When reviewing Mary Reilly (1996), I found myself reflecting on the vast genre of the Female Gothic: stories where women face a choice between two men, or encounter dual personalities within a single man. Where the wild desire of women reaches some cautionary limit of danger – the danger inherent in an ominous, male, patriarchal world. With these models, I was dealing essentially with dramas, romances and thrillers with women at their centre, and often also directed by women. But I didn’t get much into the magical and supernatural end of the genre. I don’t just mean outright horror movies about female experience – although there are certainly plenty of them around, and they are often extremely fascinating.
No, this time around I’m pondering the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland variation, all those fractured fairytales about small girls and grown women. I’m thinking of the dream-films set in fantasy landscapes of the imagination. Anyone who is familiar with Angela Carter’s fiction, or the film that she wrote, The Company of Wolves (1984), will immediately recognise the kind of Female Gothic tale to which I’m referring. These are surreal tales with magic, innocence and wonder in the air, but also threat, the stench of decay and death. And at the centre of such stories, almost always, there’s an Alice-type figure representing the crucible of women’s daily realities and subterranean wishes. This modern Alice in a dark Wonderland goes on a journey that is both interior and exterior. As she encounters the odd places and characters of the world, her own personality – even her body – undergoes weird mutations and metamorphoses. And the gauntlet laid out for our Alice of the cities invariably promises both great delight and great danger.
I have now even encountered this branch of the Female Gothic in a movie where I never expected to find it: Spike Lee’s Girl 6. Lee’s fortunes as a filmmaker have been very uneven in the 1990s – I didn’t like Clockers (1995) much, his preachy, pseudo-thriller about crime, drugs, racism and the usual inventory of urban social problems. Lee is clearly casting around these days, experimenting with different ways of generating projects – particularly by turning to writers other than himself, as well as subject matter outside his usual beat. So, in this off-the-beaten-track vein, there was his film about family life, Crooklyn (1994), written by his sister Joie Lee.
And now, in Girl 6, he has a script from a playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks – a fascinating scenario that plunges far deeper into murky realms of a woman’s psyche than Lee has ever previously dared. As a matter of fact, I’ve often suspected a nastily misogynistic strain in Lee’s urban mosaics – expressed not so much in any inherent hatred of women, as an overcultivated tendency to judge them and pronounce on the correctness of their attitudes and actions. The part taken by white Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever (1991), with her hots for a married black man played by Wesley Snipes, was the absolute nadir of this ungenerous tendency in Lee’s artistic personality.
Girl 6 is not a perfect film by any means, and it’s not consistently dazzling or exciting in the way that Lee’s best work, such as Do the Right Thing (1989), can be. But I do think it is a lively, brave and compelling experiment from Lee; its material is unique. The Girl 6 of the title, played wonderfully by Theresa Randle, is so-named because she works at a phone sex service – or, as her best male buddy Jimmy (played by Lee himself) puts it, a “phone bone” service. As we see at the start, Girl has crashed out of attempts at getting acting work, and is also establishing herself after breaking up with a flakey, shoplifting husband (Isaiah Washington). A little note on character names in passing, which are a fine index of Parks’ literary flair: in the credits, our hero is only ever identified as Girl 6, while that husband is simply known as Shoplifter!
This is a film about fantasy: the pleasures, limits, possibilities and traps of fantasy. I cannot think of another mid ‘90s mainstream film that goes into the topic of fantasy as deeply and frankly as this one, particularly where sex is concerned. Unlike her seen-it-all, heard-it-all co-workers and boss, Girl 6 gets too much “into” her job of dispensing phone sex fantasies. “You’re not coming with them, are you?”, asks one of her comrades – and, on that point, our Girl stays tellingly silent. The phone sex trip leads her to kinky thrills, and to a whole new, liberating realm of playfulness. But it also takes her to disenchantment, after she starts pinning her romantic hopes on one particular credit-card-paying Mr Right on the other end of her line. And, eventually, it leads her into situations of outright threat, after she takes up an offer from Boss #3 (played by Madonna) to work for herself from home base.
As befits a Female Gothic story, the men in this movie are extremely interesting to study. Girl 6 has her clients, her best male friend, her ex-husband who keeps trying to lure her back. They are all ciphers and stereotypes; they have to be, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They are her imaginary projections, figures of dream and nightmare. In the line with the scary logic of the Female Gothic, the men in her mind and in her life are liable to suddenly shift from being heavenly apparitions or bearers of some impossibly romantic redemption, to being latent killers or monstrous, prudish patriarchs.
There’s only one stretch where Lee as director and storyteller seems to be easing Girl away from the reins of her own story; he starts inserting scenes and lines of dialogue that sound suspiciously like judgments, cautionary remarks directed at this modern woman who has just gone too far into the land of wanton desire and the intense yearning for liberation. But, in general, the film stays with the sensibility of its central character, with her buzziness and her fear. That fear is encapsulated in a haunting motif dotting the movie: a news report about a little girl who fell down an elevator shaft and got busted up. It’s an obvious enough Female Gothic symbol – the projection of the broken, frightened child inside the seemingly confident, commanding grown woman – but it worked for me.
Best of all, the personal and physical identity of Girl shifts with virtually each new scene, as if she is indeed Alice in a Wonderland of sexual fantasy. At work, on the phone, she tries on various looks, voices and personalities. Every time she looks different, partly because of money and the sudden experience of upward mobility, and partly just because it’s a fun and fashion thing. In her mind, in gorgeous and hilariously mounted fantasy sequences, Girl 6 becomes various screen icons of Afro-American femininity: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954), the ‘70s blaxploitation icon Foxy Brown (Pam Grier), and a teenage girl in a Cosby Show-style TV sitcom.
Then again, I think it’s a bit crazy to talk of dream or fantasy scenes in this movie – because so much of it seems to unfold in a space that is neither the real world nor pure fantasy, but some exciting, very freaky space in-between these options. Suffice to say, I believe that Girl 6 represents, for the most part, a remarkable attempt by a male filmmaker to get inside the psyche of a ‘90s woman – a psyche that is ceaselessly juiced-up, hyper-stimulated, and also freaked-out, for the usual, quite sensible and (at base) highly rational Female Gothic reasons.
Now, to take a completely different track, here’s a serious question: what do I really think of Spike Lee as a filmmaker? I’ve had intense periods of alternating like and dislike for his work, as I’ve had with Krzysztof Kieślowski or Woody Allen. Part of me has often found Lee’s films hopped-up, superficial and effect-driven – or, as that woeful journalistic cliché goes, “all style and no substance” (woeful, because there’s plenty of style which is itself substance!). Watching Girl 6, I know this just isn’t true.
But there’s been another wrinkle to my nagging problems with Lee’s work. I’ve also often thought that he’s essentially a naive director, with not a lot of craft, suppleness or variety under his belt. Jungle Fever, for instance (in my book, his worst film), is full of poorly written, weakly staged scenes in which people just bombastically shout at each other, hurling tabloid headlines of political or personal position-taking. And that kind of spectacle is the dead giveaway of an earnest but naive director – naive in the sense of naive art, primitive, always painting in large, lanky strokes. I hasten to add that some naive films can be extraordinary – but not Lee’s, when they get all hectoring, flat and monotonal.
However, after a year´s worth of me thinking that of Lee, he came out with Malcolm X (1992), which is an extraordinarily sophisticated biopic, one of the very best in that notoriously difficult genre. And when he’s working at full stretch, Lee can be rather like Martin Scorsese, deploying vast and variable rhythms of narrative event, an ocean of incidental detail, a mobile jazzy mode spread out over an epic two-and-a-half or three-hour form.
There’s another aspect of Lee’s style as a filmmaker which has been constant since his first feature success, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). It’s the aspect I find most compelling, and also the hardest to put a name to. Basically, it’s a mighty strange, almost euphoric quality of excess – an excess of style, of editing, colour, sound and music. These expressive elements keep building and spilling over in Lee’s films. Style almost becomes autonomous, with a life of its own, dancing out on its own trajectories in a “Spike Lee Joint”, as he likes to describe his movies. This euphoric excess of style is a very 1980s thing, marking Lee as a true filmmaker of his (initial) time. You see this type of excess everywhere in that decade, from wildly successful art movies such as Diva (1981) to frantic, high energy teen movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Above all, it’s in the films of Oliver Stone, which also bring out pointedly mixed feelings in me. If Lee is an artistic brother of Scorsese, he’s also, for good and ill, a brother of Stone as well.
But it’s the excess, finally, that keeps me interested in Lee, convincing me, almost every time, that we shouldn’t ever give up on him – even when he’s experimenting and failing, or falling out of cool-hip fashion for a while. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about here by discussing the music in Girl 6, which has a very particular quality. This music is by Prince, mainly old and familiar tracks like “Raspberry Beret” and “Automatic” – all the sex-related Prince songs, basically. Lee has said that he worked on the film before shooting it with a compilation tape of Prince tracks playing in the background. And that is just what the soundtrack of the film (on the film itself, I mean, not the CD spin-off) is like: an endless drone of songs on a mixtape or a playlist, as if the movie is being projected on a screen at the back of a noisy nightclub. The songs are just on all the time, bubbling away; sometimes they relate closely to the action, sometimes not, and sometimes there’s a war going on between the scene and the song.
This is, to the say the least, an odd stylistic choice on Lee’s part. But there’s some euphoric logic of mood and feeling to this strategy. To use a term from the annals of film studies, the music track by Prince is clearly neither diegetic nor extra-diegetic. In other words, it’s not music placed inside the fiction, in rooms and cars, coming from radios or Muzak loudspeaker systems or whatnot (diegetic). But nor does it have the extra-diegetic function of classical or typical soundtrack music, placed outside the fiction to underscore, amplify and comment emotionally on whatever’s going on.
The way Lee uses and places the music in Girl 6 can drive the viewer a bit crazy. In me, it created a strange high, an elation. It’s as if the music beckons off-screen to some perfect world conjured by the immaculate Prince, some world of boundless desire and colour, energy and rhythm, a world where every personal and erotic desire is effortlessly fulfilled. And, come to think of it, that’s similar to the feeling that Lee’s style, on all its levels, prompts in me. There is some tearing but also tantalising discrepancy at work here, between the hard, painful realities he shows – all the public problems and private dysfunctions, all the blocked and smashed dreams – and the pure exhilaration of his moviemaking, with all its heady excess and energy.
Don’t forget, Lee once made a musical, straight after She’s Gotta Have It. It was heavily criticised by some, but is absolutely unmissable: School Daze (1988). And no wonder he chanced his arm on such an experiment. Because musicals have always been poised between hard, real worlds and impossibly ideal ones, transporting us from one to the other on pure, sensory waves of song, dance and blissfully light and meaningless physical release. For our Girl 6, life is just this kind of precarious, highwire act. She’s dancing or spinning in mid-air between the mental image of a smashed-up little girl down an elevator shaft, and the sublime release into Utopia promised by an ultra-sexy Prince song.
© Adrian Martin 24 August 1996