camera movement

Malcolm X | Foreshadowing and Death

The tension in the last half an hour of Malcolm X is palpable. There’s a certain dread about this part of the film, and the anticipation of Malcolm’s death seeps off the screen. Much of this is from the wonderful acting in these final scenes, but I wanted in this post to pick up some of the ways that Spike Lee foreshadows Malcolm’s assassination through film form, especially through the repetition of image-types, sound, and camera movement.

Death – violent death – enters the film as a major theme in an early scene of Malcolm and Shorty playacting cops and gangsters.

Close-up shot of a “dead” Malcolm.

Immediate, jarring cut to his father in his own moment of horrific, impending death:

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Compare these shots, where the camera is close to the ground to the shot of Malcolm’s dead body after his assassination, where the camera looks vertically down at him (from heaven?):

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Mo’ Better Blues | Phallic Power and the Spinning Camera

The dolly shot is a fairly standard tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the camera is mounted on a rig that both stabilises it and allows it to move along an axis or in a circle. In the traditional revolving dolly shot, the camera moves in a circle around a person or object that remains stationary in the middle of the frame.

(Michael Bay, for instance, is really fond of the low angle version of the revolving dolly shot, a.k.a. his “shit just got real” shot – )

The revolving dolly shot in Mo’ Better Blues is a little different. Both times it occurs in the film, the person or people in the middle of the frame that the camera would usually be spinning around are instead spinning along with the camera, so that they appear to stay still while the background spins. The first time we see it is early in the film, when Bleek is fully absorbed in his daily routine of practicing the trumpet in his home:

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Spike Lee uses it again after Clarke arrives and interrupts Bleek’s regimented practice routine, and the two start getting it on:

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The tenor in both of these shots is one of intensity; we are made hyperaware of the fact that the people in the centre of the frame are stable, while everything around them is in flux. This technique takes the viewer out of the normal affect of viewing by calling attention to itself as a filmic technique. We know, of course, that the background around the characters isn’t really moving, but it keeps on spinning and spinning just the same. The revolving dolly shot as Spike Lee uses it here seems to suggest that the background spins even though we know it isn’t spinning because in these shots the people in the middle of the frame are experiencing such intensity that everything around them stops mattering. In the first shot the intensity is that of absolute concentration. In Bleek’s eyes we see his singular obsession with his musician’s craft. We know in this shot that Bleek is in his mind palace; he is focused on his music and nothing else. In the second shot the intensity comes from the passion of Bleek and Clarke’s sexual intoxication (and here I think it’s both amusing and appropriate to mention that Denzel Washington insisted that he should keep his shirt on in this scene).

What grabs me about the use of this camera technique is that both times it pops up, it’s to extravagantly reveal a source of what gives Bleek power in the constitution of his masculine self. Over at Blog 2, bzayatz18 has a post on Bleek’s trumpet as a phallic symbol of masculine power, and I thought a couple of especially hazy and sexually-charged shots from the opening credits support that interpretation rather well:

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On stage, the trumpet stands in for the phallus because it signifies musical aggression, raw expressive power, hardness, and the unleashing of energy by the musician who stands in a position of dominance over the audience. In Bleek’s home, when he practices, the trumpet becomes phallic in a more understated way. Before the phallus can be deployed in a spectacular fashion on stage, it has to be maintained, polished, and meticulously cared for by the man who is preparing to use it.

What the two revolving dolly shots might point us towards is that the source of Bleek’s phallic masculinity does not emanate solely from the trumpet or from his own body, but from both of them together. If Bleek is at his most dominant and masculine when he plays the trumpet on stage (i.e. when he performs the spectacle of his lips touching the trumpet), then these dolly shots break down his masculine power into its two component parts – first, the trumpet itself, and second, his body (and it’s interesting when thinking about exactly what is phallic about Bleek’s body to note that in the second revolving shot, the main body part Bleek is using for sexual arousal is not his penis but his lips).

I think that this reading can be supported by the scene in which all of Bleek’s previous sense of his masculine self is shattered when he is assaulted in the alley – his complete emasculation only comes about when both his trumpet and his body (his lips) are broken.