area theaters, starts Friday
The Star Maker
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday
CROOKLYN AND CLOCKERS would be tough acts to follow under any circumstances--but all the more so for having fallen on such blind eyes. The two richest movies Spike Lee has made thus far paid a price for their audacity: the former by experimenting with nonnarrative storytelling, the latter by reinterpreting an apparently sacred text. This sort of criticism wasn't new for Lee; in fact, none of his films has failed to come under attack from all sides. The difference was that the ruckus didn't translate into ticket sales, largely because Lee had agreed in these movies to sublimate his showman side in order to cultivate his filmmaker one. And now, alas, he's swung back the other way.
Where Lee's previous two films were complicated and melancholy, Girl 6 grooves frivolously on an array of mismatched images, the camera seeming to bounce off the wall-to-wall soundtrack of vintage Prince songs. At first, Lee's story of an aspiring actress-turned-phone sex operator (Theresa Randle) breaks from its She's Gotta Have It roots through some playful digressions: casual digs at the sexism of a white guy director (Quentin Tarantino); a mock Jeffersons scene (complete with laugh track) that salutes '70s black TV while parodying Oliver Stone. And in some ways, Lee's visual vocabulary has never been more fluid: His squeezed-lens and floating-character tropes aren't pseudo-auteurist indulgences here so much as shorthand for an increasingly distinct film language. But the familiar problem is the script's condescending view of its heroine--which, in light of the director's dismal track record with women characters, can't really be blamed on the credited author, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Lee's recent interviews suggest Parks as a patsy, and Girl 6 as his joint. Indeed, given the auteur's justly defensive relationship to the media, might he have planned it this way to deflect feminist criticism?
Girl 6's look is inseparable from its meaning, such as it is. An oft-repeated tracking shot through an elevator shaft signifies the title character's fall from moral grace, even more so than the ludicrously ominous scene in which she opts to try reefer for the very first time (cue "Sign o' the Times"). Even the film's press kit has seen fit to explicate Lee's technique, particularly his use of videotape in depicting the male callers: "The overall effect is one of diminishing each man's power," the publicist writes, "while the 35mm look and texture of the women heightens their strength." Well, no, it doesn't, although Randle's Girl 6 does have her pick amongst a She's Gotta-like litter: her shoplifting ex-husband (Isaiah Washington); her baseball card-collecting neighbor, Jimmy (Lee); and an implausibly polite phone sex client known as Bob From Tucson (Peter Berg). It's symbolic of the Girl's free will when she decides to give Bob her home number, although the guy who calls instead turns out to be a psychotic near-rapist (note further parallels to She's Gotta). I think Lee means this to be Girl 6's comeuppance for acting so confidently within such a sordid milieu.
If the phone sex phenom owes equally to AIDS fears, the desire of some men to fantasize female subservience, and the increasing privatization of "entertainment," the oddly prudish Lee has nothing to say about any of this. His sex industry setting merely allows the film a few raunchy jokes before chastising the heroine for her telecommunicative promiscuity. Over the course of the movie, Girl 6 goes from being an independent, phone sex-loving chameleon (she dresses as both Dorothy Dandridge and Foxy Brown) to something altogether more conventional and less problematic. Lee clearly wants this progression to be redemptive, but it seems a lot closer to blaming the victim. Girl 6 doesn't indict the industry so much as women who take jobs there--or so it appears. While the filmmaker tries to avoid dealing with the role of men in this male-dominated exploitation racket, his own character is still plenty present.
The all-powerful lech appears front and center of another industry profile, The Star Maker: a self-reflexive Italian melodrama which follows the attempts of its eponymous antihero (Sergio Castellitto) to find "new faces in the movies." Taking advantage of the neorealist tenet that any ordinary Joe can be a great actor, this shyster agent vows to project '50s-era Sicilians onto the movie screens of Rome; under the star maker's terms, the people actually pay him 1,500 lire for the privilege of a screen test. Besides getting half the town to recite key lines from Gone With the Wind, the man begins to serve as therapist, gigolo, father confessor, and con artist, but never star maker; although he might make the masses into stars in their own minds, he turns his female lead behind the camera (Tiziana Lodato) into a complete mess. As directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), The Star Maker is a convincingly bleak allegory of the relationship between actors and directors, workers and bosses, women and men. Like so many movies about movies, this one works best once the viewer decides to stop taking its story literally.
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