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INTERVIEW

19 Feb

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Do you care that some people feel you hide behind the shield of racism, that you’re quick to call people racists to deflect criticism of yourself?

No [Yawns] That doesn’t bother me at all.

Let me bring up two instances, quite specifically. When you opened up your shop in Brooklyn, some dude from MTV asked you, “Spike, what are you going to do with the profits from this store?” And in what didn’t get bleeped out, you said you don’t ask Robert De Niro what he does with the profits from his restaurant. So you were assuming he was asking you because you’re black and you were opening up your own business. I won’t come to his defense – because I don’t know what was in his mind, asking the question – but look, Robert De Niro is not at all a political guy, but there are white artists who…

That is bullshit. That is complete bullshit. No white person who’s opened up a motherfucking business has ever been asked, “What are you gonna do with your profits?”

But people like Sting and Bono, who are political…

That is bullshit, that is bullshit. You’re telling me people ask Sting if his album goes triple platinum, “What are you going to do with your profits?” This is motherfucking America. When black people start to make some money, then it becomes a fucking problem. [Very upset, yelling] Tell me a time when a white artist was asked, “What are you going to do with your profits?”

I’ve asked white…

That is bullshit! No one would ever come to someone’s restaurant opening or book coming out and say, “Mr White Person, what are you going to do with your profits?” I don’t care what you say, that shit don’t happen.

I’m telling you. I’ve asked white artists who have political points of view, okay, whether it be the rain forest or the Irish problem, if they’re going to do something about it, I’ve asked them.

That is not the same thing, David. I’m talking about the first day the store is open, and he has a microphone in my face, “What are you going to do with your profits?” It was a racist question. The night the motherfucking Tribeca Grill opened, they did not ask Robert De Niro, “What are you gonna do with your profits?” It’s plain and simple.

Got it. The other controversy involved kids being killed for expensive sneakers such as Air Jordans. The you wrote in “The National” that the criticism of you was racially motivated. Do you feel it’s possible to be concerned about what’s going on – kids being killed for sneakers – and not have it be racist?

I don’t believe that shit. [Jumps up and acts this out] You go around Chicago and look for some motherfucker that wears the same size Air Jordans you have and boom…

It seems illogical to me too, but Michael Jordan reacted in a very different way than you did. Maybe he has a different program than you do. But I know there were black groups that actually picketed Chicago Stadium and put out leaflets…

And Operation PUSH is behind that.

…about Michael and Nike, and the creation of status symbols in the community. Your reaction was very defensive. I’m not blaming you. You have a right to defend yourself…

You don’t think I should defend myself when they’re saying that the blood of young black America is on my hands and Spike Lee is responsible for black kids killing each other?

No. I would hope that you would. It was the manner in which you defended yourself that suggested anyone who cared about that problem was a racist, because they didn’t really care about black kids anyway. To me, if it was white kids that were getting killed and someone screamed bloody hell, that you could say was racist – the only reason they care is ’cause it’s white kids getting killed; if it were black kids in the the inner-city, no one would care.

Wrong. Wrong. The emphasis is wrong. The emphasis should not be on the sneakers. The emphasis should not be on the sneakers or the Starter jackets. The emphasis should not be on the sheepskin coats or the gold chains. The emphasis should be on: What are the conditions among young black males that are making them put that much emphasis on material things? What is it that makes the acquisition of a pair of sneakers or a gold chain that gives them their worth in life, that makes them feel like a human being? That’s where the motherfucking emphasis should be.

The causes, not the symptoms.

Exactly.

I understand that. But don’t you feel, in creating those ads, that you increased the level of status attached to a particular product, Air Jordans, so that it became something more desirable? Don’t you feel you increased peoples’ desire for the product? Isn’t that what a good commercial does? Makes them salivate, makes them want?

Yes, but at the same time I believe that young black Americans are not going to kill each other over a pair of sneakers. That is my belief. I don’t think a motherfucker is going to shoot somebody because he has a pair of sneakers. And if that’s the case, then… then let’s not sell cars. Let’s get rid of the whole capitalist system as a whole! I mean, you can’t just harp on the sneakers. If people want to be so righteous, let’s do away with the shit-across-the-board. Just don’t jump on me, Michael Jordan and [Georgetown basketball coach] John Thompson.

Are you comfortable saying you’re a capitalist?

[Pause] Am I a capitalist? [Pause] We all are, over here. And I’m just trying to get some power to do what I have to do. To get that power, you have to accumulate some type of bank. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve always tried to be in an entrepreneurial mode of thinking. Ownership is what’s need amongst Afro-Americans. Ownership. Own stuff.

Spike Lee interviewed by David Breskin
Rolling Stone magazine
July 11, 1991.

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TWO SAD FACTS?

11 Feb

As a teenager he was directing theatre. Before, he was the leader of a successful theatre company, its director and writer. He’d plunged America into a war panic with his adaptation of HG Welles’ famous story about a Martian invasion and co-written and directed his first feature film. This was a personal project he’d cultivated since boyhood, one of explicitly Shakespearian ambitions. (This lad put Macbeth on Broadway with an African-American cast set in the Caribbean. ) The movie is now compulsory whenever the question of the Greatest Ever comes up. Often it scores #1 (tho’ I haven’t checked lately).
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To appreciate the chutzpah making this flick took, imagine if today a hotshot young director fresh from music clips or something decided to make a movie portraying Rupert Murdoch as a man who’d lost his soul. Nay! more: as the symbol for the spiritual void at the centre of modern civilization. It not only condemns the man as an amoral failure despite his success but makes a coded reference to Murdoch’s private name for his lovers’ vulva the Macguffin of the picture.

He wouldn’t get very far these days.

In fact to do so would be impossible. Mr Murdoch has been married three times and I imagine that the ancient aristocratic notion of marriage as political alliance’s at play there. How much of all that is actually ‘ love’ is not my business. Mr Hearst, about who’s life, Citizen Kane is a kind of parody, had a mistress. The much younger Marion Davies, a starlet with a talent for comedy whose career went nowhere ’cause Hearst insisted on her taking serious, dignified roles in haughty respectable literary type stuff. She remained with him the rest of his days well into her middle-age. They never married. Hearst’s first wife would not grant him a divorce. It wasn’t so easy back then to crack a marriage.

People aren’t so interested in the private life of the Murdochs. But when Mr Hearst was at his peak, in that first great era of the American century, the 1920s, his affairs were public knowledge and fascinating. Back then the rich and the famous were normally two discreet sets. The yellow journalism that gave Mr Hearst his power (and now gives Mr Murdoch his) fed on the sexual escapades of both of them. Same shit, different century. However at this time there were many more newspapers and larger number of proprietors. And they hated each other! So Mr Hearst would have all his ScribeBots spruik Davies’ stuffy pictures and his rivals would have a blast pegging turds at ’em.

Citizen Kane plays this as a power trip Kane puts his mistress thru. She’s a nightclub singer and he tries to turn her into an opera star. She’s hopeless. The training’s sadistic, the Grand Failure (some grand Wagnerian schmalzfest) infinitely more so. Kane expresses his love by subjecting his woman to a brutal, humiliating ordeal all because her status does not befit a man of his ego. It’s Wagner, so of course the when she tanks it’s an ordeal that lasts hours. For everyone.

The critics give her a universal caning, she breaks down (funny that). But Kane is determined to fight on insisting that she actually perseveres with her operatic career! Her streaked, wet eyes soften him and he lets her off, drops it. And (of course) she’s grateful! But it’s the last time his voice will ever be gentle, the last true kindness she will receive.

Because Davies was Hollywood, people knew all about her and Hearst etc. And unlike American Old Money (Hearst) Hollywood kids hadn’t exactly been brought up to be, ahem, discreet. Not at all the type people Gatsby aspires to be. Aristocrats, like wise guys, bring their kids up to keep their mouth shut. But intimate details of people in intimate circumstances was an entire industry in LA, it had not yet turned into a global weather pattern.

So Hearst was unprepared. He probably never even considered the possibility that the word ‘rosebud’ – his pet name for Marion Davies’ pussy – would be deployed as the unanswered question of a much ballyhooed motion picture. Ironically, the exact same kind of highbrow flick he’d wanted Davies to star in. Kane opened in ’41. Davies and Hearst had by then been together since the silent era. Kane’s second marriage ends as a long goodbye; a miserable woman entrapped in a dark Corinthian void by a rich, powerful, bitter, and truly twisted old man. Welles was giving Hearst his very own Dorian Grey portrait.

It couldn’t happen these days. Mr. Murdoch would have the power to make anything like a Citizen Kane very, very, very difficult to make. At least as a mainstream feature film. It couldn’t be done anyway. You’d need impossibly superb intelligence in order to even know that about him. No-one would talk. And if it were somehow known the protocols set up in the corporate conglomerate’d kill it. The department of unwritten rules would be alerted. No-one would run it, exhibit it, work on it, etc. It wouldn’t happen. The Apparatus is too strong.

There’s another reason it wouldn’t happen, there’s no-one alive that has a mind that’s capable. Some hotshot video director? Some famous kid in the theatre world? C’arn… This is the jaded 21st century man where everyone gets 15 minutes and none of it is any more memorable than a Happy Meal Deal.

The Age of Genius has passed. Time to clean up the mess.

SOME ITALIAN WISDOM

7 Feb

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I Vitelloni is a movie about life in a small Italian town in the early to mid 50s based on Rimini, the place from which its director Federico Fellini came to Rome. We start with the town’s prettiest girl competing in a beauty pageant. It’s a media event. the sophistos from Rome are scouting for modelling talent. She wins but, far from delight, she literally falls to despair.

In the audience, a handsome young man looks on and knows that he is the reason. She’s pregnant, you see. This is all told with body language, not dialogue. The contest only serves to enhance her pain, add to the trouble she’s been trying to face. Winning makes it worse, now she knows will never go… anywhere.

She’ll never be a model, a star, a face. Never be a part of the semi-legendary Rome of the late 50s and 60s. She’ll never hang with the glamorous hollow people living the sweet life of parties in castles and dawns on the beach. She’s to stay here and live the life of her countless maternal ancestors. The beauty pageant tells her she could’ve had that stuff. She could’ve gotten out and who knows how far up. But now she never will.

The superman, so Nietzsche thought, would be one who was entirely a product of reason and will. A self-made creature. He didn’t consider the possibility, suggested by a trend evident in genetic history, that this creature would be female.

But that was the way of it. For centuries the deal allowed a few men freedom and women almost none. They were tied to their bodies. They were the givers of life and could never be free. Those women who’ve made it into the minor annals of history because they accomplished something other than motherhood and marriage are exceptions. Many girls dreamed of being exceptions or at least marrying a man better than the ones they saw about them.

So the beauty queen wins and faints. The boy, seeing this, understands right away. What does he feel when he sees this? What does he do? He tries to run away. He makes to flee the town but his father catches him, beats the shit out of him and makes him marry her. The community has an understanding about the consequences of such matters. There are stern penalties for being an unwed mother so, if there are people who care, there is harsh treatment for any man who absconds his responsibilities to her. Indeed, entire families can lose the respect and companionship of a town because of things like this.

But Fellini did get out. Out of the small coastal town of Rimini. All the way to Rome and to Hollywood where he received many a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A few years after I Vitelloni, he made La Dolce Vita, (The Sweet Life). At the centre of this endless parade of a movie stands our existential hero Marcello, a showbiz/gossip journalist with aspirations to being a serious writer. His life is packed with movie stars and models and the flotsam of a fading aristocracy. He cheats on his wife with lovers who cheat on him. His father comes to town but doesn’t chastise him for it. He joins in, eagerly conforming to the milieu’s ethos of perpetual adolescence.

This is the life that our small town beauty in Rimini has missed out on. The sparkling possibilities of contraception and liberalized marriage laws, the choices that democracy and capitalism make available. She stands on the brink of all that but her body bids her stay in the Middle Ages. She has missed out on the Freedom. And what do we make of it? La Dolce Vita answers this by showing life as an endless party for which we trade merely our integrity and even our soul without missing either.

Marcello aspires to be a serious writer and in this he has the support of an enlightened and successful intellectual. But then, right out of the clear blue sky, this Enlightenment Mentor goes and slaughters his children then himself. This type event has the banal familiarity of small articles printed on page 9 of the newspapers every so often. And in the movie this is what it turns out to be – infotainment. It is Marcello’s photographer that gave a name to a nefarious species of professional voyeurs. La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, I Vitelloni – 1953. How far Fellini saw in only a few short years. What we were losing; where we were headed.

The man who somehow has the keys to the meaning of life and hence to Marcello’s own personal journey thru it, self-annihilates. This destroys Marcello. At the end of the film we find him in the early morning light of yet another vulgar party telling actors how much they have to pay if they want hyperbolous praise of their talents in print. Is it a joke? We don’t know and neither does he. He’s finished and finishes kneeling in the sand of a beach. A beautiful young girl calls to him. An innocent from a small town much like our I Vitelloni beauty queen only a bit younger.

He can’t hear her.

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NATURE’S CRUEL STAROS

19 Oct

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“Nature’s cruel! Staros.” says Lt Col Gordon Tall to Captain Staros. “Look at those vines, look at the way they twist around everything. Swallowing everything up.”

Tall is relieving Staros of command. Staros is not tough-fibered enough. He’s not tough-fibered enough because he refused to obey Tall’s order. Tall’s order was that all Staros’ men run up a steep grassy hill. At the top of the hill was a hole-in-the-wall. The bees that came out were fast. They fly out of tunnels that swing:

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They sting bad.

Before, Captain Staros’d tried talking the colonel into a flanking manoeuvre. No dice, advance up that hill – now! Staros says no! And indicates the time, he’s a lawyer. Lt Col Gordon Tall goes ballistic! His face turns an almost neon purple. It’s a good thing for Staros that Gordon Tall is not actually there face-to-face, in person, turning purple. He’d probably shoot the guy.

So Staros says no and Tall barges up to the front. And, because the machine-guns’d stopped firing, Tall can pretend they’d never been all that bad in the first place. His one goal now is to jump up and down on Staros’ guts until he looks like run-over toothpaste. Then he has to win the motherfucking battle. Meanwhile the troops are running out of water. But Tall can’t think about that right now. He needs to take that hill.

Reconnaissance reveals a blind spot on the enemy’s side. Tall does the rousing speech thing. Talks sympathetically about the water shortage as if it’s someone else’s fault. He wants a small bunch to take out the bunker. A squad of volunteers assembles. They sneak up the hill and they take out the bunker. The rest follow without their faces full of metal bees this time. Enemy over-run, hill taken. Victory. A flanking manoeuvre.

Many Japanese die that day. Japanese corpses all over. The healthy- captured are so mind-fucked with patriotism that they’re going mental. One meditates, still amidst the chaos. The Americans? Some collect the gold from the teeth of corpses. Some cry in each other’s embrace. One or two get off on the power. I guess mostly they’d be glad they’re still living. The Japanese aren’t. Their minds have been set to bee mode. They’re supposed to go back home with their shields or on them.

And then Lt Col Gordon Tall relieves Staros of his command ’cause he’s not tough-fibred enough. Nothing to do with cowardice, it’s not mutiny. Staros is a fine officer, it’s just his heart’s not hard enough y’see. And this is an important campaign in a major war. This is the Lieutenant-Colonel’s first major combat opportunity and the flanking manouevre looks good on a report. Soldiers are like that, in life – competition.

Nature’s cruel Staros.