Wednesday, July 02, 2008

RIZE: excerpts from the essay

      In its final incarnation... the brief (84 minutes) documentary is LaChapelle’s worshipful look at the origins, participants and multiple meanings tucked within krumping – a raw, frenetic, hip-hop derived / African rooted style of dancing that blends sharp-focus athleticism with unbridled personal catharsis. On the surface, this counterculture dance form is violent and hyper-combative; it’s like watching a ballet performed atop a field of live grenades. It’s also a gritty new link in the cultural chain that stretches from break-dancing battles and the hip-hop cipher to the competitive balls and familial Houses of vogueing. Like its predecessors, krumping flowers from the shotgun marriages of class struggle and race, imagination and ambition. There’s a lovely, moving depth of spirit inside the hardcore outlines of its practitioners who furiously pump, pummel and stomp against erasure and invisibility.
      The film opens with black & white newsreel footage of the 1965 Watts Riots; a plaintive Negro gospel song accompanies images of the enclave burning. Cut to: video footage of Los Angeles’ 1992 Rodney King riots, at which point the movie segues into color. The camera zooms in on a trio of black girls who have a fourth bent over the hood of a car as they seem to deliver blow after blow to her body. But as you watch, the violently swung arms loosen and wave jubilantly. The three assailants begin to playfully jump up and down and are soon joined by their laughing “victim.” Encapsulated in that cheekily recreated performance of Rodney King’s LAPD beat-down is a layered metaphor for the Negro experience in America. Rize teases that metaphor of the transformation and transcendence of the historical violence inflicted upon the black body – representing both its corporeal self and the Negro spirit – into a movie that’s naggingly flawed. It swoons with adoration for its young black subjects, so much so that it’s almost impossible for the viewer not to get swept up in the giddiness of the love affair.
      The strength of the film lies in both LaChappelle’s intelligent capturing of the hyper-kinetic, sexy dancing and in his simply letting the cameras roll as the kids speak on the world around them. To achieve the former, the director largely eschews MTV-style fast-paced edits and showy camera work, realizing they’d not only be redundant but would actually short-circuit the power of the dancing. (The film begins with the disclaimer: “The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way.”) Having absorbed violence, loss, indifference and assorted strains of pain, and working from a vocabulary of percussive hip-hop movement that has been honed into something both new and eerily ancient, the dancers bounce it all back with so much force and joy-inside-my-tears defiance that they don’t need any technical assists. The jaw-dropping special effects are already part of their personal software, so steady wide-shots, medium shots and a few carefully chosen close-ups do the trick. From the salacious hip/ass/pelvis grinds of the “stripper dance” (which the more macho guys sneer at) to the darker, poetically assaultive moves of krumping, the dance sequences in the film are often dizzying.

      Without putting too fine a point on it, krumping could be described as a faith-based movement – faith in the Divine, faith in self, faith in the divinity of self. The film opens with a gospel track, closes with Edwin Hawkin’s “Oh, Happy Day” and has an a capella version of “Amazing Grace” sung at a crucial moment in the film’s center. The movie is thick with talk of God and spirituality, only becoming cloying in a church sequence (set to an extended version of Lauryn Hill’s gospel-infused “Tell Him”) in which Dragon puts aside his street-hewn gift for krumping to perform a pseudo modern-dance routine before a church congregation (think Thelma, from Good Times), seemingly under the mistaken belief that the traditional, socially sanctioned dancing is a more fitting form of prayer than is his own means of expression. At another point in the film, a girl collapses after dancing an especially fierce krump session. The crowd is delighted, with one boy explaining, “She just struck [had her spiritual epiphany/breakthrough]. That’s what we been waiting for.” At one point, Dragon says directly to the camera, ‘In the midst of krumping, there is a spirit.'”

      What keeps Rize short of the classic status that’s just within its reach is its director’s refusal to go deeper into issues of politics, history and the assorted ways that oppression really works in America. It’s so determined not to risk discomforting the viewer, to not disrupt the easy flow of its feel-good uplift (though it does brake for tears) that it pointedly sidesteps the opportunity to link crucial political and cultural dots. To that end, LaChapelle made the decision early on to forego using social analysts and cultural critics in order to let the kids speak the world as they see it.
      “I was going after something else,” he says thoughtfully, “and I needed to just be really clever on how I did this film. Because if I did an academic film, if I did a political film that was really overt, the kids aren’t gonna see it. I needed to do it the way I did so that people could go to the theater and see it, number one, and fall in love with what they’re seeing – to find some heroes and find some inspiration. I had no desire to make an art-house film. I wanted to make something popular, that kids would go see. If suddenly I had put in there someone to break it down with expert advice or opinions or statistics, it’d have been a different film.
      “I understand what you’re saying and I know there are some people who wish the film would be more political, but it’s really difficult to do a popular film that is very explicit in its politics. You have to be [he pauses]… I wanted kids to go see this film. The bigger picture for me, too, is that these problems exist in the ‘hood and there are many documentaries and articles written about them. But has that really called people into action? Has it really changed anything?”

      ...To reiterate, it’s the failure to fully contextualize that place which hamstrings the film. Watts burned in ’65 not because that’s simply what Negroes do, but because industry and income had been taken out of the area, replaced with… nothing, save mounting frustration and despair, which were exacerbated by status quo police brutality. The years following that unrest were filled with broken political promises and pointed indifference. By the time the riots went off in 1992, a culture of deprivation and defeatism had taken hold in the hood – not in all residents, but in enough to cast a powerful pall. Rize ends up short-changing LaChappelle’s adored subjects, their struggles and their triumphs, by not fully mapping out all that they are up against.
      The recited litany of ‘hood ills, and even the heartbreaking footage of yet another black mother weeping over the senseless death of her child, dissolves into the white noise of cultural cliché despite the painful truths they contain. It’s the downside / reductive impulse of the old progressive war cry, “The personal is political,” where individual narratives are placed at the foreground but boiled down to a laundry list of “effect” with little or no serious attention given to “cause.” That’s especially crippling in a film that purports to celebrate an art form that springs from (and is an act of resistance to) the American cultural / historical / political apparatus of racism and poverty.
      Without critical grounding and analysis, the ghetto becomes this self-created / self-sustaining (and, of course, self defeating) entity detached from history and the machinations of larger, more powerful forces. It becomes a tool for authenticating the grit of a cultural commodity without forcing the shopper to appreciate real costs. In truth, the kids in Rize are doing battle with thriving legacies of bigotry and mutated / mutating consequences of prejudice. They’re up against not only the racism and white supremacy of white politicians and their multi-ethnic/multi-racial gate-keepers, but the ineptitude, corruption and cowardice of Negro politicians and leaders as well. The ghetto is no accident and it’s not just a by-product. It is gardened and maintained.

Copyright 2008 By Ernest Hardy

Complete essay can be found in Blood Beats Vol. 2: The Bootleg Joints

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