Friday, July 17, 2009

Films of the 00s: Bamboozled

Delivered with admiration in this centennial year of the NAACP!

"Four score and seven years ago... they was kickin' our black asses!" So begins one of Honeycutt's embarrassing but inspired comic riffs as the host of Man-Tan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, the ghastly revue at the center of Bamboozled's estimable storm. I wish that my returning buddy Tim and I had found room to pay more tribute to how funny Bamboozled can be when it wants to be, how the Man-Tan show actually operates, and what tertiary figures like Honeycutt or his near-doppelganger, the protagonist's wreck of a father, bring to the proceedings. But there's only so long that we can bend your ear, and almost everything in the dizzying, maddening, electrifying Bamboozled invites heaps of conflicted commentary. I tried my best in my initial review, written nine years ago in graduate school, but I got more out of my new confab with Tim. We start with our memories of seeing the film for the first time:

TR: "Bamboozled...was one of the first films I reviewed for the Telegraph where I really wanted a lot more space. It was released in the UK in April 2001, a few months after I started the job, and I remember coming out of the screening buzzing, and with my thoughts pulling in all sorts of different directions. Because the movie already had the whiff of commercial pariah about it, this wasn't to be a lead review, and I knew I had a tough job on my hands communicating how this fascinating mess was actually to be recommended in fewer than 300 words: the flaws were manifest, the underlying intelligence, scalding and confrontational as it is, needed some careful argument to disinter...."

ND: "As far as I'm concerned, in the year 2000, I saw Bamboozled in a racially segregated, semi-concealed theater, and it only showed once per night, and I was the only patron there. Hence my sharp and bitter sense, during that first screening, that Lee was shooting grenades at vicious, longstanding American problems that powerfully persist, albeit under different guises...."

From there, we have plenty to say about the film's ceaseless self-divisions, the wavering targets and cogencies of its satire, the parts that work best, the parts that don't work at all, what do with the ending, and what is finally most important to emphasize about such a confoundingly sloppy-smart film. Again, there are entire shelves, whole aisles of cans of worms that we couldn't open. But the conversation isn't over yet! - as always, we hope you'll enjoy the whole piece and share your thoughts in the Comments field.

(By the way, as any Chicagoan who keeps track of how AMC plays the downtown 600 Michigan Ave complex against the nearby and much more deluxe Rivers East multiplex can tell you, the practices of quietly segregated booking are not gone, and not absent even in major cities. Look, too, at this article, linked yesterday by Nathaniel, about current distribution problems facing the Sophie Okonedo vehicle Skin in the UK and certainly, though the article doesn't reach this far, in the US.)

Earlier in this series: Mission to Mars, The Beach (with Tim), Dôlè, La Captive, American Psycho, and Wonder Boys

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Blogger Glenn said...

Now, for the first time in this series you've finally done a write-up on a movie I myself have mixed feelings on (all of the others have been LOVE/HATE/Unseen).

I would like to take another look at it too, to be honest. I remember there being some very good things about it, but that it's length stopped the film's "message" (if you want to call it that) from being as punchy as it should have been and ended up more "okay, yeah, we get the point!" Plus, I remember the digital stuff being really ugly.

Er, does that make sense?

8:45 AM, July 17, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

This is one of those noble failures I'm always happy to defend but can't work up the nerve to actually sit through a second time. Tim's right in that SHE HATE ME is kind of BAMBOOZLED's evil twin: all the aimless didacticism with none of the sense that greatness just narrowly eluded it.

1:04 PM, July 17, 2009  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

(This is the first film in this series I've actually seen, can you believe.)

I love Bamboozled as a failed masterpiece as well. (Though I've seen it a number of times, even teaching it twice, with very different results.)

And I tend to understand it as a conjurer's tale -- part nightmare, part farce -- Spike's Midsummer Night's Dream almost. It's a comedic trickster fantasy, wherein the social commentary abundantly adorns a ridiculous comedy of conventional relationships run amuck. But in his way, Spike consciously refuses the mandate of a satisfying comedic resolution...which necessarily redirects the farcical energies into a whirl of baroque terror.

And I have to give a shout out to Tommy Davidson, who I feel delivers an extraordinarily legible performance -- at once simple and complex -- that haunts me every time I contemplate this film.

1:12 PM, July 18, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

You and Tim have inspired me to give "Bamboozled" another look. I saw it once as a university setwork thanks to a rather imaginative and resourceful professor, as, if memory serves, the film never found theatrical distribution in South Africa. Read into that what you will.

I disliked the film intensely then, though it made for a rich and generous essay topic (I couldn't agree more with Tim that 300 words on such an unhinged, overstuffed work is an impossibility).

Still, that could be because Lee's playful aggression (which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but seems appropriate in the case) was so far removed from the more earnest expressions of racial identity that a childhood in late- and post-Apartheid South Africa was inevitably steeped in.

Shifting the topic only slightly, I looked for your take/grade on Lee's "Summer of Sam," but couldn't find one. It has long been my (roundly unpopular) stance that it's his best film by a slim margin over "Do the Right Thing" ... I'd be so interested to hear your thoughts. (I realise it's not a 'film of the 00s,' though it was for me.)

6:34 AM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

PS. It was with great surprise and delight that I just noticed my name on your "positive reinforcements" list. I am honoured to be in such company ... thanks!

6:36 AM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Glenn: The digital photography, on an unfamiliar set of cameras as I recall, often falls appreciably short of what you expect from Ellen Kuras. It's an interesting gambit, though, when parts of the actual Man-Tan show are so much more colorful and more carefully lit, the aesthetics of the film have you almost relieved to be looking at something prettier. A trap, for obvious reasons.

@Bill C. and @Guy: It would be a shame if I saw She Hate Me before Summer of Sam, but it's true that if it's not for my book project or for one of my students' papers or for this 00s series, I'm probably not watching it these days. I do have Sam around here, though, and will give it a whirl one day. (And Guy, the thanks are to you: I really enjoy your articles!)

@Stinky: What an interesting take on the film; I'm sure that prompts lots of fresh angles on the material. You're right that Davidson is very good here, though almost willfully unobtrusive. He's another person I wish we'd had more time to think about; I think it's gutsy of Lee and of Glover to allow Manray to look so often like such a path-of-least-resistance dupe by comparison, and for Davidson to somehow avoid taking Womack to the level of damaging exaggeration that almost every other performance eventually falls into.

7:25 AM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

(@Glenn: I just realized I've somehow never put you up in the sidebar. So sorry about that! Was sure you were there. Anyway: you're back in now.)

7:39 AM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

Well thank you, Nick.

I must throw in another very vocal voice for Summer of Sam. I'm not sure I'm able to say it's better than Do the Right Thing, although I do know I've seen it three times and DtRT only once. I think it conjures up such wonderful use of time and place and it always sways delicately back and forth over that line of being a completely hysterical mess and being an intense gravity-defying piece of cinema.

9:41 AM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

I really liked Summer of Sam as well, and would love to go back to it. Think I saw it within a day of Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, and they made a great double bill of melting-pot trips to hell. However the rest of it stands up, the stuff with the talking black labrador is astonishingly scary.

The Lee film I like at least as much as Do the Right Thing is actually Jungle Fever, though I know it puts a lot of people's backs up, and Halle Berry makes an amazingly atrocious impression with the bare minimum of screen time.

2:29 PM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

The drumbeat for Summer of Sam grows harder to resist!

I can't admit much enthusiasm for Jungle Fever. At least as I remember it, Samuel L. Jackson's thread felt uncomfortably spliced in from another movie, leading to too many stock "addict" scenes, and yet his performance was of such conviction that it outclassed anything else in the movie, even though I basically like Sciorra and Snipes. To swipe one of your idioms, I actually had some time for Berry in this movie. And doesn't Lonette McKee have some good scenes? Still, seemed to me like an idea in search of a movie.

2:55 PM, July 19, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Summer of Sam is my third favorite Spike Lee joint. I love all its period detail love seeing Mira Sorvino used well (it seems rare) but was especially struck by its hierarchies of social acceptance / scapegoats / pariahs (if I'm remembering the film correctly. it's been a long time.)

(although Do the Right Thing feels more substantial in terms of its impact and 25th Hour feels more well... fresh in the memory) but those are easily my 3 favorites.

...with Inside Man being the 4th simply because it's fun.

3:50 PM, July 20, 2009  

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