Spike Lee: Oldboy, new man?

Spike Lee’s remake of Old Boy might not have set the world on fire, but his lively engagement with digital media points to a bright future.

Ashley Clark
Updated:

Web exclusive

Spike Lee

Spike Lee

1. Out of joint

It’s fair to say that Spike Lee hasn’t had it easy in recent years. As an indication of the extent to which he has struggled to make his mark, his ‘re-imagining’ of Park Chan-wook’s South Korean thriller Old Boy (2003) is also the first of his films to arrive at UK cinemas since 2006’s box office success, Inside Man.

Its follow-up, 2008’s ambitious, unwieldy World War II epic Miracle at St. Anna, flopped at the US box office, had a rough ride with the critics (it sits at a desultory 37 per cent average rating at collative site Metacritic) and failed to materialise in Europe. In 2011, Lee won a $1.5m lawsuit against French distributor TF1 for refusing to distribute his film in Europe, but by that point the damage was done. Later, the low-budget, self-financed Red Hook Summer (2012) enjoyed only a short run in a handful of American theatres and is yet to be granted a UK home-video release.

In the time that elapsed between those projects, Lee complained vociferously about the difficulties of obtaining studio funding (the long-mooted, seemingly bankable Inside Man 2, for example, has yet to materialise) and kept busy on a variety of projects, from maintaining his professorial post at NYU to making a string of mostly well-received TV documentaries (post-Katrina epics When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (2006) and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), and 2012’s Michael Jackson tribute Bad 25). After Red Hook Summer, Lee even directed Mike Tyson in a one-man show on Broadway (The Undisputed Truth).

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy, then, marks Lee’s return to mainstream prominence as a feature filmmaker after five years. Adapted by Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) from the original Japanese manga comics – with plenty of nods to Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film – it tells the story of libidinous boozehound Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who is mysteriously kidnapped and held prisoner for 20 years. He is then released – just as enigmatically – to embark on an ultra-violent quest to discover the reasons behind his ordeal. Lee’s sombre, bloody version is no disaster but, in spite of the American setting and a smattering of characteristically Lee-esque touches (the signature floating dolly shot, the pointedly ironic placement of a poster featuring a grinning black bellhop in Doucett’s chamber), it’s mainly notable for how impersonal it feels.

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Lee has made a career of impassioned human dramas flavoured with strident sociopolitical critiques, but in Oldboy the sound and the fury is not his own; contrast this with the fierce barbs fired at US domestic policy in the director’s last Holly-wood-for-hire job, Inside Man. Here, Lee is hemmed in by the overdetermined narrative constraints of the source text; Park combated this with a combination of stylistic brio and the berserk intensity of his performers, but Lee seems unable to distinguish his version beyond the level of aesthetic competence. At its anonymous worst, watching Oldboy feels like spying on an automated video-game demo, with an avatar drifting listlessly from level to level.

In a 27-year feature filmmaking career which began in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, Oldboy is significant for being Lee’s first remake. Tellingly, it’s also his only fiction feature to date to have been labelled simply a ‘Spike Lee film’, rather than his usual ‘Spike Lee joint’ – a quirky appellation which acts as a key strand of his well known propensity for self-branding.

Lee has been coy about the reasons for this. Was is it his decision? If so, it seems likely to be connected to the fact that the studio cut Oldboy from its original running time of 140 minutes down to 106 – much to Lee’s disgust – and ordered the much fêted one-shot hammer attack sequence to be broken into two. That the film has been roundly panned by critics and flopped dramatically at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic is unlikely to prompt Lee to open up further on the subject. He’s got his pay cheque. It’s time to move on.

2. Kicking and starting

One (admittedly fanciful and incomplete) reading of Lee’s remake is that it is partly an autobiographical satire of the Hollywood studio system: a bitter and twisted tale of being held captive by a manipulative, mendacious, faceless set of impenetrable mechanics. If this is the case, Lee had an idea, albeit a risky one, up his sleeve for when he escaped: an attempt to raise $1,250,000 to fund his next picture – most definitely ‘a joint’ – on internet crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

Informed of the platform by his NYU students and inspired by the high-profile successes of established filmmaker Zach Braff and Rob Thomas (mastermind behind the attempt to make a film of TV show Veronica Mars), Lee launched his campaign on 22 July 2013. He was warned by Kickstarter’s owners of the potential backlash, so prepared a set of answers to some of the vexed questions that inevitably emerged (chief among them: Why are you on Kickstarter? You’re an established wealthy filmmaker!)

Lee was robust in his response, and even went as far as to invoke the language of the civil rights movement:

“Going back to the 60s – the word is ‘mobilize.’ I want people to understand that if I win, they win. It’s connected. If we reach our goal, it’s about all of us and how we’re going to survive in this industry that’s not set up for us to succeed. We want it to be a community funded project which we all benefit from.”

Whether one sympathises with an established filmmaker setting up outside the virtual cashpoint with his virtual cap in his virtual hand is beside the point; people stumped up the cash. In the space of a month, Lee raised $1,418,910 (far surpassing the original target) from 6,421 backers.

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013)

The biggest attraction of Kickstarter for filmmakers is that it cuts out the middleman, supposedly paving the way for the realisation of a truly independent vision. One Lee backer was Steven Soderbergh, who pledged a bumper $10k. A contemporary of Lee’s who emerged as a bold independent voice at a similar time in the late 80s, Soderbergh has recently ‘retired’ from the industry in response to what he sees as the tyranny of studios and the constraints of traditional narrative. His investment illustrates heartening collegiate support from a fellow creative committed to independence of vision, but also indirectly accentuates the difficulty Lee has experienced in raising funds, a problem at least in part attributable to Hollywood’s historical reluctance to back big-budget, black-themed work. (George Lucas last year claimed it took 20 years to get his WWII film Red Tails made “because it’s an all-black movie”.)

By way of contrast, Soderbergh has traditionally had the clout and status to construct his own schedule alternating between big budget films (Ocean’s 11, 12, 13) and esoteric, riskier fare (Full Frontal, The Girlfriend Experience). Lee has never, in the past, had that choice. Even at the height of his fame and popularity, he had to scrabble.

Perhaps the most resounding soundbite from his Kickstarter campaign refers to his experience with funding Malcolm X:

“The truth is I’ve been doing KICKSTARTER before there was KICKSTARTER, there was no Internet. Social Media was writing letters, making phone calls, beating the bushes. I’m now using TECHNOLOGY with what I’ve been doing… I Had to do a PRE-KICKSTARTER Campaign to get MALCOLM X finished in 1991 when the production ran out of money. It was people like: PRINCE, JANET JACKSON, TRACY CHAPMAN, PEGGY COOPER CAFRITZ, MS. WINFREY, MAGIC JOHNSON AND MICHAEL JORDAN who STOOD UP, came to our rescue so you could see the MALCOLM X on screen we envisioned”.

That Lee’s Kickstarter campaign was such a ripping success illustrates two things: firstly, that the director retains a significant fanbase willing to trust the author’s vision, even when solid details are scant: the only information Lee has given up about the plot details of his new film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, are that it is about “Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody”, that it’s “A new kind of love story” and “that it’s not a remake of Blacula”. (Could Lee’s first foray into horror be this decade’s Ganja and Hess?)

Secondly, it proves that Lee remains an effective, proactive marketeer. Lee gave daily, often breathless updates on his Kickstarter campaign and offered upwards of 80 incentives – mostly drawing on decades’ worth of rare memorabilia – for backers. Anyone who’s followed Lee’s career will know that he’s not backward about coming forward when it comes to self-promotion. Even debut feature She’s Gotta Have It arrived with its own tie-in book volume, while its lead character, Mars Blackmon, played by writer-director-star Lee, led a double life in a series of Nike commercials alongside Michael Jordan. The difference now is that Lee has now transposed this marketeering into a digital realm.

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X (1992)

Lee is also, for example, a vigorous, ceaselessly self-promotional publisher on Twitter – a medium that, like Kickstarter, uses the immediacy of the digital landscape to dissolve the middleman. He has, however, hardly covered himself in glory with some of his recent online conduct: last year he landed in hot water when he impulsively tweeted what he thought to be the address of Florida murder suspect George Zimmerman, only to find that he had in fact shared the details of a perfectly innocent, unrelated elderly couple (the matter has been settled out of court).

In November 2013, a graphic designer sent an open letter to Lee, plaintively asking him to look into his complaint about being harassed and ripped off by Oldboy’s design company. Lee’s response? An almost comically truculent tweet, reading: “I Never Heard Of This Guy Juan Luis Garcia,If He Has A Beef It’s Not With Me.I Did Not Hire Him,Do Not Know Him.Cheap Trick Writing To Me.YO” For all Twitter’s directness and unambiguity, there is still the need, it would seem, for some good old fashioned PR advice.

3. Digital love

Yet mini-social media firestorms are less compelling than what Lee’s next film may offer. Completed in 16 days, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, lensed by Oldboy’s Sean Bobbitt, is already in the can and, like Red Hook Summer, has been shot on digital – to be precise, the lightweight, consumer-appropriate Sony F55 4k HD cam (in layman’s terms, it’s cutting-edge stuff). Though the fact tends to go mostly unremarked upon in critical appraisals of his work, Lee has long been a proponent of digital technology, anticipating as far back as 2000 the sea change that has now affected the industry.

Turning to digital for its mobility, expediency and cost-efficiency, Lee was able to integrate his bold aesthetic choice into the textual fabric of that year’s acid media satire Bamboozled. Its grubby, ghostly images perfectly reflected the muddied psychological spaces of the characters, and the multi-camera set-up (up to 15 lightweight digital cameras were filming at one time) allowed for a kaleidoscopic, disorienting range of angles for the final edit.

Yet its real masterstroke was to intercut the grainy digital footage with 16mm scenes of its central conceit, the horrifying New Millennium Minstrel Show cooked up by the cynical TV exec Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans). The roughness of the digital made the 16mm footage by contrast look like 70mm Cinemascope, and seductively, hauntingly otherworldly. 

Red Hook Summer (2012)

Red Hook Summer (2012)

A technical assistant on Bamboozled was Kerwin DeVonish, who went on to direct the photography on 2012’s underrated, underseen Red Hook Summer, the latest in Lee’s loose ‘Chronicles of Brooklyn’ series, following She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers and He Got Game. It is shot with a crystal-clear Sony F3 2k camera, with the Brooklyn environs burnished by a stark, crisp sheen – it’s revelatory to watch the film back-to-back with the lush, vibrant Do the Right Thing (shot by Ernest Dickerson on 35mm).

Yet the film’s first shot is captured through the lens of an iPad wielded by central character Flik Royale (Jules Brown), an Atlanta teenager visiting Brooklyn who is obsessed with filming everything he sees. This viewpoint is continually returned to in the film, consequently blurring authorial boundaries. On the Blu-ray director’s commentary, Lee even jokes that Brown should have received a camera-operator credit. Though rough around the edges, Red Hook Summer is clearly the work of a filmmaker striving to investigate how methods of media consumption have altered down the generations, unashamedly integrating this curiosity into the text.

Whether Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will continue this trend of formal reflexivity is, of course, open to question, but one thing is for certain: it is among the first crop of major feature films to have undergone an entirely digital birth, from funding through to shooting and editing (Paul Schrader’s coked-up sleazefest The Canyons, with $159,015 of its $250,000 budget raised via Kickstarter, is a similar example.) Some Kickstarter backers of Lee’s film will receive an online premiere in September 2014, meaning that the process will, to an extent, come full circle to distribution.

Will the next stage of this development – in the era of VOD and prestige, net-only shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black – see online platforms become the default distribution medium for independent filmmakers? Audiences with tablets and smartphones have spent the past few years getting used to new forms of viewing, so maybe traditionally ‘big screen’ filmmakers like Lee will need to learn to tailor their visions – and exhibition ambitions – accordingly.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

The sheer disparity in size, scope and origin between Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and the chronological proximity of their productions illustrate the fascinating flux and instability of the current American filmmaking system. Kevin Smith once thanked Lee in the credits of his debut film Clerks (1994) for “leading the way”, and Lee seems to be doing just that again. No doubt buoyed by Lee’s success, Hal Hartley, another of the independent filmmakers to come of age in the 80s, recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign of his own to fund Ned Rifle (the conclusion of a trilogy encompassing Henry Fool and Fay Grim).

Indeed, the rise of crowdfunding platforms – and the extent to which established filmmakers are able to convince their public that they are deserving of their investment – could mark a genuine paradigm shift in how independent films are funded, one that’s as significant as the flowering of ‘Indiewood’ in the Miramax-guided wake of films like Pulp Fiction in the mid 90s. Whether or not this model will prove sustainable (will filmmakers be able to go back to the Kickstarter well more than once, for example?), it’s somehow fitting to see Lee, one of the most important independent filmmakers of the last 30 years, at the forefront of it all.

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