Wednesday, September 21, 2016

8 Mile ( Curtis Hanson)

Bad rap

The title of Curtis Hanson's latest film 8 Mile refers to the avenue separating Detroit proper and Oakland County, and is one of its roughest neighborhoods. Hanson gets the look of the area right--the liquor stores, the gun shops, the closed-down factories and abandoned red-brick houses, even the spindly, leafless trees with branches groping for the gray sky (autumn doesn't seem to exist in Detroit). I spent a few years in that city, and found it fascinating to watch people walk the streets. They never seemed in a hurry to get anywhere, nor have a particular destination in mind; it's as if they simply needed to keep moving, otherwise they'd grind to a permanent stop--
The look achieved here is consistent throughout; you'd think Hanson had been born and lived in the Motor City all his life. He's helped enormously by Rodrigo Prieto, the amazing cinematographer of Inarritu's Amores Perros, who lights interiors with a deep blue tint and shoots exteriors as if under a permanent overcast--even the rare glimpse of sky seems as wan and sickly as in my memories.

The choice of title is evocative--the boundary line between Detroit's suburbs and city proper could stand for the boundary between Purgatory and Hell; perched on that line are the characters of the movie, struggling to get over and out.

Introducing Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Johnny Smith, a.k.a. "Rabbit" (the aliases reminding me of Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie"). He's white and (despite this) a genius rapper, or so his friends keep telling us, though we get only snatches of his talent here and there (full disclosure is saved for the film's climax). When the movie starts, Rabbit is about to "do battle"--to go head-to-head with a rival rapper where, for 45 seconds each, both come up with the cruelest, most obscene put-downs of each other possible (winner determined by audience's applause). It's a silly-sounding game, and part of Hanson's achievement is in making it believable, even exciting--he does this by forsaking MTV-style editing and camerawork for a clean, coherent look (I'd love to see him do a musical). 8 Mile is in the solid tradition of films like Flashdance or Purple Rain, where a blue-collar artist's talent is put to the test, and no matter what the obstacles greatness shines through. What makes the movie different from those fantasies is that Hanson roots the melodrama in an actual time and place, and the film gains tremendous credibility accordingly.

Hanson and his writer Scott Silver are smart enough to surround Rabbit with a warren full of interesting supporting characters, from Rabbit's best friend Future (a charismatically relaxed Mekhi Phifer) to his latest love interest Alex (Brittany Murphy, lovely in a grungy sort of way). Mathers basically plays himself--mainly sullen, with eyes that radiate anger (he resembles a younger Dan Hedaya, though with a smaller chip on his shoulder). Mathers only really cuts loose in his rap scenes--then his eyes widen and his nostrils flare and he acquires vocal and physical dexterity, seemingly out of nowhere.

As Stephanie Smith, Kim Basinger is a minor miracle--she gets the part of Rabbit's childishly man-dependent mother right, down to the unsteady walk and fluttery gestures and wheedling note in her voice as she begs her boyfriend not to leave her. How much of this is based on real life? I don't know, but Salon magazine once printed an interview of Mather's real mother, who sounded every bit as unfocused and flustered as Basinger (at the time of the interview she was suing Mathers for millions of dollars--which she apparently wasn't aware of; the suit had been initiated by her lawyer).

Mather's mother may be accurate, but you might want to take the rest of the film with a block of salt. Eminem's lyrics have been accused of misogyny, and here as Rabbit he defends one of his women co-workers at a factory; he's been called hateful and vicious and here we see him tenderly kiss away the tears of his kid sister (Chloe Greenfield). Much of the film stresses how "real" Rabbit is, how he's from the streets and belongs to it, and how this fuels his artistry. At the same time, the film smooths over Eminem's less palatable aspects by having him do quiet acts of gallantry and love--all the more convincing because Hanson and Silver don't call too much attention to them. This is Eminem as he would like you to see him--complex, full of demons, but with a basically good heart; it's up to you to believe or disbelieve as you see fit.

Wouldn't know, myself; never listened to any of his songs, or seen any of his videos (my loss--or gain, depending on who I'm talking to). All I know is, if 8 Mile is a snow job it's an excellent example; kudos to Mathers for hiring Hanson (and Silver, and Prieto) to do it for him.

First published in Businessworld Jan 2003

No comments: