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Player Hater

In "25th Hour" Spike Lee, one of our most gifted directors, gets in the way of his movie, again.

11:00 PM, Jan 16, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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SPIKE LEE is an artist, but he's like a painter who cares just a little more about his signature than what occupies the rest of the canvas.

He subordinates characters to the almighty importance of his own political views. He pushes the actual story offstage to trot out pet themes, like his beloved New York City, his one great subject (other than himself). Meanwhile his take on the metropolis hasn't changed or evolved one iota since he made "Do the Right Thing" and isn't any different as a result of September 11, though many screen minutes in "25th Hour," his latest movie (which expands nationwide this weekend), are spent reflecting on the devastation wrought at the World Trade Center. Finally, he slices and dices scenes into julienne slivers of warring perspective shots, never allowing the momentum of dialogue and action simply to carry the story along.

It's been said before, but it remains the great central truth of his oeuvre: Spike Lee is a menace to his own movies.

Take one of the most remarked-upon scenes in "25th Hour": Montgomery Brogan, an Irish guy from Brooklyn played by Edward Norton, goes into the bathroom of a Staten Island pub. On the bathroom mirror someone has scrawled the words "f--- you." Montgomery's reflection in the mirror--but not the actual character who just stands there watching--launches into a five-minute census survey in which he gives the old F verb to every social group in the city from the homosexuals of Chelsea to the Italians in Bensonhurst.

The segment is not properly a speech or a monologue of either the character Montgomery or his inner demon, as suggested by the use of the mirror; it is a speech belonging to Spike Lee. But it needs to be pointed out that Montgomery is no traditional stand-in simply giving voice to a director's views. He is a character temporarily possessed by the director. Montgomery ceases to be himself for the duration of the scene.

I mean this literally and objectively: It is clear Spike Lee did not intend the scene to be understood as a representation of the thoughts or words of the character, but of his own thoughts and views. And the only reason for this moment of channeling is to "brand" the movie as a Spike Lee flick. To consider this in context of the story is to see its total absurdity: A man meets his father in a bar to take leave of him before going to jail for several years. Smack in the middle of this difficult goodbye, the man goes into the bathroom and the audience is treated to the just-described Spike Lee Show in the bathroom mirror.

Furthermore, the operating conceit of this not-a-speech voiced-over by Edward Norton when he becomes Spike Lee is that bigotry toward other ethnicities, races, and sexual inclinations tells a fundamental truth about human nature. Man, according to Spike Lee, is essentially a hater.

So it is that Spike Lee wants his art to reveal how man hates. Realizing this, one is not surprised when two old friends, who obviously don't see each other every day, get together and generate acrimony in seconds as one character challenges the other's basic assumptions about who he is. The context: A guy shows up at his friend's apartment. The other guy offers him a beer. They fight. With barely any prologue or build-up. One's a cynical realist; the other's a liberal dreamer. One's Irish; one's Jewish. And the result is nothing but conflict. That this would call into question the premise that they are friends doesn't really matter. Friendship is just a set-up, an excuse, a secondary element; it is without interest and its claim on these two characters is surrendered instantly before the universal will to hate and fight.

In the same scene Lee is also advancing another agenda. Let's call it the New York agenda. (It is unfortunate, but true, that Lee harps on the soul of the city while the souls of his characters suffer from directorial neglect.) During a lull in the fighting--the two guys are arguing over what it means that their buddy Monty is going to prison--the old friends look out the apartment window at Ground Zero below.

Cue the heavy ominous music, and the screen is filled with pictures of Ground Zero at night as workers pick over some last bits of debris. There are two interpretive choices here: Either this has nothing to do with the story at hand, in which case Spike Lee must be faulted for getting in the way again, or it is meant intentionally as an illuminating juxtaposition to the story at hand. The latter is utterly ridiculous: How can there be any analogy between a drug dealer getting sent to prison and the terrorist slaughter of thousands of people? The only available connection between these disparate stories is the hatred common to all human beings, those living in bathroom mirrors, friends, enemies, whoever. Which makes me think of a good alternate title for this movie: "Enemies--A Friendship Story."