Saturday, November 29, 2008

Be Like Spike

I've watched Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" a couple times in the past week, and I would like to talk a bit about the movie's structure and Spike's camera. There's a combination of two things in the film -- cacophonous scenes and very still portraits. This is applicable to the story, and the camera.

On first watch, the movie seems to be a flurry of scenes and music out of which emerges a kind of thin story, filled more with characters than with plot points. This is wonderful. On second watch, a couple of blatant PLOT scenes make themselves known. Despite this, each scene usually plays very effortlessly into the next, and the movie is a very lean 2 hours. Every scene calls to a later scene, or knocks down at least one set up from an earlier scene (usually more than one). Great movie -- but as usual -- I think we can do it better.

Here's one of these really nice, soft, still portraits that are scattered throughout the film. This is one of the scenes that gets a bit blatant, with explicit talk of economics, money, and keeping the family afloat. Usually the scenes have three or four layers going on, but this one only has 2: The parents downstairs, and the kids upstairs.

By my count, this is about 15 or so scenes into the movie, and it's the first one with any really explicit explication. That's a pretty good ratio of organic enjoyment to PLOT.

Here's a good example of how the movie works. The first sequence of the movie goes from family dinner, to TV at night (instead of cleaning the kitchen), a sleep walking episode, the mother angrily rousting the kids at 4am for not cleaning the kitchen, the kids waking up in the morning, fighting over cereal .... then this ....

The camera swings upside down...

... and Snuff and Right Hand Man float upside down across the street, literally stoned off their feet. Spike has a very entertaining way cramming of heightened senses into the film. This scene doesn't really fit into the long sequence we've been watching, but the camera work and the characters are so funny that it doesn't matter. The glue huffers book end a new sequence that involves a cat getting thrown by its tail. Ridiculous, funny, and also somehow manages to fit into Troy's story (our protagonist, the little daughter in the family).

Lots of competing POVs in the movie. We are most commonly in Troy's brain. A lot of the scenes deal with things she sees growing up, whether that be a transvestite dancing with a shop owner, her parents arguing, kids stealing, or being accosted by glue huffers. The music in each scene could arguably be in her brain -- how she feels the city is. The total lack of this harmony later on when she goes to the suburbs makes you want to go back to Brooklyn just as much as she does.

We also have the POV of the glue huffers (as shown above). There are some reverse shots from the POV of the television (why not? The kids are always watching it).

You could even call the above image an over-the-shoulder shot from the TV. Pretty funny.

The result of the omniscient camera is that the audience is privy to a lot of scenes where every character is wrong. We can see everyone's point of view, and their respective blind spots, so we get an overall view and are left to make our own judgements. Here's an example:

Troy's mother scolding her for insulting the kid in the yellow. The kid in the yellow is a little shit, though, and is sneering over Mom's shoulder at Troy. Troy did actually say some pretty mean things to him. We're left to see the gaps for ourselves.

The glue huffers come back later, but in a dream sequence via Troy's POV. Another miniature story within the story told in two shots:

Time moves slowly because Troy's time moves slowly. This is maybe my favorite scene in the movie.

The last thing I'll talk about is the candle-light dinner.

There's a scene in Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu" when the family has to flee down a foggy river, in a boat filled with pottery. It is a very moving scene, and has this very stark and vaguely bizarre image that would never be emotional outside the context of the story. A boat filled with pots and fog. It doesn't exactly evoke anything if you aren't watching the movie.

Spike does a cool, similar kind of thing with the candle-light dinner. Due to a culmination of things throughout the story, the familiar scene of the family dinner is put into darkness and surrounded by a house full of light. You've seen it three or four times in the movie already (or maybe just once or twice), but this time things are changing. Money is gone, attitudes are different. Not as unique as a boat and pottery, but a nice image of the family inside their little moving story.

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