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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.

So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen infidelity, I choose to celebrate the fidelity onscreen--that is the relationship between the music, the images of Lemonade and the cinema itself.

The biggest influence present in Lemonade, is that of the great Terrence Malick. Imagery from his films To The Wonder and The Tree of Life (in particular a standout sequence involving a bedroom underwater) definitely inspired a lot of the overall tone of introspection and spiritual reflection that Beyoncé is striving for here. One of Lemonade's directors, Kahlil Joseph, shot B-roll on Malick's To The Wonder, so the impressionistic style of filmmaking has obviously carried over.

Colors play a crucial part in Lemonade, and none more bold than the redness found in the opening passage showing Beyoncé alone onstage in an auditorium. It's reminiscent of the red curtains found in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. "No hay bande," speaks the man from the stage in Mulholland Drive. There is no band. It sets up Beyoncé's lone quest to seek reconciliation with the implied betrayal she is faced with. It's also important to acknowledge the layer of surrealism that some of the Lemonade's passages evoke; the Twin Peaks parallel here, adds to that idea.

Pipilotti Rist's video art installation Ever Is Over All is the blueprint for the "Hold Up" song passage in Lemonade. In this passage Beyoncé strolls down a sidewalk on a sunny day only to wreak havoc on the windows of parked cars. Rist's art piece must've struck a chord with Beyoncé and her filmmaking team, as the images of empowerment and destruction gel together nicely with the song's lyrics of suspecting wrongdoing from one's lover: "I smell your secrets. I'm not too perfect--to ever feel this worthless."

Whether or not Cameron Jamie's short dance film Massage The History came up during the conception of Lemonade is moot. The sequence featuring Beyoncé and Serena Williams in an empty mansion grinding around furniture juxtaposes nicely with Jamie's piece that coincidentally shows only young men performing suggestive dances around the furniture in their empty home. During this section of my video essay, watch how the parallel clips seem to dance with each other, woman and man, in a primal ritual of lust and sexual appetite. It's a ripe section, one that suggests finding solace in carnal revenge fucking. "I ain't thinkin' 'bout you!" declares Beyoncé.

In a nakedly personal passage, one that seemingly recreates Beyoncé's old home movies, one can't help but look to the prolific personal found footage filmography of Jonas Mekas. Like Mekas, Beyoncé provides voice-over narration to the fragmented and often fleeting film clips of her family and friends from ages ago, as if trying to make sense of where things ended up. How did we get to this point? It's a question we all ask in times of strife, and the power of Mekas' personal cinema is how he learns to accept the present, in all its crude beauty, by looking to the past and acknowledging that this is what he's been preparing for all along.

Terence Nance--whose feature debut An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty was, ironically enough, executive produced by Jay Z--goes to exciting heights of the "confessional documentary" and exploring Afro-futurism in his musical short Swimming In Your Skin Again. Beyoncé looks to be on the same wavelength as Nance in some of the closing passages of Lemonade. Imagery of powerful church sessions, body painting, the swamp, the southern heat and ritualistic, soul-cleansing dances are all prominent here.

It's an appropriate climaxing of all the raw and unearthed feelings that Lemonade stirs for nearly its 66-minute run. Whether or not the real life scenario of infidelity sticks, one thing is certain: Beyoncé has created an exciting, exposing and elevating work of pop culture art.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

VIDEO ESSAY: Wake Up: Spike Lee's Vital "Chi-Raq"

Normally, I don’t do voiceovers for my video essays. I tend to let the audio samples and images speak for themselves; I suppose this habit traces back to high school English, where I was taught to use the text itself as the primary source for an argument in an essay. So, it made sense for my visual essays to rely solely on the audio-visual assets—a sort of moving image text, if you will. But for this particular video essay, because of my close connection to the city that birthed me, I felt having my narration, as a guiding narrative force, would be acceptable.

Video Essay Transcript:

When I was 22 years old I had a loaded gun pressed against the back of my head. It happened during an armed robbery in downtown Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and to be honest gun violence here is nothing new. When I was a child my aunt’s husband was shot several times up on the northwest side of the city. I’ve also had close family friends killed by gun shootings on the streets. However, in the last few years, the narrative of Chicago gun violence has taken the national spotlight, since reports of gun shootings are as commonplace as daily weather updates.

So you can imagine the skeptical feelings many lifelong Chicagoans had when they heard that New York’s own Spike Lee would be making a film about Chicago gun violence. The general feeling was, “Who’s this outsider telling our story?” Then word got out that it was going to be a satire and not a dead serious film, like say, Boyz N The Hood. Flash forward to December 2015: Chi-Raq has a brief stint in theatres before streaming on Amazon Prime. And while Lee’s Chi-Raq has its fair share of admirers, a lion share of moviegoers—especially those from the Second City—were quick to dismiss it and actually continue to bash it.

Now as someone who loves the cinema and is actually from Chicago and lives here in the city, I’d like to take this opportunity to show you how significant and seriously vital a film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq really is.

So here we go.

The first thing to understand wholly, as Spike mentioned earlier, is that Chi-Raq is working primarily as satire. Now that’s a different thing than a director making a film that pokes fun at or devolves the serious subject matter of gun violence. What satire in this case does is expose the stupidity of the players involved in street violence and exaggerates the profundity of such a societal disease.

For a narrative weapon, Chi-Raq uses the classic Greek play "Lysistrata" to help drive the plot forward. Now you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the concept of "Lysistrata"; basically it’s a story of a woman who decides to end a civil war by rallying the rest of the women to stop having sex with the men from their respective armies. So, in Chi-Raq, it’s the members of the Spartan and the Trojan gangs who stop getting laid.

And Spike Lee, ever the ambassador for cinematic bravado, injects Chi-Raq with plenty of his trademark embellishments. Take for instance, this passage, spoken in rhyming verse by the film’s jester at court and unofficial emcee Dolomedes, played by national treasure Samuel L. Jackson.

Now a lot is happening here. It’s a rousing soliloquy of sorts that disguises itself as standup comedic verse; Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott do an extraordinary job of packing tons of information and social critiquing all in what could I’ll describe as “Sam-Jackson-Pentameter.”

But it’s just not that Spike Lee has flair to spare and more style than most directors, it’s that he’s doing all of this out of real passion and concern. This is vital cinema. If you look at his filmography, the most memorable pieces of his cinema stem from a real connection to the primary source; whether it’s the invisible forces that pull us to our destiny or the opening title coda reflecting on a national tragedy, there is a palpable felt force that you cannot ignore in a Spike Lee joint.

And let’s take a moment to look at the wonderful opening title sequence of Chi-Raq. Spike Lee, like many great auteurs, knows when to borrow from cinematic giants; this opening title sequence owes greatly to Jean-Luc Godard.

Chi-Raq is not a perfect film. But when it works, it really soars above most of contemporary cinema. The fact that it was defeated by public opinion long before the final cut was put to print is a civic shame.

Funny, how when certain other iconic filmmakers go the satirical route to address big issues, cinephiles rejoice and treat those like sacred artifacts. Sydney Lumet wasn’t ridiculed for pointing out our zombie-like addiction to television. Stanley Kubrick didn’t lose artistic merit when he treated warfare like a comedy sketch.

Spike Lee detractors owe him a fair shake. The notion that he’s not qualified to make a film on a systemic problem plaguing minority and poverty-stricken communities is preposterous. This is the same filmmaker who takes more artistic chances in his sleep than most other directors. If it's a controversial topic, nobody's going to tackle it like Spike Lee. Look no further than his searing and stirring montage from his film Bamboozled.

The ending to one of Spike Lee’s first feature films School Daze ended with Laurence Fishburne urgently telling the players in his film to “Wake Up.” In an appropriate full circle move, the ending of Chi-Raq has Samuel L. Jackson telling the residents of Chicago to wake up. In a sense, that’s what happened in the movie-going world too. With the negative response to Chi-Raq, it’s not so much that Spike Lee has lost his touch as a director as it is that moviegoers slept on their responsibility to wake up and face the music.