Sunday, February 14, 2010

The One Time I Censored Myself

By Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

"My name is Cupid Valentino, the modern day Cupid!
Happy Valentine's Day. Every day the 14th."
-Andre 3000

Happy Made Up By Hallmark and Jewelry Stores Holiday! Did you get some BLEEP? Well I didn't, so I hope it was terrible and gave you acid reflux.

I was going to write something romantic and flowery for you today, but to quote Klymaxx "I'm not in the mood!" The truth of the matter is Netflix did me wrong yet again, as they consistently did during Mumf 2008, and the movie I was going to review for you today won't get here until Tuesday. So, in desperation, I decided to come clean about something.

A reader once wrote me asking if I've ever written a piece that I didn't run. He seemed to think that, based on what I do post, I had no self-censoring mechanism. I wrote the guy back telling him I've never written a piece I didn't run, because, to quote Richard Pryor, I'm MACHO MAN! I'll say whatever the hell I want, because I'm MACHO MAN!

I lied.

Back in my House Next Door days, I went to a movie, wrote a review for it, and then begged that what I'd written be pulled before it saw the light of day. I never gave a reason why. Quality wasn't the culprit; it's not my best work, but I didn't think it was bad. A little shaky at the beginning, but I said what I wanted. I pulled it because I thought it made Black people look bad.

Now, I bet you're saying "Hold the phone, heifer!" Considering some of the things I've said during Black History Mumf 2008 and 2009, you must think what I'm about to share with you is Odienator's Birth of a Nation (since this series is called Black History Mumf, it would have to be Birf of a Nation). It's not. In fact, it's probably the tamest thing I've ever written. But it was a transitional moment in my blog writing.

Until this piece, I'd kept my Black thoughts to myself on the 'Net. If you read the stuff I posted before BHM @ BMV (that's my little acronym for this series), you'll note I had not written anything remotely like what I do here. This was by design. I didn't want to be "the writer who writes Black things." I wanted to be "the Black writer who writes things." I pride myself on being knowledgeable about movies of all stripes and types, but I always thought that I would be pigeon-holed the second I wrote on the Internet about Blackness or included it.

Something happened to me at the movie screening. Something stereotypical as hell. I wrote about this event before I started my review. Then I thought "Oh my God, the readers are going to read this and think Black people are savages!" This wasn't true, and even if it were, why the fuck should I have cared? Your prejudices are your problem, not mine. Just like my reticence and misguided, Dave Chappelle freakout was my problem, not yours, dear readers.

Had I been honest about why I wanted this piece pulled, House Next Door Editor Emeritus (and my writing hero) Matt Seitz would have hit me upside the head. And I would have deserved it because my fears were silly. But we also wouldn't be here. Because after I pulled that piece, I realized I wanted to write a series where I talked about film not just with my knowledge, but with my undeniable ethnic viewpoint and experiences. Steven Boone was doing it here, but we hadn't met yet, so I didn't know about Big Media Vandalism. When Boone met Odienator, I knew what needed to be done. I really did kidnap this blog in 2008.

When I took on BHM 2008, I figured either all would be well, or after this, nobody would ever take anything I wrote about film seriously again. Since I was ruining my blog career anyway, I said fuck it and just said whatever I wanted. Surprise! I didn't turn into a pumpkin with a Weave(TM) at midnight.

So, thank you to whomever pulled a gun at the Loews 84th Street during a screening of Idlewild. Here's the one piece I censored, and in its own way, the genesis of Black History Mumf.

Wild Times At Idlewild
By Odienator

As I stood on the subway platform awaiting the 1 train, I encountered two attractive young Black women discussing their subscription to the Cedric The Entertainer "run first, ask questions later" theory from The Original Kings of Comedy. I started running out the theater, and just chose the first door I came to!" the one with the cute hat said. I deduced that she had been present at the same movie screening I just exited. I walked over, partially to make standard issue guy-girl conversation, but mostly out of curiosity, and as suavely as I could muster, said "Can I ask you a question? What the hell happened in there?"

"People started fighting," she said. "I don't know why! My girlfriend and I just ran! Where were you?"

"I was about three rows behind all that, and I--"

"All that gunfire," interrupted the other woman, "I didn't know if it were just on the screen or in the theater as well."

"I didn't either," I said. "That's why my dumb country ass started ducking and scrunching in my chair. I couldn't run like everybody else down there. My row was blocked."

After I spoke those words, I felt like the biggest punk. Here I am telling these lovely ladies how I pulled a 50's public service announcement style duck and cover in the midst of the commotion. But they were sympathetic (and they'd seen Kings of Comedy). "I don't blame you," said Ms. Cute Hat. "After we ran out of the theater, we chose the first door we could find!"

"It turned out to be the damn men's room!" said her girlfriend. Then she asked, "so, like us, you missed the climax of the movie?"

"Not exactly," I said, "I have to review this movie so, as I scrunched down toward the floor, I tried to watch what was going on in the theater AND on the screen. I think I'm straight on what happened on the screen. No idea about the live action part of the show."

After laughing, Ms. Cute Hat said "so are you gonna give it a good review?" If you're out there, ladies, here's my answer.

Universal Pictures is committed to ensuring that my advanced screenings go awry. After I bitched about the loss of sound during the Miami Vice screening, they gave me a full blown violent altercation at Idlewild. Adding blunt force to the drama, the fight occurred during the most violent scene in the picture. As gunfire sent people scurrying in Church, the club owned by Rooster (Antwan "Big Boi" Patton), profanity and movement from the theater melee sent rows of people running into the aisles. Light from the screen washed a strobe light effect over the bodies in motion while the loud bangs of whizzing onscreen bullets added to the sense of confusion. As if I weren't disturbed enough, the melee ended just in time for me to watch mortician Percival (Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin) sing a love song to a corpse.

I should have stayed on the floor.

Like my screening experience, Idlewild is a hot mess. Reporting this disappoints me, for if any act could believably bring hip hop to the juke joint, it would be the rap duo known as Outkast. The group has consistently challenged the nature and notion of hip-hop music. The film is built to capitalize on the different personas of the group members (Big Boi's big pimpin' style and Andre 3000's suave yet smutty romanticism) but writer-director Bryan Barber can't weave his dissimilar thematic threads into anything resembling whole cloth. Neither as brilliantly narcissistic as Purple Rain nor a full length music video like its "sequel" Graffiti Bridge, Idlewild is a new hybrid genre in the vein of the dramedy; it's the dramical: too much drama, not enough musical. Barber's script is, to quote my favorite Outkast lyric "clueless like Shaggy and Scooby before a commercial break."

The film has a jagged schizophrenia, with some delusions more interesting than others, but none strong enough to dominate. I was willing to accept Rooster name-checking Luther Vandross in a rap song in 1933, or Percival watching the notes on his sheet music come to animated life, but Idlewild is so inconsistent that it denies me the suspension of belief required to immerse myself in its ever-shifting mise-en-scene. It's a love story, a crime story, a musical, a drama, a comedy, a period piece, a fantasy and a horror movie. This identity crisis does little to create an inhabitable world for its characters.

Percival and Rooster are supposed to be best friends, but Big Boi and Andre 3000 share less than 3 minutes of screen time together, all of it uncomfortably. Barber puts the two leads on separate paths that never come together plausibly, something equivalent to playing Outkast's excellent double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below at the same time.

Barber attempts cleverness by juxtaposing similar activities and characteristics in each Outkast member's storylines. Percival has the singing cuckoos, Rooster has a flask with a talking rooster on it. Rooster's wife leaving him for the bazillionth time is followed by a similar shot in Percival's story. All I wanted was for the two leads to appear together and play a big part in a main story. Movies are supposed to keep potential romantic partners apart, not best friends. In devising ways to do so, Barber ups the convolution quotient to unbearable levels. Many of the long dramatic stretches between musical numbers are like an Ambien-Novacain chaser.

Percival's tale quotes Shakespeare and deals with the piano-playing son of a mortician (a morbid, joyless, yet effective Ben Vereen) who wants to play his own songs at the juke joint owned by Spats (Ving Rhames). Percival meets Angel Davenport, a singer from St. Louis, and falls in love for (I assume, but the movie never clarifies this) the first time. Percival's story is occasionally punctuated by songs in Andre 3000's style, including a fascinating one with singing cuckoo clocks that ends abruptly for no reason, and the aforementioned corpse song. The latter is one of the most misguided and disturbing musical numbers ever attempted.

Rooster's tale is grittier. After Spats gets what any character in a 30's picture named Spats gets, Rooster inherits Church, the juke joint at which he performs (and where Percival tickles the ivories). Rooster also inherits Spats' debt to gangster Terrence Howard. Thanks to the
script, Howard is one-dimensional and hammy as hell, but he's the only actor in the entire picture that even bothers to act. His menace shines through despite the lead weight of his dialogue, and the womanizing Rooster is in way over his head when he tries to outsmart him. This leads to the violent gun battle/showdown that was intercut with scenes from the real-life movie mayhem I witnessed. It's a stereotype to have violence at a rap movie, but there you go. I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.'s line on the Boondocks: "I took all those ass-whuppins for THIS?!"

The musical performances, except for the near-necrophilia one, are catchy and well performed despite the director's insistence on dopey camera tricks like slow motion and half-assed Matrix-style bullet time. Rooster's numbers may be out of place in the 30's, but they are no more implausible than gang members doing ballet on the West Side of New York City. Percival's numbers are more era-specific, and the closing credits host an astoundingly good Busby Berkeley/Cab Calloway style number from Andre 3000 that only hints at what a masterpiece Idlewild could have been if its director quit with the camera tricks and the bullshit story and let the music captivate us.

Instead, Barber lets missed opportunity after missed opportunity slide by. He gets Patti Labelle to bust on the screen, showing us what a true diva looks like (as opposed to the gorgeous though untalented love interest/diva in training in Percival's tale) but doesn't allow her to belt a single note. He puts Cicely Tyson in a scene that is so embarrassing and cringe-worthy that I wanted to send a posse into the screen to rescue her. And he refuses to further explore or treat with respect some of the most interesting aspects of the film: a CGI butterfly; Macy Gray's hilarious taunts that sounded eerily like the thoughts in my head; Hinton Battle's dynamic choreography and the period costumes and art direction.

Idlewild sat on the shelf for two years, and then was going to be sent directly to HBO before getting a theatrical release. With a little less cussing and lot less pussy eating scenes, Idlewild could have been a BET movie of the week you could see for a lot less than a movie ticket. This is not a compliment.

When I left the theater, I truly hated Idlewild, but upon retrospection, I'm more disappointed than anything else. I grew to enjoy remembering the scenes I liked, and if I had been armed with a fast-forward button for all the dead spots and songs to the dead, I would have had a better time in Idlewild, Georgia with the guys from the ATL. If anything, seeing their film gives me one more real-life story that could only happen to me.

1 comment:

Steven Boone said...

Odie, I never trusted that Barber dude to deliver a satisfying Outkast feature. Your boy John Landis might have done something fun with it, or maybe Dave Meyers (a Landis-like white negrophile, whose silly, breezy Outkast videos I prefer to Barber's fussy, tricked-out ones). As for theater shootings, your hilarious and frightening story reminds me of the tension at the Bay Plaza in the Bronx, a theater I frequented in the early 90s when it would host spontaneous auditorium shooting parties. Not to mention the lobby knife shows. Luckily, I never witnessed any of these spectaculars, despite one testy exchange with some stoned wannabe crips attempting to use the back of my chair as a leg press machine at a showing of Menace II Society. Anyhow, I tend to view the barbarism on display through a political, historical lens: No, MLK didn't take all those ass whippings for THIS but he also didn't take them so that we could forget that today's hot ghetto messes are largely the fruit of yesterday's rigorous planning.