October 28, 2008

Cult Classic Explores Hip Hop's Wild Rise

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As someone who fancies himself a movie guy, I’d like to think I’m a pretty good judge of whether a movie is essentially good or bad. That’s not to say there can never be any gray area (see all M. Night Shyamalan movies since The Sixth Sense), but usually I can walk out of the theater with a pretty good idea of where — if the world were black and white — a particular movie might fall. And then I saw Wild Style.
Even now, after thinking about it for much longer than its modest 82-minute running time, I still have no idea how I feel about it. “Did you like it?” Ehh … not really. “So you disliked it?” Well, I wouldn’t say that. “Was it well made at least?” I guess so. “But Dan, you must have some opinion about it?” Sure. It was interesting, or at least as interesting as a 1982 ode to hip-hop could possibly be for someone who: A) wasn’t born yet, and B) has never hipped or hop-ped.
I honestly don’t know how else to describe it. It was a pretty average film with momentary flashes of above-average filmmaking. Unfortunately, most of the intriguing moments and creative imagery were often overshadowed by the absence of a substantial storyline that really stripped the movie of its rhythm and made each scene seem almost like a distinct vignette. I felt like I was watching the raw footage of a pre-Do the Right Thing Spike Lee film that never amounted to anything. Sounds cool, but will I even remember watching it five years from now? A year from now?
Hailed as a hip-hop cult classic, it seemed to me that it was more about graffiti drawing and an overall black counterculture that emerged in the South Bronx at around the same time that hip hop just also happened to be catching on. Its soundtrack and star-studded cast includes hip-hop legends Grandmaster Flash, the Chief Rocker Busty Bee, the Cold Crush and the Rock Steady Crew. But the film’s main character is a young graffiti artist named Zoro (Lee Quinones) who splits his time between spray-painting cars in the subway yards at night and chasing after fellow muralist Rose (Sandra “Pink” Fabara). Although the two eventually do get together, their romance never really receives much screen time and is wildly underdeveloped. So, if it’s not really a love story, then one is left wondering exactly what genre Wild Style falls under. It definitely has hints of documentary, as it journalistically shoots various nightclub scenes and montages of graffiti-covered subway cars in a way that seems more like reality than fiction. There were also elements of a musical, highlighted by a choreographed rap number on the basketball court. One could argue it was simply a cultural study put on film. Bottom line, I’m not really sure what Wild Style is — and I don’t think it knows either.
For a film dealing with issues closely linked to underground black culture, Wild Style had very little controversial or race-related material. In fact, of the two white characters in the movie, only one is portrayed, at least initially, as an outsider. After Zoro befriends a smooth-talking hip-hop club owner Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) who promises to help the young artist’s career take off, a white newspaper reporter named Virginia (Patti Astor) arrives in search of a story about graffiti art and the hip-hop scene.
She draws attention to herself when her car breaks down and is pushed through the streets by a swarm of kids, and clearly stands out when she receives numerous glances and surprised looks at being the only white person in the club. Apart from that, the only other aspect of the film that is at all racially charged is the stark contrast between the raucous, aggressive hip-hop party scene and the very formal, stuffy atmosphere of a sophisticated apartment party in which the predominantly white characters are portrayed as extremely stuck-up, highfalutin yuppies.
The film ends somewhat abruptly with an extended concert sequence, detailing a massive hip-hop jam session at an outdoor amphitheater that was decorated with one of Zoro’s spray-paint masterpieces. Acting as the culmination of Zoro’s artistic “coming-of-age” and a celebration of hip-hop culture, the ending left me scratching my head. Was it a happy ending? Am I supposed to root for Zoro? Should I start snooping around train yards at night in search of a road to artistic salvation?
OK, OK, but you get the point. It’s possible that Wild Style went straight over my head, but it’s also just as possible that it’s a film still searching for a way to express itself. Should you see Wild Style? Sure. It won’t blow your mind, it won’t change your life or any of your beliefs or ideals, but it just might catch your eye.
Wild Style will be screening this Thursday at Willard Straight Hall at 7 p.m. Director Charlie Aheard will be on hand for the screening.