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Checkin’ Out Mr. Lee

One of the difficult things about living in Korea is that quality film just rarely makes it over here. For example, I don’t think a Spike Lee movie since Malcolm X has made it into cinemas in anyplace except maybe Seoul. A friend and I were talking last night about Lars von Trier, and she and I agreed that probably the next film he puts out won’t get released here because, well, someone made the mistake of putting Dogville in cinemas in Korea. Dogville — an experimental movie with no sets, just chalk lines on the wooden floorboards. Putting that film in cinemas was the quickest way to ensure no more Lars von Trier movies get released here.

Meanwhile, browsing in E-Mart, I noticed that all of the new Star Wars trilogy is on sale. But the new Star Wars trilogy doesn’t, you know, make any sense unless you’ve seen the old one. (And even then, it doesn’t make much sense.) Why is it that Star Wars III ran for weeks and weeks at the cinemas here? I don’t know. I can’t figure it out — and it’s not just in Korea. There are a lot of places where the original Star Wars movies haven’t really penetrated into the popular consciousness, and yet the new Star Wars trilogy has still made piles of money. Sometimes, I think people are a little like crows or ravens — they’ll grab up anything shiny that you put in front of them.

It’s not as if you don’t get good films here, of course. Some very good films get released here. But often, the majority of what makes it across the pond is the really poppy, plotless stuff. If you want to do better than that, you have to rent or buy DVDs, and even then, there is a lot of contemporary cinema that just doesn’t seem to show up anywhere here. (Except, again, maybe in Seoul.) So when one gets his hands on some Spike Lee films, one kind of gorges himself.

I’ve seen three of them this weekend: Clockers, She Hate Me, and The 25th Hour — and Bamboozled is waiting for my soonest chance… tomorrow evening, maybe.

I think of the three, Clockers and The 25th Hour are tied for best film. I don’t understand why people gave The 25th Hour such bad reviews, since I thought it was a downright fantastic movie. Like Clockers, it’s focused on something of great interest to me since listening to Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture: the way that hyperlegislation and hyperprohibitive approaches to the law end up de facto criminalizing vast numbers of people and creating a state where respect for law is impossible since lawbreaking is a normal part of life for massive numbers of people. (Ask a group of students in Jeonju when was the last time they bought CDs. You’ll hear laughter at the absurdity of the very idea of buying CDs at all.)

Meanwhile, other forms of criminality and corruption in America figure into Lee’s movies in the ways in which they’re safeguarded and promoted. The opening of She Hate Me has a clear reference to Bush, Enron, and the counterfeit of money in the $3 bill following the opening credits; in a wonderful scene, an Italian mafioso explains white collar crime to his grandchildren while watching TV. The famous (and inspired) bathroom rant in The 25th Hour also features references to criminality in the White House and systemic corruption throughout the government.

I don’t want to say that Lee’s films are only about legality, about the divide of crimes and criminality into those protected by the State and those less-protected by the State; there are a good many other things Lee touches upon. In She Hate Me, there is a very obvious declaration of war against those conservative forces in society who wish to legislate things like family, like reproduction, like marriage.

There is, from Lee, what is — if I recall my viewing history correctly — the first onscreen kiss between two nonwhite women to appear in a mainstream film — though I could be wrong about that; wrong or not, Lee definitely is making a point in the story which time and time again calls the protagonist to confront his misgivings about lesbians (if not homosexuality in general). In The 25th Hour, there is a very clear question raised about what the difference is between someone who sells stocks on Wall Street and someone who sells drugs on the street… in a world containing Enron, it seems like both are profiting off other peoples’ misery.And in both Clockers and The 25th Hour we find the dreams of people trapped by the law, dreams of fleeing, running away, making a life outside of New York City — and the difficulties involved in doing so.

One thing that strikes me inescapably is how Lee is a New York director. Everything I’ve seen of his is a New York movie, and I find the glimpses of the world outside New York — as he presents them — fascinating. In any case, I am dreadfully curious to see how he will treat the notion of a modern-day comeback of the blackface minstrel tradition, in Bamboozled. The negative (or mixed) reviews don’t worry me. Reviewers hardly ever get anything right.

I find Lee’s films very educational about the kinds of energies one finds in a truly cosmopolitan metropolis: the fears, the angers, the dangers and resentments that bubble under the surface, but also the immense humaneness of so many people. I first reached for an orchestral metaphor for the way he blends cultures and dialects, but I think in fact jazz is a better analogy — fitting, since he so often uses jazz in his scores — of the way he blends colours and cultures in his stories. In acknowledging this, I am not fingering him as a “black director” anymore than I would say jazz is “black” music, for he is more than just a black director: he is the quintessentially American director of our time. I just wish more films like Lee’s were easily rentable here in the boonies. This is an age of modern media and telecommunications, but all I have to choose from at the rental shop are American popcorn films, and Korean popcorn films, with the odd Japanese or Chinese effort begrudgingly thrown in.

And this reminds me of one more thing: we who live abroad get a pretty clear sense over time of how media affects the way people conceive of Western (particularly American) culture. So many of my students seem to think that there is one form of English called “American English” which is pretty universal across America. Those who know a little more grasp that of course there are dialects that differ from region to region. And when, talking to very advanced classes, I explain that a certain word may have a different meaning depending on who’s speaking it — according not only to region but also subculture and ethnic self-identification — some people grasp it immediately, but most just shake their heads and turn back to white-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired American English. This is understandable — nobody is going to see “chillin’ with da homeys” on a TOIEC exam. But then again, I have my doubts that many of the kids I teach would ever have reason to use a phrase like, “hostile takeover”, either.

Of course, Americans don’t understand the intricacies of English dialect fully, either; they’re baffled by how many different accents one finds in as small an area as England (let alone the whole of the UK). A recurrent theme in Lee’s movies is the way immigrants speak English imperfectly, but against a backdrop of all kinds of different ethnic groups which are all speaking English that differs from the standard norm of Fox and NBC — we hear it in Mo’ Better Blues, in The 25th Hour, in Do the Right Thing, and it’s hinted at in other films, as well.

Pop culture and power go together, in our world. Spike Lee depicts an America which much of the world actually sees pretty clearly — an America that is screwed-up, corrupted, racially balkanized, wracked by a losing war of prohibition, racist (in every direction), and … and yet somehow, still, beautiful, still capable of amazing things. I can understand why most people would not be interested in films that are just critical of America, and why distributors would prefer to spread about things like Shrek than things like Clockers. I even understand why people would want to see only critical films, lacking anything that celebrates the ideals that are supposed to underlie America.

Most people aren’t so particularly interested in those ideals; memory of what America was supposed to be seems to have been wiped from the memory of the world, which is a sad thing though, in this era, inevitable. (William Pfaff, if I remember correctly, recently wrote of how much of the world is turning to other nations, closer to home, for models of governance.) I am not a pro-American now, nor am I an anti-American. I rather consider myself something else… a sad onlooker, perhaps; a witness to a decades-long hijacking. What America was supposed to be, I fear, is not what it is, or will be. The hijacking, if it succeeds, will amount to the failure — or at least, the unsustainability of — the most idealistic and hopeful experiment humankind has ever carried out, and its susceptibility to the machinations of those who have always opposed freedom in our world… the rich and powerful. And on some level, this is what it feels like to watch Spike Lee: it feels like watching movies set in the slow, imperceptible seasons in which Rome declined not by a single straight and tragic collapse, but by awful, creeping, visible increments.

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