Death by Stereo: Movie notes

Death by Stereo: Movie notes December 9, 2017

Starting with the low point, I’m afraid. Spinning into Butter is an extremely ’90s tale of racial unrest on campus. It is just not good enough in any respect. Anybody who has followed this sort of thing will guess the shocking twist literally in the first five minutes; I assume Sarah Jessica Parker is actually a good actress but she comes across as if she’s reading words off a page here, wooden and implausible; and the film says nothing, I mean nothing, about race relations. It assumes you share some degree of racialized contempt for black girls who get pregnant out of wedlock and black dudes who are disrespectful and obnoxious. If you instead remember your own disrespectful and obnoxious teenage years, and think babies are good and it’s no surprise that girls want them, it will be really hard for the movie to provoke even the extremely limited self-confrontation it aims for. All the satire of P.C. campus administration and well-meaning race blather feels predictable–we’ve seen this all many times before and sharper. Sorry, this was bad.

OKAY now for a “black people in a white world” film which is actually good! Passing Strange is Spike Lee’s film of Stew’s (ne Mark Stewart) autobiographical musical about an artsy black kid growing up in suburban California. (Young Stew, fronting like he’s among the wretched of the earth: “Do you know what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?” Narrator Stew, wryly: “Nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.”) I loved Passing Strange when I saw it at Studio Theatre, and this is just a film of the Broadway show’s last night. So it has all the pleasures of the musical without trying to reinvent or reimagine it for film.

Those pleasures include hilariously accurate pastiches of late ’70s punk music and ’80s performance art; all the romance and sincere emotion of your basic traditional musical; and Young Stew’s two longings, for ecstatic connection with “the real” and for some kind of resolution in his relationship with his mother. This is a play in which the ecstasy of Christian worship gets translated into the ecstasy of music, drugs, sex, art, politics–all of which fail. If Augustine’s restless heart never had found its rest in Christ, that would be a really sad story! That’s this story. There’s an attempt to make art replace religion, art as guarantor of afterlife. Art as reconciler, peacemaker. Author Stew is more aware of this project’s inevitable failure than e.g. Alan Moore in Jerusalem, but it’s pretty much all he’s got so he does try to leave us with some uplift.

Daniel Breaker is hilarious and poignant as Youth (young Stew); Stew himself is great as the Narrator; Elsa Davis is gorgeously haunting as the mother; in the rest of the cast, who take on many roles, Colman Domingo is a standout as a camp feline Baptist music director and a Halloweeny German performance artist. And since I just beat up on Spinning into Butter (by a white playwright, you’re shocked I’m sure) let me say that Passing Strange‘s satire of how woke white folk view black people and how race can become a hustle is both painfully sharp and full of compassion. Seriously, check this out. I was on board from the moment the gospel singers started wailing, “Music is the freight train on which God travels!”

Speaking of black-and-white worlds of the 1980s, I finally saw D.C. Cab! This 1983 Joel Schumacher joint is not what the poets call “good” but dag, girl, it is very D.C. It is literally the only movie I’ve ever seen which is actually, recognizably filmed in the Chocolate City. It’s crude in a way that’s boring about as often as it’s funny, it’s semipointless and forgettable, but the end credits with the Cardozo High School marching band will stir your soul if you lived here then. God bless the District (because no one else will).

And speaking of movies Joel Schumacher made in the Reagan era, I rewatched The Lost Boys (again). This glorious horror-comedy classic is the first R-rated movie I ever saw, at a sleepover. I have never stopped loving it. The jokes are actually funny, the actors are terrific, the camera swoops and swoons and it is so, so adolescent and lush. Love it.

This time around I noticed that Jason Patric really is as good as people say. This movie also has three of the best opening sequences in ’80s horror: the camera swoop in across the water toward the carnival while “Cry Little Sister” plays, the carousel scene, and the long drive in to Santa Carla with “People Are Strange.” During the drive in we see the Welcome to Santa Carla billboard with MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD scrawled on the back and I was like, “Hey, that’s our line!” But no, during the opening credits we see the raw glamorous punk denizens of the boardwalk, lost kids and gothed-out fun-hunters, and I thought to myself that it was surprisingly realistic, very much what you’d actually see then & there, and it turns out that’s because it’s real Santa Cruz youth of the era.

That is the only thing I remember from Schumacher’s DVD commentary, which is mostly just about how great everybody was to work with (plus some neat tidbits about how he did the shots and effects). But he earned himself a victory lap with this utterly perfect film. Go watch yourself some Lost Boys again, you won’t regret it.


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