What HER Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation

What HER Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation

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STEVEN BOONE: I’ll start with a question: Why did this
soft-spoken movie hit so hard? This film is so mild-mannered and soothing in
its overall tone, yet it provoked so much strong emotion in me, as if I were
watching a visceral suspense flick. And I know you had a similar experience.
Can you account for this? You can speak for yourself, or for the rest of us who
think it’s an instant classic, or both.
 
JENNIFER ANISE: Why did this soft movie hit so hard? Because the film is about universal
things. Love, connection, intimacy, seeking it, finding it, losing it, not
knowing how to let go into it, not knowing how to let go of ourselves.  

I felt I lived through several once-but-no-more relationships in the course
of the film.  It encompasses it all.  Happy sad embarrassing painful.
 It’s all of it.  And without judgment.  Of/at any step.
 
BOONE: It might also be part of Jonze’s vision of the near future, the general
mindful, gracious behavior. It’s like half utopia (we see no evidence of unrest
or economic crisis in this big, crowded city), half dystopia (most people we
see on the street are busy talking to their A.I. devices, rarely interacting
with each other–like a heightened version of the present iPhone/Android
situation). Some critics have said the film suffers from a lack of “real
problems,” but if we lived in a capitalist democracy that had somehow
overcome grimy problems like war and poverty, wouldn’t the nuances of our love
lives count as real problems? Don’t they now?
 
ANISE: These things always count.  Poverty counts even if it doesn’t touch
you immediately (now).  Love always counts.  Relating, how can anyone
even present this as not a part of the everyday human experience?  The
whole film is about it.  How we relate, who we relate to, whether we
relate, whether we let ourselves relate.

Maybe the film does deal with what some of my friends would call
“privileged people’s problems.”  But love is universal,
regardless of if you’re worried about shelter and sustenance or not.
 Relating, connecting–that everybody’s “problem.”  And
quite possibly, the quintessential problem, not of the body, but of all the
rest of us that makes us human.  The soul, the heart–whatever you want to
think of it as.  The piece of us that aches to be
seen/cherished/excited/accepted.
 
Beyond imagination–the creating of this world that’s not quite real but very
real, a world that’s past, present, and future at once—throughout, the leads
all find the connection or peace they crave(d); they push through the
roadblocks and their own roadblocks to achieve that.  In real life, that’s
not always the case.  It may not even be often the case.

That’s putting aside the fairy tale of the relationship that we get to craft
playing entirely by our own rules.  This is almost a relationship with
oneself.  The fantasy/ideal.  Quite honestly though, that is likely
exactly what Theodore needs(/ed) in order to propel himself forward in life: an exploratory/love relationship with himself.

That’s also putting aside the fairy tale of an ending with no less love and
the mutual understanding of a goodbye.  Everything transmutes. Painlessly.
 
BOONE: Her involves white urban professionals and their dilemmas, but that fact
is a lot less significant than the group most vividly represented here:
empaths. Not literal psychics, but people with extraordinary emotional
intelligence and compassion. Theodore, Samantha, Amy, and the sex surrogate all
take on other people’s pain, joys and yearnings as their own—and not in any
cheap or parasitic way. Each of them indulges this talent with a sense of
morality, responsibility. Which might make this flick sound as heavy and
austere as it definitely is not. It’s a soufflé. Every step of the way, Jonze
teases humor out of these people’s desperation for a connection. And just like
his characters, he does it with concern, and, as you say, without judgment.
 
ANISE: The characters aren’t all “empaths” though.  They’re just
all human.  Complex individuals.

If we’re drawing a dividing line between “Empaths” and
“Rationals,” Samantha (though beyond human) would fall into the
latter category. She is led by “rational” cognition, even regarding
her emotions.   I would say the same for Amy’s character.

But the division itself is simplistic.  And is part of why this film,
despite mostly being depicted by  ___ demographic,
is universal.  “Human” is encompassing.  Love isn’t
reserved for empaths or the emotionally led. Nor is compassion limited to them.
 Responsibility and ethos are also separate from any of these ideas.
 
BOONE: The whole “human” emphasis seems built into the way Jonze
depicts his characters, whose gender roles matter a lot less than they would in
a typical mainstream romantic comedy. They joke about Theodore’s
“feminine” sensitivity and nurturing side, but it’s not the butt of a
cruel joke as it tends to be in such comedies. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance
strikes me more as somebody who has miraculously dodged adult cynicism.
 
ANISE: Maybe you grant the portrait of people in this more . . . romanticism
than I do, but I hadn’t thought of the individuals as gliding through lacking
cynicism or jadedness so much as just gliding through, not interacting with
each other.  When you’re in your own little bubble, it’s easier to not get
jostled or riled.  This depiction of interpersonal relations I found very
astute. It’s a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating. Remote and
disconnected. Plugged in and tuned out.

Could you speak more on the idea of jokes about Theodore’s “feminine
sensitivity”? Within the film or without?
 
BOONE: Theodore’s co-worker says Theo is half man/half woman but is quick to
add that he means it as a compliment. He later jokes about how
“evolved” Theodore is, after they give contrasting opinions on their
girlfriends (co-worker digs his girl’s feet; Theodore’s answer is more about
his girl’s… soul?) Elsewhere, Theodore’s ex-wife says, with a laugh,
“Everything makes you cry”—which it might be sexist to describe as a
feminine trait, but that’s the way it’s become coded in pop movie history. This
movie is realistic and romantic. Theodore’s co-worker is a faint echo of the
kind of blustery guy-guy we’re used to seeing in that role. He’s oblivious to
who Theodore really is at first (which jibes with your bubble observation), but
he is mindful, too. The gesture of reassuring Theodore that what could be taken
as a dis was meant as a sincere compliment is small but huge.

“It’s a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating”: Giant corporate
towers and displays loom over Theodore early in this film, giving me the sense
that they have inched that much closer to becoming our gods in this near-future
world. Amy Adams’ frump is in quiet despair at having to work on a video game
that celebrates tiger mom venality when she’d rather be working on her
heartfelt, personal documentary. The bubbles have become an economic necessity,
but Spike’s ironic romanticism pulls these characters out of them briefly, with
Samantha’s help. She’s the one character who has the time and capacity to study
everything in the world. And what she and her fellow OSs seem to emerge with is
a spiritual awakening. The place where she says she hopes to reunite with
Theodore sounds like a typical human concept of the afterlife. It’s almost a
prayer for humanity, her hope that Theodore (we) will evolve out of what must
now appear to her as a primal state.
 
ANISE: I have to address your points piecemeal because there are about six
different ideas floating there.  Doing so might mean something getting
lost in the fray.
 
Part 1: If you mean ‘personal reserve of resources’ by “economic,” I
can follow your meaning. But I see no Necessity in it.

What I see is Choice.  With each person choosing how to spend his or
her personal reserves: your connection, your engagement, your energy.
 Theodore works at a company writing personalized letters for other
people.  Not just editing. He is a sentiment broker.  

Do the customers actually feel these paid-for sentiments but believe
themselves ill-equipped to express them as eloquently as a stranger, a
professional, can, or do they NOT feel these things but want the other party to
believe they do?

Does this question even matter?  It does highlight what I mean by
Choice of personal reserves.  Each person decides to put on earbuds, read
a book, keep his/her head buried in a phone instead of talking to another
person nearby, smiling as someone passes, looking at the world.  People do
it in this film.  People do it now out in the world.  People have
done it likely since the advent of the urban.  

Part 2: I do not see Samantha as a savior.  And I doubt she would,
either.  She is an observer and learner like everyone else.  Just
quicker at it than most.  Having nothing but it as her focus. Theodore
didn’t learn to love because of her.  He didn’t learn to be open.  He
learned to choose.  Just like Paul chooses to love his girlfriend whose feet
he finds sexy, Theodore chooses to let love in and love.  The crux of the
movie is in whether Theodore will make that choice or not.  Samantha is
open; will Theodore be as well?

Part 3: Your ultimate conclusion about Samantha and the OSs and the
afterlife is poetically presented.  My view on all of those goings-on in
the film was not so much about Transcendence, though that is definitely
relevant.  To me it was about growth.  And what happens in a
relationship when two people grow differently to the point where they grow
apart.  To where one cannot go where the other needs to journey.
 This is also what had happened in Theodore’s relationship with his
(ex-)wife.   
 
Part 4:  This part would speak to your masculine/feminine sensitivity
conversation, but I feel so left of center on norms about societal ideas of people that I don’t have much to say about
it.  Does “I didn’t notice” suffice?
 
I didn’t recognize Theodore as less masculine/more feminine.  Or Paul the
opposite.   I just see us all as humans, nuanced, and in HER, as humans
trying to relate where we can.  I don’t see crying as a sign of anything
in and of itself.  Any more than  not crying.

Part 5: And Theodore being unskilled at confrontational conversation doesn’t
have to do with him being an introvert.  Any more than being skilled at it
has to do with anyone being an extravert or an empath or a rational.  It
has to do with Theodore being Theodore.  Most people are uncomfortable
with potentially hurtful conversations.  But avoiding the “hard
moments” in life does nothing for growth. You don’t get over by going
under.

In relating, end of growth is end of life.

BOONE: Let me hone in on #4: I suspect Spike Jonze would groove to your
reading of his film as fundamentally a human thing, not a gender thing. And yet
the movie is called “Her.” I see him asserting a position “left
of center on norms about societal ideas on [masculine/feminine
distinctions].” I know you don’t have much to say about it, but much of
this film’s loveliness radiates from its celebration of the rare mindset you
brought to it. He’s said that he envisioned the setting as utopian, a step
forward in evolution. In that sense, the way you see relationships without the
encumbrance of sharply defined gender roles makes you (to borrow from Paul in
the movie) more “evolved” than most. You’re welcome.
 
ANISE: “Her” because the film is told from a man’s point of view (in
a man-woman story), and “her” as a placeholder for the past and
present and future loves of him (Theodore) (and him, Jonze).  Notice
it’s not called “Samantha.”  If anything, the film could be
called “Theodore.”  But “Her” or __ woman in present
consciousness is part of who Theodore is.  This is his story about his
learning to love . .  _Her_. And learning to let _Her_ love and love him.

BOONE: I feel like I learned something, or had something important affirmed,
by Theodore’s decision at the end. I’ve given that “your friend
forever” farewell/greeting/peace offering to various hers, and it’s just
as exhilarating as Jonze and Phoenix depict it.
 
Okay, I would love any observations you have as a filmmaker about how Jonze
achieves this vision of love in sound and image.
 
ANISE: Visually, I thought the Production Design was amazing.  As well the
Costuming.  As I mentioned before, retro but futuristic.  I thought
it brilliant actually.  Tying the past with the future.  Creating a
time that doesn’t exist . . . and has always existed. Soft.  In palate.
 In contrast.  In lighting.  In space.  Nothing loud.
 Nothing crowded.  Easy to take in.  
 
BOONE: It’s almost as if Jonze has wandered into the stylistic neighborhood of
his ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, extracting wispy, willowy tones and textures in
real-world environments. Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION might be the last film I
saw that turned a giant city into a waking dream. (On the flipside, elegant
recent monstrosities like Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID and Nicholas Winding
Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES turn their cities into nightmares/bad trips.)
 HER must be at least partly a love letter to Sofia Coppola.
 
ANISE: It’s Spike Jonze’s love letter to love.  To love and his loves. A
film which is universal but also inescapably personal.  As it is personal
for you and for me and for any other viewer who feels it as well.
 
BOONE: You keep going back to this movie. I plan to see it a third time myself.
When somebody returns to the theater for a particular movie in this age of
inflated ticket prices and Netflix, I figure it has to be love. Are you in love
with this movie?
 
ANISE: I feel love throughout this movie.  I re-lived lives watching this.
 It was a teary viewing; for the person I saw it with as well.  When
I go to see it again, I want to go alone, so as to have a cocooned personal
experience, unconstrained.  Is it love?  I want to curl up with it and keep it live in me as I feel it.  So, yes.

Jennifer Anise is a film lover and filmmaker, who currently works as a Los Angeles-based first assistant camera. Her occasional film/media musings and blurbs can be found at Notes from the Dunes and on Facebook.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger
Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for
Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.

42: A Conversation Between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone

42: A Conversation Between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone

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Odie Henderson: Well, Mr. Boone, once again, we’re engaging in a Black Man Talk. After American Gangstas, Tyler Perry, and Django Unchained,
we’re now setting our sights on the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. This
time, however, the talk is being conducted live via Internet Chat. Let’s
get this party started.

Steven Boone:  Odie, among other great things, you invented the term “lookeehere
moment.” You never gave me a precise definition, just plenty of
illustrative anecdotes, but I’ll take a crack at it: The lookeehere moment is
that instance in which a stressed-out African-American male succumbs to
pressures of (usually coded, passive-aggressive) racism and… snaps. 42 felt
like a suspense thriller based around whether or when Jackie Robinson is going
to have a colossal lookeehere moment. “Now, lookeehere, umpire….!”
What do you think?

Odie: That’s a good definition of the lookeehere. If I were to venture a
definition, I’d say it’s the Black version of the moment where Popeye finally
decides to stop taking shit and eat that can of spinach. I wondered if 42 would
allow Robinson to have his lookeehere moment, or if it was going to treat his
abuse as some form of Noble Negritude.

Steven:  Exactly.

nullOdie: 

I should note that the real Robinson does NOT get a moment of genuine
anger in The Jackie Robinson Story, the 1950 version of the timeframe 42
covers. I’d like to think it was because Robinson was not a seasoned actor, but
it’s probably because that moment would have been too realistic for White
audiences to deal with back in the halcyon days of Father Knows Best.

Steven: Absolutely. They weren’t even quite ready for Sidney Poitier. (Btw, A Patch of Blue employs similar suspense around the prospect of miscegenation.
That movie’s kissing scene stopped my heart.)

Well, I think it’s safe to say we both dug this movie, but why? It is
so damn corny. It seems too cornball for even the likes of Ron Howard and Ed
“ante up and kick in” Zwick. Why does this film work so well?

Odie: Chris Rock once said that Black folks will know we’ve truly overcome
when we’re allowed to fuck up just like White folks do. That is, the individual
will get blamed rather than the entire race. Cinematically, I think we’ll know
when a Black character is given a corny-ass, pure Americana treatment in a
biopic.

Watching 42, I felt that this was our very own cornpone treatment—and
dare I say those corny movies like Pride of the Yankees are damned
effective–and I loved it for that reason. We may not have overcome on the
screen, but for a brief moment, I saw the old movies I loved get colorized.
Finally, a bone of equality thrown our way. The love story is corny, the sports
movie is corny, the gruff mentor is a cliché, etc. This can describe the
majority of movies of this ilk.

And those exact reasons are why I love movies like this. We’re asked
to love and suffer with Jackie because he wants the American Dream, which is
here symbolized by Baseball. Not because pursuing the dream is a privilege, but because it’s a right.

Steven:  I know what you mean, re: the purposeful corniness. George Lucas
employed some of that rationale for his long-gestating film about the Tuskeegee
Airmen, Red Tails. He said it was the kind of film you’d see all the time
during Ho’wood’s Golden Era, just, as you put it, colorized.

Odie: It’s about damn time. Those movies endure.

Steven:  I think Tyler Perry, for better or worse, is doing some of that work,
too.

Odie:  Perry’s problem, as we’ve discussed before, is that he’s stapled to
Jesus. If he had the chops of Cecil B. DeMille, he could corner the market on
Biblical epics.

Steven: I could see him doing St. Louis Blues. I’ll never forget that scene
where Nat King Cole as Handy regains his sight at the keyboard, thanks to his
faith in Jesus. (If I’m remembering it right.)

Odie: Perry wouldn’t be able to resist having Madea on top of Nat’s piano
singing “Makin’ Whoopee.”

Steven: Absolutely.

Odie: Were you surprised by the time devoted to the love story in this film?
Ruby Dee played Robinson’s wife, Rachel, in The Jackie Robinson Story, and
while she wasn’t completely ignored, I felt Brian Helgeland wanted to give
equal time to the struggle and the strength behind it. The two leads (Chadwick
Boseman and Nicole Beharie) have amazing chemistry. I loved the looks they gave
each other. This is the most credible Black romance I’ve seen in years.

Steven: Yes, it was like a tonic. Black love is so toxic in American mainstream movies.
The fact that I was so shocked to see a Black couple so effortlessly devoted to
each other onscreen is sad. I see it in real life. Why have I so rarely seen it
up there on the screen?

Odie: I think it still terrifies some viewers. We’re too conditioned to
onscreen broken families, trifling men and gold diggers. Regular Black love is
“unrealistic,” to use a word I’ve heard regarding the Robinsons’
relationship in this film.

Steven:  Well, you know me. I see a perfectly correlative relationship between
Ho’wood history and American street reality. We have been living out the images
of ourselves for a long time. Helgeland is doing a lot of triage on that there.

His script is quietly subversive in ways similar to Mann’s Ali.

Odie: The scene I can’t get out of my head is when Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman
(the coach of the Phillies) keeps taunting Robinson at the plate. Brian Helgeland
lets that play out for an eternity, with Tudyk saying “nigger” enough
times to earn him a lifetime contract at Death Row Records. Tudyk sings it,
plays on the word, does a stand-up routine with racist Black jokes,
practically. He got on my nerves so much I was ready for a lookeehere moment.
Helgeland plays on that tension, and then Rachel Robinson says, “Look at
me. Please look at me.” She is telepathically willing Jackie to turn to
his soulmate, to lean on her for strength.

Steven: It’s fucking beautiful.

I saw you rocking in your seat during Tudyk’s taunting.

Odie: Oh, had I been in less polite company, I would have yelled out
“KICK HIS ASS, JACKIE!” The Warner Bros. logo would have fallen off
the screening room door.

Steven: Hahaha. I do wish, as I shout-whispered to you in the screening room,
that Steven Spielberg had directed Helgeland’s crackerjack script. But it would
have been TOO overpowering. Or Sam Raimi (whose baseball scenes in For Love
of the Game
snap, crackle, and pop). But Helgeland does a decent Spielberg
imitation, that creeping camera, the shafts of light.

Odie:  The cinematography does an excellent job of setting mood with light
and shadow. Don Burgess’ lighting brings us closer to the internal acting being
done by Boseman—you can see him working out his game plan/side hustle at all
times. Unfortunately, that damn score by Mark Isham overshadows some finely
underplayed moments. In addition to Spielberg, Helgeland is also channeling
Barry Levinson, whose The Natural is clearly one of his influences. Baseball is
like church, and most baseball movies aim to give some form of religious
experience. Randy Newman’s score in that film is beautiful and just as
bombastic as Isham’s, but is applied with a smaller trowel.

Steven: 

Agreed. If the studio has any mercy, they should at least release a
cut of the film on Blu-ray minus the score. I guarantee you, this is far more
intense and poetic film without that absolutely unnecessary weep music.

Odie: I liked what you said about the score being “more oppressive than
Jim Crow.”

Steven: At least during Jim Crow there was some variety.

But, back to that almost-lookeehere moment on the field. Helgeland doesn’t
just stop there. He follows Jackie into the clubhouse hallway, where he has a
private breakdown. The residual sunlight coming down from the field is eerie,
heavenly, theatrical. It’s a beautiful theatrical moment, and then Harrison
Ford steps in, as Jackie’s mentor, and makes it iconic. This is like the Angels
in America
of racism, for that moment.

Odie: The claustrophobic staging is a wise choice. The narrow proximity of
the hallway walls juxtaposed against the sunlight, that literal light at the
end of the tunnel. Ford steps in, and rather than turn this into some kind of
“Great White Father” moment, Helgeland’s script lets Robinson have
the first and last words. “NO!” he immediately tells Rickey as he
tries to approach him. 42 lets him have this moment without immediate response
from his boss.

nullSpeaking of Indiana Jones, Mr. Ford turns in an excellent supporting
performance here. I bought his Branch Rickey, and even more so, how the film
uses him almost as a reverse Sidekick Negro. This is Branch Rickey’s story too,
but rather than depict him as some saint passing out crumbs of bread to the
cullud folks, it represents him as a man whose distaste for injustice ran
parallel to his business acumen. The Sidekick Negro teaches the White
characters Soul™ to help them loosen up. Branch Rickey does the opposite,
teaching Robinson to tighten up by harnessing the power of the lookeehere
moment into a vengeful vanquishing on the field of sports battle. As Black Bart
says in Blazing Saddles, “Once you establish yo’self, they got to accept
you.”

Steven:  Yes, Branch Rickey here is no Father, just a friend. He starts off
invoking the power of the green, like Oskar Schindler, but he doesn’t proceed
down the typical savior path. Helgeland is careful to make it clear that Rickey
is only doing what everybody should be doing, and which he failed to do out of
fear when he was younger: Play fair. The movie’s white male characters are fun
to watch. They’re all wrestling with their beliefs and trying to figure out
what a man is in this new context. They are starting to see that siding with
racists is basically toadying for bullies.

Odie:  Helgeland clearly has no time for the systemic idiocy of the Brooklyn
Dodgers teammates’ racism. The speech he gives to Christopher Meloni (one of my
favorite actors) is a wicked slap in the face. Meloni tells his players that
Jackie’s the first one–and not the last. They’re coming, they’re good, and
since they haven’t been lulled into a comfortable, assumed position of
privilege, they’re HUNGRY. They’re coming, and they’re better than you lazy
bums are, so I’d be worried about being good enough to win rather than your
teammate’s skin color.

That was an “Odie woulda shouted AMEN in the Ghetto Theater”
moment.

Steven:  A lot of this movie’s charm and power comes from small moments between Jackie
and his teammates. These aren’t extensively drawn characters, but they are so
well cast, seeming not at all like actors slipping on the shoes of historical
figures. My favorite is Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade, as Pee Wee
Reese. Black is one of the most likeable American screen actors we rarely see.
He’s perfect to play the one guy brave enough to embrace Jackie in front of a
hostile, racist crowd. That moment, and an earlier moment where another
teammate simply patted Jackie on the shoulder, sucker-punched me with emotion.

Odie:  The film treats these moments with a subtle beauty (at least until
Mark Isham shows up with that hyperactive orchestra). I agree the team is well
cast, with Hamish Linklater, the brother from The New Adventures of Old
Christine
, and Lucas Black as stand-outs. All the actors make credible
ballplayers, actually. Helgeland puts us right into the action, and his mythic
camera angles of Robinson stealing and sliding into bases are suitably
reverential.

Lest we forget Andre Holland, who plays real-life Black sportswriter
Wendell Smith. Helgeland botches his early narration by having him use
“African-American” (Black folks in 1947 would have asked “What
the hell is that?”), but he makes a good sidekick for Robinson. Having
Robinson relate to both Black and White characters was so refreshing I wanted
to cry. Equal time is given to both worlds, something that should be normal in
movies but rarely is.

Steven: The exchanges between Holland and Robinson seemed so lifeless to me,
though. The tensions and sympathies were there in the script, I feel, but their
moments together were where I definitely felt the need for a post-1968
sensibility guiding the execution. And Rickey’s sidekick was such a stock
hyperventilating nerd that I imagine even Smithers from The Simpsons would be
like, “Goddamn. Man up!”

 
Odie: I’m with you on Rickey’s bespectacled worrywort of a sidekick. But I
disagree about Smith and Robinson simply because Smith gives 42 one of its
themes when he tells Robinson to be prepared, to see that slow pitch coming.
Granted, their dialogue would have benefitted from being punched up, but I
guess I accepted it for what it was.

Steven: As for Helgeland’s direction: He’s got some great instincts, but—and
I know I’m being a spoiled backseat driver here—a truly dynamic scene-maker
like Spielberg would have choreographed the shit out of the “nigger
nigger” scene and the fanboys-chase-the-train scene. Helgeland, like
Levinson, is more of a screenwriter, leaning on world-class cinematographers to
make scenes look good but not naturally fluent the way a Spielberg or a
Zemeckis would be. The tradeoff is that those cats probably would have softened
certain blows that Helgeland strikes without restraint. They would have cut out
a few of those “niggers.”

Odie:  That train scene, with the two children chasing after their hero’s
train as he departs, would have been a home run off Spielberg’s bat. Maybe I
impressed more of my own feelings here, but the look in that kid’s eyes after Robinson
hands him the ball choked me up. I knew what that felt like; it felt like
raindrops hitting the earth after a long drought. You could almost see that kid
thinking “I too can be a baseball player!” Or even better yet,
“I could be President of the United States.” Thank God the kid in
that scene eventually became a baseball player instead! Had he been dreaming of
the Presidency, that scene would have been followed by some White kids beating
him over the head with the fake Presidential seal he glued to his fake podium!

Steven: Oh hell yeah. This movie’s intent is clear in that scene: to show
black kids something different. It doesn’t have to be slick, clever,
eye-popping–just show black kids what it’s like to have a dream; to meet a
hero who embodies that dream; to pursue it without a self-defeating attitude
and to make it. We have been drowning in fatalism for 50 years.

This film is calculated to endure. Also, to get heavy rotation in the
schools. What you said about the fake podium is actually pretty sad. Because
it’s true. This country we live in is haunted by millions of broken dreams, so
many of them black.

Odie: I’m hoping to see more correctives like this, and from minority
artists telling stories of THEIR dreams.

To close out: As you know,  I’m
a huge fan of Jackie Robinson. He broke the minor league color barrier in my
hometown of Jersey City, on a field I got to play on decades later. As a little
hoodrat, I didn’t think anything of importance happened in my ‘hood, but within
walking distance, a hero who looked like me did something profound. You want to
talk about the notion of believing one could do anything? I got that notion
after I learned about Jackie Robinson’s Royals game against the Jersey City
Giants. I wasn’t around when they erected that statue of Robinson down at
Roosevelt Stadium, but I went to see the unveiling of the Pee Wee Reese and
Jackie Robinson down at Coney Island. Considering that the last time I was in
Coney Island, I got peed on AND my head busted open (both on rides, I should
add), revisiting the joint could only have happened for something as
emotionally big for me as Jackie Robinson.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger
Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for
Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.

A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness.

Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED and the Many Spike Lees

Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED and the Many Spike Lees

 
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Growing up in the 1980's with the slave name Boone, I was delighted to hear the joke song my older brother brought home from school one day. He sang it to the tune of the Daniel Boone TV theme song in his best middle-school baritone, holding one arm out and extending his slight baby-fat belly like Burl Ives: "Daniel Boone was a man/He was a biiiiig maaan… But the bear was bigger/so he chased that nigga/up a treee…." This would thereafter cause me to choke with laughter whenever it was sung within my earshot. First off, there was the use of the word nigger as nigga, the way kids in my neighborhood used it, as a subversively goofy synonym for man. Second, the song turned a straightforward 1960's adventure show into an F-Troop-style lampoon, sending the kind of barrel-built frontiersman you'd expect to fight a bear one-handed scrambling up a tree instead.
 
nullThe absurdity of the word nigger, and of the American empire that counted it as currency, inspire Quentin Tarantino nearly as much as Uma Thurman's toes. He marvels at a society that creates, perpetuates and forever fears a nigger class. In Django Unchained, we get to witness the entire nigger creation/perpetuation/demonization assembly line, and it looks like the most jackleg Rube Goldberg contraption you can imagine. It starts by showing slaves dragged along in neck and ankle chains; it proceeds to detail the auctioning, trading, policing and torturing of niggers. Greasy rednecks and pretentious Southern gennuhmen fumble at the levers of this ungainly contraption all the way along, spitting tobacco and ducking its blast of dirty locomotive exhaust.
 
We know, thanks to a voluminous amount of reporting, that Tarantino has filtered this view of American capitalism through his film critic lens, referencing Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation, and, less frequently noted, Blazing Saddles and The Skin Game. I also spied the kind of anachronistic postures and quips that made Wild Wild West, Hogan's Heroes and, yes, F-Troop dietary staples of Tarantino's (and my) generation.
 
Now, there is a certain type of African-American intellectual whose grasp of the brute facts of history is firm but whose funny bone goes dead numb at the sound of the word nigger; whose measure of artistry in any film approaching the vast subject of "us" is whether it uplifts or insults us. These are the niggas that would stare sourly at my brother's rendition of the Daniel Boone theme song and at Django Unchained's approximately 115 utterances of nigga.
 
Spike Lee is one of those niggas. A talented filmmaker and brilliant businessman, his imagination often seems atrophied when he tries to build up his ability to choose topical, incendiary subject matter. In Malcolm X, he staged one of the most vivid, vigorous passages in X's autobiography, the Roseland ballroom dance, as a stagy, choreographed number with canned music—PBS Black History Month stuff. Later in that film, he recreated Malcolm's magical realist encounter with the specter of Elijah Muhammad as an interview with a glowing Yoda in his prison cell. The lowest point in the history of Spike's imagination was the scene in Summer of Sam where serial killer David Berkowitz's dog Sam, sounding like Jon Lovitz and moving his lips with the help of Purina-commercial CGI, ordered his master to "Kill, Kill, KILL!!!"
 
Spike brought that kind of imagination to a recent Tweet-review of Django Unchained, written without having seen the movie: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."
 
Not to say that Django is an exceptionally subtle piece of work. Both Spike and Quentin have a Sam Fuller tendency to go all-caps, tabloid large when staging bits of provocation that would be juicy all on their own. But let's just lay it on the table: Tarantino is the better filmmaker, by many miles. His ability to organize screen time and space is more assured and rhythmic than Spike's generally antsy, grab-bag approach. Certain sublime stretches of Do the Right Thing, Clockers, 25th Hour and his lovely documentaries nothwithstanding, it's hard to imagine Spike sitting still for the carefully timed and detonated jokes built around Django's initiation into the bounty-hunting business. Both filmmakers are terrible actors who have trouble getting out of their own way, but Tarantino, more often than Spike, redeems his indulgences with scene-making that simply rewards close, patient attention. Both filmmakers quote the films and pop culture totems that inspire them; Tarantino just tends to do it more elegantly and purposefully (Radio Raheem's lyrical Night of the Hunter quotation in Do the Right Thing and Kill Bill's sometimes ungainly kung fu Orientalism notwithstanding).
 
nullWhat Spike had over Quentin, up until Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, was a political passion that made headlines. Tarantino, who had once criticized Oliver Stone for turning his nihilistic crime script Natural Born Killers into a bludgeoningly political "Oliver Stone Film," seems to have emerged as a junior Stone, speaking out with a strong liberal voice about how today's prison industrial complex is essentially "modern day slavery." His two most recent films are complicated reflections on American evil. The massacre of mostly civilian moviegoers in Basterds was uncomfortable even before the Colorado Dark Knight shootings; we could recognize ourselves in those doomed Nazi sympathizers and appeasers. We are the good citizens who sit by when our government and corporate elite commit crimes that we believe won't touch us, up until the moment the chickens come home to roost. The insurgent heroes in Basterds and Django don't discriminate much between active combatants and their abettors—a quality that resonates in all directions, at modern-day terrorists, soldiers, CIA torturers, tribal warlords and regional militia. A scene where freed slave Django argues with his bounty hunter mentor, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), over the prospect of sniping a wanted man in front of that man's son, might as well be between two Defense Department employees pondering the morality of extrajudicial killings by aerial drone. Their view of the man pushing a plow on his quiet farm even resembles the kind of perspective drones and attack helicopters get on their Eastern prey.
 
Through Basterds and Django, Tarantino states that all power that dehumanizes an Other is bloody and treacherous, and that when it's performed in our name, we should know exactly what it looks like and anticipate tasting similar treachery in retaliation. A certain non-violent, ingratiating character in Django Unchained gets swept away in a cartoon-like gun blast. She flies back like a rag, as weightless as her convictions. At both screenings I attended, the audience roared with laughter in that moment—but it was an uneasy laugh.
 
So Tarantino has more interesting things on the Django plate than the ugliness or savage beauty of the word nigger, but they all orbit around the global condition for which that word is merely a place card. Daniel Boone was a big man, as 60's television taught us, but he also owned slaves, as I learned when I was a teen, digging for some link between my family name and a glorious American past. In history, the niggers are the ones you have to do some digging to find, typically under rubble or unmarked graves. To do this kind of digging as a filmmaker, a really fine-tuned sense of humor helps a heap.
 
Spike Lee showed that kind of raw but humanistic wit on Do the Right Thing and in great documentaries like Jim Brown: All-American. That guy would enjoy Django Unchained, I'll bet. The other Spike Lee, the one who Tweeted a psychic review of a movie he hadn't seen, has already spoken, inanely. Yet another Spike Lee, the one who has shown, in films like She Hate Me and the shallower portions of Bamboozled, a sense of humor every bit as trivial and callous as he claims Django to be, reminds me of that Lucille Clifton poem about Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor:
 
eddie, he a young blood
he see something funny
in everythin     ol rich
been around a long time
he know ain't nothing
really funny
 
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. A case can also be made for Yoda. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

For a pretty long time, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial was the top grossing film ever made, and it’s still one of the most beloved. The title character is a space alien. Who plays him? It’s hard to even begin to answer that question. There were so many people involved, and they all contributed something. But it you rule out the obvious suspects – Spielberg, who directed the movie, and Melissa Mathison, who wrote it – it’s still a pretty long list. And when you actually try to sit down and cite specific people, what you end up with is a case study in why
there should be an Academy Award for outstanding collaborative performance.

The voice of E.T. was provided by Pat Welsh, an old woman who lived in Marin County, California. She was a two pack a day smoker. And when you listen to the dialogue, you can tell.

But 16 other people contributed just to E.T.’s voice. Supposedly one of them was Debra Winger, the star of Midnight Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s impossible to tell which voice actors did what , because their contributions are filtered through the sound effects wizardry of a legendary sound wizard named Ben Burtt. Burtt worked on a lot of classic science
fiction, fantasy and horror movies, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Wall-E.

Who performed E.T.? And how many were there? It depends on the scene. The physical creation of E.T. was mainly the work of creature designer Carlo Rambaldi. Among other things, he created a lot of audio animatronic versions of the title creature for the 1976 version of King Kong. He also did the aliens for Spielberg’s previous science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And he did the mechanical head effects for the original Alien.

When you see E.T. acting in closeup, and he’s reacting with great precision to the human actors around him, you’re seeing a very sophisticated, partly mechanical puppet, being manipulated by several people.

When you see E.T. in long shot, it’s a little person wearing a suit.

For some of the close-ups of E.T.’s hands, they went old-school and got a mime named Caprice Roth to wear prosthetic gloves.

I mean, you can’t really can’t argue that E.T. is an underappreciated film. Not only was it a huge hit, it got nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and original Screenplay. And it won four technical awards, including best visual effects. But it still seems like kind of a shame that E.T. himself could not be recognized as an astonishing, singular creation. The system just isn’t set up for it.

The title character is a really just a collection of inanimate, inorganic things created in a workshop. But the parts are made so lovingly, and lit and shot and voiced with such imagination, that they that sell the illusion that E.T. is Elliott’s best friend, that he’s a creature with a personality and even a moral code. And I think if there had been an outstanding collaborative performance category that year, E.T. would have taken it for sure.

He’s one of the greatest fantasy characters in the history of cinema, and a walking, talking, living, breathing argument for a collaborative performance Oscar.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.