25th Hour, Spike Lee’s latest film, is actually pretty good–despite the rumors of Lee’s decline as a filmmaker, and despite the fact that this is one of his films with a largely white cast, that doesn’t deal at all with African American issues (which is not to say that it ignores race)… (Warning: spoilers to follow)
25th Hour gives a pretty good overall sense of Lee’s strenghts and weaknesses as a director:
- Scene by scene, Lee is the best living American director. This is something for which he has never received the recognition he deserves. Lee’s movies are always about shifting moods and emotions, and every scene and sequence he shoots is a magnificent tone poem, brilliantly articulated in terms of lighting, camera movement and placement, and editing. 25th Hour is less showy than some of his films–without his trademark swish pans, for instance–and all the better for it. The subtle but continual variations in tone effectively convey the doubts and hesitations and despair of Ed Norton’s character, as he spends his last day of freedom before reporting to prison for a 7-year term for drug dealing.
- The film isn’s strong on narrative, which is often a weakness in Lee’s films. But here it is more an advantage than a defect, since a film that drifts irresolutely is precisely suitable to the situation of a man whose life has reached a complete dead end. The film definitely suffers from a certain lack of focus, but in a way it earns even what is flawed about it.
- Another thing Lee has never gotten sufficient credit for is that he is an experimental director, in the best sense–always testing the limits and possibilities of film form. 25th Hour is no exception. Some of its inserted, non-narrative, Godardian sequences, like when Norton curses out every imaginable ethnic and social group in New York City, might seem reminiscent of earlier Lee films, like the racial epithet sequence in Do the Right Thing. But actually the scene here is rather different, if only for the wider social scope of Norton’s insults–he is really cursing society rather than ethnic formations–and the way it all collapses back onto himself. More importantly, 25th Hour is experimental because of the way it suspends time: nothing much really happens in the film, and Norton’s character doesn’t come to any catharsis or moment of recognition. Mostly the film is about waiting passively for the inevitable. This leads to a remarkable subversion of narrative, which is revealed to be a way of trying to film what remains a fundamental emptiness. This rightly challenges the common view that the most important thing in a movie is the story, which is defined as a sequence of inherently meaningful happenings. In a real sense, Lee frustrates and subverts narrative expectations more radically (because he does this on the level of form) than, say, Charlie Kaufmann and Spike Jonze do with their (nonetheless brilliant) parodies and self-reflexive turns in Adaptation. But precisely because Lee’s subversion is subtler as well as more fundamental, he doesn’t get adequate recognition for it.
- As almost always (with the sole exception, perhaps, of Girl 6), Lee is much more in tune with male characters and dilemmas than with female ones. Neither of the female characters (played by Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin) was particularly convincing; the emotional weight of the movie comes mostly from the interaction between Norton’s character and his lifelong best friends, played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman and by Barry Pepper, and with his dad, played by the always-reliable Brian Cox. The fact that it was so much, and so predictably, about “guy stuff” was the thing I liked the least about 25th Hour.
- Though this is basically a film about white people, that doesn’t mean it is not a film about race. The film is continually aware of white privilege on the one hand, and the perils and possibilities of miscegenation on the other. Norton’s character is Irish-American, his girlfriend, played by Dawson, is Puerto Rican). What the film registers, quite subtly, is both the central and acknowledged role of ethnicity and ethnic difference in American life, especially in New York City (in this film, we get Irish, Jews, Latinos, and Russians, mostly), and also, at the very same time, the way white skin privilege is always at work, all the more so in that it is peripheral to the consciousness of the people who benefit from it. That is to say, the movie does not see race only peripherally; rather, it registers very precisely how white people benefit from it by peripheralizing it in their awareness.
- The most remarkable sequence in 25th Hour comes at nearly the very end: as Cox (the father) drives Norton (the son) to prison, he urges him to escape: we get an extended sequence, with Cox’s voiceover imagining it, and the camera depicting it in a series of shots filled with oversaturated light, depicting something entirely counterfactual to what is actually happening in the film: Norton’s escape to the desert of the Southwest, his starting anew, with a new job, a new identity, and eventually (after Dawson joins him) a new multicultural family, culminating in an old age lived happily among children and grandchildren. The poignancy of this sequence is precisely a function of its impossibility: the great white American dream of wilderness and escape, modulated to acknowledge the Latinization of American culture, but also explicitly acknowledged as being a wishful fiction, a denial of the harsh actualities of American urban life. This sequence, poised on the edge of inexistence, alluring us with hope while at the same time denouncing it as a Big Lie of American culture (not to mention, one in which black people were never offered the opportunity to participate) is a truly remarkable moment in this interesting, emotionally powerful, but never entirely compelling, film.