'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Film Notes: 25th Hour 

With my wife and son away to visit relatives, I decided to spend the evening watching a movie. After wandering around the local video store (yes, we still have them in Sacramento), I finally selected Spike Lee's 25th Hour from 2002. Based upon the novel of the same name by David Benioff, the film relates the story of a young Irish Catholic man, Monty Brogan, spending his last day in New York City before serving a seven year prison term for possession of heroin for sale. While otherwise purportedly faithful to the original, Lee placed the events of the narrative within the context of the city's post-9/11 malaise. Critics made much of this in their contemporaneous reviews, but, viewed nine years later, it comes across as an unnecessary extravagance, an overwrought emotional symbolism that distracts from the compelling performances of an excellent ensemble cast.

Indeed, a conversation between two of Brogan's friends in a high rise apartment overlooking Ground Zero is one of the worst compositional choices made by Lee and his cinematographer in the entire film. Apparently, they decided that judiciously distributed visual background markers of the aftermath of the attacks weren't enough, something more akin to the melodramatic intensity of Eisenstein was required. The fact that it comes across more like the campy voluptuousness of DeMille is indicative of the immensity of the error. But this is what you get with Lee, moments of daring and insight mixed with apparent amateurish gaffes. In this, Lee deserves a perverse respect for his refusal to conform to the expectations of a more disciplined formalism that accompanied his early successes, and perhaps, one discerns an aesthetic here, one centered around a conscious recognition that there is a powerful synergy that results from this erratic technique, a belief that life is, by turns, angry, passionate, comical and uncontrollable and any sincere film about it must be as well.

If so, Lee succeeds or fails based upon whether there is a transcendental quality to his films beyond the sum of their parts. In 25th Hour, there is, but it doesn't become apparent until the last thirty minutes. Before then, the actors, typical of a Lee film, provide great performances that keep the audience engaged in what would otherwise be a pedestrian story. All the way down the line, from Edward Norton as Brogan, to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper as his friends Jacob Elinsky and Frank Slaugherty, to Rosario Dawson as his girlfriend Naturelle Rivera to Brian Cox as his father, James, they provide uniformly nuanced, carefully developed characterizations that give the story a naturalistic feel. Lee may be a controversial director, but no one can dispute his ability to select actors for his films who invariably provide strong performances.

In these last thirty minutes, submerged threads of the narrative come to the fore: the difficulty of preserving trust in a passionate relationship, the ability of a father to pass his knowledge and experiences on to his son and the near impossibility of living anything other than an amoral life in a city as corrupted as New York City. Two sequences highlight this last theme, Brogan's internalized angry, bigoted diatribe about the city's inhabitants and a surprising ending that serves as a more profound, emotionally true repudiation of it. From the vantage point of 2012, 25th Hour is actually a powerful premonition of the social withdrawal and survivalism associated with the aftermath of the 2008 global recession, evocative of a more recent film about precisely this subject, The Girlfriend Experience. In such a world, as profiled by Lee in this film, there is no place for anyone other than those who accept the primacy of money, power and violence, and those who cannot do so are left with trying to imagine a refuge beyond their reach.

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