VIDEO ESSAY: Spike Lee’s free-floating, dolly shots collected, stitched together and deconstructed
This video essay by Richard Cruz collects Spike Lee's loopy, free-floating dolly shots into a music video. In the process, it makes them less jarring than they were when they first appeared in Lee's films. You know what I'm talking about: a shot where a major character is still, or perhaps moving subtly, while the background moves at an unrealistically fast speed or whirls wildly, creating the sense that the character is sort of hovering through the air, or perhaps moving on a conveyor belt or turning on a merry-go-round.
Every time I've seen a Lee film in a theater, audiences have begun tittering and pointing at the screen whenever Lee busted out this type of shot. It's as disruptive as it is flamboyant — deliberately so, I'm guessing. The Spike Lee dolly seems to be trying to find a way to signify "subjectivity", or otherwise put a conceptual frame around a certain moment in a story. This is typical of Lee. His features are never, strictly speaking, "realistic." They're more expressionist, like the films of Martin Scorsese, one of Lee's biggest influences. As such, they give themselves the freedom to bend the visuals and suggest what characters are feeling, or maybe what the filmmaker is feeling about the characters at that point in the story.
Sometimes the device works brilliantly, or at the very least, in such a way that you can see what the director was going for, even if he didn't pull it off; my favorite examples are Larry Fishburne seeming to glide through campus at the end of School Daze — a musical polemic of a movie — hollering "Waaaake uuuup!"; Anna Paquin's private school student, drunk and high, floating through a nightclub in The 25th Hour ; Theresa Randle in Girl 6, gliding through her apartment while jazzed on her own sensuality or fearing an attack by a creep who's phone-stalking her. But other times the Spike Lee dolly just feels weird. The shot of Lee's gambling addict gliding through the park in Mo' Better Blues made the character seem as though he'd been replaced by a Muppet (maybe because Lee's gestures were so stylized and herky-jerky). In the finale of Malcolm X, when Malcolm heads toward the church where he's about to be assassinated, I think we're supposed to feel as if he's being pulled along by destiny or history or somesuch; but because the more conventional parts of the sequence convey this so effectively already, it just feels like a bad idea that somehow made it into the final cut. (When I saw the movie on opening night in 1992, the crowd burst into ironic applause and laughter when that Malcolm X people-mover shot appeared onscreen, and somebody behind me said, "And here I was, thinking he might get all the way through a movie without doing that!")
Most of Lee's floating dollies owe a debt to shots in Scorsese's Mean Streets. Scorsese filched the idea from Vincente Minnelli's 1949 film of Madame Bovary, which conveyed romantic delirium at a grand ball by putting the actors on a fast-whirling dolly platform so that they seemed to be whooshing around the ballroom like astronauts in centrifuge training. Over the last quarter-century, though, Lee has pretty much owned this kind of shot, and he's explored it in increasingly surprising, sometimes bizarre ways. I used to call this type of shot "the Spike Lee people-mover shot," because it was usually framed so that we were looking at the characters head-on while the background receded behind them; the effect reminded me of riding a conveyor belt in an airport terminal. But Lee has gone way beyond that since the early 90s, to the point where we go into a new Spike Lee movie wondering what sort of variation he'll wring on it this time.
What I love most about this video is how it neutralizes whatever observations one might have about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a shot in a given Spike Lee film by placing them all together in a single short video. The shots' inventiveness, showiness and beauty take center stage. You're no longer watching characters in a story, but living sculptural objects driving through a series of spectacular and sometimes haunting settings.
Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine. Richard Cruz lives in New York City and you can visit his web page here.