New York– What does Spike Lee have in common with Mani Ratnam, Sylvester Stallone, Agnes Varda and Abbas Kiarostami?
Not much — except that every one of these cinematic heavyweights has received the Venice Intl. Film Festivals’ Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award, given to celebrate an individual who has brought “great innovation to contemporary cinema.”
With the announcement of Lee’s honor, Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera hailed the helmer for creating films that were “daring,” “corrosive,” “often unpredictable, and provocative in the best sense of the word,” adding that “he creates films that challenge us to rethink our prejudices and our preconceptions.”
Indeed, one of American cinema’s boldest filmmakers, Lee is coming off a particularly eclectic and audacious year: He made his first trip to Broadway with Mike Tyson’s one-man show “Undisputed Truth,” which he directed; his latest narrative feature, “Red Hook Summer,” a return to Lee’s Brooklyn roots, opened to healthy B.O. Aug. 10 via Variance Films in New York and platformed nationally Aug. 24; he’s prepping a remake of the Korean cult hit “Old Boy,” starring Josh Brolin; and his documentary, “Bad 25,” a nonfiction look at the making and impact of Michael Jackson’s landmark album on its quarter-century anniversary, is premiering out of competition at Venice.
“I’ve never seen anybody work that hard,” says “Red Hook Summer” editor Hye Mee Na. “He doesn’t ever lose his enthusiasm, from shooting until the movie’s opening. And he’s never afraid to try new things.”
From “She’s Gotta Have It” to “Do the Right Thing” to “25th Hour” to “Inside Man,” each Spike Lee Joint is a singular viewing experience. While the familiar visual imprints often reappear — the actor-on-dolly shots; the vivid colors; direct-actress to the camera; jazzy-symphonic scores; the love-hate relationship with New York City — no film is the same, each one a chance to further experiment with the medium.
On “Red Hook Summer,” for example, he combined various formats, from old-fashioned Super 8mm to an iPad camera. For 1994’s “Crooklyn,” he notoriously included a lengthy sequence shot with an anamorphic lens, which displays the characters as squeezed, skinny distortions. For 2000’s “Bamboozled,” he employed the breaking new technology of digital video well before the mainstream had adopted it.
Cutting-edge and creatively brash to the point that some critics have called him arrogantly confident, Lee has always followed his own vision, and gut despite pushback from producers.
Lee’s work, of course, is not just about its brazenness, but its precise marriage of aesthetics with potent and provocative statements about race, sexuality and politics. Few American filmmakers have tackled, so relentlessly and head-on, social problems in the U.S., whether those left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina or the generational conflicts that divide families no matter their ethnicity. And he never presents easy solutions to our intractable troubles, despite his recurrent calls for us to “wake up” to what’s going on.
If Lee’s ultimate “despairing vision of existence,” as critic Kent Jones once dubbed it, hasn’t always been popular at the box office, Lee hasn’t let that stop him, tirelessly pushing forward with myriad projects that balance his commercial and creative interests. For as much as Lee is a provocative artist, he is also a great salesman. The young Lee personae peddling tube socks — “three for $5” — in the trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It” is still with us. But the filmmaker continues to evolve.
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