May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 5, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
Spike Lee’s dolly shots in 25th Hour may be the best post-9/11 commentary on film – shocked minds drifting to and fro among aftermath. At first, pulling Anna Paquin and Philip Seymour Hoffman through a Manhattan nightclub on dollies seems contrived, not out of sync with New York nightlife. But these shots are invariably a key part of the rhythm of Spike Lee’s films, punctuating them like visual and theatrical asides, seeming to emerge at his direction like a musical refrain. Employed in this nightclub, minor characters being tugged through Monty’s cloud of despair (one easily referring to a culture dominated by terror alerts), the dolly shot becomes a means of empathy – a way to measure the insecurity of these otherwise flattened personalities.
Crooklyn is much different from the rest of Lee’s films, in that most racial or political commentary is largely traded for a chance to bring his old neighborhood back to life. Told through the eyes of the youngest daughter (Troy), the story loosely follows the various financial troubles and quarrels of a family inspired by Lee’s own. The struggling musician father, overworked mother, and extended neighborhood family are all terrifically played, supported by a soundtrack ripped directly from 70’s turntables.Crooklynis more a collection of coming-of-age vignettes than a straightforward story, notable interludes such as Troy’s extended visit with a suburban aunt shot entirely with an anamorphic lens. Characters and ideas drift in and out of scenes like the soundtrack, often giving over to impromptu family sing-a-longs or snippets of their father’s piano.
Two frequent visitors to the story line, often in the form of tracking/dolly shots, are the neighborhood glue-sniffers (one played by Lee) who terrorize the children periodically. In one dream-like sequence Troy escapes the pair by floating away. In others, they enter the frame drifting upside down or at odd angles to the lens. In a moment of bravery Troy and her brother attack Lee with a broomstick, shot in a tight frame from behind as they dolly resolutely towards him. What were probably pretty scary people at the time have now through memory been granted a fabled quality, either easily defeated or sloping through history on a parallel track. In Crooklyn, Lee’s dolly shots are still visual and theatrical asides, parentheses in longer sentences of film, but here he uses these spaces to play with the joy of remembering. In a much later New York (25th Hour) these same shots will have a more sinister edge, the quality of memory then far more strained. The surrealism of Troy’s childlike vision of the glue-sniffers is a construct of an easier, safer Brooklyn, when she felt safe with her struggling family and neighbors. Crooklyn is a lyrical reminder of a different age, the moral reference point for most of Lee’s other films and maybe even the theoretical ground of all his dolly shots.