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[whitespace] Spike Lee Original King of Alternative Cinema: Spike Lee pioneered the use of low budgets and neighborhood locations in the making of 'She's Gotta Have It.'

Spiked Commentary

Controversial director Spike Lee gets honored at Cinequest

By Richard von Busack

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY of Malcolm X's death, KPFA radio replayed the man's speeches--all of them persuasive and well-spoken; most of them, by reckoning today, not even extreme. It was a fresh reminder of the loss. And all the speeches, no matter how you tried to get around it, sounded exactly as if Denzel Washington were reading them.

Malcolm X, the epic about Malcolm X that starred Washington--the film that remains Cinequest headliner Spike Lee's most famous achievement--preserves the intellectual journey of a man from selfish nihilism to militancy to the kind of far-seeing leadership that's damned near extinct today.

Even so, when Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It, debuted, it would have been hard to predict that in the year 2001, if you saw a crossword puzzle that said "African American filmmaker," you'd fill in Spike Lee's name. The man seemed a little too reticent to make it in the picture business when he came to the old Metro office at First and San Salvador streets in 1986 to promote She's Gotta Have It. Like many other critics before and since, I duly asked Lee all the wrong questions. (The stupidest was if the heroine's name, "Nola," was a play on "nolo contendre.")

Pauline Kael of The New Yorker probably offered the most sensible take on Lee's budding career. She was most impressed by the way he made his first feature: in a hurry, with the use of his neighborhood as a location, with sex as the ever popular subject and deferred payment as the necessary means. In this instant-filmmaking, with its barebones cost and quickness, Lee was one of the first figures in what later came to be called alternative film.

And She's Gotta Have It launched a wave of African American filmmaking so diverse that it will never be forced into a niche again. She's Gotta Have It was key in awakening the film business to the fact that black people wanted representation--reflections of their lives and not just roles as sacrificial sidekicks or comedy relief. The industry keeps forgetting this; Lee keeps reminding it.

Lee's upcoming project is a huge one: the life of Jackie Robinson. It may be more interesting--considering Lee's public struggles with film financing--to see him get smaller and go underground with video filmmaking. After his unfocused 1970s movie, Summer of Sam, Lee bounced back impressively.

The hilarious performance film The Original Kings of Comedy chronicled four intrepid stand-up comedians in concert. Lee followed it with a film about the underside of the relationship between African Americans and humor: the inspired, if flawed, study of racist entertainment Bamboozled, which will be screening at Cinequest on March 3.

In Bamboozled, a self-loathing TV writer (Damon Wayans) creates a low-ball scheme: Mantan--The New Millennium Minstrel Show, starring two shiftless Negroes on an Alabama watermelon farm. Womack (Tommy Davidson) and Manray (the dancer Savion Glover) are signed on to do the tap-dancing and grinning.

Bamboozled is infuriating. I was raging after it was over, because it seemed an important subject bollixed up by an inept dramatic framework. I calmed down later, seeing how Bamboozled faced a barrage of criticism, fair and unfair.

THE FILM has been criticized fairly on the grounds of length, and the romance that didn't work (were we really supposed to believe that a stunner like Jada Pinkett would involved herself with the prissy ad exec played by Damon Wayans?) But there's a sense in all of Lee's films that women are basically confused flirts at best and pains in the butt at their worst. (In She's Gotta Have It, Lee started out as a real sensualist, but age and responsibility have taken that away from him.)

Less fair criticism was the charge that a show like Mantan wouldn't be a success on television. Such critics show more faith than I have in TV. The promotion of a new "ironic" minstrel show would have required some spinning and the right kind of publicity--plenty of press junkets, maybe an academic or two on the weighing in on the editorial page.

Maybe I was more interested in the methods by which a new minstrel show could be pulled over the public's eyes--and less in the motives of the performers who would sell themselves out for it. (At heart, everyone knows why performers sell out: because they can.)

In making a satire of TV, Lee ought to have shaped the movie like a dagger, what with its provocative moments like Pinkett's recital of the recipe for making burnt-cork black face makeup, and the scene, worthy of Ralph Ellison, in which a hideous racist toy comes to life.

The closing montage of racist images in American film is an impressive idea--a montage that ought to be on the Oscar telecast. So why did Lee have to rope in figures such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Ethel Waters and Fats Waller--Fats Waller!--as racist caricatures?

Thanks to Bamboozled, Spike Lee still seems on the verge of another breakthrough. You can't say that about most of the filmmakers of his age. Listening to Malcolm X on the radio, I was depressed and unconvinced that there had been any progress in racial relations in America in the 35 years since his death.

I finally decided that things had gotten somewhat better and somewhat worse, but at least they hadn't stayed the same. The independent film movement that Lee helped spearhead has been laden with disappointments. Despite how democratic it is, it's still subject to Sturgeon's Law: nine out of 10 projects won't have been worth the sweat. But Spike Lee deserves honor for having changed American film so that, better or worse, it'll never be the same as it was before he arrived.

Spike Lee takes part in a public conversation Friday (March 2) at 7pm at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. On March 3 at 4:30pm at the AMC Saratoga, 4 Little Girls will be screened, followed at 9:15pm by Bamboozled.

In Dreams: Peter Shaner's 'Nicolas' is the first feature film to be shot with a new high-definition Sony camera system.

Digital Doings

THE CREATIVE ARTS AGENCY, one of L.A.'s leading talent agencies, used to give away T-shirts showing a talking dog from a vaudeville animal act telling his agent, "But, really, what I want to do is direct." If recent developments in digital technology don't actually make it simple and easy enough for a dog to direct a movie, it's only a matter of time.

An entire section of Cinequest's Digital by Digital (DXD) program (March 2-4) will be turned over to exploring the exciting possibilities of digital film. Highlights include a screening of Swimming Upstream, a movie shot on 24PHD, worth seeing as an example of the nigh-celluloid quality of the images. The story is in the Catcher in the Rye vein of a sensitive New England student dealing with long-standing pain over the death of his mother; Michael Moriarty co-stars (March 1 at 9:30pm at Camera One).


Cineful Delight: A critical guide to this year's Cinequest films.


In a grittier vein is the "digitally captured" movie (a more accurate but still clumsy way to describe film-free filmmaking) Why Get Married the Night the World Ends? Elina Löwensohn, Hal Hartley veteran and Audrey Hepburn of the avant-garde, stars in a story of dread and love in the streets (March 2 at 11:30pm at Camera 3). Nicolas, Peter Shaner's story of a young woman's (literal) dream man is the first feature film to be shot in a Sony camera system that George Lucas is using for the new Star Wars film (March 1 at 7:45pm and March 3 at 9:15pm at Camera 3). Also, an SJSU film class led by last year's Cinequest guest Babak Sarrafan will be showing their instant movie about Cinequest 11, made possible with digital tech: The Mess in the Scene (March 4 at 5:30pm at Camera 3), potentially starring such luminaries as Spike Lee and Lolita Davidovich.

DXD hosts five different seminars on the next-generation technologies that will change filmmaking, post-production, distribution and exhibition. One of the five sessions is a look backward as well as forward: an evening with digi-documentary maker Richard Leacock, whose career (begun with pioneer Robert Flaherty) has been a search for smaller and more lightweight cameras. His delivers a lecture titled "From Nanook to Today" (March 2 at 5:15pm at Camera 3).

Millennial Gen Exhibition--Theater to Home (March 2 at 2pm at Camera 3) presents a simple overview of how digital moviemaking works. Cutting Edge Development--Script to Screen (March 3 at 10am at Camera One) features representatives from Panasonic, who will discuss nonlinear editing and the new developments in projection, especially Plasma screens and large-venue digital projection.

Digital Post Production, the Apple segment of DXD (March 4 at 10:30am at Camera 3) is a study of on- and off-line Quicktime movie preparations, with some as-yet-unscheduled guests on the topic of programs that treat the images after they've been captured.

The Digital Hierarchy (March 3 at 1:30pm at Camera 3) is a seminar on the different grades in visual quality, from low-resolution but atmospheric hand-held to 24-frame-a-minute prints of digital film, such as Swimming Upstream (above). Any moviemaking dogs in attendance will probably prefer the black and white.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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