Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Stroll Down (Movie) Memory Lane: Rashomon and Do the Right Thing

Isn't one of the most fun parts about watching movies seeing how they unfold? No matter if it's a romantic movie or an actual mystery, a horror film or a dramedy, there is a want for some sort of resolution. That doesn't mean everyone needs to have a happy ending, of course, or even a proper ending. As much as the "end" of Broken Flowers, as uninformative and useless as it is, frustrates me, it's still some sort of end as we see Billy Murray knocking on the door; presumably there is an ending beyond the "ending" we see. Although many movies refuse to find resolution, very few dare to take the Rashomon step and absolutely refuse to endorse any ending to the story. Part of me is very glad of this, as I am a huge fan of endings. I am one of those people who totally did not mind in the LEAST the zillion endings of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But then, I'd also be lying if I said I did not genuinely enjoy the twister that is Rashomon.

Possibly incomparable, I also think that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is, in many ways, lacking resolution. Sure, it ends, life goes on beyond the deeds of that day in the movie, but there is, once again, never a real endorsement for any character's path. They all tried to do the "right thing" and audience members walk away differing in their opinion as to who did the right thing (at least, kids in my film class definitely had varied opinions) or if anybody did at all or even if they intended to or not. But without going beyond any knowledge aside from having watched the film itself, I would make a guess that that is part of the film's premise, not telling us who is right or who is wrong.

But am I saying that Akira Kurosawa and Spike Lee are soulmates? Hardly, especially since this bizarre lack of commentary is used in different ways by the two films. The story within Rashomon is never resolved, but there is a clear story in Do the Right Thing, rather, it's the meaning of the actions, not the actions themselves that are difficult to discern.

Is this making any sense? Perhaps not. I was simply revisiting my old film journals from my History and Aesthetics of Film class from last fall and, although I have thought about this before, I was really bringing it back. This isn't to say that there aren't other films that behave in this way, as I'm sure I've seen plenty, but these are two films that stick with me with their "messages" that aren't the typical message, telling us that sometimes you can't resolve things, sometimes it's impossible to figure out who did the right thing or who is telling the truth, and there is a great beauty in that that I deeply appreciate in both films.

To maybe help make some more sense, here are excerpts from my original film journals for the two films. The parts cut out, about half of each journal, have to do with the visual style (it was a class about the history and aesthetics of film) of each film, which isn't really pertinent to the subject at hand.


"Plot-wise, from the very beginning, we are told that this is an unsolvable tale, but like the man listening in, we too believe we can determine the truth of it all. So we, like the man on screen, hear the four different tales. But how can we know which one is true? Do any of them have any truer elements than the others? They all share common aspects: the same characters, the same location, the same props and costumes, and sometimes similar or the same dialogue. From the bits of evidence we have, shouldn’t we be able to deduct who is telling the truth and who is lying? But then, how could we? There is nothing more honest in one of the stories than the other and none of the characters is painted as trustworthy. Like the listening man, we are left disappointed in our inability to solve the mystery in the end, and like the depressed monk, we too are left with a little less faith in humanity. But the epilogue was a comfort, and although the mystery remains unsolved, that doesn’t mean every mystery cannot be solved or that every person is untrustworthy."

and then here we have...

Do the Right Thing:

The title of the film is perfect as it is near impossible to really say that anybody did the right thing. Maybe the audience ought to do the right thing rather than any of the things we saw the characters do. Or maybe each character thought they were doing the right thing. Nobody really wanted trouble, but they all seemed to find it unavoidable throughout the day. Sal was trying to do the right thing by serving the neighborhood. Buggin’ Out thought he was doing the right thing by protesting the hall of fame, which he saw as racist. Mookie thought he was doing the right thing by enacting some kind of revenge on Sal’s for the atrocity of Radio Raheem’s death. Nobody really tried to do things wrong. But people don’t really know what the right thing to do is. They just try.

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