Nothing to agree or disagree with
This one from Spike Lee is a bit different

by Scott Snyder

Spike Lee has perhaps the most distinctive cinematic style of any director working. His films get in your face. They let you know, from the opening credits, that you're not leaving the theater without a little thought. Lee understands that images don't have to simply tell a story. Often his images have a power all their own, quite separate from their storytelling function.

Lee's new release, Clockers, about a young drug salesman in New York, is perhaps his strongest to date in its use of imagery, both to tell a story and to pack a punch. The film opens with photos of young black shooting victims, the casualties of America's own drug wars -- a sobering montage. But rich ballad streams in overtop these images. The effect is disturbing and affecting. It's as if the soundtrack pretends to smooth the jagged visual edge of the sequence, and the futility of it makes the contrast all the more disquieting.

Contrast is one of Lee's specialties. Much of the movie has that rippling abrasive quality, not alleviated but enhanced by the soothing surface. The sense of fiendish juxtaposition pervades the story's presentation and also the characters that inhabit it. Strike, the movie's protagonist played by Mekhi Phifer, admires his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) for his ability to stay on the straight and narrow; he loves his model trains, and is even willing to take his friends' abuse about them. But he hasn't nearly the perceptiveness to see any way out of his life as a clocker -- a small time drug dealer. So he tries his best to see a bright side, and sometimes he's disquietingly convincing.

He obviously has learned this trick from Rodney, the local crack supplier (Delroy Lindo). Rodney plays the father-figure role to the hilt, claiming always to be looking out for his "sons," as he calls his little army of juvenile dealers. His do-your-people-proud speeches, about staying away from the merchandise and saving up a nest egg, ring nicely by themselves. But in concert with the rest of the character, they're badly out of tune. This is a man who sends 20-year-old Strike to kill a rival, so that Rodney'd have something on him. He tells Strike this, explaining why he "needed you to be bloody." This guy's scum, but he wouldn't be so alarming if he didn't look like the neighborhood barber and patron saint of children.

At the heart of the story is the murder of the man Strike was sent to kill. Victor has confessed to the shooting, and most of the police are more than willing to accept that. But Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) isn't buying it. "This is one of the good ones," he says. He's no hero, though. He and his partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) are blatant racists, and whatever idealism once lighted Rocco's soul has long since withered. In fact, it's not at all clear why he even cares, and he doesn't do anyone any favors in getting to the bottom of this case. Keitel plays his part almost with more depth than the story allows him; he's got juxtapositions of his own, and the movie isn't any more interested in resolving them for you than it is in making anything else an easy ride.

For a Spike Lee joint, Clockers is surprisingly quiet. It's more the voices whispering in the back of your head than someone shouting in your face. Lee relies much more on content to convey message here than in his previous efforts; he's like the kid whose efforts to get attention by yelling in class have failed, and who turns instead to foot-tapping and low whistling. As he has matured as a director, he's turned from providing answers and making statements, to asking questions. And the questions he asks here stay with you. Usually in a Spike Lee film, there's something to agree with, or else something to get pissed off about. Nothing so easy or so transient in Clockers.

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