Saturday, February 09, 2008

Imagery Saturdays: Games People Play

By Odienator

Spike Lee is one of the few directors who still cares about opening credits sequences. Each of his films has a unique way of ushering us into the movie. From Rosie Perez fighting the power in Do The Right Thing to the horrific gunshot victims that open Clockers, Lee sets the mood for his joints with precision and care. Even in Girl 6, an otherwise horrible film with a great Prince soundtrack, Lee's credits are alive despite being displayed on a blank screen.

My favorite opening credits sequence of Spike's is the one that opens Crooklyn. There's a lot wrong with Crooklyn as a feature: Spike Lee can't write a female character to save his life, the film is fragmented and meandering, and the entire anamorphic sequence, while bold, is annoying. Still I love this movie for the sense of nostalgia it evokes. In an argument with a film critic buddy of mine, I completely acknowledged every flaw he pointed out. "But I was there," I told him, "and I think that's what Spike's going for in this movie. He's preaching to the choir of kids from the 70's."

Crooklyn opens with a quick survey of a Brooklyn neighborhood, and as it plays out, we see a whole slew of games being played by the neighborhood kids. The scene is scored to the Stylistics' People Make the World Go Round, a song that kicks in as the Universal logo spins on the screen. I'm not going to lie; I felt 4 years old when I saw these games on the screen. My eyes got wet and a flood of memories came back to me. That's what I hope to invoke with this free association rant about the images below. So, ask your Mom if you can come out and play with the Odienator. Hurry up. The streetlights come on in an hour.

Remember 1-2-3-Red Light? This was a game where the person who was "it" turned their back and leaned against a pole, counting "one-two-three-Red light!" While this occurred, we'd try to run to the pole. The first person to touch the pole became "it." But if you were caught moving when "it" turned around and said "red light," you got sent all the way back to the corner and had to start again.

We also had "Mother, May I?" which was a variation on Red Light where we'd ask Mother if we could take a giant step or 3 baby steps or whatever other crazy steps we could think of during the game. If we got close enough to tag "Mother," we assumed her duties. Of course, we'd usually have one of those mean ghetto girls that said no to everything as Mother. The one in my neighborhood wound up having 8 kids. Guess she didn't say no to everything after all.

And do you remember how the first "it" was crowned? We'd all put one foot out and someone would sing a song as they moved their finger across each foot. The last foot in the pile was it. You know how it went:

"Engine Engine #9
Going down Chicago Line
If the train falls off the track,
Do you want your money back?
My mother told me to pick this one
Right o-vah here!"

Or if we didn't want it to run as long as Heaven's Gate, we'd just say:

"Doggie, doggie step right out."

You're it!

Man, the Puerto Ricans and the West Indians took their dominoes seriously! It was to them what spades was to Black folks. There was always some violence during or after a dominoes game, accented by Spanish cuss words or unintelligible patois. I love to play dominoes more than I loved spades, but all these games had a similar premise when you think about it. But I had more fun trying to make those domino set-ups I used to see on Real People or That's Incredible, the ones that you knocked down after you set them up. There was less violence involved.

I could NEVER do this. My Mom taught me how to wind the rope around the top and all, but I just had no skill for it. My top wouldn't stay up, or it would wind up being airborne and a danger to everything in a 50 foot radius. In my neighborhood, we had two forms of "tops," the one you see above and this one:

which we also called skellies. I was good at this game. First you got a top--a milk jug top or a water jug top was the best. It had to be plastic. Then you'd weigh it down with some tar you dug out of of the street and plugged into the top of the cap. This was an art form, and I was really good at making tops. You ran the top along the ground for a bit as well, to smooth it out a bit so it would go farther. Then you shot your top with your fingers across the chalk-drawn board in the middle of the sidewalk/street. The object was to get your top in all the numbered squares and then into the middle skelly box.

You also got to knock your opponents' tops out of the way, so it was kind of like hopscotch and pool mixed together. For someone so anal about dirt, I'm surprised I used to lay out in the street and size up what my next move would be. Speaking of hopscotch:

The girls would play this game. It was just too easy and boring for us, though I admit having played it a time or two back in the day. Of all the "girls" games, I preferred jacks. There was some skill to that, and I was damn good at it. I'd beat the girls, and then they'd have to go buy me a quarter juice because they lost the bet. Remember those quarter juices? The ones that came in the plastic jug with the foil top? They always made my throat sore, and I guarantee you we were drinking some chemical we weren't supposed to be imbibing. I wouldn't be surprised if they traced hypertension in Black people back to quarter juices and pixy stix.

Another "girl" game I partook in was double dutch. The girls swung their bodies with attitude while they turned the rope, and I'd get tingly feelings I didn't know anything about until much later. In my neighborhood, jumping rope was verboten for boys, but honestly I didn't care. I didn't have any male friends anyway, except for my cousins, and the guys in my hood were too busy yelling at me because I was the smart kid, calling me "professor" and "White boy" because "keepin' it real" hadn't been coined yet. This was a way I could get close to the girls, and it paid off later when I joined one of the double dutch troops who competed in things like the McDonalds contests. We kicked ass, and I met a lot of women. So nyaah.

Another thing I loved about double dutch was that it got the adults involved. My cousins would be outside jumping, and my Mom or one of my numerous aunts would come outside and ask for a jump. Now, keep in mind that, to us, these women seemed older than dirt. In actuality, my Mom was in her 20's and some of my aunts were in their late teens. They would kick off their shoes and then, after that hilarious back and forth motion everybody did before jumping into the rope, would jump in and jump like the experts they were. Sometimes they showed off, too, jumping in what we called "hot peas and butter," a really fast turn of the rope. Whenever we tried that, we'd get whelped up and look like the zebra on the Fruit Stripe gum package.

And remember those songs the girls would sing, using the rhythm of the rope and their feet as percussion:

"Hey Concentration
Where have you been?
Around the corner and back again.
Stole my money
And my honey
Papa got the hiccups, Mama got the slice.
So come on baby let's slice that ice,
Slice 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1!
I knew an old lady who lived in a town.
She tried to do the jump but she turned around.
She tried to do the split but she did the kick.
Oh my Lawd now what is this?"

We had two forms of baseball in my 'hood. We had this, a baseball game that was also a board game. I couldn't stand this game, so I leave it to the more nostalgic to riff on it. I preferred one of the many versions of stickball that we'd play. The one depicted below was similar to the one we played. You'd draw a box with an S on it on a wall or stairs or whatever was solid and handy, and then the pitcher would try to hit that box. If he did, it was a strike. However, if you hit the ball, it was fair game and in play.

I love the attention to detail above--the kid's wrist is in a cast. Wrist injuries were very common!

That looks like it's going to be a strike.

Rock-Em Sock-Em robots was another pleasant diversion, even if it broke a lot. You boxed your opponent's robot, and you won when the robot's head popped up like a Pez dispenser. For the Nintendo crowd, this probably sounds incredibly boring. But for us--we could play this for hours.

I vaguely remember playing this game, but I'm not sure of the object of it. Kids got into a box and you crawled on your hands and knees, moving the box like a wheel as you went along. Again I remember playing this, but the rules of the game escape me.

And now, credit where it is due. Crooklyn's opening sequence is brought to us courtesy of cin-togger Arthur Jafa, who shoots the sequence with the vitality of the kids running around in the neighborhood. The way he shoots the girls jumping double dutch, from above and spinning the camera, turns the game into a pageant of majesty. His camera is down in the dirt with the kids, and it's a sin that opening credits have to play over it. They almost ruin it.

Out of control nostalgia. It's what Black History Mumf is all about here at Big Media Vandalism. The streetlights are on. Get your ass in the house. Now.

Your homework assignment:

Go get a copy of The Best of The Stylistics.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ah god, I love this movie. And I assure you, having grown up a pale Alaskan Jew, there's no particular nostalgia involved---I'm about as far from the protag as possible. But this movie, even with the in-your-face anamorphic scene, is great.

But when you say it's "meandering", I say that's the beauty of it. This movie feels more like being a kid than anything else I've ever seen, including The 400 Blows, Murmur of the Heart, or whatever other French flick you'd like to name. And the drifty nature of it is central to that. After all, when you're a kid, things just seem to happen, and you don't have much control over what happens next. Parents and other adults do things, and you sometimes have to react, but mostly you just watch, and then go back to playing whatever game you were playing before---it'll be years of thinking and therapy before you have any idea what it all means.

Plus the movie's willingness to ignore plot movement lets it go a lot of places that wouldn't fit in a more focused picture---the eye-popping drag queen sighting, the father's embarrassing jazz concert, and all those wonderful street-game sequences---any of them could have been cut, and the movie would have been much less without them. Again, it's that drifting "this happen and then that happened" vibe (which is how kids tell stories) that makes it feel so authentically childlike, when a more plot-driven experience would feel like yet another adults-talking-about-children movie.

odienator said...

Despite my complaints, I still think it's a very good movie. You give a very good defense, TFB, one that's supported by the entire anamorphic sequence. We're seeing that alien world through the protagonist's eyes. It must have looked that foreign to her.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Oh yeah---Lee's said that was exactly his intent with the anamorphic bit. And Lee is never one to be restrained when there's a chance for expressionism (as with the cah-razy upside-down camera near the climax of Summer of Sam, or... well, just about any moment of his films).

One of the things I really love about Lee as a filmmaker is that he's one of the few mainstream directors who's trying to apply the techniques available to the great Russian and German silent expressionist pictures. Like Guy Maddin (now *that's* an odd pairing), he's reaching for a kind of visual expressiveness that film had before Hollywood realism became the default style. And his enthusiasm for all the medium's visual possibilities lets me forgive a lot of flaws in his writing---which is good, 'cause there's plenty.

Jpeace said...

Thank you for even recognizing this! It truly is one of the greatest vignettes in cinema. (my humble opinion.)

odienator said...

Jpeace, Lee said he had to teach the kids these games (much like John Waters' choreographer, Edward Love, had to teach the kids the dances in Hairspray) because they were too young to have ever played them. I love my Playstation, but there's a reason I still drag my little nephews outside to run around with me, and it's not for their benefit!

Behind this, School Daze's opening credits are my second favorite Lee movie credits, followed by Do The Right Thing. He sets the tone for his pictures, which is why I didn't get the criticism behind his Clockers credits. The movie is graphically violent, almost overwhelmingly so, and his credits prepare you for it.