In a recent issue of the indispensable British film journal Sight & Sound, the legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard recalls how he and a band of fellow French directors created a new cinematic movement in the 1960s. "At the time of the New Wave we wanted to have our characters walk through locations we knew and respected," he tells the magazine's Michael Witt, "whereas today's directors use any old street: if you see Bruce Willis in a street, it's not because the director of the character played by Willis loves that street. In times gone by they would have used the studio. But we wanted the camera to welcome the places we loved."
Godard's words, so simple in their rapturous, personal approach to what increasingly seems to be a lost art, came back to me recently as I watched a movie that, for the first time in a long, long while, gave me the feeling of walking on air as I left the theater. "Hustle & Flow," the national theatrical debut of writer-director Craig Brewer, is the kind of movie that convinces the most jaded critic that an art form too often co-opted by moneymen and merchandisers is still capable of a heartbeat.
And on paper, it looked awful. The synopsis of "Hustle & Flow" hews to almost all the cliches that characterize every other "edgy" film with, God help us, "indie cred." It's the story of a Memphis pimp who, in the midst of a midlife crisis, decides to become a rapper and enlists his friends from the 'hood to help him claw his way to the top. Earlier this year, "Hustle & Flow" won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, which is usually an indication that a movie is something special.
Still, I wasn't optimistic as I settled into my seat at a screening of the film in June. But from the moment the film's star, Terrence Howard, delivered his riveting opening monologue -- during which his character, a pimp named DJay, explains his philosophy of life to a meth-snorting prostitute named Nola (Taryn Manning) -- it was clear that "Hustle & Flow" had that thing. That thing being the ineffable quality that allows it to transcend even its hoariest narrative conventions and be something bright and new and breathtaking, utterly of its place and time.
It's not that "Hustle & Flow," as viewers might assume, shocked with any kind of tough realism. With its story line of a little guy with a dream, guts and some talent, as well as its characters whose seamy lives all seem to hide hearts of gold, "Hustle & Flow" is as wholesome as "42nd Street" or so many Golden Age musicals. But Brewer, a playwright who grew up in Memphis, looked for artistic inspiration in the streets and people he knows and loves best. And that knowledge gives even the movie's corniest fictional tropes the stamp of truth.
From the steamy Tennessee summer to the soundtrack that lovingly blares everything from Buddy Guy to crunk, the sense of authentic- ity and atmosphere that pervades Brewer's movie is reminiscent of another stunning debut, "Boyz N the Hood," by "Hustle & Flow's" producer, Los Angeles native John Singleton. "I'm trying to do in Memphis the same thing that he's doing in South Central," Brewer has said of Singleton. "I made 'Hustle & Flow' the same way I made my first movie and my short films. I picked all the locations; I knew all the extras we were using; when we filmed at the strip club, I knew the strippers we'd cast; when we needed a bunch of cars, I knew where to go to get them. I was just making another movie in Memphis, it was just with this big crew and A-list actors coming out to do it. It had to be filmed there." Godard couldn't have said it better.
But when you apply Brewer and Godard's ethos to Hollywood, you begin to see where filming what you know can go horribly wrong. Currently experiencing a much-talked-about slump at the box office, the movie industry, too, has stuck with what it knows, and the result is as flat and artistically dead as "Hustle & Flow" is pulsing with exuberant life. A glance at the most popular movies this past week says it all: from "The Fantastic Four," "War of the Worlds" and "Batman Begins" to "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and "Bewitched," what the film industry feels safest making these days are remakes and pre-sold adaptations of reliable franchises, whether they be comic books, classic movies or the most beloved TV shows of the baby boomers' youth.
It's telling that two of this weekend's most anticipated movies, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Bad News Bears," are remakes of movies that in their day were hugely successful, not just commercially but artistically. And maybe there's a reason that "Bad News Bears" succeeds, whereas "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," while occasionally visionary in its palette and composition, seems a gratuitous exercise in Johnny Depp's self-conscious mannerism. "Charlie's" director, Tim Burton, was never a director of the streets except for the dark byways of his own hermetic imagination.
On the other hand, Richard Linklater, who re-purposed "Bears" as a Billy Bob Thornton vehicle, is very much a product of the sensibility Godard spoke of in Sight & Sound. His first two movies, "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused," were filmed in his adopted home town of Austin, and both were infused with that city's singular vernacular, from its famously laid-back culture to the weather. "Bears" sticks virtually word-for-word to the original's script, but Linklater, himself a former ballplayer, has managed to inject just enough ease and authenticity to save it from feeling like an entirely ersatz, cynical enterprise.
Linklater may not have filmed "Bears" in Austin, but in his own way he has stayed faithful to the filmmakers who first inspired him, the auteurs and outlaws who expanded the notion of cinema to include the stuff of everyday life, with all its small-scale passions and obsessions. As surprising as it is when something as fresh and new as "Hustle & Flow" can break through the market's morass of pre-masticated product, it's even more surprising when that product can turn out to be unexpectedly personal. Whether a filmmaker is wending his way through the mean streets of Memphis or the ballparks of Encino, the question, finally, is whether he is taking us to a place that he loves.