Hang-up call

Spike Lee gets psychedelic with his mind-numbing phone-sex parable, Girl 6

The movies of Spike Lee must present something of a nightmare to the mainstream liberal mind. He's the most confrontational, radical-left political filmmaker of his time, and a personal friend of the most powerful pair of Michaels in entertainment (Jackson and Jordan) to boot. As a director, he glides comfortably--and prolifically--among television commercials, music videos, and feature films. With such unabashedly liberal views, you'd expect him to be a Democratic Party poster child.

The problem is that--despite Lee's support of many politically correct causes--his films represent some of the most misogynistic and narrow-minded attitudes toward women this side of the porno industry. While he's written numerous female characters into his films, and has helped launch the careers of more than a few notable young actresses (Annabella Sciorra, Rosie Perez, Angela Bassett), almost without exception those parts reveal a disturbingly shallow understanding of women, or--perhaps more alarmingly--an exceedingly parochial frame of reference. The variety of Lee's heroines runs the gamut from A to B: Mostly, they are shrill girlfriends; saintly, nurturing mother figures; or brave though nondescript wives. Ironically, they tend toward the critical, sarcastic stereotypes for which Lee would normally deride white filmmakers. The only aspect of his women characters that sets them apart is their consuming sexuality.

Girl 6, Lee's newest film, tracks a young actress (Theresa Randle) who accepts a job as a phone-sex operator and proceeds to dream about her professional aspirations while satisfying her callers' sexual fantasies. Eventually she becomes so enraptured by the daily role-playing routine that she gets hooked on it and begins to romanticize the seedy, disgusting dreams of her male clients.

The magnitude of Lee's folly in conceiving this movie cannot be understated. He has taken his obsession with female sexuality, a theme cast in relatively minor roles in most of his other films, and thrust it into the foreground. In doing so, Lee denies himself the luxury of being able to hide his thinly conceived female characters in subplots. The sexuality of "Girl 6" dominates the movie, so there is nothing to cut away to when her story becomes a dreadful bore. Consequently, when the film begins to fall apart (which it does almost immediately), there's nowhere for the story to go except to lurch along to an end--a task that Lee approaches with little interest or energy.

If Lee has a particular message to get across, Girl 6 is not an articulate medium for conveying it. The movie stingingly suggests that Lee is bereft of a single fresh idea. Phone sex has been tackled in films including Erotique and Short Cuts, two that wisely relegated the idea to where it belonged: in a subplot. A day-by-day deconstruction of the events that lure a person to talk dirty on the telephone simply isn't as compelling as, say, watching Travis Bickle spiral from a quiet, disenfranchised Vietnam vet into a heavily armed avenging angel in Taxi Driver.

It is difficult to muster much sympathy for the central character, partly because you can't identify with her predicament. The coda that opens and closes the film--Girl 6 balking at dropping her top while auditioning for a nude scene in a movie--might have been used to show how her experiences have helped her develop as an actress. Instead, the scenes imply that she was brave to stay the same--that living in a fantasy world of unrealistic expectations and immature notions of the acting profession is somehow healthy. (That she seems to have learned her acting techniques from bad sitcoms and blaxploitation movies doesn't help us sympathize much, either.) The thought that a phone-sex operator may be shy about her body but raw and open when permitted the anonymity of a telephone may contain a trace of irony, but nothing more; it certainly shouldn't be the basis for an entire movie.

The performance by Randle as Girl 6 almost makes the movie watchable, but not quite. Randle is an alluring and vivid screen presence; it isn't her fault that Lee has rendered her character an ambivalent dreamer with opaque motivations and little personality.

Even if Lee shows a general indifference toward the women in his movies, he normally has a few interesting supporting characters; Girl 6 has none that leaves any kind of impression. John Turturro, Madonna, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Belzer, and Naomi Campbell all turn up to deliver some excruciating cameos, and Lee himself plays Girl 6's confidant, a variation of the nonthreatening gay neighbor who turns up as comic relief time and again in badly written apartment-based dramas (Single White Female, The Prince of Tides, and countless others). The character fills no function; Lee just lets himself spout off judgmental, didactic epithets about Girl 6's career choices. That the writer-director casts himself in such a part only emphasizes the film's schoolmarmy tone.

Girl 6 resembles Natural Born Killers as told from a black woman's perspective--with the dehumanizing effect of phone sex rather than television as its target. Like Natural Born Killers, Girl 6 comes off not as stylish, but as a collection of stylistic outtakes. It's nothing but an overwrought exercise in raunchy indulgence.

Girl 6. Fox Searchlight. Theresa Randle, Spike Lee. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Spike Lee. Opens March 22.

 
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