I’ve Heard of Underground Cinema, But This Is Ridiculous!: Short movie notes

I’ve Heard of Underground Cinema, But This Is Ridiculous!: Short movie notes July 26, 2023

Photo of a Cincinnati subway tunnel by Jonathan Warren, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I have so many to write about that I figured I’d do them in reverse chronological order of when they were filmed. Today’s post covers 2023 – 2000.

They Cloned Tyrone: This movie is so fun, so joyful in its plunge into a stylized Black cultural world that mixes nostalgia for the bad old Blaxploitation days and hypercontemporary references, that you almost don’t notice how much Afropessimism is in its DNA. Tyrone loves its characters, even though (or because!) they’re intentionally stereotypical. There’s only so much distance between a stereotype and a hero! The burnt-orange, dusky yellow, neon-and-streetlamps lighting is gorgeous, the music is sinister and plot-relevant, and there is just enough exposition and explanation but not too much. (There is no US type scene where the movie explains its metaphysics.)

There are a couple hard-hitting plot twists; for me, the most powerful one is the one about personal guilt, when they figure out how the cloners are picking who to clone. This movie isn’t as surreal and individual as, say, Sorry to Bother You–it’s a commercial product–but it doesn’t feel sanded-down. Like okay, is it fully thought-through? It is not. Is it saying something, not just mouthing Twitter-revolutionary platitudes but trying to say something raw and real? Yes.

And it’s interesting, too… I watched some screeners for an upcoming series, which I can’t review yet. That show has some striking similarities with Tyrone in everything from specific cultural references to broad themes: is success different from liberation, if you join ’em does that mean you’ve beaten ’em, etc. But Tyrone‘s world seemed so much bigger–and it’s important that our heroes don’t use elite institutional power at any point. (Spoilers for that thing where Yo-Yo tried to tip off the Washington Post, I guess.) Their only allies are sketchy people: sometimes brave people, in one case a very smart person, but people who have never “beaten the odds” or even risen to the occasion.  There’s a kind of disrespectability politics here, or “participatory democracy is for jackasses too!”, and I loved that, as a jackass. In a better world, a very different political movement would have adopted the slogan, Deplorable Lives Matter.

Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse: Thrillingly inventive visuals, an absolute can’t-miss movie in spite of having imho (imho!!!) not much to say and insisting on saying it anyway. Main characters are appealing, I mean it’s Spider-Man, when you buy a Snickers bar you expect it to taste how a Snickers bar does and you like it. …No, thinking back, I’ll say that the writers did work to make Miles and Gwen a bit more individual and lived-in than that analogy suggests; and the plethora of Spiderpeople (and Spider-Cat!) was full of both fun visual gags and delightful characters. Hobie, the Spider-Punk, struck an especially delicate balance as a corporate franchise character whose actions and motivations all made sense coming from an anarchist punk. Also he looked rad, come on. Like a zine that’s a person.

As contemporary kids’ movie messages go (why do they have to tell us messages? why do the messages have to be moral in nature?), “Nobody else can write your story for you” is fine, I guess. I was bored by all the lecturing about the nature of the *~*multiverse*~* and I suspect they tried too hard to wring metaphor from something that is ultimately just about the decisions of a corporation in pursuit of pelf. There’s a side order of, “Don’t trust people who tell you to sacrifice another person for the greater good,” which was allowed to emerge through the storytelling rather than in exposition, and I’ll admit that the film is a fairly insightful portrayal of how desperate many spunky teens are to give away their hearts to some plausible non-parent authority figure.

But mostly I was just in awe of how I never knew what I’d see next. A Michelangelo sketch crashing into a modern-day cartoon! A melting teen watercolor world of lilting poignancy!  Tilting angles, crazy action, nice punctuation of the overwhelming scenes with calm, character-driven scenes… a wild ride through a hundred different ways to see the world.

The 25th Hour: Spike Lee’s post-9/11 movie, about a low-level NYC crook trying to navigate everybody else’s emotional needs during his going-away party, the night before he goes upstate to prison. Stellar acting from Edward Norton as the shlimazl and Rosario Dawson as his possibly-snitchin’ girlfriend; extremely 2002 acting from Anna Paquin as a high school girl who’s hot for teacher. A terrific opening, not sentimental even though it touches things people get really sentimental about. Two really breathtaking set pieces. One is an intensely Spike Lee montage of ethnic etc stereotypes which is not-particularly-covertly a love letter to all the rotten people of the Big Apple. It pulls some punches, but imho that makes sense given that it’s a rant by someone who is still a Catholic schoolboy underneath it all. And the second one is a dream, an alternate ending, another life.

So far every Spike Lee movie I’ve seen has been aggressively willing to have flaws, to do things that shouldn’t work and don’t quite, and this is no exception. There’s a clunkiness to the rant montage, and yet it is also so heartfelt, so loving. The clunkiness is part of what makes it feel right! There are other moments where 25th Hour tries stuff it probably shouldn’t–the high-school sexpot plot is distasteful without offering any compensatory insight (even Philip Seymour Hoffman as the teacher just dissolves into a bunch of nebbishy tics), and the Russian friend/accomplice is an accent, not a person. But this is a personal movie, a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and to share Spike Lee’s vision for a couple hours is a precious thing.

The Lady and the Duke: I continue not to get Eric Rohmer…. This French Revolution picture does startling things with backgrounds, if that’s even the right term for them, moving people in and out of settings that look like paintings. People criticized the film for being reactionary, which like, if you don’t want people to react against your revolution, maybe don’t make it so brutal and repressive? But in fact I don’t get the impression that Rohmer’s central concerns here are political or historical. What comes out in the storytelling is the way our actions emerge from a tangle of sympathies, personal loyalties or debts owed, preexisting relationships we take for granted, and professed ideologies. The balance can shift between these various motivating forces, but people are rarely able to act from only the one motive they’re willing to claim.

Dark Days: Marc Singer’s first and only movie, and when you see it, you will be as shocked by that fact as I was. This is a documentary about people living in a tunnel under New York City, made in the second half of the 1990s with a lot of participation from the residents themselves. In fact Singer was also a resident, though more voluntarily than most, as he became fascinated by the tunnel-dwellers and lived underground for a while.

Dark Days is well-paced, knowing when to ramble and when to pull you up short. Great editing. Great choices of which stories to tell on camera; or hey, for all I know there were fifty even better stories on the cutting-room floor! But Dark Days has so much respect for its people. It lets them opine, reminisce, teach, sob, plan, laugh, argue, BS, and rejoice.

There is a twist: a catastrophe, which might become a source of hope. The film doesn’t divulge the role Marc Singer played in those events; you can read about that here, and it’s pretty moving. There’s a way of telling the story of an underclass where you are so enraptured by their human reality that you forget that maybe they don’t want to be a picturesque underclass; maybe they want something recognizable as flourishing. Dark Days is extraordinary in how well it balances honoring its subjects for the culture they created, and acknowledging that they created that tough and caring culture in a place where nothing human should have to grow.

Photo of a Cincinnati subway tunnel by Jonathan Warren, via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.

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