Spike Lee

Spike Lee

by Todd McGowan

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Since the release of Do the Right Thing in 1989, Spike Lee has established himself as a cinematic icon. Lee's mostly independent films garner popular audiences while at the same time engaging in substantial political and social commentary. He is arguably the most accomplished African American filmmaker in cinematic history, and his breakthrough paved the way for the success of many other African Americans in film.

In this first single-author scholarly examination of Spike Lee's oeuvre, Todd McGowan shows how Lee's films, from She's Gotta Have It through Red Hook Summer, address crucial social issues such as racism, paranoia, and economic exploitation in a formally inventive manner. McGowan argues that Lee uses excess in his films to intervene in issues of philosophy, politics, and art. McGowan contends that it is impossible to watch a Spike Lee film in the way that one watches a typical Hollywood film. By forcing observers to recognize their unconscious enjoyment of violence, paranoia, racism, sexism, and oppression, Lee's films prod spectators to see differently and to confront their own excess. In the process, his films reveal what is at stake in desire, interpersonal relations, work, and artistic creation itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079610
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/15/2014
Series: Contemporary Film Directors Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Todd McGowan is associate professor of English at the University of Vermont and author of Out of Time: The Ethics of Atemporal Cinema and The Fictional Christopher Nolan.

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Spike Lee

By Todd McGowan


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09540-5


Confronted with Too Much

Spike Lee is a filmmaker of excess. Excess characterizes each of his films—through unconventional shots, extreme characters, improbable scenes, and many other ways. Lee's films employ these types of excess to intervene in critical issues that trouble the contemporary world—the question of the subject's singularity, the role that fantasy plays in structuring our reality, the political impact of passion, the power of paranoia in shaping social relations, the damage that the insistence on community inflicts, the problem of transcendence, and the struggles of the spectator. Above all, Lee is known for being a political filmmaker, and I contend that the concept of excess holds the key to understanding the politics of his films. The different sections of the book will explore how excess has enabled Lee to create a varied corpus of films that treat a broad spectrum of fundamental social and political problems.

Within the study of film, excess has a precise definition. It is what goes beyond the narrative requirements of a film and thereby draws the spectator's attention to form. But excess is also operative throughout the social order, as many thinkers have recognized. It disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together. The social order suffers from the disturbance of excess because it never forms a consistent and coherent whole. In this sense, excess is Sigmund Freud's unconscious, Karl Marx's class struggle, Simone de Beauvoir's sexual difference, Frantz Fanon's violence, and many related theoretical formulations of the incompleteness of society. The exploration of excess in Spike Lee's films shows his position among these thinkers and reveals the breadth of his filmic contribution not only to the history of cinema but also to the most pressing questions of our time.

Lee's films show that, as subjects, we are defined by what exceeds our social identity, and they also make evident that what exceeds our typical frame of reference is identical to the passion that animates us. This is the fundamental contention of psychoanalysis and what separates it from recent theorizing about the problem of affect within communal life. Psychoanalytic thought defines the subject as a singular excess irreducible to any individual identity or social group. Our passion or mode of enjoyment is excessive in relation to the social structure and even to our sense of who we are. In short, every passion is an excessive passion. It is not simply an affect that we have—one among many—but rather what constitutes us as subjects.

A subject doesn't simply occupy an individual or group identity but relates to this identity through a passionate response (most often either embrace or rejection, but sometimes indifference). Passion exists in the distance that separates subjects from the identities that they inhabit. The social order can use this passion to mobilize subjects, and in this process, passion becomes a source of homogeneity rather than singularity. When passion functions as a source of social identification, it homogenizes subjects by focusing each subject on the same object. But this mobilization of passion is always a fraught enterprise. Passion necessarily exceeds the limits that the social order would place on it, which often leads it to disrupt the social order employing it. Passion doesn't fit within the narratives that we use to understand ourselves and our actions, and yet it is, in the last instance, determinative.

We act, as Lee reveals, on the basis of this passion. This is why Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), the heroine of Lee's first feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986), cannot abandon her passion to have multiple sexual partners despite her recognition of the difficulties that this excess creates. Nola Darling's passion separates her from the possibility of a monogamous relationship, just as passion in other Lee films estranges characters from their community. When critics like Douglas Kellner or Sharon Willis note Lee's inability to depict successful communities, they miss the political possibilities of his anticommunitarian focus on excess. By isolating our various forms of disturbing passion, Lee forces spectators to confront their unconscious investment in what they consciously declaim—violence, paranoia, racism, sexism, oppression, and so on. As a result, the films move spectators from their usual viewing positions. It is impossible to watch a Spike Lee film in the way that one watches a typical Hollywood film. A Lee film forces spectators not only to see differently but to confront their own unconscious, whether this unconscious is associated with their own singularity as subjects, their racism, their membership in a community, or whatever else.

The aim of Lee's films is not to shame viewers into an abandonment of their passion. His is not a moral cinema in the traditional sense, even though he often presents characters acting in the worst ways that would seem to invite moral judgment. Instead, the films encourage the spectator to identify with this passion in order to create a new way of relating to it. Passion, as Lee's films illustrate it, is not equivalent to pleasure and does not bring happiness. Instead, it is a burden, a surplus of pleasure that we suffer and that derails our pursuit of happiness. As Alenka Zupancic describes it in her Ethics of the Real, "[I]t is not simply the mode of enjoyment of the neighbour, of the other, that is strange to me. The heart of the problem is that I experience my own enjoyment (which emerges along with the enjoyment of the other, and is even indissociable from it) as strange and hostile" (225). It is clear how another's enjoyment or passion might function as a burden or source of unhappiness, but this same quality haunts my own passion as well.

At the same time, passion makes one's life worth living. Passion is excessive and thus burdensome—it consistently produces personal and social self-destruction—but it also animates our existence. As the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan insists, our passion or mode of enjoyment—what he calls "jouissance"—precipitates any investment in the world. In his essay "The Subversion of the Subject," Lacan states, "It is Jouissance whose absence would render the universe vain" (694). When people feel as if their lives have no meaning, what they miss is not the significance of their actions but the passion to act. Passion is not a value added to life but the basis of what makes life worth living.

Passion or enjoyment is the sine qua non of the subject's existence, but it typically leads to exclusions from the social order. Fascism, for instance, mobilizes passion for the sake of violent exclusions. In this vein, Lee's films often depict the nefarious effects of passion as it manifests itself in racism or paranoia. In order to attach themselves to an identity and seek out a sense of belonging, subjects display their passion for the identity and the exclusions that define it. We see how passion fuels an outburst of racist speech or even, more remarkably, the institutional failure to respond to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The power of Lee's documentaries on the failure to act after Hurricane Katrina stems directly from their depiction of the passion involved with the neglect of those affected by the catastrophe. A passionate indifference to the citizens of New Orleans manifests itself throughout When the Levees Broke (2006) and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (2010). The social structures of racism emerge and thrive through the passion of the subjects who sustain them.

That said, implicit in Lee's films is the idea that a different mode of relating to excess is possible. Rather than exploding in violent outbursts of racism as in Do the Right Thing (1989) or Jungle Fever (1991), excess can take on another political valence and become the source for emancipation. Lee's depiction of excess is always a complex portrayal of how it works in contemporary society. Excess is formal in its essence and has no inherent political bent. It can lead us toward acts of exclusion, or it can enable us to revolt against an oppressive situation. It can fuel the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and those of the civil rights movement. Lee shows excess in all its forms, but even in the negative portrayals, his films make clear that excess is what gives our existence what value it has. Without excess, life becomes empty and unlivable. Consequently, the struggle with excess colors our entire being, and we must find a way of relating to it that doesn't involve us in racist violence or other types of brutal oppression.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, film theorists began to think about the role of excess in the cinema. The most notable of these theorists were Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath, and Kristin Thompson. Though their positions on excess were not identical and their terminology was distinct, they did adopt a similar approach. For each of them, filmic excess opposes itself to narrative and to signification; it is what doesn't have a clear function in the filmic narrative or a clear meaning for the film's signification.

Thompson establishes a straightforward opposition between what serves a narrative function in a film and what doesn't. As she sees it, excess exceeds narrative motivation and critical understanding. It challenges the meaningful wholeness that filmic narrative aims to produce. Thompson claims, "Excess is not only counternarrative, but it is also counterunity. To discuss it may be to invite the partial disintegration of a coherent reading" (293). Excess doesn't fit within the structure of meaning, and as a result, it resists all analysis. All that the critic can do is point it out and demonstrate how it challenges possible avenues of interpretation. Thompson's view that excess opposes meaning follows from Roland Barthes's theory of narrative.

Barthes was the first to draw attention to excess, and he did so in the context of the semiotic analysis of cinema. In this analysis (which focuses on Sergei Eisenstein), he identifies three levels of meaning—an informational meaning, a symbolic meaning, and an obtuse or third meaning. This obtuse meaning doesn't fall within the domain of semiotic analysis but exists exterior to it. Barthes notes that "the obtuse meaning is outside (articulated) language while nevertheless within interlocution" (61). The critic can identify the excess of the obtuse meaning but cannot reduce it to any definite signified content. It doesn't provide information for the spectator, nor does it have a symbolic resonance.

Barthes locates the obtuse meaning within the act of filmic production, and this becomes pivotal for Stephen Heath's analysis. Heath's description of the filmic system makes clear that its aim is containing rather than highlighting the excess of the act of production over what has been produced. He claims, "The system achieves a reflection, images of unity, but, as production, is in excess of those images" (117). In spite of the visibility of productive excess, Heath argues, "the narrative offers to contain its production" (117). This prioritizing of the produced over the act of production leads cinema to function as an ideological mechanism. The problem with cinematic excess is that it doesn't stand a chance against narrative's absolute hegemony. Just as the commodity hides the labor that produces it, and the capitalist's profit hides the worker's creation of surplus value, the film renders its production invisible to the spectator.

During this heyday for the theorization of cinematic excess, no theorist made the connection—a connection evident throughout Spike Lee's films—between excess and passion. The theorists maintain excess on the level of production and work rather than identifying it with passion. This same association becomes apparent in Peter Wollen's discussion of the contrast between avant-garde and Hollywood cinema. The excess of Jean-Luc Godard's avant-garde cinema, according to Wollen, attempts to dissatisfy the spectator by privileging production at the expense of narrative entertainment. For the early theorists of excess, excess is not the site where we experience our passion but the site of the production of surplus value.

The problem with this identification of excess and production is that it fails to account for the pull that excess has on us. When he initially theorizes excess, Barthes comes closest to this recognition, as he notes that the obtuse meaning draws him to a film beyond the information and symbolism that the film imparts. But this doesn't go far enough. To understand Spike Lee's films and the role that excess plays in them, a new theory—one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion—is required. This would be a theory of excess rooted not in narrative theory or Marxism (like the earlier theories) but in the fundamental tenets of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis takes the disruptiveness of passion or enjoyment as its point of departure. Sigmund Freud discovers psychoanalysis when he encounters subjects who should be satisfied but are not, and he finally comes to see a fundamental link between satisfaction and suffering, a link that results from the excessive nature of the subject's satisfaction. Subjects don't only satisfy themselves but instead suffer their satisfaction. The subject never fits properly in the place assigned for it in the signifying structure. This failure to fit leaves the subject unable simply to experience pleasure without falling into excess.

Rather than identifying excess with the act of production, I contend that we must instead identify it with enjoyment that teems around the edge of the structure of signification. What exceeds use within a signifying act provides the source of our investment in signification. For psychoanalysis, passion or enjoyment exceeds the narratives of community and identity that the social order produces. Even if these narratives try to mobilize passions, passions necessarily escape their control and interrupt their smooth functioning. Passion—even the passion for a normal life—involves an overinvestment that transcends the limits of the social structure. Passion is a form of relation to identity that necessarily exceeds all identity.

In terms of cinema, when we encounter excess, the content overflows into the form and disturbs the illusory security of spectatorship. Formal excess, especially as Lee employs it, attempts to touch the spectator's own relationship to the images on the screen and to expose the passion inhering in this relationship. One enjoys a Lee film because it goes too far, and then one either embraces or retreats from this enjoyment. Excess in the cinema is inseparable from the question of how we enjoy and the relationship we take up to our enjoyment.

Enjoyment exceeds narrative because of the subject's lack of identity with the world of sense. The subject is not the product of a successful ideological interpellation but the irreducible mode of enjoying that the ideological narrative of sense can never fully incorporate. We enjoy what doesn't fit, the stumbling blocks of sense, rather than sense itself. This is why mysteries or blockages of sense—detective novels, word puzzles, the opacity of another's desire, and so on—have an inherent appeal for us. We seek out the disruption of sense and meaning rather than its smooth flow. What we encounter in excess, as its early theorists rightly point out, has no signifying function, but it does have the effect of rendering the world of signification enjoyable, which is what these theorists miss and Lee's films make evident.

Passion or enjoyment in this sense derives from what Freud calls the death drive: we seek out obstacles and we undermine ourselves because this enables us to enjoy in a way that is impossible when our existence seems stable. The psychoanalytic theorist Joan Copjec describes this excess that drives the subject onward as the object of its drive, the engine for all of the subject's activity. She notes, "Some inherent obstacle—the object of the drive—simultaneously brakes the drive and breaks it up, curbs it, thus preventing it from reaching its aim" (34). The excess that disrupts the flow of significance in our social reality drives us as subjects. Without this obstacle or kernel of nonsense, we would become static beings stuck in an unending cycle of need and fulfillment. Even though excess remains irreducible to signification, it nonetheless provides the lifeblood for this structure. Subjects continue to play out their social roles and to immerse themselves within signification because the passion that exceeds the signifier drives them onward. This is precisely what Spike Lee grasps in his films, and it differentiates him not only from Hollywood filmmaking but also from the major anti-Hollywood filmic movements throughout the world.


Excerpted from Spike Lee by Todd McGowan. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Confronted with Too Much 1

Singular Subjects 17

Driven by Fantasy 47

The Politics of Passion 55

Fight the Paranoia 70

The Costs of Community 83

Depictions of Antagonism 95

No Outside 110

Disturbing the Spectator 120

The Effect of Spike Lee 134

Interview with Spike Lee Lisa Collins 139

Filmography 145

Bibliography 155

Index 159

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