Screening Room: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was released in 1992, stands extremely tall eighteen years later. Lee’s near-masterpiece remains the finest depiction of how a great American figure becomes radicalized.

Re-watching the movie, it’s remarkable how some of the old weaknesses have become strengths. During the opening title sequence, for example, Lee makes the heavy-handed choice of intercutting the infamous footage of Rodney King being horribly beaten by LAPD officers. In his DVD commentary, Lee says that this was his way of showing the audience that the things Malcolm was saying in his (which is to say, Denzel Washington’s) voiceover were still just as relevant. At the time, audiences and most critics felt this was beyond heavy-handed. Lee was not only spoiling the illusion right at the opening of his film, but he was also (in his way, however well-intentioned) exploiting the plight of Rodney King and the aftermath that engulfed Los Angeles.

Eighteen years later, that choice looks more elegant. While Lee’s work of the 21st century has evolved into far more subtle brushstrokes, his early work is more powerful now than it was when it originally hit screens. When we watch the opening sequence now, in 2010, we’re forced to place both the life of Malcolm and Rodney King in historical context. Both are now matters of “archival” footage. And we also ponder the fact that the young and ambitious Lee lobbied to direct the film, which had been a Norman Jewison vehicle (and it never would have occurred to Jewison, we think to ourselves, to use the Rodney King footage). We think about how Lee, desperate to save the way-over-budget project, reached out to prominent Black-Americans for help, acquiring funds from Bill Cosby, Magic Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, and others. We also realize, now more than ever, that Lee made the right choice in overhauling James Baldwin’s original screenplay (which had for years been one of the most famous passed-on scripts in Hollywood history). Baldwin’s original screenplay lacked the scope that Lee desired: the film, at over three hours in length, resembles more the work of Lean than Cassavettes.

Denzel Washington’s performance lends believability to the film’s main character. It is during the film’s first two acts—before Malcolm converts to Islam in jail and is radicalized—that Washington’s performance works its magic. There we see Malcolm Little, a man who is easy with a smile and a joke, yet capable of smashing a bottle on another man’s face in a split-second’s decision. Washington plays the early Malcolm Little in such a way as to make it all the more striking when he turns into the steely, self-serious Malcolm X.

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Conservative Campaign Ads, Ctd.

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What’s in a name?

The largest ever exhibit of my favorite painter:

The Daily Beast has a rundown.

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Superlative Moments in Movie History

From de Sica’s Umberto D. (1951):

In this short scene, de Sica distills the entire film’s theme into the (non)interaction between these two characters. There are three scenes in Umberto D. that I think represent the height of Italian neorealism, and this is one of them. (The other two are the final scene, in which Umberto almost commits suicide, and an earlier scene in which Umberto, after losing his beloved dog Flag, finds him at the dog pound only moments before he is to be put down. Their reuniting, and the way Umberto hugs Flag with tears in his eyes, never ceases to make me cry no matter how many times I see the film; had Umberto lost Flag, he would have lost the last scrap of love he’d salvaged in a life of hopelessness.)

Umberto D. is not the saddest movie I’ve ever seen; it’s the most melancholy movie I’ve ever seen, which is worse (or better, depending on your disposition—I say better). Sad movies are often horrifying in the brutality and/or misfortune the characters endure. Schindler’s List, for example, is a sad movie. Strangely, I’m not as emotionally moved by sad movies. Umberto D., conversely, is a melancholy movie, and, as such, is far move emotionally traumatic for me.

Ultimately, de Sica’s Umberto D. is also one of the most realistic movies I’ve ever seen. In de Sica’s film, the characters are largely unremarkable, and largely unremarkable things happen to them. de Sica clears away the clutter of elaborate plot and narrative, giving us the space to recognize unadorned human emotion.

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Black President Uses the Word “Ass”; What Will We Tell the Children?

The title of this post mocks a strain of American paranoia for which I have little patience: the “what about the children?” mentality.

The mighty Roger Ebert once wrote that not everything that appears on television needs to be fit for a four year-old. The fact that Obama used an extremely mild “curse word” (one that, like “pussy,” depends entirely on context) should be a non-issue. I’ll go so far as to say that if you are “offended” by it, then you are a silly person (and probably a fan of Sarah Palin—am I right?). Americans love taking umbrage more than they love patty melts.

A silly, silly person it is who would be “disappointed” or “offended” by this:

I have a couple of reactions. First, I think it was done purposely. Our president is usually scrupulously careful with his words. (And when he does occasionally let something halfway edgy slip out, it’s usually in the service of truth telling rather than empty rhetoric—as when he said the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Skip Gates on his own porch, and as when he pointed out that many people in certain regions of our republic often “cling to guns and religion.” Both of these were, as far as I was concerned, hard truths that many Americans don’t want to acknowledge, and I was happy that, for once, it was our president who actually had the gumption to say them.) He had been receiving a lot of criticism from many bloviators—including Spike Lee—for not showing any anger or emotion about the BP disaster. Using the word “ass,” I speculate, was supposed to convey that the president was angry and emotional. This White House is pretty ham-fisted when it comes to political messaging, no?

Second, I’ve already read two blog posts about this that were fairly racist. Both were rather unlettered, and both suggested that the “profanity” unleashed by this president was, after all, to be expected. He is black, after all. And have you heard some of this rap music these days? I heard he even quoted that “black rapper” Jay-Z in a speech! (Obama did quote Jay-Z, actually; it was kind of cute/kind of weird, but not at all vulgar.) I’m not going to link to any of this garbage.

The reason it’s garbage is not just because it’s racist and ignorant of hip-hop. It’s also garbage because Obama is probably one of the least vulgar American presidents of the last 80 years. Vulgarity comes in various packagings, of course. If you want to hear some “profanity,” then listen to the Nixon tapes. Many of the conversations Nixon had in the oval office and over the telephone were peppered with the vilest, most backward-thinking language you’ll ever hear. All forms of racist, sexist, and homophobic epithet were spewed by that abject criminal. Clinton, for his part, actually acted out the curse words (impressive, when you stop to think about it). As did Kennedy, for that matter. And Ronald Reagan, for having a “White House Astrologer” on call for his simple-minded and superstitious wife, was perhaps most offensive of all.

President Obama’s (calculated) dropping of the word “ass” should, in a sensible society, not be discussed more than five minutes. And those five minutes are up…now.

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Snacks and the Recession

A nice rant by George D. Allen. After being told that his small popcorn will cost six dollars

When the young girl behind the counter gave me that figure (it was the only thing I was buying), I was quite literally and without exaggeration stunned into silence. I’m also one of those customers who just so happens to have had enough mileage on the other side of the customer service relationship to understand that flying into a bitter rage of complaint would do me, my server, and the cause in general absolutely no good whatsoever.

So, after hearing the outrageous sum, I had a clear choice. Buy, or walk away. I was hungry enough and had no other recourse, so I bought and said not an impolite word.

And now, I’m walking away. There is no way I’m paying those prices for that food ever again. It’s absurd on its face to charge that amount of money, I don’t really care about the desperate straits the theaters find themselves in because the studios rake off so much of the average ticket price right off the top. It concerns me not that they’re in the midst of haggling over exactly who is going to pay how much to upgrade their projectors to keep up with the digital evolution (or devolution, as some might argue) of the movies.

I’ve long argued that the average theatre that sells overpriced refreshments would make more money and sell some product if they drastically lowered their prices, selling the candy and popcorn for about the same price as the local drugstore does. For years my own silent protest has been to smuggle in M&Ms in my pocket rather than pay the five dollars the multiplex is asking. Many times I see other moviegoers doing the same thing, pulling their own soda bottles and sweets out of their pockets—and, after the lights go down, our eyes often meet and there is an instant recognition not of mutual shame, but of solidarity. It’s a look that says, “Yes, my friend, they may take our arms and legs for the ticket price, but they may not take our right to consume Swedish Fish at the normal market value!”

Some of the local neighborhood theaters I frequent get it. One such old theater, which was built in the forties and screens mostly classic films, sells a box of popcorn for one dollar, and a larger one for two dollars. In fact, all the refreshments are either one or two dollars. I doubt they have a smuggling problem, since everything they sell is priced about the same as it would be at 7-Eleven down the street. The genius of it is, on a crowded Saturday night screening of Adam’s Rib, there wasn’t a person in that theatre who hadn’t purchased at least one item from the concession stand. And they were happy to have done so, ecstatic even. They hadn’t been cheated. And because they hadn’t been cheated, many of them resolved to be repeat customers. Indeed, there are many familiar faces when I go to that theater. Why, they ask, should I pay for an overpriced ticket and refreshments to see the newest Jennifer Lopez atrocity, when I can instead go to my local old-fashioned theater and see Tracy and Hepburn in all their celluloid glory?

A lot of cinephiles have been asking themselves this question for years.

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New Documentary on the History of Film Criticism

The website.

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