96: Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, 1989

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It feels a little weird writing this for a movie that is 25 years old, but just to cover our butts… SPOILER ALERT!!

From Jon:

This week we came across a first in our journey through the AFI’s Top 100 list, a movie that was ranked lower than it should.  Watching Do the Right Thing for the first time in 15 years was an interesting experience.  It was a trip into the past, yet a reflection of the present.  It was an intriguing piece of artistic film and a deeply relevant piece of social commentary.  It kind of boggles my mind that this landmark film is so low on this list, but what is even more astounding is that it wasn’t anywhere to be found on the original 1998 list.  Lord of the Rings (oh man, I can’t wait to write about this film… again) somehow makes it to 50 six years after release but it took almost 20 years for a deeply significant cultural movie to crack 96.  Then I take a second, I remember who makes these lists, and my ire drops a bit.  Not because I’m okay with it, but because it unfortunately makes sense.  What do 80-year-old white guys know about the African-American story?  Why would they hold up and praise a movie special for reasons they worked hard to prevent for decades?

Do the Right Thing was a landmark piece of cinema because it was the first time we got to see the African-American experience from the point of view of an African-American.  The movie was written, directed and produced by an African-American.  It starred African-Americans.  The score and soundtrack were all African-American musicians playing music that is interracial to African-American culture.  The central point of the movie was to take on race issues… from the point of African-Americans.  This wasn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night, both significant movies dealing with important and serious race issues, but written, directed, produced by white guys.  This wasn’t Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song either, it wasn’t about the scary angry black man and the seedy world he inhabits, it was a story about a normal African-American neighborhood.  Spike Lee accomplished something that had not been done before and was extremely successful in the process.  He paved the way for movies like Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Menace II Society.  Yes, they told very different stories, but they were African-American stories told by African-Americans.  Thanks to Spike Lee, big studios were finally giving them the chance to tell their own stories.

I also feel Do the Right Thing helped pave the way for the independent film movement that flourished in the 90’s.  Yes, I know, it wasn’t actually an independent film, but ask an average person and they will guess that it was.  It was basically an independent film that Universal just distributed.  Spike Lee created a piece of art that was his on every level.  He wrote, directed and starred, he had his father write and perform the score, he casted all his friends.  This was the mentality that independent film was centered around and even though it wasn’t an independent film, it showed film audiences that this style film could be both entertaining and thought provoking.  I find it hard to believe that movies like Pulp Fiction or Clerks or Swingers would have been as popular and recognized if it wasn’t for Lee.

The last point I feel I need to make about this movie has to do with its ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it was hard to sit and watch this movie and not think of the race issues that have been all over the news of late.  I find it both interesting and disturbing that a movie 25 years old can present a scenario that is taking up major time in current new cycles.  Lee tried to shine a light on inner city issues and, with all the acclaim and notoriety the movie got, nobody really paid attention.

Do the Right Thing is a great movie.  It needs to be much higher on this list because there are very few more important films that have been made and probably none more important in the last 30 years.  While the styles and settings scream late 80’s early 90’s, the story and the message are at timeless as can be expected.  The acting is spot on.  The cinematography tells as much of the story as the dialogue.  It has everything a movie needs to be considered great.  Add in its historical significance and it should be one of the Top 20 movies of all time.

I give Do the Right Thing 5 out of 5 bowls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.  It took a while before someone was allowed to put a twist on ice cream, but now we can’t imagine living without it.

From Jenny:

Out of the movies we’ve watched so far on this journey, this has been the most challenging to write about. This is because Do the Right Thing is an important film everyone should see.

 If you saw it in 1989, I’d recommend seeing it again.  It’s not an easy one to watch, and stirs up lots of difficult topics, ones that I tend to shy away from in groups of people larger than two.  Why?  So I don’t say the wrong thing, speak about something when I don’t have all the facts, offend someone, ask a question I’m supposed to know.  All my own fears.    But I don’t feel hopeless after watching it.  I feel disturbed, appropriately so, but I also feel awakened, and maybe that part of writing this blog is me finally starting to say how I feel about things I’ve don’t often discuss.

 Spike Lee picked the hottest day of the year as the backdrop for four racial groups, trying to live in one neighborhood. They ignore each other, interact, clash, try to understand each other, but clash again, throw up their hands, and collide in total violent chaos.  Depending on who “you” are, it may cause you to feel everything on the spectrum from uneasy, to angry, to conflicted, wronged, validated. And in doing so, it will make you think, and maybe discuss. But I also found myself feeling weirdly comfortable about the setting.  I began to think of it as a play, with a few scene changes:  the neighborhood, including the brownstone stoops, the sidewalks, the red wall where “The Corner Men” hang out, the pizzeria, and the inside of Mookie’s and of Tina’s apartments. I don’t know Brooklyn. I’ve been there enough times to know how to get there.  I’m white, living in middle class CT.  I don’t really have a neighborhood.  The way Spike Lee portrayed the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was just over the line into happy and comfortable…kind of like in the first season of LOST.  There was a brief time (and I mean brief) where everything seemed ok– I’m talking early on, like the 2nd part of the Pilot. In fact, the song I’m thinking of is “Wash Away” by Joe Purdy.  You could feel the fact that some awful things were going to happen in the near future.

 I found myself struck hard by many things in this film.  The anger. The fact that no one let up– no one offered anyone any mercy, ever.  I sometimes find myself in situations where there’s a clear choice to exacerbate something, or keep quiet / try to assuage a person or keep an event from exploding.  I feel compelled to dive into sentence fragment mode now as I tell you what I kept thinking about:

 The kindness and cluelessness and sensitivity and ignorance and misdirection of Sal.

The gentle nature, the care for people, the steady calculating anger of Mookie.

The reasonableness, the wanting peace of Jade.

The unyielding and unrelenting, one track perseverance of Buggin Out.

The fact that Vito could have been saved, convinced.

The symbolic act of justice performed by Smiley at the end.

The title alone.

 Does Do the Right Thing “hold up” to the test of time?  Yes.  Despite the off-putting opening several minutes of Rosie Perez dancing, the late 80s styles, the fact that Radio Raheem carried a boom box the size of my car, and no one had their necks bowed into their smartphones, (something I think about A LOT, feeling unable to grasp this change in our culture), so people still looked each other in the eye when they spoke. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think enough has changed since this movie was made.  I was afraid of coming to that conclusion even before I watched it.  What I didn’t consider was the timing of when Jon and I sat down to watch this movie, December 5th, 2014.  While thousands of people in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. marched in protest after the Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death this past July.  As I sat there, watching the two cops on the screen choke Radio Raheem to death in front of the entire screaming, raging neighborhood, I felt sick and full of tears.  I wanted the movie to be fiction, but it wasn’t, it isn’t.

 I’m not sure what to do after seeing this movie.  It makes me profoundly aware of the fact that I have no answers. It makes me love and fear people.  It makes me make that face that causes people to ask if I’m mad (it’s called thinking, thanks). I guess there isn’t exactly something for me to do, at least tonight, but it’s caused me to look deeper into what’s going on in the world I don’t want to think about, and make connections.  There’s nothing so sad as seeing a person try in vain to reach out to another person, but go about it so badly, it causes more anger and resentment.  This movie was full of characters trying to live their lives, take a stand, make trouble, stay out of trouble, love someone, or destroy someone. The conflict and the depth of hatred and misunderstanding ran too deep to be untangled in two hours on screen.  And in under 24 hours in the story, a microcosmic house of cards came down like it was meant to be, like there was no way around it.

 I want to believe it’s cyclical, with a possibility of glacier-like progress towards peace. Mookie and Sal’s exchange in front of the destruction the morning after hinted at “just another day” in a way that almost gives false hope. In my experience, people don’t change willingly due to external forces.  But they do get the crap kicked out of them by external forces. And people get worn down, tired, and closed.

 This has not been my best piece of writing here. I want to say so much more, but I’m constrained by time and responsibilities to wrap it up.  The weight of this movie makes our scoops of ice cream rating system seem foolish.  But, sometimes you gotta stick with the plan.

I give Do the Right Thing four out of five shaved ices in paper cones, any flavor you want.

Up Next: The Last Picture Show

Jon: Black and white means good, right?

Jenny: I have a bad feeling this title is misleading.

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97: Blade Runner

Tedco26031_classic_walking_robotBlade Runner, 1982

From Jon:

I feel like the enduring question of my writings on this list, as pointed out by a friend, is going to be, what makes art great?  Is it something that pushes the medium forward or something that is timeless and universal in its appreciation?  I’m not sure there is a better movie to present in that argument than Blade Runner.  It’s a highly stylized science fiction movie that at times is horribly dated, yet is the front runner of the genre and creator of many sci-fi tropes.  Without Blade Runner it’s hard to imagine James Cameron having a career.  This was the first time we saw evil corporations, robots hiding as people, and a claustrophobic bleak future, all things that are on the present day “sci-fi movie must” checklist.  The problem is, the genre itself causes there to be a time limit on its relevance.  In 1982, 2019 seemed like a distant future, but now it’s 4 years away and we know there is no more Pan Am or Polaroid pictures and that cell phones dominate our culture.  While Harrsion Ford’s character, Deckard, does use a very relevant method of zooming in on a picture with voice recognition, he does it on a monitor as thick and clunky as an original Mac computer and a keyboard that looks no different then what they would have used in 1975.  So, is Blade Runner an AFI 100 worthy movie or an outdated pioneer.

I’ve been asked a few times what I mean when I use the term “holds up,” as in, Ben-Hur just doesn’t hold up too today’s movies.  To me, if a movie holds up it can be watched and enjoyed today as if it just came out in the theaters last Friday.  A movie from the 50’s that still holds up today would have a story that over shines any plot points that would be ridiculous in the 2000’s.  An action movie that still holds up today wouldn’t have silly special effects that take you out of the movie.  The acting in a movie that holds up will be timeless and not representative of a certain era of film.  If a movie holds up you don’t cringe or laugh when you hear a certain line delivered or outfit worn.  To be a truly great movie, a movie worthy of this list, I think you have to push the medium forward while being able to hold up to whatever age you are being watched in.  To just contain one or the other leaves something to be desired.

This is the second time I’ve seen Blade Runner.  The last time was back in the early 90’s or late 80’s.  I don’t remember which version I saw, if it was the original theatrical version with the happy ending or, what would have been the newly released Director’s cut, with the more ambiguous ending.  I don’t remember because, in all honesty, most of the plot didn’t stick with me.  What did stick and what I did remember was the movie’s feel, the darkness, the rain, the grime, the claustrophobia.  What made this movie noteworthy wasn’t the story it told but the images it created.  I didn’t get much more from it with a second viewing.  At its heart, Blade Runner is a film noir set in the future.  It’s filled with all the clichés that we have grown to expect from movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly and A Touch of Evil, all the while establishing a whole other set of elements that would become cliché with the movies that followed like The Terminator, Aliens, Brazil, Gattaca, and 12 Monkeys.  There is no question that Blade Runner is a landmark film in the science fiction genre even though the plot and the characters leave much to be desired.

Even as a landmark science fiction movie, the question still remains, does it belong on this list?  Is Blade Runner a timeless piece of art?  Did it push forward the medium of film?  As far as science fiction goes, the prognostication of the future feels a little off here.  There really isn’t anything creative or that pushed the idea of technology to the limits, and that hurts how it plays today.  The fact that the computers used in 2019 look exactly like the computers used in 1982 makes the movie feel dated and uninspired.  Yet, many of the ideas the movie presents are as timeless as anything presented in film.  The computers may be uninspired but the idea of robots hiding as humans is still a major component of movies today.  Flying cars might come off as silly now but the fear of evil corporations couldn’t be more relevant.  Then there are the special effects, which are amazing.  Yes, even in 1982 the idea of a flying car seemed cliché, but this movie did a great job making it look real, as real as if it was shot today in CG (even if the camera spent WAY too much time showing it).  Nothing makes a science fiction movie feel more dated than special effects and that just isn’t a problem here.

Blade Runner is painfully slow and plodding, the characters are kind of undeveloped and the plot can be confusing, but there is so much here that makes this movie timeless and noteworthy.  This isn’t a top 5 movie, or even a top 50 movie, but I find it very hard to argue that it isn’t a top 100.  I’m not sure that there is a more influential modern science fiction film.

I give Blade Runner 3 out of 5 bowls of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked.  It combines two great flavors and led to all kinds of crazy creations but is still far from my favorite.

From Jenny: 

Attempting to review Blade Runner puts me in a tough spot.  I’ve already declared that I’m not a fan of musicals or animation, but sitting through this sci-fi “masterpiece” made me long for the seemingly endless minutes that made up Toy Story. It made me wish I had paid closer attention to Ben-Hur.  It made me look fondly back at James Cagney and long for painfully happy orchestra and a clear plot.  

Blade Runner was the worst movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Now, I could go on and on about this listing all the things I could not stand about it, or things I disagreed with as far as filmmaking is concerned (hey I’m entitled to an opinion, as unversed in the subject as I may be), or what about it made me so annoyed.  But I thought, well, maybe you missed something here.  Maybe you should try to understand things from a film-noir perspective, from a groundbreaking science fiction perspective, and from a 1982 pop culture perspective.  The following is me trying to write intelligently and respectfully about this movie:

The screenplay was adapted from a 1968 novel entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The more I read about the original work, the better it sounds to me. Seriously, as in, even if I didn’t love it, I could see why this book could be considered highly regarded unlike the flim. Picture a dystopian world of the future, (Ridley Scott’s version is 2019) advertisements are everywhere, (lots of close up shots of Geisha women eating snacks and giggling), Pan Am and Atari have apparently taken over much of the market share, (there’s a Choose Your Own Adventure gone awry right there) and large mega-corporations rule.  Android creatures called “replicants” exist, created to do menial labor and dangerous stuff “off world” and they aren’t supposed to be hanging around Earth, but apparently sometimes they get in. When that happens, special police operatives calle Blade Runners “retire” them, which means assassinate them.  I understand this premise, although we did have to pause the movie near the beginning for me to clarify what was going on, with Jon. I guess my problem from the get go, was that I was looking for a plot I could really get into, and that apparently doesn’t happen with this kind of movie. I also tried to care about the characters.

Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, who has been called out of retirement (I think) to hunt down 5 remaining replicants.  He seems none too pleased to do with this assignment, and between his humdrum existence of which we are given little information about, and his drinking whiskey pretty constantly throughout the movie, I figured he had some cross he bore, some child who died in the past, some love he lost to a tragedy.  I made that up because I was trying to make him human, I was trying to give him some story. When Deckard learns that Rachael, played by the wide-shouldered large-haired Sean Young is a replicant who thinks she is human, I wanted to think he was somewhat conflicted. I mean, who wouldn’t be? She’s certainly striking, she did save his life, and it was the closest I got to thinking on any deeper sort of level considering the whole “what is human?” question. So, he sleeps with her, of course, (probably to thank her for saving his life) and I feel like I sort of zoned out after that… I would have stayed alert for a sex scene, but they only implied it. I felt a little more interest in Daryl Hannah’s character Pris, (who I thought was David Bowie), her weird boyfriend figure, and the tiny slice into their life as they try to gain poor human Sebastian’s trust, to get to the Tyrell Corporation guy, to see if they can live longer than the allotted four years.  I could have gone with that story longer.  I feel that was one of the biggest problems with the whole movie for me– I never had enough information to really become invested in any of what was going on.

I found myself thinking, what use could I have for this movie, considering I’m the only person besides two others I found on Rotten Tomatoes who didn’t find this movie fanfreakingtastic. So I got to thinking, I’ve been to a lot of parties.  A lot of really bad parties, and a few good parties.  Maybe this is one of those movies that would have been a decent “background movie” at some rager in my past. It’s so f-ing hopelessly slow, it would have done better as an eerie light-casting mechanism to which young people could make out, or do other frowned-upon activities.  Since it never stops raining in L.A., 2019, and most of the movie is very difficult to see, you don’t run the risk of exposing anything you don’t want seen. It’s also apparently cool to like this movie, so if I have a shady party anytime soon, this may be playing on repeat in my basement.

Then there’s the futuristic aspect of this movie.  I read how this movie was “groundbreaking” in visual impact. I acknowledge the fact that Blade Runner was named to be a part of the National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” but I can’t seem to get over the fact that it felt like the worst depiction of “the future” I’ve ever seen rendered. Everything in the film looked like it was made of Legos.  And not Legos from the same kit– Legos from the bottom of the bin of many years of Legos that don’t fit well together.  I’ve seen movies that depicted the future in numerous ways, for many years, and what, we do the best we can with what we know at the time.  I get that.  A 1950’s vision of the future could be looked back upon as laughable, but you have to give the creators some credit for doing the best they can with the information they had at the time. For some reason I can’t seem to give Blade Runner any mercy here.  Every scene was held together in mystery and intrigue only by the “noir” in “film noir.”  I suspect if the movie was any brighter, it would have been even more clumsy and dumb looking.

The only thing they sort of got right was the forward thinking aspect of Sean Young’s shoulder pads.  Wow. She was like a linebacker, a dangerous entity, with those shoulders alone.  It actually reminded me of Carol Burnett’s parody “Went with the Wind” in which she wears the curtains, curtain rod in place.  But there was really nothing funny about Sean Young, and I started to very much dislike her.  But those shoulder pads.  Talk about eerie foreshadowing. Think Delta Burke, 1988.  Outta control.

I don’t know.  I appreciate that this movie was revolutionary in the sense that it had special effects not used before, it used innovative designs, and that countless movies, TV shows and video games were greatly influenced by it and stylized after it, and it’s gained more than a cult following over the years.

Yet I can’t help but agree with one of the reviewers I read, who mentioned the phrase “hopelessly overrated.” That sums it up for me.  Maybe I was looking for something that didn’t exist in this movie, but when I read about what it was trying to do via the dramatic and narrative levels, it just didn’t (to borrow a phrase from Jon) hold up.  Like I shouted about 50 minutes into the movie, “I just don’t care about any of this! None of this! I don’t see why I should care!  They haven’t given me any reason to keep watching!” Maybe that was a little dramatic. But whatever. I get some effort points for trying to appreciate something this slow and dreadful.   No, I won’t be seeing the sequel.

I give this movie one bowl of sugar-free low-fat ice cream.  It’s only pretending to be ice cream. I won’t be tricked.

Up Next: Do The Right Thing

Jenny: Any movie that follows Blade Runner is going to be the right thing.

Jon: Spike Lee before he had an image to maintain.