Well this week it’s nothing but controversy in the world of arthouse type Cinema. Discussion and debate riddles the lobbies of select theaters nationwide. Limited releases bring unlimited disagreement in a platform type pattern across the great land of america.
Audiences are divided over which movie is more divisive, Dancer in the Dark or Bamboozled? Many love Dancer in the Dark, many hate it. Bamboozled has been called both a career destroying debacle and the year’s best film. However some feel that Bamboozled is really more provocative than divisive. Maybe Dancer in the Dark is dividing audiences, but is it provoking them? No matter how divisive it is, can it be as outrageous as Bamboozled? As explosive?
Well shit I don’t know. Personally I’m divided on both of these. I love ’em and I hate ’em. I think I love Dancer in the Dark a little more than I hate it and hate Bamboozled a little more than I love it. But I mean who knows I am so divided and provoked and outraged at their explosiveness that I don’t even know up from down anyway.
DANCER IN THE DARK
There are two main things you need to know about Dancer in the Dark. One, it’s a musical. And two, it’s really fuckin sad.
The story is about Selma, a lady factory worker in Washington state in the ’60s. And she’s slowly going blind and can barely even work anymore or find her way home, but she doesn’t tell anyone because her son has the same disease and if he finds out about it she thinks he’ll worry so much it’ll get worse. But she’s saving all her money in a cookie tin and she might barely have enough to get him an operation when he turns 13. So she can’t buy him a bicycle and she has to stumble along the train tracks to find her way home and she is on the verge of getting fired or killed because she can barely run the machines at work. But don’t worry, it gets ALOT sadder from there.
I mean, jesus. That’s exactly what I said when I stood up at the end, “Jesus.” And you could hear snot blowing in all four corners of the theater.
This is a weird movie though because first of all, it takes place in some weird fantasy world. Yeah I know it’s supposed to be my home territory of Washington state, but gimme a fuckin break here pal. Washington is not fairy land. I can’t think of a place in Washington with that much snow but even if I could, it wouldn’t have an Icelandic elf and elegant Catherine Deneuve living there working at a pan making factory. And Udo Kier most definitely wouldn’t be the town doctor. I mean there are about ten different accents in this movie and most of them aren’t even american let alone washingtonian. What the hell do these europeans think goes on here anyway?
Other than this it goes for a bit of that realistic look to contrast with the musical numbers. This isn’t officially a dogme 95 film but it does have that sort of bad porn movie/home birthday video vibe to it. Grainy handheld cameras, purposely bad sound recording, etc. On the other hand they at least had the sense to get the famous kraut cinematographicist Robby Mueller to direct the photography, so there are some nice colors and it all looks pretty even though it’s grainy and muddy and shitty because the motherfuckers couldn’t be bothered with developing film. (And they say americans are lazy. Well I don’t remember americans inventing dogme 95.)
So yes, it’s a musical. Selma loves movie musicals because “there’s always someone there to catch you.” So quite a ways into the picture the rhythmic sounds of the factory machines turn into a beat and the lady starts singing. And she’s good too. There are several musical numbers and I liked them all. There is a certain irony to them because the audience is always aware that they are an unrealistic fantasy, a fanciful escape from a very grim reality. But Bjork who is the icelandic girl who stars in the movie, she has a very bubbly and optimistic personality which permeates through her singing and really gets to you.
Late in the picture there is even a moment some individuals will call magical. Hell I’m even gonna take the plunge. I’m gonna call it “sublime.” Because at this point the movie has gotten so sad you can’t even take it anymore. You can’t even believe the filmatists are putting you through this kind of torture. I don’t want to give it away but let’s just say Selma is being led to her death, and she knows it, and everybody knows it, and it’s long and drawn out and holy jesus. And suddenly it bursts into a musical number. And you are SO fucking relieved to be able to escape into a tune instead of sit there dreading death.
And then you realize that you are feeling exactly the escape that Selma does when she hallucinates musical numbers. And you go, “Whoah, sublime.”
That brings up my basic problem with the picture though. I think this motherfucker Lars is sadistic. Not just to his characters, but to his audiences. This isn’t a picture about capital punishment or anything like that, and I don’t think it should be. But when there’s not really a message to it and you’re identifying so strongly with a character that gets so royally fucked, you start to wonder – did I really have to go through that? This movie exploits sadness the way Cannibal Ferox or Faces of Death exploit gruesomeness. It’s I Cry On Your Grave.
Seriously, I think Lars gets a little too much joy by devastating his audiences. Life really doesn’t have to be this fucking bleak for poor Selma but she makes it so. And he makes us watch it. Slowly. And in graphic detail. And hell the motherfucker even makes Catherine Deneuve watch. And he makes us watch Catherine Deneuve watch, even as we ourselves are watching. I mean jesus, leave Catherine Deneuve out of this you sicko dutch pervert. What the hell did she ever do to you asshole.
I mean seriously, this is a director who gets a perverse thrill out of tormenting audiences. And by that I mean, literally the guy gets a boner. Sitting there at the Cannes Film Festival, or wherever it was that this movie won the big prize, and Lars Von Trier – writer, director, dogme founder – Lars Von Trier has a boner.
Seriously. Maybe he goes out back and starts desperately jacking off after a screening. I don’t know. I can’t prove this but there are stories man, believe me. Well no, I mean I guess I haven’t heard any stories really. Not in so many words. But I got a feeling about this guy. Pretty good picture though otherwise.
Bamboozled is a satire about black stereotypes in the media, and the part both blacks and whites take in promoting them (sorry, no mention of asians, indians and etc). The story is about a black television writer who puts together a blackface minstrel show as a “cutting edge” new pilot. He expects it to fail, but like “Springtime For Hitler” in the old Producers movie Mel Brooks did, it becomes a big hit. So, for reasons unclear in the narrative at least as far as a motherfucker like me can tell, this writer gets really into it and puts together a huge collection of racist antiques.
I mean, this sounds like a good idea for a movie. It IS a good idea. A nice satirical exaggeration to call attention to things we try to ignore. But I don’t think Mr. Lee really knew where he was going with this idea.
My problem with the movie mainly lies in the protagonist, Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans. I really don’t know what the character wants. At first he creates the show as a way to get fired. But he calls it “satire”. He is shocked when it goes on the air despite being so offensive, but also seems shocked that people are offended by it. He seems to love the show, but get mad when other people love it. What is he trying to do? Does he really believe he is accomplishing something? If so, what? I have no idea.
Maybe this is supposed to represent the confused state of a black writer in Hollywood, trying to be pro-black and at the same time dishing out stereotypes on UPN sitcoms or whatever. But I like my satire sharply written. I think this could be expressed more clearly.
Or maybe it is clear. Admittedly I was distracted by Mr. Wayans’s ludicrous cartoon accent. If it sounded like a white man or something I guess it would make sense. I don’t know what it sounds like though. He rolls his Rs and makes his th’s into z’s. He’s even got a little Yoda in there. I guess it’s a pretty good idea for method acting: use an accent so obnoxious that there’s no way anyone would let you use it in a movie – then they let you! And not only that, but they say they like it!
But I didn’t like it.
The movie feels slapped together late at night without time to check for mistakes. In one scene, the tap dancer Savion Glover finds workmen painting his co-star’s name on his dressing room and he says, “You don’t waste any time, do you?” In the next scene, he pisses off the network and they decide to have his co-star replace him.
It also seems like they accidentally left in extra montages of racist archival footage. They got a couple in the beginning and a couple in the middle and they got one at the end and just when you think you’ve escaped, the end credits are all over footage of little sambos and what not. If that’s not enough the movie is paired with a short film by Robert Redford called The Legend of Bagger Vance: Coming This Winter which is all about how Matt Damon is a troubled golfer who has to quit the booze and find himself and turn his life around so that he can save his relationship with a beautiful blond woman. But he wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of a magic black dude (Will Smith) who shuffles out doing an imitation of Morgan Freeman in his demeaning roles and says “yes suh, yes suh” while he dedicates his life to improving Matt’s golf. This film is really more outrageous than Bamboozled in a way because it has a “Give me an Oscar” orchestral score and melodramatic editing like you’re supposed to feel uplifted. And at the end you feel like you’re supposed to go, “I liked that nice negro boy in that movie, who was that? Was that Bill Cosby?”
So after that and Bamboozled, walking out of the theater I kept expecting every tv screen I passed to be showing clips of Amos n’ Andy. I really had seen enough dehumanizing stereotypes before the end of the movie, and then Jada Pinkett Smith hands Delacroix a video tape. And what’s on it? Another fucking montage. And she says, “Look at this! This is what you are doing!” And he’s supposed to be shocked into realizing the error of his ways but I’m not sure why because the tape is basically the same as the show he made, and the montages he studied to make the show. So what’s new here, lady?
Now as a poet myself I think I know a fucking metaphor when I see one, and in my opinion the minstrel show is supposed to be a metaphor. It represents anything that may portray black folks in a negative or buffoonish or stereotypical type light, from the sitcoms to the music videos to the movies.
But by using a metaphor, and so much overkill on the montage, I think Mr. Lee is blurring his satirical target. He is making people more upset about the old images in the montages, and letting the contemporary ones off the hook. I think in a sense this makes him a big sissy – he doesn’t want to call out people like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence who are going to be able to respond. So he calls out Bojangles and Aunt Jemima.
So in this case I don’t think the metaphor is working out. I know this movie is supposed to be so provocative, that’s the big thing about it, but if you look back at an older picture called Hollywood Shuffle it makes the same points and almost seems more up to date. Robert Townsend sells out by being in a sitcom called Bat in the Belfry that’s exactly like half the shows on UPN and WB today except now it would be called The Robert Townsend Show.
Still I gotta tell you folks I was enjoying this picture for a while. I like what it is trying to say, and even when Spike Lee slaps these things together he manages to get some good stuff in there. Jada Pinkett and Tommy Davidson are much less annoying than ever. Savion Glover gives a good acting performance and of course the motherfucker can dance too – and it makes you start questioning yourself when you enjoy him. Is it bad that I enjoy seeing a black dude tapdance?
I think the best character in the movie is Jada Pinkett’s rapper brother Big Black Africa, played by the real life rapper Most Def. His sister looks down on his pro-black rapping music, and he tells her she would probaly like it if it was about diamonds and cars. He steals the movie in his few scenes because he’s funny. But even if the audience is laughing at him I think he’s right.
One postscript. I HATE THE FUCKING DIGITAL VIDEO. Both of these pictures were shot on digital cameras, the gimmick is they are light weight and affordable and have a look to match. And believe me, you never seen such a pair of grainy, muddy, ugly looking professionally made movies.
At the beginning of Bamboozled I’m thinking, “I paid 8 bucks to watch a bootleg video?” I halfway expected somebody to get up for popcorn on the bottom of the screen.
Okay, so I’m all for the democratization of the Cinema and what not, but Spike Lee is not an individual that can’t afford a real camera. In fact he used to be known for his mastery of the photographical type techniques. As recently as last year he was making beautiful cinematographical works. Now he has two movies this year and both look like they were taped off of illegal cable.
He says he likes the digital video because he can shoot one scene from many different angles and decide later which one to use. Well no fucking wonder you’re making confused, unfocused pictures like Bamboozled. In the old days you already KNEW what angle you wanted. Now you gotta sit around and DECIDE. If you don’t even know what angle you want of course you don’t know the motivations of your characters or the point of view of your movie or what order the scenes go in.
I mean admittedly this inferior and reprehensible medium of digital video doesn’t ruin these movies. It is still possible to enjoy them, and I think Mr. Von Trier went a long way toward making it look better than it would’ve if some other dipshit had directed it.
But still, I mean let’s see some genuine film on some of these pictures, boys. If Spike’s next movie isn’t on film, I ain’t going. I mean yes, it is possible to write a novel on a napkin. And it’s really great that a lot of these motherfuckers who can’t afford typing paper, they can write something on a napkin.
But still, I’m not reading your fucking napkin until you get it typed, you schmuck. Show some god damned respect.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.