In some ways the question of spatial representation in film is deceptively simple. It’s tempting just to think of cinematic space as either expansive or claustrophobic, and to a certain extent this can be taken as a baseline truth. But the implications of each extreme can differ on their own continuum, with its own extremes. Spatial expansiveness, in particular, can signify the opposite of what one would imagine; it can be the sign of some thematic or narrative liberty, or it can be paralyzing.
In Slacker, for example, the suburban landscape of Austin is portrayed as sprawling and expansive, but the film’s formal structure and techniques ensure that this expansiveness is disorienting—that we as viewers never get a sense of the lay of the land, that we come away having experienced a cityscape that seems unknowable in its vastness—as a method of conveying the listlessness and dislocation inherent in the lives of its characters. Do the Right Thing, on the other hand, deploys its formal elements to create a claustrophobic atmosphere in hopes of conveying the problems in its characters’ lives, which are largely systemic, and thus more tragic than the comparable problems in the lives of Linklater’s slackers. In other words, the environment in Do the Right Thing is claustrophobic, a tangible product and reminder of the system which oppresses the mostly-minority characters who inhabit it—and whose attempts to gain some greater degree of ownership over it provide the ultimate conflict in the film—while the sprawling, minimally-identifiable landscape in Slacker serves as the backdrop for a comedy about bored, underemployed, post-collegiates, mirroring the dislocation characteristic of their malaise while simultaneously providing a reminder of the systemic difficulties which play a much smaller role in their lives.
It’s impossible to discuss Slacker without addressing its unique formal structure. The method Linklater uses—whereby the camera lingers on one person or group of people before following some other secondary piece of action or character within the current scene as the basis for the next scene—is at once circular, giving the notion of one “reality,” as Linklater puts it, being glimpsed and then taking on an unseen life of its own as it cedes the frame to the next “reality,” all within the same time frame, and tangential, zigzagging from one thing to the next in a jagged line. The camera work, in service of the film’s structure, ensures that, in a film so focused on its characters, we never get a sense of space because no space—or character—is lingered upon for long enough. Take one typical scene from Slacker. A couple finishes their talk with the local “Free Mandela” t-shirt vendor. The conversation has been filmed in something between a medium long shot and a medium close up, with the three principles crammed into the frame, up against a wall. We have no sense of where they are, except in relation to the previous link in the chain, and this dislocation is enhanced even further when the camera pans left and stays on the white wall as the couple exits screen left. As we stare at the wall, we hear the female half of the couple speaking offscreen, the sound and image mismatched to further the sense of spatial disorientation. There’s a cut to the couple continuing the conversation just begun, and in this way Linklater has drawn our focus to the couple talking, as opposed to their environment, before the image of the scene has even begun. The couple start out in long shot, but as they move towards the camera the frame quickly tightens in on them so that they’re once again at roughly the same scale they were in the previous scene. The couple continues walking as the camera lingers, eventually watching their backs as they pass the lady in Indian garb chatting with her friend. They walk a bit toward the camera, chatting all the while in roughly the same medium close scale. The lady announces that the next person who passes will “be dead in a fortnight.” A man passes and the camera follows him, turning back to the right and watching him walk, cheerful and silent, to the street corner, waiting to cross the street on the right of the screen. Here we see him in the final composition before the next cut, taking up less than half the frame on the right, in a composition dominated by a telephone pole and a metal street sign. Thus, even the few silent moments of the sequence provide no respite from the conversation with which to orient oneself in the environment; the focus is always on the characters, the dialogue. In a certain sense, this is fitting: The slackers who populate Linklater’s universe are not like those in Do the Right Thing, who, as we shall see, exist in an environment which is a perfect external expression of their oppression by the system. These characters aren’t generally burdened with any pressing need to survive economically, or at least they don’t feel like they are, although some of them are broke. They have intellectualized their own laziness, learned to blame the system entirely instead of acknowledging its faults and agreeing to split the blame 50/50: “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it,” muses the hitchhiking funeral-goer, before reminding all the “workers out there” that “every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.
This question of responsibility for one’s station in life is, obviously, even more pertinent for the working class blacks who populate Do the Right Thing, and it’s to Spike Lee’s credit that he doesn’t eschew it entirely in favor of the equivalent blaming of the system for all of the problems his characters face. But it’s important to point out that there’s very little comparison between the milieus depicted in the respective films on this question: minorities have had an infinitely more difficult time of it in this country, historically and up to the present day, and it’s also much to Lee’s credit that his aesthetic choices manage to hammer the point home with just the right amount of subtlety. One scene in particular serves to illustrate what I mean. The first comes fairly early in the movie. Immediately following the argument between Pino, Vito, and Mookie over whether Vito should hit Pino as Mookie has advised him to, everyone disperses, and there’s a shot of Turturro whispering to himself that he “hate[s] this place,” repeatedly. There’s a cut to a police car. The frame is tight, a close up of the policemen, glaring menacingly as their car crawls slowly down the block. There’s a cut to Coconut Sid in a similar close up, glaring at the camera, which again inches at a glacial pace leftward to reveal a glaring Sweet Dick Willie, who nods silently. The camera cuts back to an even more immediate close up of the white police officer glaring out his window, maintaining the eye line match that the sequence establishes, as the shot moves right and reveals the other police officer glaring. The camera cuts back to ML, glaring as well, and then a cut back to the cops, with the Italian officer leaning back so he’s seen through the back window of his car, shaking his head and intoning “what a waste.” There’s a cut back to the three men, seen together now, as Coconut Sid says the same thing, “what a waste,” and the sequence is over. The entire sequence actually takes place in the diegesis, but it’s couched in the visual and aural language of the dream sequence: the exclusive use of close ups gives the viewer the impression of direct, silent conflict between the characters, as if they were staring each other down in a vacuum, devoid of any space except the unseen gulf between their minds. The use of languid, noir-like jazz music a la Taxi Driver further enhances the nightmarish quality of the scene. And Lee juxtaposes this scene of mistrust between the police and the populace—an implicit indictment of the police, the system—with what follows: a discussion of how the Korean grocers across the street could succeed so quickly for themselves, while the blacks whose neighborhood it is are as down on their luck as ever, as ML muses that either the Koreans are “geniuses” or Blacks are just “dumb.” In this way, he’s addressed the question of responsibility for the plight of blacks with a nuanced approach, pointing out so as to examine both sides of the question, systemic difficulties versus the unknown extent to which Blacks can and must help themselves. The creation of an urban space which is a hellish dream is further enhanced by the other aesthetic choices Lee makes: the one city block used for shooting, transformed with heavy amounts of red and orange paint to create a hyper-saturated color scheme meant to visually convey a stifling, oppressive heatwave in a manner that’s anything but naturalistic; the artificial look of the lighting, which complements the color scheme towards the same end; the frequent canting, which calls attention to he film’s constructedness in a way that is almost expressionistic. They all serve to create a fever-dream-like quality that compliments the ideological explorations of the film.
In a certain sense, Do the Right Thing might as well be a play--its focus is relationships between humans, dialogue, and it takes place on a single block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And insofar as it's a film, its filmic materials and techniques are deployed in the service of this focus. The canting and the hyper-saturated colors and lighting, not to mention the lack of anything close to a long shot—indeed, the almost exclusive use of medium-to-close shots—all serve to create a claustrophobic, nightmarish, vision of urban space which enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the characters who inhabit it: it is the hellishness of the environment that, to some extent, drives the flare ups which eventually crest at the end of the film, and at the same time the characters own the environment to a certain extent: it is, in fact, the question of environmental ownership which is the impetus behind the conflict between Buggin’ Out and Sal.
In some sense, the characters in Slacker experience the opposite problem (or don’t, as their respective preferences might be). Their environment, far from being hostile and oppressive, is almost too comfortable for them, to the point where they don’t feel the need to work very hard at their own lives. The use of space in the film drives this point home: the relentless focus on dialogue and social interaction inherent in the film’s structure, with no space ever returned to, no character ever allowed to grab a hold of the center of attention for too long, means that we never get a grasp of the environment. But it isn’t as if the environment is sacrificed to character exactly. It’s more that these characters are so at home in Austin as to be one with it, indistinguishable from it, thus feeling no reason to challenge themselves in ways that might be personally beneficial to their lives, and the mise-en-scene compliments this revelation in its use of space. And if the movie succeeds in conveying this hard truth, it reaps its reward in an exploration of the comic possibilities of such a situation, such a unique social milieu, as a filmic subject.