Having just re-watched Stephen Verona’s The Lord’s Of Flatbush, I was shocked by two things. First, it’s simply an excellent little film. I was able to pick up on many details that eluded me when I was younger, which probably means that I’ve grown as a critic and artist. Second, it has garnered pretty average reviews, and although it deals with a similar problem – a few losers trying to grow out of adversity – it is vastly superior to Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (The Hate), which suffers for being precisely what Lord’s isn’t: didactic, heavy-handed, and unable to balance the film’s anomie with good narrative. La Haine simply goes on and on through pointless scenes and dull conversations where Lord’s makes this palatable by giving its characters depth, irony, and poesy – even if they themselves are too dumb and immature to see it. They get in, get out, and linger only to deepen things within their purpose. After all, a good director does not simply drop characters into a fictive world only to record every boring detail, like the endless string of corny jokes in Haine, or the all-alighting prose of a Toni Morrison. There needs to be a filter that guides whatever’s interesting and deep TO the screen, and only then can the viewer’s imagination truly play off of it. Thus, in Lord’s, it’s really a matter of economy, where Verona truly shines. Give the mind a few strong images, seeds, and threads, and watch them grow to peaks the director only hints at, which only seems to deepen the visual experience the longer you are away from it. La Haine doesn’t trust the viewer enough to be able to do this, and by trying to explain every cliché it throws at you, becomes its own worst explanation.
La Haine follows a day in the lives of Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, three friends of Jewish, Arab, and African origins living in the housing projects a bit outside of Paris. After their friend Abdel is brutalized into a coma by the police, Vinz riots with the rest of the neighborhood, finds a police officer’s gun, and keeps in order to “get revenge.” The movie opens to some overlong footage of rioting while KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police” ridiculously plays in the background – Kassovitz really wanted to set the film against a hip-hop backdrop, even if, apparently, the clunky and obvious song choices make the artistry all the worse for it. But, La Haine is also “socially aware,” and what better way to express that idea than to shift to Bob Marley’s “Burning And Looting” for the remainder of the riot? Again, I don’t see how the director failed to mark the obviousness of these audio choices and, even worse, failed to amend them. Thus, just a few minutes in, we already get the basic problems that will plague the film’s remainder, which is especially frustrating given the (very) few “high” moments here.
For example, a much better scene follows the riot as an inert, dazed Saïd scripts some graffiti while cops abound and Marley’s song plays quietly in the background, as if through a distant megaphone. It is THIS that should have started the film – the fact that it sounds almost as if the cops are playing a protest song is not only interesting, but, more importantly, gives a very surreal quality to the riot’s aftermath. It’s wonderfully ethereal, appropriate, and touches a deeper, less logical part of human experience. As a complement to violence, anger, and poverty, it really works. But, I don’t know if Kassovitz truly realized this himself, or simply hit a bulls-eye while wearing his own biases for a blindfold. If the film’s many misses are any indication, he simply got lucky and went groping for more.
And so he gropes mostly downhill, in a barrel, from here. Saïd runs to Vinz’s apartment, bullshits with his sister, takes/gives some insults, and hears Vinz’s grandmother complaining that the Jewish young man no longer goes to synagogue while a shirtless Vinz melodramatically plays out Taxi Driver’s famous “mirror” scene and pretends to shoot a cop. If Vinz is not fully stereotyped to your taste as an angry, irrational, irreligious loser by the scene’s end, don’t worry – there’s much more of the same in the film’s remainder. As the two friends joke about nothing particularly interesting, witty, nor relevant to the movie’s axis, the scene changes to Hubert’s boxing gym. It was burned down the night before and Hubert is upset. The three depart with Vinz bragging about the riot: “You should have been there, man, it was a war against pigs in living color.” Saïd is indifferent to Vinz’s (and really, the film’s) now-rampant platitudes, and Hubert, the wise African who is often looking distractedly to the horizon, shakes his head.
They get to some rooftop barbeque where Saïd steals a hotdog and bullshit with the guys. Vinz reveals his “guilt” over never having done time in jail. As the inner poseur comes out, he naïvely confesses he’d love to lift weights and take long naps in prison. Hubert, in top Griot form, cuts him down with rudimentary logic and banalities no film of intellectual import should ever have to entertain. And this is another issue here. I was a political activist as a teenager, and given what I’ve long known of the radical left’s debates on the role of police, criminals, revolution, etc., the trio’s disagreements just get so tiring – it’s merely surface debate, and I know this from experience. Kassovitz simply does not know how to crystallize these issues in a complex and interesting way, for Vinz is locked in this expected, hackneyed, silly struggle through the entire film, and his two friends are merely intellectual counterpoints. Sure, they each have their own personalities, but no character is truly fleshed out, at all. They are here ONLY to propel the pet ideas of Kassovitz, a sure guarantee of artistic failure.
As the scene draws to a close, the guys see “Mr. Mayor” below, and curse and throw stuff at him because he’s an authority figure and thus symbolizes their oppression. Deep, huh? After they bully some cops off the roof, they go elsewhere so that Saïd could brag about having sex with a woman who “kept screaming for more and more,” while the guys rag on the virginal young man. And this, I guess, is supposed to symbolize that a lot of empty bragging goes on in such hyper-masculine subcultures, something the director figures has never really been explored in one of the foundations – hip-hop – of the film. And yet, it has, which is why the film necessarily panders to the obvious, and why getting hit over the head with such is so boring.
In one of the film’s worst scenes, a reporter spots the youths and naturally assumes they were involved in last night’s riot. In fact, she doesn’t even give them time to answer either way, but follows it up with another brilliant question: “Did you smash things or burn cars?” No pacing, no break to let ANYTHING “settle in.” Of course, Saïd and the rest of the gang get defensive over such blatant discrimination and curse at her until she leaves, but not before the camera catches them like monkeys in a zoo, making faces, gestures, and throwing shit, which will eventually broadcast to “real” French citizens what these Muds are really like. If you didn’t “get” that A-rabs are misunderstood, you will now!
But now they need money. They go up to some guy’s apartment who’s upset that his car was burned down in the riot. He tells them that’s all he had – he needs the car for work – and that their selfish rioting destroyed him. But, they simply laugh things off and demand money. Even the Griot joins in on the laughter and comes a bit out of character, which shows, I guess, “how deeply de-sensitized to human suffering we have all become in the face of poverty, violence, and injustice.” OK, Matthieu – got it!
Later, Vinz says he wants to kill a random cop to “even the score” and chides the two for shaking an officer’s hand, even though the cop was nice to them. Another scene involves the trio bullshitting again while a breakdancer shows off. It’s not deep, but the long take of the dancer really mesmerizes the viewer even as his audience suddenly runs out to watch a violent scene unfolding outside, leaving a shot of the dancer spinning on his head. If only it had more of these moments, it could have been, at the very least, a technically interesting film with some innovative elements, even with a weak script or dearth of ideas. The problem is that with a title like Hate, it’s hard to play off of it in a way neither clunky nor obvious, for good symbolism becomes difficult to achieve.
The final good scene, however, really throws the best moments together – at least for a while. As Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert are at the urinals in Paris, waiting to see “Snoopy” about a debt, an old man suddenly comes out of a stall and declares that there’s “nothing like a good shit.” The trio is shocked, but he continues with a story from his Siberian labor camp years. As he and his friends would defecate while hovering between train carts, one of them was ashamed, and would always wait for the train to make an unexpected stop, then jump for the bushes. One day, the train pulled away too soon. The poor guy had to run after it, his legs obstructed by the pants dangling off his waist as one hand held them up, and the other reached out to the old man. But, you have to make a choice here – you can’t hold your pants up with one hand, reach with the other, and RUN while juggling these two possibilities. Thus, because of his shame, the friend got left behind and probably froze to death. It’s a funny story with an unexpectedly poignant end, and can be taken on several levels. But, it’s also ruined a bit by Saïd’s wondering, aloud, why the old man decided to share this. He plays up too much to the film’s “dumb ghetto Arab” motif and thus relegates the story to a kind of top-down symbolism, as if Kassovitz is reaching into this universe to prop it up, and you see the hand, the veins, and all the machinations.
After a mishap with “Snoopy,” they get beaten by cops, miss the late night train from Paris, bullshit about Tom & Jerry, Roadrunner, and other cartoons, only to end up at some snobby late-night gallery show whose “art” includes a few pieces of white paper rolled up in little shapes and a tiny sculpture of a cartoon puppy. They try to hit on a few of the upper class ladies, get kicked out, and spend a few minutes arguing about who farted. In Lord’s, the losers get looked down upon, too, by a wealthy jeweler – yet there, the discomfort is really palpable in his body language, the awkward silences, etc. Here, it’s merely agitprop as they’re soon back in the metro with a long shot of escalators. The scene is nicely symbolic for a few seconds but is ruined by Hubert’s interjections. In “the system,” he says, the people are just “sheep” carried along, “just like on this escalator.” And there you have it – if you were too dumb to get the symbolism, as Kassovitz assumes, the director will readily hand it to you on a silver platter, like a fine aged wine skinned of its beautiful label, but with the year, color, and brand etched into the glass by the waiter’s rusty knife. Not only is it condescending, but Hubert’s explanation really locks you into ONE interpretation of the symbol. Yet, although there are many I was able to sift through before Kassovitz interrupted, I now only remember his. In effect, the film becomes lesser in the memory as time goes by, precisely the opposite effect the director is straining for. If artists could merely trust the connoisseur, a lot would fall into place on its own.
As the movie comes to an end, they all get jumped by skinheads and Vinz pulls out his gun. He’s ready to kill one, shouts that he’s going to prove he’s somebody, after all, and is mocked by Hubert, who eggs him on to do so. But, Vinz sees the bleedingly pathetic sight before him and resists the urge to shoot. As they get back home, Vinz gives the gun away to Hubert, who turns his back to a cop car harassing his friends. A cop playfully points his gun at Vinz, accidentally kills him, and Hubert returns as the two now point their weapons at each other while Saïd watches in horror as a gunshot (whose? does it matter?) makes him wince. This is where “hate” gets you, and the place, apparently, ain’t no good. The banality of its finish keeps the movie from even being an OK film, much less the unbelievable 100% positive rating it’s garnered on aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes. I wonder how many of these reviews are based on fashion, on raw emotion over things that seem “novel” to most, but formulaic to me, who’s heard the same arguments, songs, and agitprop since I was a kid, and thus can see when the purported art is sidelined by its politics. I’m perfectly willing to say this film has some good qualities, but being a good film, in its whole, is simply never one of them.
Given all of this, it’s ironic that The Lord’s Of Flatbush has gotten many negative reviews decrying its immaturity and anomie. In reality, the characters in Lord’s are no less immature, nor the situations any more banal, than those of La Haine. The difference is what Verona is able to reveal of these characters, explicitly or not. Consider what TIME Magazine’s Jay Cocks had to say about the perceived “failure” of Lord’s: “The movie is adept at portraying aimlessness, getting at the greasy anomie that was so much a part of that time. But there is a lack of ambition, as if no one involved in creating the film wanted to cut deeper than a little double-edged nostalgia.” Not to be outdone in carelessness, Variety offers that “…not too much finesse distinguishes the script, which carries neither warmth nor particular interest for the various characters.” And I can, sadly, see why many might think this. Lord’s, from its characterization down to its music and ideas, is pretty subtle, and requires viewers to read between the lines with the hints they’re given. Most would prefer Kassovitz because there’s not much thinking required, as it’s done for you. Not thatLord’s can’t be enjoyed on a purely visceral level – it can – but if a film purports to be about anomie, it cannot be all surface, or else it will end up being La Haine. It’s a fairly easy task to dispatch the two quotes, above, and it’s not even necessary to refer to them. It’s enough to simply discuss the film in plain, unpretentious language, and watch its depths foam over, on their own accord.
Verona knew he was taking an ironic look at growing up in the ’50s (just look at the ridiculous trailer, which highlights some iconic images of the era with silly rhymes) and gave it a depth and subtlety not really seen in similarly “pointless” movies – La Haine included. As the film opens, for example, you see four losers in leather jackets standing in front of their Brooklyn high school, harassing passersby, kissing their girlfriends, and smoking. They’re a gang (hence the film’s title) and simply do what’s expected of them, down to the silly behavior here. As all of this is happening, an upbeat love song plays. It’s neither precisely ironic nor exactly appropriate, but somewhere in the middle. Yes, there’s romance in the scene, but there’s also downright stupidity, as well as the self-conscious, exaggerated mockery of another era’s aesthetic. The scene ends with the losers going upstairs to the main entrance as the Pledge Of Allegiance sounds in the background, another ironic and dare I say political touch, without resorting to agitprop. Now, is any of this truly deep? I doubt it, but at the very least, it’s an effective set-up, does not wallow in its own [empty] purpose (unlike the 5-6 minutes of empty rioting in La Haine), and does a lot with music. And all of the music, by the way, was written and performed for the film. Oddly, my knowledge of this ’50s artifice enhances the film a little, since we know it’s all being reconstructed for comment. This utterly pervades the film without disrupting the shroud of reality, an example of how artifice can help art, if done appropriately. It’s not the artifice of La Haine’s violent symbolism, and the characters’ predictable reaction to it, but is there to gently explore its own purpose.
The next scene is quite brief, but does a lot to introduce these guys as kids – students in high school who otherwise appear in more adult situations are, from this point on, branded as adolescents, and everything that entails. They clown around, make their horrid, profoundly uncomfortable teacher even more miserable, and refuse to settle down. As Stanley (Sylvester Stallone) is kicked out of the classroom, you get to see that apostrophe on his jacket – “Lord’s Of Flatbush,” instead of “Lords,” a nice, comical touch that adds a bit to the scene and further characterizes this “gang” of (more or less) harmless dummies. In Haine, any kind of comic relief is not pointed, but blandly outlives its purpose – excessive joking, etc., thus forgetting its role in the rest of the narrative. Next, you get the first real sense of violence as one of the losers, Wimpy, plays pool with a guy who used to be in a rival gang. The tension falsely explodes as the rival looks ready to stab Wimpy, but is merely gesturing to the hanging jacket: “The Lord’s? – Is that some kind of club or something?” And yet, Verona knew the gesture evoked violence, lacked closure, and thus only added tension to the scene. It’s a nice touch, and beyond most films dealing with this kind of subject. Nothing overt, no dramatic Bob Marley song to artificially set the tone, but a good detail that seems to control the rest of the scene.
Chico takes his girl, Annie, to Coney Island as a syrupy love song plays. She asks to go “someplace classy, like the Rockettes” the following night, he agrees, undresses her, and a few seconds later, Annie complains, “Aw Chico, you made a mess” as the song renews with great vigor. That night, Chico calls Jane, the new girl in school, and they go to the very same place on his bike as a less tender but more triumphant love song plays – again, ironic, given the infidelity, but you definitely get the idea Chico, in his immaturity, is falling for Jane. It’s interesting to watch Verona play with the prudish and syrupy representations of the era, and use the stereotypes in a completely opposite context. It allows these “sentimental” scenes to rise above themselves, and all it takes is a little tweaking of the music and juxtaposition of scenes. Yet, most artists would never even think to do such.
The first really good scene, though, involves Stanley and his girlfriend, Fran, who angrily stares at him in a pool lounge. As he’s playing by himself, she informs him that she’s pregnant – again, in typical ’50s-speak (“my friend is late!”), nicely set off against the scene’s gravity and dinginess. Stanley ignores her, but eventually says, nonchalantly, and to the pool stick, “Tell me who the guy is and I’ll kill him.” Fran knows he’s simply being immature, and yet, she’s used it, and doesn’t react much. The quiet reinforces his claustrophobia as a long take falls on their faces and Stanley tells her he “knows someone who takes care of these things.” It’s moving, but not in a way that makes you root for him – no viewer could really give the guy much empathy. And yet, being a father is, apparently, a serious problem in his universe, which is not so empty now, not so void with smoking, bullshitting, and fighting, and the uniqueness of his nervous gestures and movements really shows this. Stanley brushes Fran aside again, informing her that she’s too skinny to be pregnant, anyway, as she sadly fiddles with her wallet against the pool table. It may seem “purposeless,” but, in fact, this is how real people behave. The brevity only makes it all more pointed.
As they settle on marriage, the two girlfriends are in a jewelry store, looking at rings and talking in a sharp Brooklyn accent. The jeweler appears amused as Fran wonders about confessing to a priest about her pregnancy. Annie reassures her that it happens all the time, and offers without a hint of sarcasm: “Why do you think she’s called Our Lady of 1,000 Sorrows?” Yes, they are that dumb – and, ironically, it takes smart dialogue, like this, to make it apparent. They put a $1600 ring on layaway as the jeweler condescendingly tells them he won’t sell the ring to anybody else.
Chico, meanwhile, gets nothing after meeting Jane’s parents. He says he loves her, she refuses, and they look away from each other and watch banal commercials for instant coffee. He runs off in anger to Eddie’s diner and hangs with the rest of the group, only to get annoyed with Stanley’s banter. Chico and Stanley get into a “play fight” that seems a bit too aggressive – the first sign in the film of resentment between the two, especially from Chico’s side. They sit down at separate tables as you watch Butchey’s (Henry Winkler) character come out in subtle ways. He doesn’t speak, but smiles a lot and has a genuine calming effect on Chico, especially when Annie comes by to bother him about spending more time with her. Chico tells her that he’s been doing his homework, and Butchey interjects: “You think it’s easy keeping up that average?” Annie dumbly chews her gum as the same song from a few nights before is playing – “Even if you hurt me, I’m ready to forgive” – and reaches its peak as they both break out in laughter, and shoo the girl away. Yes, Butchey is being a “wise guy” throughout the scene, and yet he’s also good-natured, funny, calm, enigmatic, and ready to quell Chico’s emotions – emotions that Chico is simply too dumb and immature to fully understand. It’s no surprise that Chico seems to always confide in Butchey, even if Chico cannot articulate himself, and why there’s a great sense that, down the line, Butchey will drift apart from the rest of the pack. It doesn’t have to happen on screen, either, for it simplygrows on you. And this is what I mean by the viewer being forced to use his brain. There’s a lot to this scene. Verona gives you a lot to work with, but also, unlike La Haine, leaves quite a bit to the imagination, too, by leaving some of the strongest accents unsaid. And I do NOT mean “unfleshed,” but unsaid – there is a difference, and it’s usually the difference between good and bad art.
Chico gets another chance with Jane and blows it once again. Although Jane is semi-nude, he’s unable to go much further because she starts to cry. Jane does not want to talk about it, but against all reason, Chico insists. It’s obvious he really likes her now but has not the brains to really show it, nor know enough to leave her alone. He ends the long take on their faces with “I’ve never seen a broad get so upset at a movie before,” thus completely sealing their fates.
In frustration, Chico asks to come up to Butchey’s room in the middle of the night. Butchey is sitting on his bed and drawing. He is an artist, but Verona doesn’t dwell on this. In fact, if he had, it would have been a cliché, for this would have completely explained Butchey’s “aura” in typical symbolism instead of giving him more of that enigma. Again, mere hints are enough as Chico sits on the chair next to his friend’s bed and is obviously distracted, saying nothing or ridiculously asking to dump the car they stole the day before. Butchey says it’s late, and Chico weirdly accuses him of anger – another sign of Chico’s upcoming collapse. He lies back and suddenly says “Jane!” Butchey is not surprised, smiles, and asks if he’d like to talk about it, but Chico, not the introspective type, really has nothing to say. Butchey asks him to leave, then, a sign that Butchey, for all of his good qualities, is not completely mature, either, for he cannot read his friend’s true distress, nor articulate anything for him. That talent is only for himself. It’s an excellent scene, for you see the follies of each character crystallizing the other’s, and, ultimately, the lack of true closure in the film’s remainder.
But by far the greatest scene, and likely the best five minutes of Stallone’s career, is near the film’s end. Stanley is in a pigeon coop as Chico comes up to see him, the first time the two are alone together, and thus not censored by Butchey’s rippling calm. Stanley is obviously thinking about marriage now and considers what to do. He wonders, aloud, if he should get Rhode Island chickens because “they’re supposed to lay good eggs. I figure I’ll sell them around the neighborhood and when they get fat, I could eat ’em!” “Yeah, man, you could support your family, huh?” Chico retorts. Stanley, a city-bred punk, ridiculously mentions he has the “country blood” for it, and that while Chico is busy “screwing around” on his motorcycle, he’s up in his coop, reading. “Reading what?” Chico asks, with an angry, heavy smirk. “Maps! I figure it this way. The more maps you read, the more you know about where you wanna go.” It is, again, ridiculous andbecomes poetry by the very fact –they’re not in Tokyo, as Stanley claims, or anywhere else except up on a roof, standing on “pigeon shit.” Stanley, unconvincingly, tells Chico he needs to only use his imagination to REALLY go places, but Chico smirks again, the smirk of a man who has no dreams and resents Stanley for even aspiring to anything greater than what he really is: a nobody. It’s said that Richard Gere originally played Chico’s part, that Stallone hated him, and that Verona recycled all of the lines, gestures, etc., originally from Gere and Stallone’s improvisations – likely a reaction to Gere. It’s not hard to believe, either, for these seething resentments, scowls, and downright nastiness follow Chico for the entire film and never come out as well as they do in this great scene. Chico, after being rebuffed by Jane forever, understandably goes after Stanley. And it’s really through his lunatic scowl that I’ll recall Chico’s character years later.
It’s instructive to compare the endings of both films. While La Haine is heavy-handed, with every loser, well, losing, there’s a far more subtle and poignant loss in Lord’s. The film ends with a very happy wedding – even Chico is there, perhaps reconciled with Stanley. And yet, despite the wedding, there’s really more it. To me, there’s obviously no real closure, no guarantee of anything for the gang whatsoever. Stanley is an empty dreamer and it’s hard to imagine any real success for him, while Chico is simply empty, heartbroken, disturbed, and bitterly resentful of anyone who tries. Wimpy is a punk, and Butchey will inevitably become the artist Lord’s merely hints at (Butchey is based on Verona’s real-life experiences) and drift apart from all of them, to a kind of life they simply cannot even conceptualize. Again, Verona does not make any overt declaration of this, nor hammer any such idea anywhere. Yet, if you think about the film’s characters and their probable trajectories, I think such loss is probable, and the sadness really there. The final song – excellent, poignant, and full of haunting lines – only works to reinforce these ideas.
I had to re-watch La Haine to solidify my criticisms, but man, what a difference! I realize my review of La Haine is short compared to Lord’s, and doesn’t probe the characters too deeply, but that is from simple necessity. Only one of these films gives enough material to talk about, without regurgitating the same criticisms, and only one of these films actually has a bunch of losers that can really stick through the very end. I’d recommend Lord’s to anyone who enjoys great characterization and nostalgia for an era that NEVER was.
[This review first appeared on the Cosmoetica website, on 10/31/10.]