Anthony Manganaro reminisces about teenage masculinity, the East Coast, and the potential joys of being directionless in his re-view of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.
One of the most famous shots from 25th Hour is also one of the worst: a sprawling, extremely self-conscious view of Ground Zero from millionaire Frank Slaughtery’s condo about a third of the way through the movie. In a film deliberately about main character Monty’s (Ed Norton’s) memories, regrets, and the ambivalent significance of whatever constitutes the “present” in the drug-dealer’s recent fall from grace, the shot veers away from the focus of Monty’s last free day before heading to prison, instead pretending to take up an “epic,” self-reflexive gesture on New York’s post-9/11 mood.
Of course this is all supposed to be intertwined – Monty’s last day, New York’s somewhat moody, apocalyptic tone. If the film’s not about New York, you might as well say Do the Right Thing isn’t about New York, and if you think Spike Lee isn’t trying to conjure up multiple, often contradictory messages (or, in Spike Lee’s world, opinions) about his city, then you might as well have missed the point of the film. 25th Hour is about the place we call home, wherever that home may be, and Monty’s final 24 hours in this place is saturated with, well, some not such great things – shitty friends, some okay friends, sewers, drugs, too much noise – and of course some things he values, like his dog. The film’s most famous scene, one of Spike Lee’s best ever, is Monty’s famous “fuck you” rant into the restaurant mirror reflecting whatever he despises about the world around him, and it’s that particular sense of rage which drives the film. As a 16 year-old in New Jersey, this type of masculine “whining” was very appealing to me and my friends, symbolizing the ways we wished we could tell everybody off but of course didn’t. (And who could do that more convincingly than Edward Norton?) The film is consistently angry, or better yet, “pissed off,” and I think it kind of explains why, when I showed it to some older family-friends upon an eager second-watching in 2003, they kind of reacted blandly, blinking as if staring at a wall. “You see,” my mom’s 55-year-old friend said, “I just can’t get invested in a movie where I don’t like any of the characters.” It is absolutely true, upon my rewatching in 2012, that none of the characters are particularly likeable – not Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), with his cocky, almost prepubescent machismo which doesn’t necessarily come off as funny, and not the typically lovable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Jacob Elinsky, a pathetic English high school teacher who cannot even manage to express his feelings (the point, you’d think, of being an English teacher).
My particular appeal to this movie, especially now that I seem to be writing this with a certain amount of speed and anger, is that it actually rekindles how I felt in high school: repressed, mad, confused, helpless in a way. Monty and the creatures he lurks with are all relatively East-Coast: ready to blow at any moment, not exactly “at ease.” Whereas Monty does it best – again, who could do the whole “explosive but clarifying anger thing” better than Ed Norton? – you also see it simmering in his closest friend Frank, whose bubbling frustrations with his friend’s decisions slowly increase until finally expressed (with Monty’s help) in the punch he delivers Monty to weirdly mend their friendship.
The film is not necessarily humorous and isn’t particularly concerned with “what happens” – when we learn who ratted Monty out, ostensibly a “plot point,” it doesn’t really matter – but is rather a pretty heavy, serious meditation upon a very specific type of mood: dark, repressed, fueled by alcohol at 3 a.m. Like the aura of Boston in Eastwood’s Mystic River, it is no surprise the soundtrack is so crucial to the film’s texture – all I need to remember to write this review is the harrowing, somewhat apocalyptic theme song, reminding me either of funerals or whatever the entrance to hell looks like. I like 25th Hour because it just happens to be one of those films I pick off the DVD shelf and rewatch for the, oh, probably 25th time now … it works best with four or five heavy IPAs as I sink into my couch and quietly, with a complete frown on my face, follow Monty’s sinking trajectory deep into the morning after he leaves the nightclub and orders his friends to beat him up. (Real classy.) As a somewhat humorous personality and as someone who, I imagine, leads a pretty carefree life these days in Seattle, why wouldn’t I want to remember that weird, convoluted teenager that I was in New Jersey, that guy who thought Ed Norton’s “FU” rant was the coolest thing ever? 25th Hour is ultimately about the past anyway, what we choose to remember and how we choose to deal with it. It is, secondly, and I’m not sure I can say this enough, relentlessly East Coast. Nothing about my Seattle life reminds me of 25th Hour. (Nor should it.) I consider it Spike Lee’s second masterpiece, because like my first-favorite, Do the Right Thing, it is first and foremost a mood and that mood is the texture of the city he lives in. Spike Lee is a personal filmmaker who, despite his occasional forays into more mainstream material, is best when he keeps his theme at home – his home. If Do the Right Thing is a homage to his weird, almost cartoony lens of Bed-Stuy in the ‘80s, then 25th Hour is a somewhat less focused homage to his deeply ambivalent view of Manhattan more recently. It is why the Ground Zero shot bugs me so much – it just doesn’t feel personal enough. Perhaps it’s personal to Lee, but to me it feels like a “forced” shot – something which implies the sentence “let’s take in 9/11 all together.” This movie has no business being about “all together.”
So take it or leave it – 25th Hour is not the film for everybody. If it was, it wouldn’t be a good film. My mom’s friend was absolutely right – how could I blame her for not liking, and hence not “relating,” to Monty? Monty is an asshole. 25th Hour is also a deliberately male film – there’s a reason Monty has a father but no mother in the film. (Uh, it probably wouldn’t be a film.) The long, brilliant car montage to end the movie is, more than anything in my mind, a deliberately un-self-conscious bondage between father and son, and that’s why it works so well. “Guys can’t express themselves” – in this movie they do, but it sort of takes 24 hours to get there.
Today I live a pretty relaxed life in Seattle. That’s probably because I make my own decisions. If I feel like going on a run in the morning, I’ll go on a 12-mile run. If not, I’ll eat some eggs. My teaching load is light and almost exclusively under my control. (I decide what to teach.) I have no girlfriend and I have no mom to steer me, for better or for worse, into some sort of “direction.” Ten years ago, like practically all teenagers I knew, I was not in control of my life – I was still in high school, in a small town, with oddly mean friends, and with parents who made my decisions for me, all within the regurgitative, repetitive school schedule which remained consistent all year long. At 7:30 a.m. on a Friday morning I still had to go to school. So, as Monty has no choice but to go to prison, I had no choice but to do what I didn’t want to do. As a beady-eyed Calvin put it to Hobbes one morning: “Why in the world am I waiting in the pouring rain for a bus to take me to a place I don’t want to go?” Calvin, Holden, Monty, the American teen: ultimately all these movies are similar – they ask how we can be free. The angst behind Monty and the vibrating city behind him is, I should hope for other former teenagers as well, at least somewhat relatable, and if not now, then at least ten years ago.