Style Over Stupid: Vol. 1, Black Dynamite vs. New York, I Love You
I’d imagine it’d be hard to convince someone to give you money for what amounts to a film school exercise. Not so much for the actors who will probably have a ball playacting and indulging their most deliberately childish ideas. Take, for example a movie like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, a thoroughly amusing fuck you to anyone who thought it would be successful, since the entire point was that it had no point. It proved that remaking for the sake of remaking was idiotic since you couldn’t replicate anything more than your idea of what the original intentions were, and it certainly didn’t guarantee capturing the magic that made the inspiration memorable in the first place.
Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite proves Van Sant’s theory almost as well as he did. It’s not so much a parody of a blaxploitation movie, but one that replicates a film of that genre perfectly. In the interview I conducted with Sanders and writer/star Michael Jai White (which you can listen to here), you’ll hear them talk about how they tried to make Black Dynamite look exactly like a blaxploitation film, so if you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d discovered a movie made in the early 1970s. That they’ve succeeded is commendable, there are only a few self-aware nods that distract us, but the result is like watching one of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg rightly vilified movies such as Epic Movie, Date Movie, or Meet The Spartans, but without as many scenes of characters being kicked in the balls. Black Dynamite is a carbon copy, but so what? It’s a disingenuous notion as a project in the first place, and that’s not even considering the previous blaxploitation parodies (I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, Pootie Tang, Undercover Brother) that covered similar territory previously. It’s cashing in on the cachet that 70s movies have received, but pretending that you’ve made a loving homage, when the only point was to take shots at the standard blaxploitation elements of incompetence, ambitious and foolish political messages, showoffy music cues, flashy clothing*, terrible acting, narrative incoherence, and various attempts to capitalize on successful trends like kung fu.
And Black Dynamite would work if it were more than a collection of those clichés (Sanders and White talk a good game, but the final product is more than a little smug). But really, in mixing references to Shaft, Dolemite, Superfly, Slaughter, etc., Sanders and White have forgotten that while those movies never rose above mediocrity, or so bad they were hilarious, but most often just terribly dull (like many exploitation films, the 2 minute trailer for a blaxploitation film was better than the final product 99% of the time), if they had any charm at all, it was through their very lack of self-awareness. The filmmaking was naïve, but the effort was obvious.
Black Dynamite also makes the criminal mistake of not being funny. Other than an elaborately ridiculous conspiracy theory where the characters deduce the elements of the complicated plot while staring at a sandwich board, Black Dynamite simply isn’t outrageous enough to distinguish itself. It never even approaches something as quaint as Cleopatra Schwartz, the blaxploitation-Hebrew parody from The Kentucky Fried Movie, because Sanders and White can’t decide whether their ribbing is affectionate or mocking. I know it seems that I’m picking on Black Dynamite in a solely ideological fashion, but the movie doesn’t have anything else to offer. It’s a five-minute sketch idea stretched out to feature length just to prove that it could be done. Are the performances accurate? Is the camerawork competently awkward? Is the plot suitably convoluted? Are the production values at the level of a cheap TV show? Yes to all of these questions, but to what end? Why make this movie?
The same question of why may cross your mind while watching the ensemble vignette sequel, New York, I Love You, which is nothing more than a torturous technical exercise. Like Black Dynamite, New York, I Love You is an excuse for actors to show up and act silly for a few minutes, before moving on to the next bit. The difference is that New York, I Love You was probably seen as a prestige piece, as its precursor, Paris, I Love You had shorts about Paris made by filmmakers like The Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, Wes Craven, Oliver Assayas, Gus Van Sant, Tom Tywker, Alfonso Cuarón, and on and on. By comparison New York, I Love You has Mira Nair as its only coup.
There are many other directors who worked on the film, Natalie Portman stars in one film and directs another, but other than one half of The Hughes Brothers, the pickings of famous filmmaking names are slim. That’s not a mark on the film, but it does hint at the paucity of quality material at hand. Not only that, but most of the segments, which at best manage whimsy, but usually achieve superficiality without beauty, could have been, with just a few script adjustments, taken place anywhere. The only intersecting short that really makes NY a character is near the very end, as Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach go to Brighton Beach to celebrate their umpteenth wedding anniversary. This segment was directed by Joshua Marston, who also nailed down Queens perfectly in his Maria, Full of Grace.
All the other shorts are vaguely the same in set-up and content. Off-screen dialogue followed by an out of focus shot, and then a B-level star comes into focus, either dressed to look casual (Andy Garcia), or trying to look ragged with poorly maintained facial hair (Orlando Bloom, Hayden Christensen) or an unflattering hat or haircut (Ethan Hawke), or perhaps a limp or other physical malady (Shia Lebouf, Olivia Thirlby). Cue a few minutes of coy banter, and then an attempt at an ironic twist before cutting to the next piece. Sometimes the ironic twist is that they got a celebrity to show up for 30 seconds, as if we would be so shocked as to scream “oh my god, it’s Christina Ricci!” Sometimes the ironic twist is that a scene that seemed the same as one that appeared 20 minutes previous (but with different characters), actually has a punchline this time, such as an unfortunately reoccurring bit where “strangers” talk to each other outside of a restaurant while having a smoke or making a phone call, discuss their mutual loneliness and the possibility of having an affair, only for us to find out when they go back inside that, surprise!, they’re husband and wife.
By the time Shekar Kapur’s piece arrives an hour in, with Julie Christie as a retired opera singer visiting an upscale and very personal hotel, its dour tone and bright white colors are at least a relief, even if nothing particularly interesting happens. At least it doesn’t have an irritating montage or a piece of unwieldy linking footage to the other segments.
Since there is an attempt to make us feel like we’re just seeing separate parts of the same world within NY (though for a movie that is obviously trying to reflect the diversity of the city, it’s awfully white and heterosexual), the interlocking cab scenes were probably thought of as a must, though it makes the inspiration more obvious, that being Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. But Jarmusch was smart enough to have his taxi cab scenes have characters, jokes, drama, and differentiation by having them take place on different continents. For every actor who overindulged their dreams of being caricatures (like Winona Ryder with her silly accent), Jarmusch would let the scenes breathe, so development would occur no matter what, unlike New York, I Love You which is merely a bunch of shaggy dog stories.
I’m sure the idea was to give us lots of little slices of life, even in the form of empty calories, but it’s no excuse for something as meretricious as Brett Ratner’s (Rush Hour 1-3) piece in New York, I Love You. First, he has Anton Yelchin provide us with voiceover, a mistake for several reasons, first because he tells us what’s visually obvious without it, but second because Yelchin has been in so many of those “and that was the night/summer/year I grew up” movies, featuring either himself narrating (Charlie Bartlett) or an older version of his character doing it (House of D), that it plays like parody, even though it obviously isn’t. And since Ratner has one of the longer shorts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he neglected to develop the characters. So when we see that Yelchin is embarrassed by his date to the prom since she’s in a wheelchair (the cruelty of the other students towards the handicapped girl seems totally out of place), we don’t sympathize with him at all. When the girl then suggests they go to Central Park in the middle of the night, and then have impromptu sex while she holds herself up by a tree branch, despite the fact that they haven’t shown a hint of chemistry or conversation, Ratner apparently missed just how creepy and off-putting it all is.
At least Ratner got a reaction out of me, even if revulsion wasn’t the intention, the rest of New York, I Love You is just banal or amateurish. The raison d’être of the film is a mystery, there’s no overall point, message, or anything to even entertain, so one has to assume it was made just because financing became available. As with Black Dynamite, New York, I Love You is a concept in search of a purpose.
* Sanders’ first film Thick As Thieves proves that he certainly thinks silly period clothing is the height of humor.