Archive for June 1991

Jungle Fever

June 7, 1991

A surprisingly awful movie from a generally superb filmmaker. Here, Spike Lee matches black architect Wesley Snipes with white Italian secretary Annabella Sciorra, stands back, and … lets the sparks fly? Well, no. Rather than creating any transcendent attraction between these two, Lee has made a two-hour-and-twelve-minute film about a white girl who buys into the myth about big black dicks and a black guy who buys into the myth of white women as status symbols. The problem is, it’s hard to care about grown people who believe this shit. We have to watch them wise up — the entire didactic movie revolves around that — and it’s a drag.

Critics charged Lee with attacking interracial love, which wasn’t accurate: He does sketch in a flirtation between John Turturro and Tyra Ferrell that might develop into something terrific. (In fact, they’re the most likable people in this shrieky movie; they’re calm and low-key, and we look forward to seeing more of them. Why wasn’t this film about them?) But the fact remains that Lee completely fucks up with his lead characters. If Lee wanted to debunk racial myths, he should have focused on an interracial couple who persevere in the face of universal hostility, and for whom racial myths were never an issue. Such couples aren’t uncommon.

The most compelling scenes have to do with Gator (Samuel L. Jackson in a breakout performance), Snipes’ crackhead brother; unfortunately, these scenes also have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s as if Lee had said to the detractors of Do the Right Thing, “You want me to deal with the subject of drugs? Okay, motherfuckers, I’ll give you a drug subplot,” and then shoved it into a movie that has no space or need for it. Lee also gets ultra-pretentious in the crack-house scene (it looks like one of those abstract anti-drug TV spots) and in a few bewildering sequences in which characters are filmed from the waist up and appear to be gliding down the street (a mannerism he would return to, sadly). Perhaps sensing that the movie is talktalktalk, Lee lets his camera prowl without restraint, at one point circling restlessly around a simple dialogue scene — the kind of shot that film nerds applaud but audiences laugh at. The worst roles go to Ossie Davis, Frank Vincent, and Lonette McKee, all of whom scream and look very foolish. With songs by Stevie Wonder, often set way too loud on the soundtrack.


June 5, 1991

I’m always up for baffling experimental cinema. There’s a fine line, though, between true art and a bunch of posers spasming about for the benefit of a director who will later make the proceedings even more impenetrable and pretentious in post-production. Begotten sprints across that line in its first five minutes. Like many bullshit artists (as opposed to true artists), E. Elias Merhige, who later made the hip, dreary Shadow of the Vampire and the high-toned thriller Suspect Zero, can certainly talk a good movie. A perusal of the booklet that comes with the DVD leaves you with no doubt that Begotten is meant to be taken as a ferocious cinematic convulsion dealing with The Very Stuff of Life — the mythical origins of existence, viewed sidewise through a shuddering, grainy camera mimicking cinema giving bloody birth to itself as the universe decays and burns.

Eyelids getting heavy yet?

How’s this for an opener: God disembowels himself. Nice! Like everything else in the movie, it goes on forever, and eventually Mother Nature emerges from the gore and ripped flesh. She gets raped, or something, and some malformed guy quivers on the ground for about six, seven years with cloaked people all around him. Taken in very short doses, this might be visually entrancing. Projected on the back wall of a goth nightclub, it’d be right at home. Protracted for 78 minutes that feel like 178 minutes, it becomes aesthetically punitive.

Some, no doubt, will find it scarifyingly beautiful. But the technique covers an awful lot of emptiness and repetition. Begotten could’ve been a punchy 15-minute short and made the same ponderous point about the inherent lust and violence of nature. Hell, your average Tex Avery cartoon does a better job of that. What we’ve got here plays too much like an earnest repertory-theater group going through various bizarro configurations.

If nothing else, Begotten makes David Lynch’s Eraserhead look like a cheerful, accessible romp. It also lacks Eraserhead‘s genuine heart and its roots in actual pain. It’s essentially an art-major riff on the creation myth, and everything in it is photographed and filtered, not felt. Merhige’s later cold projects bear this out. He’s good at evoking nausea and boredom in roughly equal measure, but that seems to be all he has in his deck. If you enjoy projecting meaning onto stylish nothingness, Begotten is your movie. The rest of us may consider it the sort of art movie that gives art movies a bad name.