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Two Movies: My Old Lady and Chi-Raq

I had high hopes for My Old Lady, a film of an Israel Horovitz play starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. I mean, I love Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. And the two of them are terrific in it, in a way—I suspect that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu would enjoy the movie enormously. I did not.

I had moderately-low hopes for Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee Joint starring Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon. I mean, I’d never heard of Teyonah Parris or Nick Cannon. I suspect that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu would hate this movie passionately. I loved it.

Well, I should say: Chi-Raq was a mess of a movie. A total mess. Not even a curate’s egg. Poorly thought out, sloppily made, with big chunks of it not working at all. The gender stuff, ugh. He doesn’t really seem to understand politics, or gangs for that matter. The bits that worked, though. Wow. Stunning, powerful stuff. I really felt put through the wringer afterward. My comment, and I don’t suppose this is original to me at all, was that Mr. Lee is not a good film-maker, but is clearly a great film-maker.

One thing that stood out to me about these two movies is that the play adaptation (My Old Lady) uses very little of the vocabulary of theatrical style, while Chi-Raq uses great double-handfuls of it. I don’t know the play of My Old Lady, which seems to be solidly in the extremely popular subgenre of unpleasant people say hurtful things to each other theater. That stuff was immensely popular for two or three generations of American theater, and I pretty much loathe it. The movie was fully naturalistic, with both acting and dialogue that was meant to feel like the sort of thing we come in contact with all the time. I mean, it was set in Paris and all, but it was set in an actual Paris, a plausible Paris. It took pains to convince us that every plot point, every interaction, every line, every gesture and facial expression, every kiss or collapse could have happened exactly as we saw it. Mr. Horovitz spent his artifice in concealing the artificial nature of film-making (or theater-making) (or storytelling in general) rather than in drawing attention to it.

Spike Lee, on the other hand, makes no such attempt. The mirror he holds up to life is full of distortions and exaggerations. His characters talk in rhyme. A narrator addresses the audience directly, wandering through the film unseen (mostly) by the other actors. Text messages appear on the screen in little boxes. He uses music, dance or synchronized movement to create spectacle. He dresses his characters in costumes they would never wear to give an impression of character or situation or simply to create a visual picture. He’ll speed up or slow down the action, to draw your attention this or that way. It's a Spike Lee Joint: it’s propaganda and provocation, and he wants you to know that from the beginning right through to the end.

Also familiar from the theater: the story is Lysistrata, transplanted to contemporary Chicago. The Spartans and the Trojans are street gangs in overlapping neighborhoods of the South Side, not residents of rival cities in Greece. For me, this is a comfortable technique for retelling classic or Shakespearean stories. Some of the reviewers seemed to have difficulty with it, for some reason, focusing unduly on the ways in which the gangs were unlike the Greek armies, or on the way they were unlike actual street gangs in non-movie Chicago. The disconnect they felt between the realistic trappings (for some scenes) and the Classical references is, well, something I’m over, now. Still and all, it should be said that Mr. Lee didn’t do a very sophisticated or rigorous job of working out the details of his frame. More like, slapped it on and ran with it. It works, when it works, and then in other bits, it doesn’t. That happens.

But the thing is, a big old messy fantastic failure like Chi-Raq is much more to my taste than My Old Lady, with its delicate smallness of vision. Part of that is political, yes—I have little sympathy with the sons and daughters of affluence that Mr. Horovitz lavishes such detailed attention on. They are dislikeable, and I dislike them. Mr. Lee’s ragged caricatures aren’t terribly likeable, either, I suppose, but when Lysistrata and Miss Helen and the rest of them set to burning down their world for the sake of peace, I root for them. I root for the vicious and unfeeling gang leaders to have their inevitable epiphanies and redemptions, and I want so much to believe in those redemptions that I do believe in them, in a way that I cannot believe in the much more plausible (because so much smaller) redemptions of the nasty little people in My Old Lady.

And then, I’m rooting for Spike Lee. His grandiose pretentions as well as his politics. I like that his films are provocations. I like feeling like I’m learning something about my own country and my own culture. I suppose I like being mau-maued, when it’s done with humor and spark—I mean, I don’t like being mau-maued, but I am aware a good deal of my liberal white suburban milquetoast-privilege is my ability to go through my life worrying about the sorts of things Israel Horovitz is hocking about (infidelity narcissism and syrah) rather than the sorts of things Spike Lee is hocking about (sponging a child’s bloodstains off asphalt). I’m more willing to forgive Spike Lee for the scenes that are painfully stupid and terrible than I am willing to forgive Israel Horovitz for the scenes that are a little slow and dull. Is that fair? Yeah, I think that’s fair.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.