For all its nasty twists, the biggest shock in Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (opening Nov. 27) hits in the movie's first minutes—during the credits. "A Spike Lee Film," a title card reads, a first for any of Lee's features. Jungle Fever, He Got Game, Inside Man, last year's underseen, micro-budgeted Red Hook Summer—those are all Spike Lee Joints. What gives?
"It's a hard business," Lee says in that gnomic way of his, wearing the imperturbable poker face he has developed despite a reputation for hotheadedness. Asked a question he's not eager to answer, Lee seems to shrug without moving.
It's not because this is a remake? Or because this movie doesn't have some of the social and political urgency we might expect from a Spike Lee Joint?
"It's a genre film," Lee says. "A subgenre film. A revenge drama. I've never made one before."
So it's not a joint because of that? Or because of some legal stuff with the credits?
Poker face. "It's a hard business," Lee says. And then: "My next film is a Spike Lee Joint."
That next one—Da Sweet Blood of Jesus—is the one he financed with $1.4 million scared up on Kickstarter. He won't say much about it, beyond his promise to his backers of blood and sex, but he does deny the rumors of its genre: "It's not a horror film, but there are things in it that are horrific."
In the almost 30 years since She's Gotta Have It detonated archaic ideas of whose stories belong on American screens, Lee has crafted epochal studio joints (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), daring screeds and curios (Bamboozled, Girl 6), indie marvels (Red Hook Summer), best-in-their-class documentaries (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke), the most moving tribute anyone has made to the late Michael Jackson (BAD 25) and an excellent series of filmed records of stage performances (Passing Strange, last week's riveting HBO debut Undisputed Truth, capturing Mike Tyson's one-man Broadway show, which Lee directed).
And now he has made a plot-driven remake, "a Spike Lee film" whose most exciting sequence is not some raw look at the harsh truths of American life. Instead, it's a doozy of a fight scene filmed in one dazzling long take. (Well, there is one cut, but chances are you won't spot it.) The battle suggests the performance-and-proscenium-minded technique of Lee's stage docs: a ripped Josh Brolin vs. a platoon of bad guys on three separate floors of a warehouse, with Lee's camera observing from a steady remove, like a theatrical audience.
"In Park's film, it takes place on one level," Lee says. "Gotta do more than one!"
A unique and exciting sequence, one that plays more like a dance-centered production number than a traditional action sequence, this battle nevertheless represents a break with the rest of Lee's work. Year after year, joint after joint, the director has approached violence as a tragic waste, investing it with a moral weight rare in American cinema: Think of the death of Samuel L. Jackson's Gator in Jungle Fever; the city-shaking horror stirred up by Summer of Sam's .44 Caliber Killer; or the domino-ing calamities that gang violence wreaks in Clockers, Lee's sole entry in the drugs-and-projects crime genre—and a deeply undervalued joint in its own right. Lee even gave Clive Owen a crowd-pleasing jeremiad against bang-bang video games in Inside Man.
This fight, unlike the harder-edged torture scenes elsewhere in Oldboy, is almost . . . fun.
Lee disagrees. "I can't do it," he says of Hollywood's penchant for consequence-free action violence. "I can't do it. I can't do it. Violence has a very strange place in American society today. I can't do violence as a cartoon where you get shot, you get up again, and you get more points. Josh and I talked about how we were going to present the violence in this film: It could not be cartoonish. It had to be realistic. But it could not be gratuitous."
However it's classified, this Oldboy bears many of Lee's hallmarks, most notably his signature floating-along tracking shot, in which a usually worried protagonist seems to glide down a New York street. (Its best inversion: the glue-huffers in Crooklyn who literally spin upside-down and keep right on gliding.) Lee has few peers when it comes to stirring empathy for troubled characters wandering a city—in an early sequence here, Brolin's drunk prick of a broker stumbles through the drizzle in a past-midnight Chinatown while Lee's camera bobs above his umbrella, dipping and rising like the unsettled liquor inside him. It's a perfect evocation of being adrift, a reminder that, at Lee's best, all his dazzling technique is marshaled in the service of getting us to feel along with the people onscreen.
* * *
Lee's empathy—and his ability to summon it from us—is likely the source of the greatest, dumbest controversy of his career, a controversy that's about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. In 1989, a clutch of white journalists and critics assailed the upcoming release of Do the Right Thing as a reckless provocation certain to inspire riots.
"People should read the reviews of Joe Klein and David Denby today," Lee says. He whistles. "David Denby wrote that I was going to be the reason that David Dinkins would not be the first black mayor and that I planted dynamite under every seat." He whistles again.
And now the movie is canonized. Have they ever apologized?
Lee stares silently.
Denby and Klein—they didn't trust audiences?
"They didn't trust the black audience," Lee says. "They thought the black audience would run amok and riot all across the country."
How could they miss the movie's ambivalence and sadness?
This time he actually shrugs. "You'll have to ask them that."
Now widely considered one of the great films of the past 25 years (if not the greatest), Do the Right Thing is something of a black neighborhood block party, stuffed with hilarious talk, indelible characters, killer music and the kind of gorgeous, red-tinted photography appropriate to a film—a joint!—set on the hottest day of summer. Its good feelings curdle as the heat rises and the day passes, building to a white-on-black murder at the local pizzeria and a small black-on-white riot at the local pizzeria—both pained and tragic, both deeply moving.
Lee promises that 2014 will see anniversary screenings, but it probably won't see the likes of a new Do the Right Thing, which at the time won full distribution by Universal, a risk that seems unlikely for any studio to take today: "Today, everyone has this home-run philosophy, where they used to be satisfied with a double or a triple, as far as box office goes. Now they'll give you a penny or you get $20 million. There's no in between, or very little. There's no midrange, and that's the wheelhouse where the intelligent films are made."
Of course, digital technology and Kickstarter offer a tireless creator like Lee the chance to make some of the movies he wants—at the sacrifice of the certainty of getting them into theaters.
Lee seems incredulous when I tell him I saw Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever at a mall in suburban Kansas. "You mean Kansas City, right? We played Kansas?"
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Those movies did. The charming, challenging Red Hook Summer didn't. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus probably won't, either.
"Red Hook's around," he says. "The film is always going to be there, and people will discover it when they discover it. No one saw The 25th Hour when it came out, and now I can't go out without people telling me it's their favorite. It got voted the best film of the—how do people say that?—the aughts?"
In fact, the AV Club named it the second-best film of that not-yet-named decade, just behind Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Lee, undeterred, as if he's cheering on his beloved Knicks: "The best film of the aughts!"'