cast was strikingly limited. As a result, Lee thinks the acting in that film was "a little shaky in spots." Now, with the luxuries of Columbia's time and money, Lee was finally able to bear down on directing his actors. That explains his enthusiasm for the performances in School Daze. "I don't think there's a weak one in the movie."

Since he's currently filling that abyss-like lack of black-oriented movies, Lee is naturally more concerned with how this movie is going to hit black audiences. For years, he's been disgusted at the treatment black stories have gotten from white writers and filmmakers (one of his most abhored  targets has been Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, with Richard Attenborough's Stephen Biko biopic Cry Freedom standing as a new offender). Yet, Lee still speaks encouragingly when advising white screenwriters or directors on making films about black people.

"I think the number one dilemma that a lot of filmmakers have to face is the fact that you shouldn't write or make a film about something you don't know. If you know the subject and you know the people, go ahead and do it. And if you don't know about it, learn all that you can. That knowledge will be exemplified in the work. But if you don't know it, black audiences just sit there and go 'Black people don't speak like that'--'Get off my back, you jive turkey.' You hear dialogue like that, you know no black person wrote that. Just be truthful and you'll be all right."

Even though whites often achieve accurate portrayals of blacks in films, Lee says that often the converse of that statement is not true. "I think every black person is qualified to talk about white people because that's all you see all your life—in television, movies, commercials--everything. Yet you really can't say the same thing goes the other way around." Lee says he's considered doing a film dealing exclusively with white people, but that the right script has not come along yet.

But the black audience, and black stories, are still Spike Lee's main focus. He walks the high wire hoisted between activism and dispassionate observance. That's the limbo he's been caught in ever since he first rampaged onto the cinema scene two years ago. It's also an attitude with which he's soaked every frame of School Daze. He's hoping that that attitude will payoff when audiences of any racial background leave the stunning final scenes of his new film. "I think there's going to be a lot of conversation about the film, pro and con, which is good. Today, there's an awful lot of films, you sit there for 90 minutes or two hours, and it might even be a good film and you might laugh, but it's so generic that five minutes later you don't even remember what you just sat through. If you can make a film that raises some issues and gets people to talking, then you've done all you can do."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Film #174: The Fountain

A dialogue:

FUTURE ME: Why are we doing this? I have work to do.

PRESENT ME: Well, I called you two here to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

PAST ME: One of my favorites.

FUTURE ME: Oh, I was so young in 2006. Not even forty. I was really into anything kind of trippy and obscure.

PAST ME: How did I get so cynical in my old age?

FUTURE ME: Hey, I still like it, but I don’t ever need to see it again. I stopped watching movies I’ve already seen years ago.


PRESENT ME: That’s kind of where I’m at now. I think I’m starting to agree with Pauline Kael that watching movies even a second time clues you into their tricks and faults. Only the best ones escape this. This probably means I’ve been watching too many movies.

PAST ME: I can’t see many faults in this one. I saw it on the big screen twice and it stunned me with its boldness and beauty. There’s really nothing like it.

PRESENT ME: The Fountain works most effectively on the big screen, I agree. But there’s a reason for there being nothing like it—it’s a sentimental mess, though occasionally moving. And a box office bomb–way too inquisitive and slow for the masses, even if it’s only 90 minutes long. But it’s brave and beautiful nevertheless.

PAST ME: I love it. It just hits me, and fascinates me. And there’s part of me that sees it as Aronofsky’s effusive love letter to his wife, Rachel Weisz, whom he clearly adores. Just look at all those loving close-ups.

PRESENT ME: They’re divorced now. She remarried James Bond—Daniel Craig.

PAST ME: Aww, that sucks. Man, where’s the love? And I can’t believe Daniel Craig is James Bond now. Weird choice.

FUTURE ME: You should see who’s playing Bond now—Benedict Cumberbatch.

PAST ME: Cumberwhat?

PRESENT ME: Guys, guys…back on point. I still find the conquistador segment of the story transfixing, and the future bubble, with the Tree of Life being sent up into a golden nebula, remains a helluva image.

FUTURE ME: We still don’t have any flying bubbles, but we did finally get the Hoverboard down.

PAST ME: So it’s the present day story, with Hugh Jackman trying to save his wife from cancer that you don’t like?

PRESENT ME: Yeah, that part—which takes up most of the film—feels stiff, soapy and badly acted, even with the post-Requiem for a Dream gift of a supporting role for Ellen Burstyn.

FUTURE ME: Requiem for a Dream. Now that still works. And I DEFINITELY don’t need to see that one again. I’m depressed enough.

PRESENT ME: I get ya on that. But, yeah, I do like how the film is a melding of the three time periods, as if they’re conferring with one another. Do you think the Jackman and Weisz characters are all the same person, only reborn in different bodies?

FUTURE ME: It would seem in keeping with the spiritually transcendent feel of the whole thing. Sometimes it feels a bit overwrought, this aspect of it.

PRESENT ME: When you look back on Aronofsky’s career, there does seem to be copious soul searching throughout. I get the impression he’s ingested a lot of drugs in order to find his spiritual center.

PAST ME: A friend I saw it with the second time said the director has obviously done a lot of DMT, evidenced by the very end, which he said is a pretty fair approximation of that drug’s effects. And I know from another friend Aronofsky’s looking to buy land in Costa Rica. That should tell you something.

PRESENT ME: I’m sorta glad I haven’t hung out with those friends in years. They were fascinating back then, but it was frustrating trying to keep up with their insane babblings. But, yeah, with Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Noah (which was his dream project, amazingly enough), Aronofsky does strike me now as a sideways religious proselytizer.

PAST ME: He did a movie about Noah? Noah’s ark Noah?

PRESENT ME: Yes. Don’t watch it. It has big tree monsters or something in it. They’re introduced about two minutes in, and that’s when I cut it off. I think the drugs have finally gotten to him.

PAST ME: Thanks for the warning.

FUTURE ME: It’ll definitely be the Aronofsky movie you’ll be glad not to see. It’s a real shame. He’s doing heavy metal Christian music videos now.

PRESENT ME: Anyway, I wouldn’t want to fix The Fountain. It’s a movie Aronofsky fought hard to make, although I understand it started off a great deal differently, with Brad Pitt attached as star in an action-packed Matrix-y kick-ass-fest. Pitt still acted as a producer on The Fountain.

PAST ME: I definitely prefer Pitt as an actor over Jackman, who I think works here best as the bearded Spanish conquistador, devoted to his queen and to the quest for the Tree of Life. I’ve just never been able to connect with Jackman as a movie actor, although Aronofsky did a good job of making him look radically different in each episode here.

FUTURE ME: Jackman’s much more charming on the stage. He’s a song-and-dance man. He’s won two Tonys (for musicals) in the past twenty years. No singing and dancing here, though. By the way, why was it that the Tree of Life was needed to save Spain?

PRESENT ME: It’s a little murky, but it has something to do with vanquishing the evil Crusaders who, with their fundamentalism, were destroying the fabric of the country and the world. More to the point, it’s because the queen said it was necessary.

FUTURE ME: I guess Aronofsky made that fairly clear, now that I think about it. But it wasn’t very compelling from a plotting standpoint.

PRESENT ME: No, but I accepted it without much complaint. That section of the film is pretty gorgeous and constantly thrilling. When we switch back to it, I still feel myself prickling up excitedly. The acting style here just seems to suit that setting, and on an art direction and costuming level, I think it’s really sumptuous.

FUTURE ME: But the Matthew Libatique photography is a little dark, no?

PAST ME: It’s a dark film in general. But I like Libatique.

PRESENT ME: He’s at his best with Aronofsky–bet you can’t name one movie he’s done without him (Black Swan is a notable Aronofsky collaboration). I do love the way key shots are centered in a way that recalls religious iconography. Some of the work reminds me of Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, only tinted to a greater degree. However, the play between dark and light struck me sometimes as a visual cliché. I mean, is there any reason to have the surgery rooms lit like Don Corleone’s office?

FUTURE ME: Exactly. That was absurd.

PAST ME: I just though it looked neat. But maybe you’re right. I loved the twin shots of Jackman’s breath blowing against the hairs on Weisz’s neck and then onto the tree’s fuzzy trunk. That was immensely effective. You know, I think I’m compelled by that middle story just because I’m a goofy romantic.

FUTURE ME: How’s that gone for ya?

PAST ME: Not so well, I’m afraid.

PRESENT ME: Yeah, it’s been a hard road.

FUTURE ME: Uh-huh. Look, I can accept the darkness in the Spanish segment, particularly, because it’s contextually correct, and plus it adds to the menace inherit in that third of the story. It works, too, in the future section of the piece, because outer space is the setting. But, man, I can hardly remember now the “present day” part of the movie, except that it felt like an overly-intellectual Love Story to me, and that I became impatient with. 

PRESENT ME: Yes. Okay, two things I think we all can agree on: The visual effects have a wonderfully hand-crafted quality to them. I mean, I’m sure much CGI is used here, but Aronofsky and his team managed to conceal most traces of it. The future sequence is consistently brilliant, with its smoky, painterly travels through the ether and the odd sight of the live action backed in such a surreal manner.

PAST ME: This is true. Great effects, and also I should mention the terrific editing–it’s an economical movie in length, and it hops to and from each segment in inventive fashions. As to the computer involvement in the visuals, there are moments, approaching the nebula, that feel like we’re entering a CGI vagina. I dunno…maybe that’s a point Aronofsky was conveying there.

FUTURE ME: Yeah, and I suppose the tree is a kind of phallic stand-in. It’s a movie also concerned with the connection between sex and death, without being a very sexy piece (though there’s that rather chaste bathtub scene). I don’t think it knows what it’s saying here, beyond the “Road to Awe” theme that’s repeated throughout (by the menacing, opulent gatekeeper guarding the way to the Tree of Life, and then by Izzy, Rachel Weisz’s sickly present day character). I guess we can just leave it at that—both sex and death are the road to awe. The little death and all of that…

PRESENT ME: And is she named Izzy because she is the character that’s IS who she IS? That somehow she’s the character in the movie that most embraces her present? I mean, I know she gloms onto death gallantly and everything, but I think they fell down on that. She didn’t seem particularly special to me, even while throwing snowballs and romping around in the bedroom with her once-long hair. The film is radically humorless. 2001 has more laughs. The writing needed a little beefing up, I’d counsel.

PAST ME: That’s kind of cruel, but I guess you’re correct—Aronofsky didn’t rely on much beyond her sumptuous face and curious nature to illustrate her luminosity. Another point, getting back to the sex thing–not to get too gooey on the subject–but is there something there in the creamy white juice that Jackman’s conquistador wrings out of the tree?

FUTURE ME: Yeah, that’s there, but can we please not talk about it?

PRESENT ME: I do have to say, I find the climax to that story—and please excuse me for using that word—to be the most surprising moment in the film. It’s the moment we were waiting for—the confrontation with the Tree of Life, the film’s most mysterious character–and it leaves us shocked and breathless.

PAST ME: I agree.

FUTURE ME: Yep. Though I noticed they were careful in keeping that gunk away from Jackman’s beard.

PRESENT ME: Eww, you’re right. Moving on…

PAST ME: I bet the other thing you were going to mention is Clint Mansell’s score.

PRESENT ME: Exactly. It’s a wonder, just like his score for Requiem for a Dream, which was a masterpiece.

FUTURE ME: Yes, that’s the element of the film that’s beyond reproach. It completes its most important work.

PAST ME: It feels like a character unto itself.

PRESENT ME: That’s probably the best thing one can say about a score to a movie, though in some instances, it can be the worst.

FUTURE ME: Not here. It’s superb.

PRESENT ME: Okay, well, that was quick. One question, since we are gathered to talk about The Fountain while in the realm of science-fiction: Is this a science-fiction film?

PAST ME: That’s interesting. It strikes me more of a fantasy piece, but science does certainly play a role in it.

FUTURE ME: Believe me, there is no real science in it. It’s all a matter of the heart. As you get older, you find yourself faced with death often—the deaths of those you love personally, and the deaths of those you’ve never even met but to whom you were close to anyway. And you find yourself wanting to find a way to stave all that death off. But you can’t. We’re mortal. It’s something we have to live with. The idea of a cure to it, or some magic potion, increasingly escapes you, just as it escapes all the characters in this film. But I suspect—and I say this because I’ve never been in real love, except with my cats, which is not the same thing—the injection of deep emotion into the equation complicates things grandly. In the end, it’s a science-fiction film only by default of our own limited pigeon-holing of creative works into stifling categories, mostly for salable purpose. I mean, it’s got space travel and microscopes and telescopes in it and everything, so it’s science fiction, I guess.

PRESENT ME: So what does The Fountain have to say about death and life and sex?

FUTURE ME: I don’t see it as a movie about sex except peripherally. But on life and death, I think it states its case very clearly: There’s nothing we can do about anything but press on. Love doesn’t enter into it, except that it makes life’s inevitable conclusions that much more painful and yet transcendent.

PAST ME: It’s tough going, but I can accept that. What choice do I have?

FUTURE ME: No choice at all.

PRESENT ME: Okay. Well, it’s a thrilling movie to look at and consider, at least.

PAST ME: It makes us think, definitely.

PRESENT ME: That's good enough for me. 

FUTURE ME: Gotta get back to work. Are we done?