New York movie lovers are celebrating the glory, strangeness and richness of 1962. Historians and cultural journalists are studying the year 1989, which as it happens, for me, is the far more personally relevant year.
I was not yet born in sixty-two, but nineteen eighty-nine was something. That was the first time I attended a significant international festival—Toronto. It was almost impossible to grasp the historical dynamics at the time, but perched as it was between Tiananmen and the fall of the Berlin wall, Toronto was an exceptionally heady time.
But also the movies I saw that year, a partial list I’m drawing from memory: Hou’s A City of Sadness, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, John Woo’s The Killer, Bertrand Blier’s Trop belle pour toi, Arthur Penn’s Penn & Teller Get Killed, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, David Hare’s Strapless, Denys Arcand’s Jesus de Montreal and Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But.
Perhaps most significantly, the festival put together an impressive sidebar on the history of Polish cinema, focusing on Kieslowski, where I saw four or five episodes of Kieslowski’s magisterial The Decalogue, and films by Agnieszka Holland and Jerzy Skowlimowski.
Right after I got back from Cannes this year, I saw a gorgeous, newly struck print of Hou’s A City of Sadness at DOC Films at the University of Chicago. (I suspect BAM used the same print for their screening the other day.) Up until that time, in Toronto of eighty-nine, I was certainly aware of Hou Hsiao-hsien, though I don’t believe I’d actually seen any of his films. The five or six times I’ve seen A City of Sadness subsequently have done nothing to temper or measure my unqualified praise. It was of course the first part of Hou’s amazing trilogy about the formation of modern Taiwan (the other works were the no less astounding The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women)
The other historically significant development was quite sad: Sergio Leone (Jan. 3) and John Cassavetes (Feb. 2) died a month apart. In between those deaths Steven Soderbergh showed an unfinished cut of sex, lies and videotape at the U.S. Film Festival (renamed Sundance two years later). The movie’s importance was not really conferred until a couple of months later when the Wim Wenders’ jury at Cannes gave it the Palme d’Or. At the same festival, Spike Lee premiered Do the Right Thing.
I remember interviewing Soderbergh and Lee about a month apart that summer. The Soderbergh interview was published in the Chicago-based national alternative paper, In These Times, and it became the first piece I ever wrote for them. In These Times became a steady outlet for my writing and festival coverage for the next couple of years.
Lee’s galvanic third feature I found mostly mesmerizing. A couple of years earlier Lee’s feature debut She’s Gotta Have It and Jarmusch’s second film Stranger Than Paradise helped detonate a new “New American Cinema.” I was compelled after the screening of A City of Sadness to go back and start at looking at some of the films from that year.
The other night, I looked at the high-definition DVD of Do the Right Thing. Lee has certainly made some interesting and adventurous movies in the last two decades, but I was struck by a prominent absence in Lee’s work, the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. He shot every Lee film from student works to Malcolm X. Dickerson gave Lee’s work a visual concentration and precision that has been much more hit and miss in the intervening years (with the exception of the recent films shot by the very gifted Matthew Libatique).
Dickerson’s visual mastery also helps smooth over some of the more didactic aspects of the script. Watching it today, I really love the egalitarianism of the movie: the Preston Sturges-like love of the secondary player and how beautifully, even rhapsodically Lee weaves them into a mosaic of local color, complicated characterizations and tightly constructed narrative. The movie unfolds over a jam-packed twelve or fourteen hours on the “hottest day of the year.”
Some of the strongest and most evocative material is when Lee liberates his camera and simply stops the proper narrative to isolate feeling and action, drawing on the rhythms, textures and attitudes of his characters: Rosie Perez dunking her head in a fish tank to escape the heat; Lee’s Mookie sensually running an ice cube over Perez’s pulchritudinous body; a group of kids opening up the spigot on a fire hydrant, letting the water cascade violently, hilariously in every direction.
I also think those critics and commentators who criticized the movie at the time (or even today) for the casualness of its construction, the feeling it’s somewhat inchoate and lacks a strong point of view, are denying one of the movie’s central pleasures. It’s the very rambling, discursive nature of the work that gives it such a throbbing, compelling interior life. One thing I remember quite clearly from my interview with Lee is that he was very insistent on not viewing black culture as monolithic. Even when some of the characters feel crudely drawn (especially John Turturro’s racist lout), Lee returns to a critical point that the characters are “complicated,” self-negating, exasperating, contradictory, but almost always vividly played and developed.
Lee saves his harshest treatment and most penetrating critiques for the black characters, especially the men. “Why you hate me so much,” Ossie Davis’ gloriously downbeat Da Mayor asks of the neighborhood scold, the righteous Mother Sister (the equally divine Ruby Dee). “’Cause you a drunk fool.”
The fact that Lee gives so much space to the marginalized and politically dispossessed (the unholy trinity of Radio Raheem, Bugging Out and Smiley), the movie makes explicit that no matter how uncomfortable or abrasive their actions and attitudes are, the underlying rationale is one of connection, humanity and the desire to be seen as individuals.
So much of the movie makes no narrative sense (Bugging Out, we’re told, is a frequent visitor to the Sal’s pizza joint, but he just now realized on the day in question about the absence of “brothers on the wall”). Others are still bothered by what they believe is Lee’s sanitizing lower middle-class black existence by omitting any reference or dramatic incidents of vice and illegality. It’s a fair point, no doubt; the whole movie, I think, is never intended as naturalistic. That’s obvious from the intense stylization of the material, the stunning title sequence with Perez dancing on what is clearly a soundstage or the racist montage or Samuel Jackson’s disruption of the narrative line.
And the humor cuts like a scalpel, especially the stuff with the incomparable Robin Harris, Sweet Dick Willie, the nerviest of the three idlers that sit permanently perched in front of the blazing red brick wall. “If Mike Tyson even dreams of whipping my ass, he better wake up and apologize,” he says. The entire movie is a marvel of casting.
By its conclusion it is funny, sad, overwrought, a little pretentious perhaps, but also exhilarating and quite devastating. It’s of its time, but also very about the time, as Lee said, of the social and racial antagonisms of living in New York at the end of the eighties. Compared to what was happening in Prague, Warsaw, Beijing or Berlin, the movie might seem unduly parochial. Even so, Do the Right Thing created a world, however stylized, fanciful or gloriously imagined, that remains vitally important and worth our time.