GATEKEEPERS & LEVEES
On November 30, 2006, the Dresser heard film director, writer, actor Spike Lee speak at the University of Maryland, College Park. By way of talking about his life and film career, his agenda was to recruit new gatekeepers to change the face of current Hollywood power moguls and to promote his four-hour documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The film, which aired first on HBO, will come out on DVD in mid December.
Some of the highlights of what he said—mostly addressed to the predominately African-American student audience—were “a fraternity makes a leach desirable,” anti-education jive like “you ain’t street, not from the ‘hood” is “genocide,” “where’s the evolution in the rapper’s work?”
So there was Spike Lee dressed in baggie clothes, spinning his gospel of how to hook into a passion not a “slave” (jazzer’s word for job) and how to avoid dreaming a messiah will appear to help you jump over obstacles, while advocating strongly that “voting counts” and despairing that after Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 came out that Bush was voted back into office. Has Spike given up on rapping or has he taken the genre to a more intellectual and, possibly (heaven forbid), a more conservative level? While he still looks like a kid from the ‘hood, he is 50 years old (born March 20, 1957) and has been teaching for nine years at New York University.
He also said luck is “a residue of Design” meaning a Higher Power metes out chance. Therefore, an aspiring maker of films in this world of easier-to-make-a-film-but-much-more-competition needs to work hard and not count on luck. Unlike reality TV, he said there is no overnight success. The Dresser thinks this is pretty sobering advice from an artist whose work has always been and continues to be about controversial social and political issues.
Still there is plenty of sauce left in the boss filmmaker. In talking about the Katrina disaster, he referred to our current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “Rice-A-Roni.” He asked where was she when the levees broke—“buying Ferragamo shoes and seeing Spamalot! on Broadway.” He said there was great symbolism in what Condi Rice was doing in those five days after the hurricane struck and poor people (not just blacks) were unaided and ignored by the U.S. government. “Why is it the U.S. could help people in other countries within hours of their natural disasters” such as the Asian tsunami that struck Sumatra in December 2004?” Lee said he was in Venice when the levees broke in New Orleans. “How is it that Holland, a country of 14 million (The Dresser looked this up and it’s more like 16 million), can afford a flood wall and we can’t? All Holland has is tulips, wooden shoes, naked ladies in windows and hashish.” He emphasized that the poor of New Orleans still need lots of help and urged students to do their part.
DENZEL, A STAR FROM THE JOINT
Among the questions form the audience was why Denzel Washington, an actor whose career launch Lee takes credit for, has not won an Oscar for any of Lee's films. The filmmaker said, “Denzel deserved an Oscar for Malcolm X” but he went on to explain that, as most people know, Oscars don’t seem to be about who or what is at the top of the game. Gatekeepers play politics. The Dresser gets where Spike Lee is going when he said not everyone has to be a filmmaker and that he wanted these college students to consider becoming gatekeepers in Hollywood.
The Dresser agrees that Denzel Washington deserves top honors for his work and he has gotten two Oscars. In 2001, he won for best actor in his role as a rogue cop in Training Day. In 1989, he won as best supporting actor for the Civil War film Glory. Malcolm X, though an overly long film, was a powerful cinematic work made poignant by Washington’s performance. The Dresser rented the DVD before writing this blog entry and the movie put her back in touch with the late Sixties when she read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other books such as Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Stories about human struggle and overcoming adversity has always provided the Dresser with new ways to survive rejection and marginality, the constant companions of writers who choose to be poets.
The Dresser also loves the scope of what Washington can do as a performer. Washington and Lee as Lindy-Hopping zoot suitors in Malcolm X made her heart and feet lift with joy. Washington playing the trumpet in Mo’Better Blues was like falling in love. Such sensuous lips, Denzel! More important, the Dresser respects DW for insisting that his new movie Déjà Vu (not a Spike Lee Joint, as Lee calls his productions or a film with any involvement by Lee) be set in New Orleans. The movie was scheduled for earlier production and release, but then Katrina hit. Maybe the delay made Déjà Vu a better film. This film, which involves what she calls a soft sci-fi element about breeching time, is an impeccably and tightly told story. Washington gets to be both serious and a little comic in this film. Most likely he won’t win an Oscar for this role, but the Dresser will say that Washington’s performance is more substantial and interesting than the role Brad Pit plays in the arty film Babel, a chaos story incorporating the butterfly effect.
FIRE AND WATER
Talk about time travel and butterfly effects, the Dresser asked Spike Lee what he thought about film directors becoming directors of live theater. Lee looked a little confused, but then he answered that he’d like to go into live theater, but he hasn’t done it yet. The Dresser had this thought days after she asked Lee about such a shift in his career: composer Anne LeBaron and librettist Philip Littell are working on an experimental opera called Crescent City that is set in a hospital in New Orleans between the two recent major catastrophes and involves the legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau. The Dresser imagines that a collaboration between a composer of electronic music with a history of switching artistic partners (LeBaron has talked about this on public panels and Crescent City’s music is based on the music of Wet, Lebaron’s opera with poet Terese Svoboda), a librettist of two prominent operas (André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons), and a controversial filmmaker with a deep interest in New Orleans would create an electrical storm, if not a fire.
By chance this week, the Dresser visited Fort Green Park to experience Spike Lee’s neighborhood. Her Bed-Stuy-based fine artist friend Janice Olson, who created 21 water color paintings for Crow's Eye View: The Infamy Of Lee Sang, Korean Poet made the park visit an outing for her two dogs, the venerable Mexican-born boxer Camus and the still puppyish New Yorker Chico who is part boxer, part pit.
So we walked around the Revolutionary War Monument of the Martyrs, a favorite haunt of Lee's who moved to this ‘hood with his family when he was a teenager.
Richard A. Blake, author of Street Smart: The New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese, and Lee, wrote: “For Spike Lee, Fort Greene functions like the observation tower, as though one could stand atop the column of the Martyrs Monument and look out on other areas of Brooklyn and the rest of New York.” Renovations, which include installation of a new spiral staircase and lights to illuminate the 147-foot granite obelisk, began in 2005. Around the perimeter of the park, Lee has at least two locations for his production company 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.
The Dresser also heard that Lee had a retail store where he sold memorabilia inspired by his films. She called Filmworks, but learned later on the Internet that Spike’s Joint opened in 1990 and closed in 1997. The Dresser asked if Lee closed this store because it wasn’t profitable or was it about the politics of too much commercialism, similar to why the Disney family closed their retail outlet stores? The man on the phone said several times it was part of a “reorganization” and that he could sense “a spin coming on and oops, gotta go, good-bye.”
Some of the Dresser’s friends say Lee is a racist, possibly anti-Semitic, and a portrayer of two-dimensional women.
Maybe Lee, like any writer, is just a fabulist like the subject in this poem from Love’s Skin by Brandon Johnson:
none of that ever happened
I don’t even know who them people is
somebody said they call him a fabulist
but ain’t nothing fabulous about lies
I got no time for his stories and he had nerve
to put my name in one
told a lie last year and Gate liked to kill him
but everybody felt for the boy
saved his ass
say he just got imagination
and little sense behind it
I mean, when did people fly
who told him tricksters swarm
this town like insects on crops
what’s a trickster
who called the conjure man a pimp
and the pimp a dead man
tell you what. if he do it again
write down one of them lies
start digging his nose
in the good peoples’ dirt round here
it’ll serve him right
to wake up with four hooves,
a snout bigger than
Ray Bell’s prize sow
and I ain’t just shaking
a goofer bag neither.
The Dresser thinks Lee’s intentions are good, but he is a risk-taker who thinks of himself as a revolutionary. Don’t be bamboozled by how he dresses or carelessly tosses his not-quite-accurate facts like hand grenades, Lee is a visionary, possibly a seer, with a mission.