Archive for August 2013

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing

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Canadian indie band Stars once sang that when there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. I can think of no better way to convey the shocking final 15 minutes of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

When you watch the film, you'll marvel at how fresh it feels. Following a credits sequence that hits you in the face with "angry-dancing", we're introduced to the social world of a Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Then, as now, the outstanding existential threat is gentrification.


Spike Lee chooses to face character complications head-on, and no one's free of scrutiny. Giancarlo Esposito's "Buggin' Out" , the film's would-be Malcolm X, swings easily from overblown concern at the lack of black faces on the wall of Sal's Pizzeria to inviting universal ridicule when a cyclist scuffs his Air Jordans. Lee's camera treats his affectations unkindly, the upward zoom adding extra heft to his already comical hairstyle. Even so, much like Falstaff, this thoughtless dilettante sets the film's tragedies in motion.


Sal, our pizzeria owner, professes love for the people of Bed-Stuy, citing his pride that the young adults in the neighborhood grew up on his pizza. Nonetheless, he does not hesitate to call them "animals" and "niggers" when the mood takes him. And yet, there's little doubt that he loves the people he serves, even as a deep-seated disrespect for them wins out over his seemingly better nature.


Disrespect really is the order of the day here: whether you're Mookie, Tina, Radio Raheem, Sal, or even Sal's useless sons, how you deal with disrespect defines your character (at least up to a point). Mookie does nothing for so long that his big act almost feels like a triumph. Raheem hides behind his music, and when that's disrespected, he explodes. Sal's deep-seated racism comes to the fore. He's not an anti-social racist like his son, but guilty of ugly prejudice none the less.

The exception is the Greek chorus. They constantly comment but never act. They are less characters than narrators, involved less with the specific lives of the neighborhood than in defining the shapes of the setting. Lee treats them to some of the most beautiful videography in film history as they lounge under umbrellas against a wall painted the brightest red ever seen outside a Tarantino film.

I don't want to linger on the ending; if you haven't seen the movie, you need to experience it for yourself. I will say this, however: la plus ça change, la plus la même chose.


On J.K. Rowling's "Cuckoo's Calling"

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In this edition of Law & Order: Private Detective, TotallyNotRowling rips a story straight from the headlines. Row-Braith takes the sordid tale of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty and wraps it all in a entertaining-if-predictable bow.

After a string of improbabilities and coincidences, Detective Cormoran Strike is called in to investigate the death of Not!Winehouse, which had been written off as suicide by the tabloids and the police.

Following another string of improbabilities and coincidences, he's granted an assistant from on high. He doesn't want this assistant, oh no, but then she wows him with her ability to make tea and not ask any questions about, well, anything.

One would think the latter characteristic would immediately disqualify anyone from working in a private investigator's office, but mmm, biscuits. I would like to think that Mr. Strike had other reasons for keeping her on, but Robin*'s character is basically defined by three things:

  • a) Aforementioned ability to produce steaming cups of tea at opportune moments.
  • b) Recent engagement to a banker wanker named Matthew, who strongly disapproves of her line of work.
  • c) Being rather pleasant, occasionally.


In case you hadn't noticed, I'm more than a little bothered by the regressiveness of the females on display in this novel: one's a secretary (and aspires to be nothing more, apparently), and one's a dead object. Rowling's portrait of the dead girl tells us little about who she is, leaving us to trust the smarmy words of her brother, her fashion guru, her leechy best friends, and her boyfriend (Not!Doherty).

Now, I didn't set out to write such a negative review. While reading Cuckoo's Calling, I was generally enjoying the (very long) ride. But the facts remain: it doesn't really succeed as a detective novel (unless your idea of a good detective novel involves one man talking to millions of characters in sequence), and it doesn't really succeed as a cautionary tale on the perils of fame.

Where it does succeed is in providing a detailed portrait of the less glamorous parts of London (and the parts of London I spent considerable time in when I lived there). She has a strong sense of place and atmosphere, but couldn't quite bring that power to her character work.


*And isn't it adorable that they both are named after birds? Someone really needs to hit J.K. Rowling over the head with the terribly cutesy names she's saddled us with (Cormorant-Robin, to be fair, isn't as bad as Albus Severus Remus Dumbledore Potter).

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