Sunday, December 07, 2014

Straying From the Party Line: Saying What They Wouldn't Say in Do the Right Thing

One last look at Do the Right Thing
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?
  • Pino: What?
  • 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?
  • [Pino hesitates]
  • Mookie: Prince. You’re a Prince freak.
  • Pino: Boss. Bruce.
  • Mookie: Prince.
  • Pino: Bruuucce.
  • 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.


j.s. said...

I know you're making a specific point and that your counterexample is the barest of thumbnail sketches, but isn't it possible that most if not all of this occurred to Lee, but he made a judgement call to sacrifice a bit of character fidelity to the overall flow and musicality of the dialogue exchange?

Satia said...

I don't even know what to say about this. I wasn't aware of Lee's journals being published and now I want to know more more more. Hmmmmm . . . any thoughts on Singleton?

Matt Bird said...

j.s.: Oh, yeah, Lee's a dialogue master, and I don't mean to imply that my version was something that wouldn't have occurred to him. He has more dialogue ability in his pinkie than I have all over.

I just think that he had already established an ingenious structure that allowed him to alternate between dramatized moments and direct address, so this sort of straightforward point would be better made through direct address than through semi-dramatization, because it turns a well-written and complex character into a straw man for just one scene.

I have exactly the same problem with "MALCOLM X" which also has one straw-man scene that's like a record-scratch to me, where Malcolm humiliates a prison priest and forces him to admit that Jesus was black. Over and above the fact that Malcolm's logic is rather specious, the priest never would have fallen into his trap.

In both cases, Lee presumably knew that he was cheating and chose to do it anyway in order to make a point.

This speaks to another source of DTRT's power: it was *fresh* in every sense of the word: The first words of the journal are:

"December 25, 1987: It's nine in the morning and I'm sitting down to get started on my next project, DO THE RIGHT THING. I hope to start shooting next August. I want the film to take place over the course of one day, the hottest day of the year, in Brooklyn, New York [...] I'll have to kick butt to pull things together by August. If I'm not happy with the script, I'll hold off until the following summer. It's better to go at it right away, though, like Oliver Stone did by following PLATOON with WALL STREET."

The crazy thing is that the six months in which he took this project from brainstorming to production he was also finishing up and releasing SCHOOL DAZE and shooting world famous Nike commercials.

The result, for both good and ill, is a project without a lot of rewrites or re-thinking, just a white hot burst of genius from a young man who knew to trust himself. For the most part, the result is glorious, but this is one of the few scenes that seems to suffer, in my eyes, for not having been reconsidered a little.

Again, to the degree that there was a second draft, it came from the actors, each of whom was invited to rewrite his part to a certain extent. (There was no part at all for Roger Guenveur Smith, but he insisted on being in the movie, so Spike let him create a character for himself, Smiley, that gradually took over more and more of the movie)

So I think it was really up to Turtorro to say "Hey, now..."

Satia: I gave up on Singleton after HIGHER LEARNING, but I hear some of his recent films have been interesting.

Unknown said...

Yeah this scene always felt like it was from a different movie.
I wonder if this was a scene he had written way before he fleshed out the characters and just couldnt make himself cut it from the final film.
As a fairly racist new yorker, Pino would never have magic johnson as his favorite basketball player, let alone happily admit it. And imagining him listening to prince feels like a stretch.