Two Dissolve writers keep the 25th Hour conversation going...
Tasha: Mike, I was all set to launch our 25th Hour discussion by confronting one of the ugliest pieces of conventional wisdom about the film: that Spike Lee didn’t really have a huge success on his hands until he made a movie primarily about white people and their white-people problems. Then I looked into the truth of that statement. While plenty has been written about the way the critical establishment’s favorite Lee movie is his whitest, 25th Hour wasn’t nearly so much of a financial success as a critical one. In its initial release, it languished well below even minor Lee films like School Daze, He Got Game, and Crooklyn, not to mention Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and his biggest financial hit, Inside Man. But while 25th Hour doesn’t seem to have caught on with the public, it remains a profound critical darling, one of those films that turns up frequently at or near the top of best-of-era lists.
Part of the reception is due to the way the film deals with the aftermath of 9/11, in an angry yet sober, melancholy way that feels like one of the few really serious, adult considerations of what the attack meant for the city. But part of it, for me, is just the degree to which this feels like Lee’s first really controlled and intellectually driven film. Lee has shrugged off questions about whether the film’s focus is unusual for him—asked about it, he points to the white characters in films like Do The Right Thing, in a way that strikes me as either disingenuous or blinkered—but I’m not sure enough has been said about the degree to which this only intermittently feels like his other work because it’s so focused on cold, rigid moods and long, contemplative takes. So many of Lee’s films are about people taking decisive action, or talking up a storm around the decisions they’re trying to make by the end of the movie. 25th Hour feels to me like a movie about people who have already reached their conclusions, and are trying to figure out how to live with themselves in moody silence. How much does this film feel like a break from Lee’s past for you?
Mike: Well, first of all, I’m a bit skeptical about the notion that 25th Hour is critics’ favorite Spike Lee movie. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, for example, which invited hundreds of critics to vote for their 10 favorite films of all time, Do The Right Thing received 13 votes, landing it in 127th place (that low?!), whereas 25th Hour got none at all. And back in 2002, nobody was discussing the film as part of the year-end awards conversation, even though it was a Christmas release. Only years later did I start to see people treat it as a self-evident classic.
That delay doesn’t really surprise me. 25th Hour is a great film, but it’s also gloriously weird, to the point of feeling almost experimental at times. And I think that has a lot to do with the dissonance involved in Lee injecting his own concerns and idiosyncrasies into a project he didn’t originate—a rarity at that time. (Prior to 25th Hour, the only features he’d directed from other people’s screenplays were Girl 6 and Get On The Bus, both of which seem comparatively tailor-made for him.) David Benioff’s novel, published in early 2001, has nothing to do with 9/11, and Lee doesn’t really integrate the aftermath of the attacks with the source material in any cohesive way. He just imposes it upon the narrative, which is arguably much more powerful—especially since Hollywood had spent a year deleting the Twin Towers from movies that were shot before they fell.
(Quick personal aside: I wept like a baby through the opening-credits sequence the first time I saw the film. No advance word of the 9/11 stuff reached me, and the moment when I suddenly realized what those lights were is one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. At the time, I was a New Yorker, working not far from Ground Zero; seeing a movie acknowledge that 9/11 had happened, after a year-plus of denial, was incredibly cathartic. I’m fairly sure 25th Hour was the first non-documentary to allude to it in any way.)
Does it feel like a Spike Lee movie? It does and it doesn’t. I understand what you mean about the more contemplative mood, which derives from the nature of the story—it’s about a guy who’s trying to accept the consequences for the bad choices he’s made, all of which happen before the movie begins, though there are some flashbacks. At the same time, though, there’s no way anyone could ever mistake 25th Hour for the work of any other director, despite the nearly all-white cast. There’s the famous ethnic-slur montage, of course, which comes straight from the novel, but is shot in the same confrontational, direct-to-camera style as a similar montage in Do The Right Thing. But I’m thinking more of the subplot involving Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anna Paquin, which culminates with Hoffman riding the fabled Spike Lee “people-mover” with a stricken look on his face as Cymande’s “Bra” thumps on the soundtrack. (“But it’s all right!”) That’s such a goofy, expressionistic means of depicting an instant of moral failure, in sharp contrast with many of the film’s more sober-minded scenes. There’s a lot roiling around in this movie, which is exactly what I love so much about it.
Let me ask you about another contentious aspect. Today, given the criticisms we’re seeing made about a movie as innocuous as Boyhood, I suspect that some people would write off 25th Hour as a portrait of privilege, in which a wealthy white guy whines about having to endure an experience that minorities deal with disproportionately. Back in 2002, though, the primary complaint I saw concerned Monty asking Frank to beat the shit out of him, so that he’ll be too ugly to rape when he first arrives in prison. Some of my friends found this both ludicrous and offensive, and it’s hard to argue otherwise if one takes Monty’s request at face value. I’m tipping that I don’t, but before I say anything further, what’s your take on that climactic beatdown? Did it bother you at the time? Does it now?
Tasha: It did and it does, because I still don’t follow the logic. Monty worrying about how he’s too pretty for prison has always struck me as a weird bit of misplaced ego and delusional tunnel vision, like a size-2 model fussing that her butt looks fat. Walking in the door of a prison beat to shit doesn’t ensure no one will mess with him; if anything, it seems like it’d draw unwanted attention, both as a conversation-starter and as an indication that he’s already lost one fight recently, and badly, which might just make him a target.
But I’m with you about not taking it at face value. I don’t think we have to buy that un-punched Monty is infinitely rapeable, while Monty with a mashed face is somehow immune to prison dominance exercises. We just have to buy that for whatever reason, he thinks that, and that he’s obsessed with the idea that somehow, bruises and facial edemas will protect him. People have clung to thinner lifelines. The scene feels a little forced in the film’s story arc, like it’s trying to find an action conclusion for a movie that generally isn’t about action. But it’s really about character: Monty’s desperation and grasping at straws in an effort to take control of a situation where he feels out of control, Frank (Barry Pepper) finally finding a channel for his anger over Monty’s gigantic mistakes and his own loss of control, Jacob (Hoffman) still sitting passively by, avoiding conflict. And it’s easy to see Monty in it trying to punish himself for his crimes, and/or trying to send off his friend Frank with a little catharsis. It doesn’t work for me as a rape-prevention tactic, but it does as an attempt to express what Monty feels he needs and deserves, and what Frank’s been holding back, and how little Jacob has changed. How close is that to your reading?
Mike: That’s exactly my reading. Not so much the part about providing catharsis for Frank (that’s just a fringe benefit), but the part about Monty unconsciously wanting to be punished—not by some anonymous instrument of the federal government, but by somebody who actually cares about him. He’s retroactively engineering an intervention that he wishes had taken place years earlier—there’s even dialogue to that effect, during the goading stage: “For years, you’ve been giving me that look, like, you know, you want to smack some sense into me. Well, this is your chance. I need it, Frank.” And some part of Frank understands that, too, I think. His agonized cries of “I’m sorry” afterward seem too heartfelt to be an apology for pummeling Monty at his own request; what he regrets is not having stepped in when he should have, at the beginning, before things escalated to the point where Monty wound up serving a seven-year prison term. He feels he failed Monty as a friend (and there’s explicit dialogue about that, too—when he turns on Rosario Dawson’s Naturelle at the bar, it’s unmistakably self-loathing being channeled into an attack on someone else). It’s also significant that Monty finally succeeds in getting Frank to hit him by attacking Jacob, since Jacob’s statutory-rape subplot is a present-tense echo of Monty’s past mistakes. If seeing Monty go to jail doesn’t snap Jacob out of it, maybe seeing him get beat up will.
Is Monty’s need to be physically punished by a friend, on top of his jail time, a bit excessive? Sure… but, then, the entire movie is excessive, from Blanchard’s keening score to the seemingly endless alternate-future coda that lays out the rest of Monty’s entire life as it might exist should he choose to run rather than accept the consequences of his actions. You used words like “sober,” “melancholy,” and “controlled,” and that’s not inaccurate; at the same time, though, there’s also a recklessness to Lee’s approach, which is thrilling in a way that a safer, more measured treatment of the same material wouldn’t allow. That’s especially true of that coda, which I don’t think would work if it were merely a quick impression—the sequence accrues power as it unexpectedly goes on and on and on and on, practically turning into a separate short film of its own: The Last Temptation Of Monty. It’s controlled and it’s extreme, at the same time. Controlled in its extremity, perhaps, which is Spike Lee at his best. Do you see what I mean, or am I off base in finding 25th Hour superbly schizophrenic?
Tasha: From my perspective, you’re exaggerating the film’s recklessness, which I largely just see in the people-mover shot and the famous “Fuck New York” monologue—the only parts of the film where I initially recognized Lee’s jittery, confrontational, rhythmic, into-the-camera style. That’s the sequence that goes on forever for me, and that feels schizophrenic and out of place, in large part because it seems so confused about whether it’s following Monty’s negative, hateful perspective, or just admiring New York’s diversity, in a bit of a sneer at him. Monty is initially in his own visualized monologue, dealing with the squeegie-man panhandler, but after that, it’s just the camera on its own, exploring New York, and variously finding people performing themselves for the camera, or just facing it down. And each of those shots feels like it’s saying something different, siding with or against Monty. The Bensonhurst boys with their baseball bats, screaming into the camera, seem to justify his contempt; the Puerto Rican family, seemingly unaware of the camera and just heading off to celebrate with each other, seem immune to it. The looks at his own friends and family are friendlier than his judgmental words about them. That sequence has never worked for me, because it seems so reckless, so cluttered about whether it’s illustrating his feelings, or a more objective reality.
But mostly, as I said earlier, 25th Hour seems more rigid and controlled to me than any of Lee’s earlier movies, with less of that take-it-as-it-comes energy and experimental in-the-moment feel. It feels far more planned and executed—which may stem from Lee sticking close to Benioff’s novel, which itself read more like a screenplay than a book. When I think of this film, I think of the cold opening titles over the “Tribute In Light,” or Monty’s resignation as the cops roll his home, or his awkwardness with Naturelle, or that amazing closing scene—all sequences with people in static situations, contemplating dynamic ones. So much of 25th Hour for me feels like it’s about suppressed emotion looking for expression—Monty’s fears, Jacob’s neediness, Frank’s grief, Naturelle’s resentment, James’ protectiveness, and above all, the city’s feelings about 9/11. It’s more a probing, seething story than a reckless one, narratively and stylistically.
That’s why I don’t understand your feeling that 9/11 isn’t cohesively integrated into the story. The characters don’t perpetually bring it up after that early survey of Ground Zero, and thank goodness they don’t spell out the parallels between their personal disaster and the larger one. (That way lies Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.) But they don’t need to; it’s hanging over their heads at every minute, both as a literal disaster they’re coping with, and as a metaphor for their own situation, dealing with the destruction of Monty’s life and the need to soldier on. It saturates the film so thoroughly, in terms of looming dread and banked fury. It brings a sense of perspective, in that Monty’s personal destruction is just a tiny blip in the city’s story. And it drives that fantasy ending, that beautifully ridiculous bedtime story that allows a moment of escapism and rest, but underlines that Monty and the city both still have to deal with reality in the morning. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you expected from the 9/11 element here, what you’d need to feel it was fully integrated.
And while we’re at it, here’s something I’ve never entirely felt was properly integrated into the movie: Monty’s rescue of the dog at the beginning of the film. Yes, he has a line about what it means for him, but it still seems like such a random, tossed-off element, not really part of the main story? What does that piece of business mean for you? Is it just there so we have a reason to sympathize with him a little and think of him as a person rather than a generic movie New York criminal scumbag? Is there more to it?
Mike: Oh, I think the dog is crucial, and a big honking clue regarding what the film is really about. (Apparently irrelevant scenes like this are frequently thematic keystones, I find—see also, for example, the flashback with the tarmacadam salesman in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.) It isn’t just that Monty rescues a badly wounded dog—it’s that he chooses to do so even though the dog is hostile toward him, and that he gets bitten so hard in the process that he winds up bleeding. (“Little love-bite for saving his raggedy ass,” Monty notes.) This ties into our mutual reading above of the “make me ugly” climax, in a couple of different ways: The wound foreshadows Monty getting pummelled by his best friend—dogs famously being “man’s best friend”—and the idea of rescuing someone/thing even though doing so may cost you some blood reflects and exposes Frank’s failure (in common with various other people) to step in and confront Monty about his dealing before it led to his prison sentence. 25th Hour is ultimately a movie about intervening, and failing to intervene. That’s the point of the whole lengthy subplot involving Jacob and his underage student, which really has no direct bearing on Monty’s situation at all. As I suggested earlier, we’re seeing Jacob in the early stages of a potential Monty-like disaster, and we’re not seeing anyone pull him aside and ask him what the hell he’s doing. (There’s a little casual talk to that effect, but not remotely what he needs.) And then the film concludes with an elaborate rescue fantasy, which has to remain a fantasy because it’s far too late now, and Monty just has to accept the consequences of his actions. (It’s the same ending as Brazil’s, in a way!)
Given that that’s what I think the film is about, it’s hard for me to see how 9/11 fits into its schema. It’s not part of the novel, and 25th Hour started shooting so soon afterward that Lee didn’t have much time to intellectualize his response. (I guess you could draw a parallel to the firefighters and other emergency personnel who tried to rescue people in the World Trade Center, at the cost of their own lives, but I kinda doubt he intended that.) It feels wholly emotional to me—a raw need to depict the truth about life in New York City at that moment, which Lee couldn’t bring himself to ignore. Again, that’s not a complaint at all—in a strange way, I like that those elements aren’t integrated, that they’re superimposed. Had it been done in a more “literary” way (for lack of a better adjective—maybe “writerly” is what I mean), I might well have found it galling, just as you note that many found Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close galling. The sore-thumb aspect makes it all the more heart-rending.
This conversation reminds me of discussions I had with friends about Lars von Trier’s Dogville at the time of its release. I thought Dogville was primarily an allegory about the American immigrant experience, with Nicole Kidman’s Grace forced by the community to do menial work for low wages (and then worse) due to her outsider status. Victor insisted it was a religious allegory, with Dogville as hell (if I remember correctly). Michael focused on von Trier’s choice to name Paul Bettany’s well-meaning character “Tom Edison,” and favored an interpretation in which the film attacks patronizing liberalism and America’s benevolent self-image. But we all agreed that Dogville is a masterpiece. In the same way, you and I clearly have different ideas about what 25th Hour is up to, yet we’re in complete agreement that it’s a great film. Being able to accommodate multiple divergent readings, I submit, is the hallmark of true excellence.
Don’t miss Scott’s Keynote laying out how 25th Hour picked up on and expressed 9/11 anxieties, even though it was concieved in 2000. And Thursday, check back in for Keith’s thoughts on the various ways the Twin Towers have been used in films.