I share the general impression that “Serial” did not stick the landing (though I wouldn’t go as far as some). Was this inevitable? What options did creator Sarah Koenig, have from a narrative-building perspective?
Let’s start with the options that had already lapsed by the time she began production on the final episode:
Once she began to suspect that no new game-changing evidence would be discovered, she could have chosen to withhold some of the evidence she did gather until the end, to create more of a feeling of a “big reveal” pay-off. This would have been a big cheat, and probably still unsatisfying, but this is actually what I assumed that she would do: I thought she was hiding an ace up her sleeve. For better or worse, she wasn’t.
Barring that, she could have kept the main series focused closer on the evidence, and saved up the more think-piece-style episodes for the end, instead of running those in the middle. One way or another, I think the most basic thing we all wanted and didn’t get from the finale was a break in the format of some kind. Instead, we got a very typical episode, with a smattering of new evidence that could go either way, followed by more thoughts about unknowability. It would have been more satisfying if she had withheld the more-ruminative episode about psychopathy, for example, until the end, as a way to step back and re-examine her narrative.
That said, once the previous 11 episodes had already posted, and she was painted into that corner, I think there were still ways to offer more satisfaction. What options was she left with?
We’ll start with another big cheat: She could have delayed the finale until more evidence came in, most obviously the results of the upcoming DNA test. But barring that…
The most obvious finale, it seemed to me and to several listeners, would be for Koenig decide for herself, based on everything she’d learned, whether or not Syed was guilty. Obviously, she was loathe to do this, but we sort of deserved it, because she had made so much of the series about her own vacillation.
Barring that, she could have at least polled her co-producers to find out their conclusions…Hopefully, two would disagree, and they could have a debate.
But I think one problem was that the specter of Janet Malcolm was looming over Koenig. Malcolm wrote the New-Yorker-article-turned-book “The Journalist and the Murderer”, in which she criticized true crime writer Joe McGinniss for befriending Jeffrey MacDonald, the green beret who chopped up his family, by claiming he would try to free him. Once McGinniss decided MacDonald was actually guilty, he hid this conclusion to maintain access. After McGinniss got his bestseller, Malcolm got her own bestseller by criticizing McGinniss’s ethics.
Koenig tells us that she had assumed that many more exculpatory items would emerge after she uncovered the possible alibi for Syed early on, but none did, and she surely started to suspect that she was digging a dry well, but once she had formed a relationship with Syed, I suspect that she was reluctant to go there, for fear of Malcolm-style criticism
So what options does that leave?
She could have fallen back on what “This American Life” has always done best: tell stories. Now that we have all this evidence, tell us one story (or more) that fits the evidence in which Syed didn’t do it, and another in which he did.
But wait, now we’re running into another ethical (and legal) issue. The problem with this is that each alternate narrative would involve accusing Jay of different crimes than the ones he admitted to, either accusing him of doing it himself or or covering up for someone else and then perjuring himself. Defense attorneys are allowed to idly throw suspicion on third parties in court, but journalists aren’t. It’s slander.
Okay, so here’s another option: She could have pulled a John Oliver or Stephen Colbert and capitalized on her huge success by reaching out to the new friends of the show (surely she got some emails from some impressive names) and inviting big minds to ruminate on what it all means.
Or, finally, she could have ended with Syed himself, and let him say what this has meant to him.
Syed’s charismatic / enigmatic personality has been the pivot for the whole show, and I would at least ask that the show end on his words. Instead we ended with Koenig saying the words “We don’t know.” Ugh. That’s exactly where we began. Please let somebody, somewhere, reach some sort of conclusion about this whole inquiry, even if it’s just the man himself.
Hi guys, long time no see. New content still isn’t ready, but I guest-hosted once again on The Narrative Breakdown with James Monohan and Cheryl Klein. This time we’re discussing unreliable narrators in film and prose. Alas, I sound a little frazzled in this one (It was the end of a long day!) but James and Cheryl carry my weight ably, so it’s well-worth a listen!
So I’ve had a lot of praise for Do the Right Thing, both for the rules it exemplifies and the rules it breaks, but before I move on I should point out the one record-scratch moment that always stops the movie dead for me, if only for a second.
As I said last time, I have no problem whatsoever with the “unrealistic” racism montage, which clearly takes place in those characters’ heads, but we transition into that scene from a seemingly objective scene between Mookie and Pino that always annoys me because it breaks a rule that it shouldn’t break (and doesn’t need to break.)
After getting called a nigger one too many times by Pino, Mookie calls him aside for a talk. Right there, it feels a little phony that Pino would agree to this talk, but I’ll go along with it. The bigger problem is in the dialogue:
Mookie: Can I talk to you for a second?
Mookie: Pino, Who’s your favorite basketball player?
Pino: Magic Johnson.
Mookie: Who’s your favorite movie star?
Pino: Eddie Murphy.
Mookie: Who’s your favorite rock star?
Mookie: Prince. You’re a Prince freak.
Pino: Boss. Bruce.
Mookie: Pino, all you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
Pino: It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean, they’re not black. I mean ... let me explain myself. They’re not really black. I mean, they’re black, but they’re not *really* black. They’re more than black. It's different.
This strikes me as totally phony. Yes, Lee eventually lets Pino try to back out of the trap by substituting Springsteen, but he never would have blundered that far in. Tricks and traps are great, but they can’t be this obvious. We’re always on the look-out and avoiding them, jumping in with versions of “I see where you’re going with this...”
I talked last time about Lee’s published journal of the writing of the movie, and the brilliant tricks he uses to transfer that feeling of stream-of-consciousness brainstorming to the screen, but this can also be a problem, as this scene makes clear. Sure enough, in the journal, you can see him arrive at the idea for this scene and jot it down in real time, but in this case, the idea became overly didactic onscreen. Lee-as-writer is dumbing-down the character of Pino in order to make the point he wants to make.
Lee surely ignored the character of Pino when he said to his creator “I wouldn’t say this.” Of course, actor Jon Turturro also could have made the same protestation to Lee, and Lee probably would have listened: both the book and the DVD fearutes make it clear that Aiello kept standing up for his character Sal and asking for dialogue tweaks, some of which Lee conceded and some he didn’t, and they both agreed that the final movie benefited as a result . But Aiello was a veteran actor and Turturro was just starting out, so he was less likely to push back, and this scene suffered as a result, allowing Pino to become a straw man.
That’s frustrating, because this scene could have vastly improved by a small tweak. Here’s my humble rewrite:
Mookie: Hey Pino, Who's your favorite basketball player?
Pino hesitates before answering, suspecting a trap, but Mookie pounces on the hesitation…
Mookie: I’ll tell you: Magic Johnson. Who’s your favorite movie star? Eddie Murphy. Who’s your favorite rock star? Prince.
Pino (jumps in, unconvincingly): No, Bruce! Bruuucce.
Mookie (scoffs): All you talk about is nigger this and nigger that and your favorite people are so-called niggers.
Pino: Fuck that. They’re not niggers. You can tell just by looking at them.
Mookie laughs in genuine amusement.
Mookie’s point is made (and Lee’s), and Pino is impeached, but he doesn’t collapse like a house of straw in order to make that happen: He goes down swinging.
Just let each character make his own point, rather than tricking some other character into making it for him. That’s one trap that never really works off-screen, so it shouldn’t work onscreen either.
So we’ve talked about the omniscient POV in Do the Right Thing, wherein the camera keeps jumping away from Mookie to give us a more ominous view of the block’s events that he can’t see. But this movie maintains a very tricky mix of objective and subjective points of view. On the one hand, it intentionally denies us the ability to deeply bond with any one character’s POV, but on the other hand, it literally allows us to step into the POV of several characters in a way that almost no other movie does.
If this movie occasionally has “camera-as-hero”, it also has “hero-as-camera.” I’ve already linked to this excellent post about the movie from Matthew Dessem at “The Criterion Contraption”, but let me borrow his nice demonstration of this effect:
So the camera is pivoting our POV until we literally step into Buggin’s head-space. Indeed, this movie is all about head-space. As Dessem goes on to explain, this retraining of our eye prepares us for the remarkable montage in the middle where a series of block residents abruptly hurl racial epithets at us. Are these residents really saying these things out loud? Have they ever said these things out loud? Probably not. We’re just leaping into the unrestrained id that’s simmering inside their heads.
Ultimately, this movie takes place in Spike Lee’s head-space: it’s his impressionistic collage of thoughts about New York in the summer, and at times it feels more like a journal than a story: it’s not just the laundry lists of epithets, it’s the long roll-call of R&B acts, the montages of various ways of dealing with the heat, etc. Indeed, Lee did keep a free-ranging journal as he carried the movie from conception to debut, then published it as a book, and it’s great reading.
Needless to say, the stream-of-consciousness tone he creates is hard to pull off, but Lee succeeds by using brilliant tricks like the one above that whip us back and forth between objectivity and subjectivity. That’s one reason I compared this before to avant-garde docs like Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. We’re not always jumping from plot-point to plot-point, we’re sometimes just jumping from thought to thought.
So for screenwriters, I have bad news: this movie’s unique tone is sold to the audience using tricks that are only available to writer-directors, and would be hard to sell on the page if someone else was directing. This movie is visionary in a literal sense: Lee is using brilliant camera innovations to literally pivot us into the head of each character until their vision briefly becomes our own ...Hey, I think I just I just figured out why he says “A Spike Lee Joint”!
One last post on this movie coming up next week...
The takeaway is this: people like to re-label themselves. You see your characters as types, but they see themselves as individuals. This can especially be a problem in a movie like Do the Right Thing, which is all about types, as in “these are the types of people you see on an average New York street on an average summer day.” That’s a fine way to write. It’s okay for you to see them as types, as long as you allow them to reject those labels in the dialogue.
On the excellent Criterion Collection DVD, there’s lots of video of writer/director Spike Lee’s extensive rehearsal/workshop process and you can see him adjust the script to address the concerns of the actors, who were all invited to personalize their roles.
These leads to a wonderfully ironic moment, when Lee is rehearsing the first boycott scene with actors Danny Aiello (Sal) and Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out). Lee notices that, instead of saying “Only Italian-Americans on the wall”, Aiello has changed it to “Only American-Italians on the wall.” Spike instantly sees that this is better, and points out to Esposito that his mocking response should also change to mirror Aiello: “Well, I don’t seen any ‘American-Italians’ eating here!”
As Esposito is making the change in his script, Aiello explains that that’s the way he says it, because he visited Italy and decided that he was more proud of being American than Italian. At this point, Esposito gingerly points out that he himself is in fact, unlike Aiello, Italian-born. Aiello is of course totally embarrassed, but Esposito chuckles and says it’s no big deal.
Let your characters re-label themselves. Let them describe themselves in unique ways, so that their language will come alive. Let almost everything they say be specific to them and their particular worldview. Give them a chance to punch through the boxes you put them in.
established that Do the Right Thing
has a very unique structure: Like most stories, it is
about a large problem, but instead of watching a hero solve
that problem, we’re watching the crisis slowly build, spotting a progression of factors that no
one character can see.
Even so, only on subsequent viewings do we realize that almost every scene has contributed to the final
crisis, often in very ironic ways.Here, as I see it, are all the contributing factors, and where they come in the timeline:
9:50 The heat (which causes Sal to say “I’m going to kill
someone today” at the beginning)
18:43 Buggin’ Out clearly has a history of free-floating
agitation (see his nickname)
18:43 Buggin’ Out feels that Sal has been cheap with the
amount of cheese on his pizza.Sal
doesn’t give an inch.
18:43 Sal contemptuously dismisses Buggin’s request to put
African American pictures on the wall.
18:43 Sal has a bat under the counter and in the Wall of
Fame scene we see that he’s quick to take it out.
21:43 Buggin’ tells Mookie to “Stay black.”
23:00 Da Mayor tells Mookie to “Do the right thing,” which
seems to gnaw at him throughout the movie.
26:27 After turning off the fire hydrant (and seeing that
the locals have humiliated an Italian-American driver) the Italian-American
cop says he’ll bust heads if he has to come back.
33:20 We see in Raheem’s boombox duel with the Puerto
Ricans that being forced to turn down your radio is a defeat, a personal
humiliation, a threat to manhood
35:05 Buggin’ has his white Air Jordans run over by a
white bicyclist, who bought a brownstone on the block.And the guy is wearing a Larry Bird jersey
(Lee hints in the commentary that the characters would have taken this
jersey as a brazen display of white pride).
39:19 Cops glare hatefully at the cornermen, who glare
39:19 The cornermen are increasingly angry that all of the
businesses are owned by non-blacks.
51:35 Raheem gives Mookie his personal philosophy of love
and hate, ending with “If I love you, I love you, but if I hate you…”
53:32 Sal doesn’t say please when he asks Raheem to turn
down his radio the first time.
59:20 Pino yells at Smiley (just after Sal tells Pino that
he won’t move) and the neighborhood overhears and heckles back.
103:45 Everybody mocks Buggin’s attempts to recruit them,
so he starts to calm down, and just starts to clean his Jordans, but
Mookie says that his Jordons are dogged, causing Buggin’ to get angry all
115:19 Mookie doesn’t like Sal’s friendship with
127:30 Smiley is a mentally challenged person walking
around unsupervised, and unlike most challenged people in movies, he isn’t
serene all the time, so he’s agitating everyone.
127:30 Buggin’ Out happens to run into Radio Raheem and
their free-floating animostities combine on a semi-randomly selected
target.Then Smiley adds his anger
129:08 Ahmad, Ella, Punchy and Cee convince Sal to re-open
the pizzeria after it’s closed.
130:00 When Raheem, Buggin’, and Smiley show up to demand
pictures on the wall, Sal doesn’t just yell about Raheem’s music, he calls
it “jungle music.”Obviously, this
is followed by the big one, where Sal smashes Raheem’s radio with his bat.
133:46 When the resulting fight spills onto the sidewalk,
a kid yells “Fight!”and everybody
140:00 The crowd reveals that they are angry over previous
police murders (the characters shout out the names of real-life police
victims Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, et al.)
almost everything right?Even the
seemingly happy moments, like the fire hydrant scene, ironically contribute the
final tragedy.But in fact there’s
another, much smaller list of elements that don’t
contribute to the crisis:
Everything with Senor Love Daddy, who is the ultimate in
Vito’s friendliness with Mookie doesn’t contribute one way
The anger of the teens at Da Mayor.
The scene where Raheem’s batteries die and he gets more
from the Korean grocers.
Da Mayor rescues the kid from getting hit by an ice cream
truck leads to peace between Da Mayor and Mother Sister.
Everything with Tina and Hector (Mookie’s child) including
the sex scene.
that these moments are included.Unlike
most stories, which assure us that we are following the linear progression of
one problem, so that every scene “counts”, this sort of story must do the
opposite: if we suspect that every element of this story is part on clockwork
machine, the movie would feel grim and preachy: “Behold The Folly of Man!”
interspersing the 23 elements that contribute with 6 that don’t, Lee keeps our
eye off the ball, allowing us to just relax and enjoy this vibrant world,
without having to feel that we’re riding a fixed escalator of racial
tension.We sense that something bad is
coming, but we don’t know how or where it will arrive.In fact, we cling to our hope that moderating
influences like Da Mayor or Vito will ensure that things can’t get too bed. This way, when everything finally goes to hell,
it feels much more tragic that it would have Lee had merely set us up in order
to knock us down.
In the end, many
elements contribute ironically, some elements contribute directly, and a few
elements contribute not at all. That’s the most powerful way to tell this
story, because that’s the way the world works.
Some have requested that I share my thoughts on “Serial”, the smash-hit podcast that re-examines the conviction of a man named Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend when they were high school seniors, 15 years ago. We’ll soon back to Do the Right Thing (which is now tragically timely)...
I’m obsessed with true-crime stories in general and false-conviction stories in particular, devouring every detail in cases such as the recent exoneration of Ricky Jackson. As a result, I’ve become convinced that false-convictions are far more common than most people think, and there are probably tens of thousands of wrongly-convicted people in America’s prisons, especially dark-skinned men.
That said, I’ve now listened to every second of “Serial”, and I’ve never seriously doubted for even one of those seconds that Adnan Syed is guilty.
Here’s the thing: This series is clearly not aimed at a typical true-crime audience, and it seems to me that its success is somewhat predicated on that unfamiliarity. The production values and philosophical tone peg this as true-crime for listeners who thought they were too sophisticated for true crime, which gives the show a fresh perspective and makes it a good listening experience, but also gives it license to be frustratingly naive. Koenig is a veteran reporter, and I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, but it’s a little odd that she herself adopts such a credulous persona here. On one level, this is a smart narrative choice that makes her into a compelling hero, but it can lead to some eye-rolling.
The problem is that many of the supposedly exculpatory aspects that Koenig dwells upon would be seen as non-issues for an audience familiar with this sort of case. Here are four big ones:
#1: She keeps focusing on the fact that, while Syed had some motivation, he didn’t have enough. Wouldn’t he have just shrugged off the break-up?
...But who has a good motivation to kill an 18 year old honors student? Nobody. There’s no good reason to do it. But it keeps happening. Most not-for-profit murders don’t make good sense to anyone but the murderer. We have her diary saying that she doesn’t know why he can’t just get over the break-up. That’s more proof-of-motive than you usually find in such cases.
#2: She focuses on the fact that there are dozens of discrepancies in the various accounts, and the main witness’s story changes somewhat each he tells it.
...But this is always true. There has never once been a murder case without baffling discrepancies and inconsistencies in honest testimony. The only time this doesn’t happen is when everybody “gets their story straight” beforehand. What we call “memories” are a crude compromise between our actual sensory input at the time and the shifting self-narratives we craft in our heads. This whole series shows why it’s almost impossible to convict a millionaire (like O.J. or Robert Blake) of a crime, no matter how obvious their guilt is: because any case, even if it’s “open and shut”, starts to seem improbable if you have enough time and enough money to pick apart every inconsistency.
#3: She focuses on the fact that Syed is a nice, charming guy on the phone.
...Again, this is very common. Have you noticed that pre-recorded messages that keeps reminding her that she’s talking to an inmate? There’s a reason for that. Many, many prisoners are nice and charming, and you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re talking to. If he’s guilty of doing what Jay says he did (killing with several days’ premeditation), it would be weird if he didn’t have that affect: Listening to him talk, he sounds as if he could be a innocent, affable guy or, just as likely, he could be a charming psychopath. They’re hard to tell apart. Psychopaths, because they have no core self, are very good at becoming the charming person who you want them to be.
#4 She focuses on the fact that there’s little physical evidence.
...This is also very common. For the most part, cases with physical evidence don’t go to trial. If you’re nailed, then you’re nailed. If there’s a trial, it’s almost always a “he said / he said” case like this. This is why it sucks to be a prosecutor, defense attorney, or juror. The overwhelming pressure to make a plea deal creates a situation in which every jury decision is a pure judgment call. To a certain extent, Koenig is falling prey to the “CSI effect”: she shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s no smoking gun evidence introduced at trial.
On one level, I shouldn’t be surprised at all by the popularity of the show: it combines the excellent radio journalism of “This American Life” with the compulsive thrills of the true-crime genre. But I still find it a little odd, for a few reasons:
I always listen to “This American Life”, and the pilot for this show ran as a regular episode of that show, so I listened to it at the time, and enjoyed it, but I decided at the time not to make the jump over to the Serial podcast, because it seemed as there wasn’t going to be enough meat to the story. After all, Koenig had already made clear from the outset that no new big piece of exculpatory or condemnatory evidence would come out, and no new trial would be triggered, so it sounded like the whole 12 hours would be circling over the same ground already covered by the pilot. Now that I’ve gone back and listened to the whole thing, I find that it is well worth listening to, but my original opinion hasn’t changed. This isn’t really a “serial” in that it has no cliff-hangers and really no plot progression, just an ever closer-examination of the same evidence.
In addition to the lack of “Ah-ha” or “Gotcha” moment, there are other reasons that, of all the true crime stories out there, this one doesn’t seem like a particularly good candidate for a 12-part series:
Too many trial participants refused to be recorded (the detectives, the prosecution, the key witness, etc) or died (the defense attorney), so we’re still getting a very incomplete picture, even after all this investment.
Of the people who are on tape, there’s a distinct lack of “real characters”. Simply put, nobody is “giving good tape”. There are no weirdos or slicksters or dim-bulbs or tough guys that might make you say “Wow, I could just listen to this guy talk forever.” The case is just kind of dreary. There’s not a lot of personality here.
There’s no outrage factor. There are so many hundreds of “Innocence Project” cases with outrageous abuses by the cops or prosecution and/or infuriating incompetence by the defense. There’s not really any of that here, from what we’ve heard so far. This is just a very typical case, no matter how life-shattering it was for the victim and the accused. There’s some value in re-examining a more typical court conviction but 12 hours is pushing it, especially when there are so many more fascinating and/or infuriating cases out there.
The most baffling thing is that this show has proven to be more popular than “This American Life” itself, which has been producing superlative downloads every week for almost twenty years, including many, many true crime stories even more compelling than this one. If you discovered this show independent of TAL, then do yourself a big favor and dive into the TAL archives. They do a lot of stuff other than true-crime, but here are ten of their best true-crime episodes that you can start out with:
#210: “Perfect Evidence”, on DNA exonerations and false confessions.
#356: “The Prosecutor”
#385: “Pro Se”
#387: “Arms Trader” (This is a good example of an crime episode with just as much ambiguity but lots of huge plot twists, wild personalities, and the cheerful participation of the both the defense and the prosecution, led by a merciless young go-getter named Christopher Christie)
#405: “Inside Job”
#414: “Right to Remain Silent” (with amazing secret recordings by a whistleblower cop)
#419: “Petty Tyrant”
#487 and 488: “Harper High School”, Parts one and two
#536 “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra”
Anyway, that’s my two cents. Feel free to let me know in the comments if I come across as merciless as Chris Christie...
So we’ve established that, unlike most movies, Do the Right Thing has a passive protagonist and it’s not about the solving of a large problem. This movie isn’t about a crisis that necessitates a series of tough decisions, it’s about a series of lightly-taken decisions that unexpectedly culminate in a crisis.
This brings us to another unusual thing about this movie: Many elements are not introduced from the POV of the hero.
If you think about it, this is kind of odd: Sure, there’s a huge cast, but it’s all limited to one block, and Mookie is constantly on the move and friendly with every character, so wouldn’t it make sense to simply introduce each new element in the movie from his POV? This is the way things are done in everything from “The Sopranos” to “Harry Potter”, after all. But instead, the camera chooses not to favor Mookie, jumping ahead of him or away from him several times, and introducing new elements on their own.
At first I found this very odd, but I think it makes sense: we have to cut away from Mookie’s POV so that we can see what he can’t see. After all, if he saw all of the same foreshadowing that we see, we would get too frustrated with him for not seeing the disaster coming. Ironically, this is one case in which we must sever our POV in order to maintain our empathy, because this assures us that Mookie couldn’t have predicted what we can predict, given our more-omniscient POV.
To a certain extent, the “antagonist” is merely the heavy hand of fate creating a tragedy that nobody wants, and the “protagonist” is not Mookie but the omniscient camera itself. Only the camera sees what no one person in the neighborhood can see: all of the little slights and frustrations that build up.
Warning: This gets long!
So finally we’ve captured that elusive beast: a great movie with a passive protagonist. In face, we have sometime even more rare: a great movie that’s not about the solving of a large problem!
Let’s start with our hapless hero Mookie, and all the ways he deviates from our list:
He’s not especially resourceful.
He has a lot more flaws than strengths.
He doesn’t make a lot of difficult decisions.
There is indeed a moment in just about the right spot where Mookie takes responsibility for a problem: 18 minutes in, he quickly shuts down Buggin’ Out’s first calls for a boycott, ushers him out, lectures him, and then Mookie comes back in and promises Sal that he’ll keep Buggin’ Out away from the pizza place.
So that sounds about right, and indeed this problem will get larger and larger, but Mookie himself will not do much of anything to solve that problem until it suddenly gets out of hand, more than an hour of screentime later.
(There is one scene about halfway through in which Mookie mildly repeats his advice to Buggin’ Out, but he actually makes the problem worse, because he also confirms Buggin’s worst fear by noticing that Buggin’s “Jordans are dogged”. He doesn’t suspect that the ruining of Buggin’s Air Jordans by a white homeowner on the block is by this point the real source of Buggin’s mounting anger.)
Meanwhile, Mookie skips most of the steps that we expect to see a hero go through:
His offhand commitment to solving this problem doesn’t lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
He doesn’t grapple with a lot of tough moral dilemmas.
He has no lowest point or midpoint disaster.
He doesn’t turn proactive until the height of the climax, when he acts suddenly, belatedly, and rashly.
So does the movie get away with all of this? Absolutely! Let’s break it down...
First of all, why doesn’t Mookie’s passivity infuriate us?
Like Jake Gittes back when he walked a beat in Chinatown, Mookie is in a position where it seems (at first) like the “right thing” to do is to do as little as possible. Shut down Buggin’ Out, shut down Pino, humor Smiley, compliment Raheem on his rings. We don’t get frustrated with him because it seems like he is indeed “doing the right thing” and successfully keeping the peace (You could say that the one time Mookie breaks his commitment to mildness is when he gets angry at Sal about being nice to Jade, and it is perhaps this violation of his code that karmically brings about the crisis.)
We can tell that a problem is brewing, and we sense that we can’t trust Mookie to resolve it, but that makes the movie more exciting. This isn’t a movie about the solving of a big problem, it’s about the gradual combustion of a suppressed problem.
But this still leaves the question: why do we put up with it? There’s a good reasons why most stories are about active protagonists solving large problems: Because that’s how we’re primed to watch stories. Our first instinct is to invest our identification in one character, caring only about that character, and only caring about the story to the extent that we care about the character. This is the easiest way to tell a story and the easiest way to reador watch a story.
This movie asks a lot more of us. It asks us to jump around, and never plant ourselves too firmly in any one character’s shoes. This makes it harder to care, but Lee and his collaborators know how to compensate for this lack of a comfort zone:
It’s just really funny. The dialogue is funny. The performances are funny. The vibe is funny.
The editing style is bracing and invigorating. It’s bouncy. It’s brash.
It’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s number one influence was Jack Cardiff, who shot Michael Powell’s movies, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he successfully recreate the eye-popping use of impressionistic and vibrant color.
So why doesn’t it deflate the movie that nobody is trying to solve anything? I would say that we are somewhat aware as we watch that our narrative expectations are being frustrated, but we go along with it simply because we trust the filmmakers. Every aspect of the filmmaking is so good that we know we’re in safe hands, and we give the movie a reluctant benefit of the doubt until everything finally coalesces in a very satisfying way at the climax.
Still not completely better, believe it or not, but let’s finally dig into this movie a bit.
When you’re writing a story about a fiasco, then the first instinct is to have the hero rise above the situation and wisely shake his head at the folly on display. After all, he’s a hero, and heroes are smarter and better, right?
There is no better example of this than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Everybody is hot to get the skulls except for Indy, who gets dragged along reluctantly and keeps scoffing at how silly the whole quest is. In the end, Indy wins the race to find the skulls, reiterates that he doesn’t really care, and half-heartedly enters the cave anyway.
But this is completely wrong. The hero must drive the story, even if that makes the hero “look bad”.
When Do the Right Thing came out, many movie critics claimed that it was morally irresponsible of Spike Lee to have his “hero” throw a trashcan through Sal’s window, rather than try to bring everybody back into harmony. Certain members of Lee’s audience, they argued, needed to be shown a demonstration of moral rectitude, or else they might swarm out into the streets after every screening, smashing every window they saw!
But, over and above the overt and covert racism of the critics, that would have made for a terrible movie. Audiences have no patience for heroes who stay above the fray. No matter what’s going down, we want our “heroes” to be in it up to their necks: When there’s greed, they should be the greediest. When there’s anger, they should be the angriest. When there’s folly, they should make the biggest fools of themselves.
In the riot, Mookie finally proves himself to be the “hero” of the story, not (necessarily) because his act was the right thing to do, but because it finally made him the fulcrum of the story: this day finally becomes his story, defined by his action, and his flaw and/or strength, depending on how you read it. Is he “the only one who could solve the problem”? Not really, but he’s the only person with a foot in both worlds, and therefore he decides that it’s his duty to tip the situation decisively in one direction.
Lee’s most daring move, in fact, was not his hero’s climactic action, but all of Mookie’s laid back actions before that. We’ll look at that next time…
Updated to the sixth and final checklist! Self-centered pizza delivery man Mookie works at the only white business in his neighborhood, Sal’s Pizzeria, which Sal runs with his sons Pino and Vito. Mookie lives with his sister Jade, who bugs him to be a better employee and be more responsible to his baby Hector and Hector’s mother Tina. Other denizens of the block include smooth DJ Senor Love Daddy, old bum Da Mayor, wise advice giver Mother Sister, mentally challenged Smiley, angry young man Buggin’ Out, and angrier young man Radio Raheem. Buggin’ Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s because Sal only has pictures of Italian-Americans on the wall, and Smiley and Raheem eventually join him, bringing racial tensions to a boil. Radio Raheem chokes Sal and then gets killed by the police, sparking a riot in which Mookie contributes to the destruction of the Pizzeria.
#1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who
hears about it?
one sentence description uniquely appealing?
Not especially : “A conflicted
black pizza delivery man working for the only white business on his block
must decide what to do when a race riot breaks out.” This movie was sold on
the success of the writer /director /star’s previous two movies, which were
more broadly comedic.He cashed
in that goodwill here with a more ambitious movie.
the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
A comedy about a race riot.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto
a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Yes, everyday city tensions
culminate in a death and a riot.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a
concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Very much so.There’s almost no plot.
there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Mookie, for lack of a better one, but he’s
relatively passive and we’re never sure if he’s a hero or an anti-hero.It’s interesting that Mookie is
sometimes the POV character and sometimes not.Sometimes he leads us to the next character and sometimes
the camera jumps away from him independently.It’s almost as if the camera is the hero, sometimes
agreeing with Mookie and cutting along with his perspective, sometimes
cutting in opposition to his POV to things that impeach what he just said, or
impeach what he’s about to say. (The case can also be made that Buggin’ Out
is a co-hero or co-anti-hero, because he’s the one who is actually driving
the plot and Mookie is just reacting.)
the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily
Yes and no.We think for the most of the movie that this is just a
day-in-the-life story, but we realize at the end that almost everything we’ve
seen has contributed to the riot.
the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, a pizza delivery man and his
least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
The hero is doing very little,
but yes, Pino opposes him.
this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or
an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest fear and ironic
answer to his question: The mayor says, “Do the right thing” and Mookie
responds, “That’s it?” It turns out to be a tough question.
something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Very much so, he surprises
himself and us when he throws the garbage can through the window.
this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero
to want to do (a conflict)?
Very much so.He was told that there will always be
a place for him there just before the riot.
end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes and no.Nobody is working to solve the
problem, but Mookie turns the tide, for good or ill.He doesn’t solve the problem, but he
attempts to, in his own way.
the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Transform the situation: he destroys
the Pizzeria, banishing the whites from the neighborhood.Transform the hero: It’s hard to
tell.It doesn’t seem so on the
surface, but we suspect it has.He spends the night with Tina and Hector, which seems like a bit of a
Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend
it’s very funny but also a satisfying drama.
this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be
used to promote the final product)?
The street chalk, the radio
station, the direct address framing, etc.
there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The racial slur montage, the
the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Just the climax.
story marketable without revealing the surprise?
conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
#2: CHARACTER 19/22
Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball,
or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I
was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Goofy: “Don’t ya love your
brother Mookie anymore?I loves
ya Jade.” Then bold: Yells “Hell no!” to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Entirely.We never learn any backstory, other
than what we can infer.
the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The easy-going pizza delivery
man, the bridge between the blacks and whites.
the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Simmering rage and
the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job,
background, or developmental state)?
For lack of a better word:
Jive: “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” “He’s gonna be beating you
like an egg for the rest of your life.” “No, you the man.” “Vito is down.”
the hero have a default personality trait?
the hero have a default argument tactic?
Ignores your protests, then
repeats what he said in the first place.
hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and
revealed early on?
He tries to bridge the
communities not because he’s a good guy, but because he wants $250 a week
Do we feel for the hero?
the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a
false piece of advice early on)?
“Gotta get paid”
the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
“Gotta get paid.”
the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a
hidden, private fear?
wants to keep the peace to keep his job.Hidden: Buggin’ Out tells him to “stay black”, and he
worries that he’s not doing that.
hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Not much, in either case.He’s serenely confident in his
ability to avoid physical danger (he’s the only one who doesn’t flinch at
Radio Raheem, and chills him out instantly), and he’s got emotional armor on.
the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Shiftless (takes forever on
his deliveries, avoids his son and his son’s mother unless he wants sex)
Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural
flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Funny, empathetic to everyone,
laid-back, a good lover.
By implication, because he
knows everyone in the neighborhood and cares about their business.
hero generally resourceful?
His resourcefulness never
really gets tested, because he never accepts a large challenge.Like Jake when he walked a beat in
Chinatown, he’s doing as little as possible.
the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Gotta get paid, don’t mess up
my business, don’t put up with mistreatment
hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
No one else is willing to
bridge the two worlds.
is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Yes, he stands up to both Pino
and Buggin’ Out, trying to chill them both out.
hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s counting his money.
the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Sort of. Despite being on the
job, he still considers his time his own “My name ain’t Kunta Kinte.” He does
his own business on his epic delivery trips.He’s really his own boss.
the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve
problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Not really.He’s not solving a lot of problems.
#3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 15/21
Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or
her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal
Yes, he’s sick of his sister’s
nagging, sick of Pino shifting his own responsibilities onto him.(And he’s in denial about his shiftlessness
and suppressed rage)
this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning
of the story?
His sister heckles him on the
way out the door, then he’s ordered to sweep up even though that’s not his
job.Not long later, Tina calls.
the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
No. He thinks the only solution
to his sister and Tina’s nagging (and Smiley’s for that matter) is just to
keep at his job and get paid.He does not realize until the end that this solution is untenable.The closest thing he gets to an
intimidating opportunity is when Da Mayor says “Always to the right thing.”
But Mookie doesn’t know what that means, so he feels that he gets no
opportunities to rise above his situation.
the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Nothing but, for most of the
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the
end of the first quarter?
When Buggin’ Out announces his
boycott, Mookie promises Sal that he’ll shut it down, which is his
interpretation of “Do the right thing” at this point.
Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict
with another person?
It’s nor really unforeseen.
Buggin’ Out continues his boycott attempts despite Mookie, and Pino’s racism
is also escalating.
the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He assumes that he’s shut down
Buggin’ Out and he can go on about his day.He encourages Vito to stand up to Pino instead of
confronting Pino directly.
the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, he has fun with Vito,
Senor Love Daddy, etc. He starts to anticipate the money, and promises to buy
a picture from Smiley at the end of the day when he gets paid, etc.
easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a
safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
There are two, but Mookie
misses both, because he’s in the shower (This is an odd structure!)In Buggin’ Out’s arc, he reaches a
lowest point in the montage where everybody contemptuously refuses to join
his boycott, then he takes it to Sal by himself and only humiliates
himself.Sal then has a midpoint
disaster of his own when Pino sits him down and says he doesn’t to inherit
the business, then yells at Smiley in the street, in view of everyone while
Sal shakes his head in misery.This is probably the key moment that leads to the riot (though it was
improvised and wasn’t in the script!) Mookie then sort of looses a safe space when Jade comes to
the pizzeria and drives a wedge between Mookie and Sal.
Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Somewhat.He actually visits his son and Tina,
he confronts Pino more directly, etc.
the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
When Sal spits racist
invective at Radio Raheem, Mookie decides that Sal is unacceptably racist
after all, and the chasm cannot be crossed.
stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Very much so.
the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
The killing of his friend and
the riot teaches him that his attempts to ease tensions were foolish.
further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, something in him snaps.
Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
We can sense that the mayor’s
words are now echoing in his head: Always do the right thing.
that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which
still seems far away?
Not really: he acts rashly,
then reverts into paralysis.
the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero
switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He waits too long.
these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the
hero to improvise for the finale?
He is forced to improvise,
yes, but neither side ever has a timeline.
strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the
Very much so.
the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time
as) his or her outer struggle?
The same time.
there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally
resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed
(possibly through reversible behavior)
Yes.He talks to Sal the next morning.
#4: SCENEWORK 17/20 (Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the
wall of the pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.)
Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established
the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the
beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, it begins at the moment
that Buggin’ Out takes offense at the amount of cheese on his slice.
this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
It is now.
of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite
possibly has something better to do)?
Sal doesn’t expect to or want
to converse, he just expects Buggin’ Out to pay and go away.
there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Who is the little girl that
Mookie is talking to?Smiley is
outside.We can hear snippets of
the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious
How much trouble will Buggin’ Out
cause in the time it takes him to eat his slice?Once Sal comes out with the bat, it’s clear that Mookie
and Vito and Pino have to get Buggin out of there before violence breaks out.
Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal
character through emotional reactions?
Yes. Sal and Buggin’ Out both lose
it.Pino and Mookie are also
affected.There’s also a great little
moment between Pino and Sal when Pino silently takes Sal’s bat away.
the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may
As with almost every scene in
the movie, our sympathies are totally split.We basically side with Sal (as Mookie does, at this point)
but Buggin’ Out makes a pretty good case.
two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
It starts out as a clash of
personalities and then becomes a clash of agendas.
the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of
which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: get free extra
cheese, then put brothers on the wall.Suppressed: what are you doing in my neighborhood?Why don’t we own our own stores?
suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied
through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Sal willfully confusing the
meaning on “brothers” has subtext to it.The pictures themselves carry a subtext.The ownership issues is in the
subtext until Sal calls it out.
the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Mookie, as always, keeps his
feelings on this issue hidden and/or suppressed.
characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct
Yes.When Buggin’ asks “How much?”, he’s implying that this
isn’t worth $1.50.
there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners
(often resulting in just one touch)?
Lots.Buggin’ sits down, then Sal comes out
with the bat, then Mookie takes Buggin’ out.
objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Giving the pizza, refusing to
take it, taking the parmesan, taking it away again, taking out the bat, Pino
taking it away, etc.
Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something
that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Yes, Mookie and Sal decide to
kick Buggin’ out.
the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the
previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previously asked: Not
really.New: Will Buggin’ Out
stay away?Will his boycott take
the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by
the circumstances of the next scene)?
No, it goes to the end.
audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next?
(Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Yes, violence has now been
#5: DIALOGUE 15/16
Is the dialogue true to human nature?
the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so.Each individual viewpoint is so
strongly and empathetically stated that we have no idea where the author’s
ultimate sympathies lie.
each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.Only the camera sees the riot coming.
characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather
than the wants of others?
Very, very much so.Even Buggin’ Out, the one person
supposedly motivated by civic concerns, is really upset about cheese and his
the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and
even to themselves)?
Yes and no.There are times when they openly
discuss issues that probably would not openly discuss or admitted to, but
these moments are stylized (almost like Shakespearean asides), so it
characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they
For the most part.Jade obliquely refers to Mookie’s
baby.Mookie and Sal are very
indirect in their confrontation over Jade, etc.But then we get explosions of people saying what they
normally don’t say, like the racism montage, which is intentional and works
characters interrupt each other often?
Very much so.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world
and each personality?
the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or
of the setting: very much so.Tradecraft: not so much, but that’s fine.
there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default
personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Metaphor family: Sal:
Italian-American “The both of youse” “this is a respectable business.” And
subtle racism “You paying now or on layaway?” Pino: open racism “How come you
niggers are so stupid?Da Mayor:
old-fashioned “Good morning, gentlemen” “Clean as the Board of Health”, Default personality trait: Sal:
magnanimous, Pino: angry, Vito: sweet, Buggin’: agitated, Raheem: very
agitated, Argument strategy: Sal:
increasingly irritated reminders, Pino: muttered asides, Buggin’: appeal to
(his own) logic.
Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
dialogue more concise than real talk?
the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Very much so.
there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes,
No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or
the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and
Senor Love Daddy: head/heart.
Sal: Heart. Pino, Raheem and Buggin’: spleen. Mookie: gut.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld
the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest
or primary emotional partner?
really understands Mookie.
exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to
There is almost no exposition,
but what little there is (such as why they have their pizzeria here) comes
out gradually and naturally.
there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters
really lay into each other?
There are several, but that is
explained by the heat making everybody irritable.It’s clear that there wouldn’t normally be this many
#6: TONE 10/10
Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the
story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without
the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few
Comedy and drama come with
fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.)
established early and maintained throughout?
Vibrant, brash, outrageous, buoyant.
Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the
audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
It’s clear that this will be
the story of one day, and it is asked what will be the consequences of the
Does the story use framing devices to establish
genre, mood and expectations?
Senor Love Daddy is our
narrator, and he warns us that this will be a hot, dangerous day.
there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await
Will Mookie end up like Da
Mayor?Like Sal? Should he be
more like Buggin’ Out?Like his
foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s
attention on what’s important)?
Yes, Sal takes out the bat
early on, then puts it away unused,Raheem fights a boombox battle with the Koreans, the Italian-American
has his car soaked, etc.
reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Mother sister reverses her
stance on Da Mayor, Mookie stays the night, Vito stands upt to Pino.
dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, we find out the
consequences of the heat.
7: THEME 13/14
Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good
(or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and
Pino: “Who’s working for who?”
characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils,
instead of choosing between good and evil?
Not much.There are few moral dilemmas until
Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
the story reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.
the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it
based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Very much so.There are a million little authentic
observations, like the kids scraping the cans on the sidewalk to better
direct the spray of water.
the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.Real life police killings are
referred to many times.
these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral
of the actions have real consequences?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so
that it need not be discussed often?
many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic
Yes.Raheem’s speech, Mother Sister’s advice, the interactions
with the Koreans, etc.
one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story,
growing in meaning each time?
The bat, the boom box, etc.
Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it
It’s still split pretty much
evenly at the end, as evidenced by the conflicting quotes from Martin and Malcolm
the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, Mookie just wanted to get
paid, but he destroys his job instead.
end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved,
some answers left vague)?
Yes.Will Mookie comes back to Tina, etc.
characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing
the audience to do that?
They do discuss it, but they
don’t kill the meaning or settle the dilemma as they do so.