Maiello: Defeat the Press
Wolraich: Obama at the Gates of... Gates
I just read David Denby's lukewarm review of Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer (subscription required) in which Denby calls the movie a failure but praises Lee as being one of the few filmmakers out there who would ask the kind of question about faith that he posed in the movie. I haven't seen the movie and don't know that I will. I don't watch every Spike Lee Joint the way I watch every movie made by Woody Allen. But I do pay attention to him and some of his earlier films, especially Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, School Daze and Malcolm X were important movies in my younger years.
Of those films, the Malcolm X biopic stands out as being a "studio" film, though if you look at IMDB now, you won't likely recognize the production companies getting credit, aside from Spike's own 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Warner Brothers, however, was the distributor, which is why it got its nation wide release and national attention. As a funny aside, I remember people wearing those black X hats and Rush Limbaugh responding by donning a similar hat with an "O" on it... a lame Tic Tac Toe joke that seems especially amusing to me given the President that Rush has to deal with now.
Anyway, there's a fantastic New York Magazine interview by Will Leitch with Spike where he talks about why Malcolm X would not be a studio movie today:
That’s the one, from your Nike commercials with him. Five years after that, you were making Malcolm X. No offense, but I’m not sure you could get Malcolm X made today. Did you have more power then?
I do not think the word is power. I think that it is a different climate today. I do not think Oliver Stone gets JFK made today. Unless they can make JFK fly. If they can’t make Malcolm X fly, with tights and a cape, it’s not happening. It is a whole different ball game. There was a mind-set back then where studios were satisfied to get a mild hit and were happy about it; it helped them build their catalogues. But people want films to make a billion dollars now, and they will spend $300 million to make that billion. They are just playing for high stakes, and if it is not for high stakes, they figure it is not worth their while.
Malcolm X had to be a studio film. The other Spike Lee films I mentioned could be financed independently. They were, in essence like most of Woody Allen movies where if you can afford the cast and a good crew (and you benefit from people cutting their usual rate to work with an auteur) you can make the movie. You need a campus to film on, or a pizza shop and some apartments. There are no effects. Malcolm X had glorious period shots from the Harlem Renaissance that did not come cheap. It had a pilgrimage to Mecca. If you think back to around that time, Woody Allen also made a period piece (Bullets over Broadway). Studios were willing to distribute these movies. Miramax was around, pushing Pulp Fiction towards the Oscars. Books like Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes and How To Make A Film On A Used Car Budget were big sellers.
I like big blockbuster movies. I also like super heroes. I'm not complaining that things used to be better. But the need to spend $300 million to make $1 billion is all about scale. The big change in media in general over the last two decades has been consolidation. The companies are bigger and so their projects must be bigger in order to count. Trying to move the needles with more numerous, smaller projects doesn't exploit economies of scale.
So, without arguing that entertainment isn't what it used to be (because, let's face it, some of these big movies are awesome) I think we can say that we have sacrificed variety.
And, here's the thing -- they took us to see Malcolm X in high school and we discussed it after. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X after. It made having read Black Boy and 12 Million Black Voices make sense. It was, in retrospect, a film that made my mental world bigger in ways that I can measure. And it's creator says he couldn't get it made today. That's not a good cultural sign.
Again, that doesn't mean that great art isn't being made every day or that we don't have a lot of new things to replace some of what was lost. I don't feel nostalgic about this, I just feel like we have ignored the cultural consequences of our economic development. If the studios are all parts of large conglomerates that need big projects to move the needle and the theaters are all parts of larger conglomerates and so are the cable companies and streaming services and all the rest, we are only going to get that which is aimed at the broadest audience.
And, here's the thing... A long time ago, Aristotle decided to try to figure out what make great Greek drama great. We looked at the greatest tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and others. All were very different dramatists with different world views. But, Aristotle sussed out what each of their most successful plays had in common and distilled them into The Poetics. I contend that if you follow the rules of The Poetics to the letter, that you can write a perfectly average Greek tragedy. While the structures identified by Aristotle are important and help explain why some stories found their audiences, each individual author deviated from the formula in their own ways. Read collectively, you see the pattern, but no single play matches it exactly. Being part of the pattern helped give each play its appeal. Where they deviated, I think, is where each play found greatness.
Spike Lee deviates. The end of Malcolm X is right out of Bertolt Brecht. He's okay with leaving the formula behind and with his movie not appealing to everyone because of it. If you don't need a $100 million opening weekend, you can take that risk. If you do, you have to stick to the formula and that will, more often than not, lead you to just average and not the kind of thing that people are still talking about two decades years later.