– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
MATCH CUTS: Spike Lee is very hit or miss with me, but his best films really strike me as unabashed manifesto’s about human weaknesses, prejudices, and assumptions. For me, 25th Hour is his best films because it combines the perfect mixture of Lee’s stylistics with his dynamic view of the world. It’s cinematography, music, and dialogue belong to this very tense vision of the world, obviously influenced by 9/11, but still incredibly personal and tragic.
THE FILMIST: It was interesting watching this film, having just finished his “Malcolm X” again just a day earlier. On the one hand, you have this three hour long, autobiographical epic about a revolutionary public figure, and his exploits from one end of his life to the other. And, on the other, you’ve got “25th Hour,” a small, intimate – for the most part – film following one man’s last days on the outside world, underneath the attitudes and ires bred by September 11th. These two films are, I think, some of Lee’s best. Because, as you wrote in your article for the film, too often he seems to lapse into “howling at the moon,” with films like Bamboozled – which I still enjoy if only because of Savion Glover.
M: I love Bamboozled, but that’s a whole other conversation. But yes, 25th Hour is so contained to the decisions of it’s characters, to the consequences of those decisions, and all the possibilities they will never realize. Each scene is seeped in this extreme melancholy, best represented by Terrence Blanchard’s haunting musical score. It follows Monty, resting heavy on his shoulders in way I’ve never seen in any other film.
F: Yes – the opening scene may be one of my favorites out of Lee’s films. We’re exposed to this Monty character played by Norton, and we’re not quite sure if he’s up to or involved in anything, just yet. But, he finds this dog – and, despite the guys they’ve got waiting on them, the “guys with money,” he decides to put it in his trunk and take it to the vet. And, it’s one of the first times that Lee’s patented “repeat-cut” (I call it) pops up, three times.
M: Which repeats throughout the film, a repetition that is incredibly artificial in way the rest of the film is not, and I’m glad you mentioned the opening scene, because it shows his misguided humanity front and center, it shows his cockiness and compassion in one sequence, the reason he got into this mess in the first place, and the reason his plight is so complex.
F: Yes, it actually gives a small hint as to what’s revealed later about Monty, that the reason he turned to the business that he’d turned to was to help out his family. It’s funny, even in the lighter scenes, there’s an underlying melancholy that’s brought out into the open – as in the club scenes, for example.
M: And this sense of doubt filtering through each character, Monty doubts Natuerelle, Frank judges Monty, then feels guilty for it, Jacob doubts his validity as a person, all while mired in this strange celebration, and for what? Everything is ill-fated, except for the genuine pain that each character feels, the loss is something that can’t be played down. It’s a stunning achievement when you think about the atmosphere of character the film creates.
F: One of the characters I found interesting, even though she’s relatively minor in terms of her presence in the story, is Mary, Jacob’s student. And, before I start talking about the character, I also want to mention how weird it is to see Anna Paquin in 2002 and Anna Paquin in 2009, with “True Blood.” I can’t quite place it, but something’s changed about her.
M: She’s always on the cusp of the frame it seems, and to me she really represents the allure of that dangerous life Monty has brought into his lifestyle. We really see how separate these old friends are, Monty and Jacob, in the sense that Monty dismisses Mary and Jacob sees her as his entire obsession. They have become apart of two separate worlds and never realized it.
F: Yes, and it’s funny the effect she has on Jacob in the club, right after Monty’s told him that he’s “the only honest man in the room, right here.” And, he ends up trying to kiss her, directly afterwards. She seems to be caught on the same kind of downward spiral that Monty fell into. Where at first we see her at the prep school causing king-hell about her grades, which she obviously cares a lot about, the next time we see her, she’s hopped up on E and champagne – it seems to be something a little stronger than a rebellious attitude, which is hinted at with her button tattoo. Also, it’s telling how she says (she says) her mother dismissed such a thing with only, “where did you get the money for that?”
M: I think this falls into the idea that money, which ties into class, consumes each and every character, Frank, who works on Wall Street yells at Natuerelle for not speaking up since she was living a lavish lifestyle, Jacob is independently wealthy, and Monty makes his bad decision based on the need for money. It drives everything in this very personal film. The way money really changes old friendships, perspectives, yet there is still that connection, that memory of loyalty that still rings tru.
F: Indeed. Speaking of, I also found it interesting to see Lee use the same “background moves in the distance as the character stays rooted in the foreground” shot that he used at the end of Malcolm X, after Jacob leaves the bathroom.
M: When the actor is positioned on a dolly with the camera? Yes, that’s a Lee staple, and it creates this surreal atmosphere in the club, but it is just prolonging the inevitable.
F: He seems unhooked from time, almost.
M: Which is fleeting, because time is about to come crashing down.
F: In more ways than one, with Monty’s rebuke of Kostya.
M: Yep. What did you make of the ending? Do you see it as a vision of a future that will never happen, as I do, or do you have a different reading of it.?
F: Well, if I’m being optimistic, then I’d say that it was a possible future that’s left ambiguous by the last shot. But then again, on a rainy day, I think that Monty kind of disregards such notions and decides to face his time – hence the Washington Bridge in the background, and them being on the road toward upstate New York.
M: The mere juxtaposition of a failed future and a failed present makes this film a major achievement. As he looks out the window, he finally realizes that he’s devastated everyone’s life, not just his own.
F: Despite what may have been his best intentions, everyone except the dog comes out worse at the end of this night.
M: Very ironic, although life with Jacob seems very depressing and repressed.
F: Yes. He reminds me of this guy I used to know, actually. Very strange guy – I won’t reveal his story here, but he seemed to have the same kind of mental attitude going on, that same kind of fear.
M: I think the main thing with 25th Hour for me, is that portrays characters in crisis without blowing their guilt or innocent out of proportion, it’s about the complexities in between the stereotypes (as addressed in Monty’s crippling verbal tirade to the mirror), the intricacies of relationships that reveal themselves through traumatic experiences.
F: True. For all his faults, Jacob is still a truly redeemable character. And, I love the immediate silence after his broker friend beats him to a pulp – only the sounds of the birds fluttering in the background, and the dog barking.
M: Absolutely, Lee leaves you with the reality of the situation, the ambient noise lingering, drown out a bit….So if 25th Hour is all about character, then Che: Part 1 is concerned with ideology, a collective birth, a romantic vision of change. But for me, I can’t separate the first film from the second, since it charts the harsh breakdown of that vision. Why choose just the first part of Che for this project?
F: While they’re connected by the sort of causal relationship you mentioned, apart from that, they’re two very different films, stylistically and in their aims – where the first part seems a lot more cohesive and all of that, the second part is by its very nature fractured, and almost deliberately obtuse. And, maybe it’s because I’m an optimist, but it’s the first film, with it’s bombastic and revolutionary nature, is something that appeals to the good old fashioned Communist in me. The second part of Che seems to fall in the same direction as Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” in that it’s a constantly hard-luck film for this character for two hours, physically as well as ideologically, pointing out the illogical nature of going in and trying to resurrect the spirit of a people who don’t really want to be “saved.” Which is another reason I kind of prefer using their separate titles, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” hinting at their separate aims and goals.
M: I guess I see them as flip sides to the same coin, and The Argentine is definitely more linear in that it progresses a sequence of events that allude to genre conventions of the War film, it’s also shot in widescreen which gives the film a sweeping visual look that plays into this inherent romanticism. But even then Soderbergh strips these tropes down to the barest essentials, the interactions between Che and Fidel, even the action scenes are disjointed.
F: The action sequences were one of the things I loved about the film, actually – being as I am one of those guys who interested in the whole “kinetic nature of cinema;” not just in action sequences, but they do often serve as some of the best representatives – the way they’re shot with such from-ground immediacy and yet still with such a great emphasis on formal dynamism, as in the first attack on the Sierra Maestra barracks.
M: The building exploding from the bazooka round is really something, it’s almost shocking because the film hasn’t given us anything like that before. There are these moments of grand chaos, like the train flipping off the tracks as well.
F: Yes, the whole portion of the film dedicated to the Battle of Santa Clara, and the fight for control of the tower, is relentlessly breakneck. It was interesting that, here, in the middle of all this, Soderbergh points out prominently Che’s injured arm and his asthma.
M: The scene that really struck me was the moment where he orders the executions of his men that have committed atrocities. It really speaks to the dynamic attention to details that you just mentioned.
F: Oh, certainly. And also, its that scene and a few others that really brings to light one of the weirder aspects of the revolution at the time – the strong, harsh emphasis on capital punishment that Che and Castro used. Small scenes, mentions here and there -and the protesters in New York – signs of what came during the interval years between the first and second films, with Che during his stay at La Cabana’.
M: In both films, especially The Argentine, is this very meticulous, almost bare bones vision of historiography, a re-writing of history in a non-linear fashion. We see the gaps that other films have left out, we see the moments that the history books have ignored. That’s why when critics have called this film too dry of emotion, or distant from the material, I just don’t see it, because Soderbergh has inserted some seriously dynamic material and characters into this important segment of modern history.
F: Yes, I’ll never understand that complaint – it confuses me, especially in contrast to Soderbergh’s film he finished just afterward, The Girlfriend Experience. Now, that was a dry, stagnant film.
M: I haven’t seen it yet, but The Argentine is full of more life than any of his other films, and it’s a criticism that I will never get.
F: Mainstream critics, more and more, are becoming insane. Insane, I tell you. Maybe it’s something in the water.
M: It’s really tough for a weekly critic to get a film like this on one viewing, which is the inherent problem with writing “reviews” as opposed to criticism.
F: Yes, indeed – the only really redeemable critics I’ve found at the moment are Ebert and the three or four cats who occasionally end up in the Dallas Observer, like J. Hoberman.
M: There are plenty of good ones, but Hoberman is the only one to champion this film in the way I thought it deserved. He seems to have an incredible grasp of the way history plays into these sorts of films, and why they are essential. Kent Jones from Film Comment seems to be the other critic that just gets it on a collective level. Soderbergh has made a difficult film that cannot be fully processed on one viewing. There’s just too much going on, which makes it a fascinating piece.
F: Surely. It’s not a film that goes in for easy hero worship, but at the same time, it’s also not one to denigrate or denounce its central title character, as another bunch of people would’ve wanted. He seems to have achieved something entirely other, and that’s left a lot of people disoriented.
M: I agree with that, especially considering how different the two halves are in style, and how unsettling they are when placed together.
F: They do create an interesting contrast. And, it’s in the second film that I think Soderbergh’s approach becomes clear – at the moment of Che’s death. He avoids having him say the rousing, “Shoot, coward! You are only coming to kill a man!” that’s quoted by the one side, or the pleading issued by the other. Instead, he has Che share a look with the guy, and say, “I don’t talk to traitors,” after agreeing that he killed his uncle.
M: Del Toro’s performance is almost entirely conveyed through his eyes, the passion, the longing, the isolation, everything streams through his eyes. Which plays into what you just mentioned.
F: And, I have to say, I love the great contrast the film creates, in between young, clean-shaven Ernesto and bearded, beret wearing Che. Which is one of the reasons that I’m glad the film didn’t stay too long before the boat ride to Cuba. Among other things, we do have “The Motorcycle Diaries,” for that. His is a virtuoso performance – which is one of the reasons he’s quickly becoming one of my most favorite actors. Not that he wasn’t, you know, up there before, but –
M: Well, this an his performance in a little seen near masterpiece, Things We Lost in the Fire, are superb, just great method turns.
F: I haven’t seen TWLitF just yet. Been meaning to get around to it, but something about it just keeps pushing me away. It’s Halle Berry, that’s who it is.
M: She’s great, and I really despise her acting, usually at least. The main thing with The Argentine and the entire project as a whole is that Soderbergh is attempting something grandiose, something altogether rare in Western filmmaking today. A gigantic epic with pertinent ideas on its mind, issues of nationalism, pragmatism, and failed ideologies.
F: Oh, I agree. We haven’t seen one of these in a long while. It’s intriguing the contrast this film creates with his others – your opinion of Spike Lee matches pretty closely my opinion of Soderbergh.
M: It’s interesting how some filmmakers you usually admire but can’t buy into, except for that one instant when their obvious artistry breaks through and hits you on some intrinsic level.
M: Of course you have to suffer through a few stinkers to get there.
F: “The Girlfriend Experience” remains an indelible burn on my brain. You don’t know you’re alive until you’ve seen Sasha Grey masturbate some Jewish guy on screen while he talks about why she should vote Republican. When the movie’s finished, you’ve got a whole new outlook on life, really – you made it through.
M: I can’t wait. Sounds invigorating.
F: You’re gonna love it. LOVE IT, I tell you.