Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
With Theresa Randle, Spike Lee, Isaiah Washington, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Belzer, and Ron Silver.
By Bill Stamets
The visual is essentially pornographic....Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world
as though it were a naked body.
--Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible
Movies are fantasy machines, their dirty motors typically hidden under shiny chrome. So when a movie like Spike Lee's Girl 6 comes along and fantasizes about the machinery of fantasy, there's a doubly illicit thrill. We're suckers for the proverbial peek under the hood.
Segueing between phone sex and movie casting sessions, Girl 6 tries to package a feminist parable in a Tinseltown fable. In past films Lee has been visually inventive and politically adept, but here he curiously miscalculates. Though he draws on The Wizard of Oz and Blazing Saddles for certain cinematic devices, they drive his wobbly plot to a highly ambiguous fairy-tale ending.
Theresa Randle plays the unnamed heroine, "Girl 6," an unsuccessful actress who excells as a performer of phone sex. Supposedly the movie deconstructs the erotic economy, but Lee creates only a slick, shallow R-rated tease, sweetened with a Prince sound track. As the film's director, Lee comes close to playing the same role as the two show-me-your-tits casting directors (Quentin Tarantino plays Director #1, Ron Silver Director #2) and talk-naughty-to-me phone-sex customers (Richard Belzer among them). Though as director Lee behaves no better than the ostensible bad guys, he assigns himself a sweet role: Jimmy, the boy next door who's Girl 6's only ally.
Girl 6 begins with a casting session that traumatizes Randle's character. She delivers the same opening monologue delivered directly to the camera by Nola Darling, the strong, sexually adventurous lead character in Spike Lee's first movie, She's Gotta Have It (1986). This time, however, the actress addresses the video camera of an edgy director, played by edgy director Tarantino, in a cameo that comes across more as an ad ("Q.T." is "the hottest director in Hollywood," exclaims Girl 6's agent) than as self-critical cinema. (Lee's social commentary in Girl 6 is uncharacteristically light, consisting of throwaway bits like Naomi Campbell, playing Girl 75, in a tight T-shirt bearing the motto "Models Suck.") Tarantino barks "Don't talk--listen" at Girl 6, then instructs her to take off her top. Here the audience's point of view slips casually between two directors--and between film and video--as Lee's camera records Tarantino's camcorder recording Randle's reluctant strip. Unlike Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), which implicated the viewers as voyeurs, Girl 6 simply humiliates Randle's character, who bolts in tears from the audition. Lee points no finger at himself for staging this titillating episode, or at us for watching.
Although Lee ordinarily likes stepping on toes and pushing buttons, his soft-core strategy in Girl 6 puts him in the camp of Hollywood apologists. Unlike the radical wing of reflexive directors like Jean-Luc Godard, whose films disarm and dissect the medium, Lee doesn't come close to demystifying his own cinematic bag of tricks. Instead he uses an innocuous, inconsistent array of filmic gimmicks to visualize the fantasy apparatus of phone sex. With negligible motivation, Lee occasionally shoots through an anamorphic lens that compresses figures into Giacometti-like proportions. The mildly disorienting effect is merely decorative.
In the press book Lee credits cinematographer Malik Sayeed (who lavished myriad visual tricks on Lee's 1995 Clockers) with a more ambitious formal device: shooting all of Girl 6's male callers on video. "The overall effect is one of diminishing each man's power," the press materials boast, claiming a feminist subtext that never quite reaches the screen. Lee, who also produced, is then quoted as saying: "Women are in control in this film because they're listening to these guys on the phone, but at the same time they're doing their nails, doing crossword puzzles or drawing pictures." Compared to old-fashioned call girls, phone-sex operators may have more opportunity for on-the-job leisure. And it's true that in Girl 6 a woman runs each of the phone-sex businesses where Girl 6 works (naturally, Madonna's character heads the nastier of the two establishments).
According to Lee's logic, the women he films are "in control" because the men who pay them can't see or touch them. But the women's customers do "direct" them in how to play their parts over the phone. And other men get to tell women like Girl 6 exactly what to do and to watch them do it. It's clear that movie directors like Tarantino--and Lee--are in control. (In fact, when Lee researched the Nola Darling character for She's Gotta Have It, he played the role of phone-sex customer, listening to lots of audiotapes of women confiding their sexual secrets.)
Because Girl 6 is distraught after exposing herself to the swinish Tarantino, a phone-sex job makes sense as a career detour: she enacts fantasies for clients who can never see her but who sound like casting directors, allowing her to recover her dignity and sense of craft. But though Girl 6 is supposedly an actress, she's not acting during phone sex: she looks as erotically engaged on-screen as she sounds over the phone. Unlike the pros in the business, she never does her nails or works on crossword puzzles on the job.
Suzan-Lori Parks, who teaches at the Yale University School of Drama, concocted the psychologically schematic script, saddling it with a half-baked Hitchcock brand of Freud. According to the press notes, Parks "uses the image of a little girl named Angela falling down an elevator shaft as a metaphor for Girl 6's descent into the darker regions of the phone sex industry." Earlier, Girl 6 aces her interview with a female phone-sex boss by supplying a seven-letter word for "a falling feeling" for a crossword: "vertigo." Girl 6 gets the job by displaying her vocabulary instead of her breasts, but why do nightmarish visions of vertigo come with her career upswing?
On numerous occasions, and again with negligible motivation, the camera simulates the angelic child's plunge from the numerologically significant sixth floor into the shadowy chasm. But Parks's script and Sayeed's cinematography are at odds. Girl 6 hears about Angela's tragic accident at the housing project on the television news. Yet Girl 6 has established video as an impure medium, the medium of dirty-minded callers and humiliating casting sessions. Does Lee imply there's something suspect about Girl 6 repeatedly tuning into the video updates on Angela's trauma? She's as obsessive about this girl as her regular callers are about her.
When Girl 6 mingles fantasy and reality, the results are unpredictable. Despite strict rules against meeting callers in person, she schedules an ill-starred rendezvous with "Bob Regular," a Texan who comes to New York on business: even though the white caller has talked to Girl 6 about his mother dying of cancer, he can't connect with a black woman who's been trained to talk white. Yet when Girl 6 journeys to a playground to visit her video icon Angela in person, handing over a check for medical bills, it's an epiphanic moment.
Fashioning deft parodies, Lee delivers less open-ended, more accessible episodes of unreality when Girl 6 indulges her fantasies of becoming an actress. First she imagines she's Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Then she's reincarnated as blaxploitation heroine Foxy Brown. Later she takes the role of the daughter in a television sitcom that blends The Jeffersons and Good Times. Just as in The Wizard of Oz Dorothy populated her dream with familiar characters from Kansas, Girl 6 casts her loyal, lovable pal Jimmy and others in supportive roles in her own dreams. Lee scripted a more literal homage to Wizard of Oz in She's Gotta Have It when Nola shuts her eyes, clicks the heels of her ruby red slippers together three times, says "There's no place like home" twice, and is transported from black and white to a Technicolor music-and-dance interlude.
Empowered by her stint as a phone-sex star (her first customer turns her on boasting about his fiscal exploits), Girl 6 resolves to chase her screen dreams again, head for Hollywood, and perform once more for both the eye and the ear. The movie carefully marks the beginning and end of her phone-sex career. After an auspicious debut of pay-per-minute panting that dazzles her coworkers, Girl 6 gets a gorgeous corsage, and her boss beams, "You broke your cherry." Lee stages another bizarre rite of passage for Girl 6's exit from "phone boning," as Jimmy calls it. Holding a bouquet of flowers from Jimmy, Girl 6 is escorted to an airport-bound taxi by her kleptomaniac ex-husband. Dressed in white and looking like wedding-cake figurines, the couple glide with quasi-miraculous grace from her stoop to the street, where they embrace for a long kiss. Evoking a postnuptial tossing of rice, telephones rain down in slow motion from the heavens and smash to pieces on the Brooklyn pavement.
Somewhere on the flight to LAX, Lee's scheme for coding fantasy visually goes awry. Switching to black and white for the first time, he depicts Girl 6 as a glamorous star arriving for a poolside appointment with an old-time studio mogul. But then Lee abruptly pulls the plug on this period shtick and puts Girl 6 back in the present, in color, and in front of another casting director's video camera. One more time Girl 6 attempts the lines from She's Gotta Have It, but the director tells her to do a scripted scene with a pizza delivery boy that calls for him to fondle her breasts.
Girl 6 walks out, dropping the pages of her script disdainfully behind her. Although her prospects are no better now than after her last demeaning audition, at least she's not retreating in tears. In the flimsy feminist punch line, the uncastable actress steps over Dorothy Dandridge's star on Hollywood Boulevard. She crosses the street toward Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where the marquee announces that Girl 6 is now playing. Clearly she's not in Kansas anymore: her fantasy has been fulfilled. Her name, or rather her number, is up in lights. As the camera cranes upward, we spot a billboard down the street that reads "The End."
Here Lee borrows from the ending of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, where the cast of a cowboy movie crashes through the studio walls and the stars hurry into Grauman's to watch Blazing Saddles and see how the movie ends. Brooks's farce spirals off the screen with self-conscious aplomb, but Lee draws his lines between fantasy and reality without much confidence and with only a sketchy logic.
The ending of Girl 6 might even be taken as a muddled slam against the perils of fantasy. Traumatized by sleazy movie directors, an upright actress first gets sucked into doing phone porn, then flips out into the delusion that she's starring in a Hollywood movie. Beware the movies, girls: you could go out of your mind. This is also the apparent moral of The Star Maker, the latest film by Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore. An itinerant con artist peddling 1,500-lira screen tests gives Sicilian villagers the fantasy of starring in the movies. Then an orphan who makes ends meet by selling men peeks at her breasts takes his dream of escape so seriously that she ends up in a mental hospital.
Or maybe Lee's offering a sugary, upbeat Hollywood-style happy ending: Girl 6 never submits to those nasty, sexist movie kingpins yet triumphs over all the odds to star in a sugary, upbeat movie with a happy ending. Of course, this "feminist" affirmation of the young woman's artistic integrity requires Theresa Randle to bare her breasts to Lee's camera and allow John Cameron Mitchell--who plays an actor auditioning for the part of a pizza delivery boy--to fondle her breasts.
As fantasy machines, movies seduce millions of ticket buyers into feature-length vacations from the daily grind. They also function as billboards, recruiting a workforce from among the more dreamy fans, just as utopian army ads entice underachieving civilians to be all they can be. And ever since Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich made The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra in 1928, the fantasy of working in the celluloid dream factory has inspired celluloid fables on the subject like The Star Maker. But Girl 6 isn't what we'd expect from Spike Lee: after exhorting his fans to wake up in his early efforts, he now tempts them to hang up.