After my aforementioned Spike Lee retrospective, I’m ready to make excessively-broad generalizations, each with exceptions galore, regarding how his joints tend to smoke.
When dealing with his oeuvre in the macro, two of its reoccurring features should be reckoned with: his narrative structures, and his utilization of stereotypes.
Regarding the former, his stories can feel like loosely-interconnected vignettes, with each individual vignette also told in a series of interconnected vignette-type scenes. There are so many different plot-lines and character-arcs unfolding and unraveling simultaneously, and their relation to each other isn’t totally obvious at all times. Spike oscillates between them, and develops each of them, in (I think) deliberately erratic ways.
He doesn’t believe in A-plots, B-plots, C-plots, etc., nor does he believe in moving from A to B to C within a plot. He eschews depicting the gradual progression of a story, and the development of its characters, according to the conventional pace and rhythm of movie-logic (this happens, which makes this happen, which then makes this happen, etc. etc. etc); this sort of simplistic causal relationship does not define his narrative structures, which would lend them an easily-accessible shape. If characters seem changed from scene to scene, it’s up to us to figure out why. When a storyline feels like anything but a straight line, we must decipher the calculus governing the unexpected bends and turns. Spike doesn’t draw the connections between the dots; he skips from one dot to the next. Scenes don’t show change; they show the changed, letting us consider the nature of that evolutionary (or devolutionary) process.
I’m convinced this unusual aesthetic is what leads audiences to wonder if Spike’s a master at breadth as depth, or breadth instead of depth. Another source of Spike debate: his rampant stereotypes. There’s a fine line between playing with stereotypes to make interesting points about them, with them, and merely regurgitating the tried, true, and tired. Jungle Fever is a prime example; is it a movie about stereotypes, or is it a movie that leans on cliches instead of creativity? Yet again, his movies refuse to conclusively tip their hand, forcing us to flex our cinematic card-reading…
…which might be what also leads to his perceived misogyny. He presents the sexism of the worlds he’s tackling without overtly and explicitly criticizing the displayed prejudice. Subversive stereotypes intended to subvert usually broadcast their subverting and subversions on front street, but Spike’s approach stays true to his rejection of easy takeaways (Bamboozled can be interpreted to be a self-evisceration of how much his success can be chalked up to his reliance on stereotypes).
Provocation is the name of his rollercoaster game, and even if you’re dubious of the quality of specific plays and corkscrews therein, you can’t help but be enthralled and enraptured by this perennial provocateur.