Although they are far apart stylistically, both “Late Bloomer” and “Spinning into Butter” deal with social pariahs. The first movie, now available from Netflix, is a low-budget Japanese shocker about a severely disabled man, played by just such a person, who becomes a serial killer. When the publicist wrote me about the DVD screener becoming available, I said “Great, send it along. It has to be better than the latest idiotic Batman movie”. The other movie is far more conventional and deals with racial incidents at Belmont, a snooty private college in Vermont. It opens at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in New York on March 27th, as well as Washington and Los Angeles. While there are major flaws in “Spinning into Butter”, I can recommend it as a serious attempt to deal with liberal racism at a school with an administration almost as boneheaded as my employers at Columbia University.
“Late Bloomer” sounds at first like it might be an updated version of Todd Browning’s “Freaks”, with its main character taking vengeance at those who have victimized him. Although there is some mayhem toward the end of the movie, with the main character Sumida (Masakiyo Sumida) tooling around in his motorized wheelchair looking for people to stab, it is-at least for me-much more interesting in those quiet moments when Sumida hangs out with friends, especially another disabled man who serves as his guru. Sumida’s dialog is limited by his reliance on a portable speech synthesizer, but every word produced by the device is riveting.
Sumida starts out as an object tended to by his well-meaning care-givers, including a young woman he begins to fall in love with. When he discovers that she is only interested in a heavy-metal rock musician who also serves as a care-giver, he types out on his synthesizer: “I am going to kill you”.
The great thing about “Late Bloomer” is that it defies classification. By making such a powerless figure a serial killer, director Go Shibata subverts our expectations. When the police come to arrest Sumida, I expected the standard dénouement in which the killer’s motivations are fully explained. By omitting such a pat conclusion, Shibata allows his character to live in our mind long after the film has ended-testimony to its power.
“Spinning into Butter” begins with an awful Warner Brothers cartoon based on the Little Black Sambo tale, which is a metaphor for Belmont’s faculty passing the blame from one person to the other. In the eyes of screenplay writer Rebecca Gilman, they create a blur like the tigers turning into butter.
The main character is Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, played capably by Sarah Jessica Parker, mostly known for her comic roles in movies like “Sex and the City”. She has come to Belmont to escape her last job in a mostly Black and rundown college in Chicago, where she had grown to hate not just the students, who she found rude and unmotivated, but Black people in general.
Daniels was hired by Belmont on the strength of her experience working with minority students, who serve mostly as window dressing there. One Black student tells the administrators that the only reason they recruited Black and Latino students was to be able to put them in photos in the college brochure. Despite her efforts to find herself in a preppy, mostly white environment, Daniels does not quite fit in at Belmont. She is patronized by the higher-up’s who perhaps harbor as much of a dislike for Jews as they do for Blacks and Latinos. Although the film does not identify her specifically as a Jew, the name Daniels has a Jewish ring and Parker herself, despite her last name, is Jewish. If I had written the script for “Spinning into Butter”, I would have brought this out but of course I only review movies, not write them.
The movie owes much to Spike Lee since it is an examination of racial tensions, but it is not from a Black perspective. The screenwriter, who adapted her own stage play, is white and made the correct decision not to attempt to speak for Black people.
The plot revolves around some hate crimes that have begun to take place on campus against an African-American student named Winston Garvey (James Reborn). The cops and the media begin to pour into the campus, much to the chagrin of the administration. They’d rather settle things through campus-wide forums on racism that inevitably involve the idiotic President and Dean of Faculty making patronizing and self-congratulatory speeches to the students. Things finally reach the boiling point and the minority students appear ready to blow the place up.
My main complaint with “Spinning into Butter” is its rather pat surprise ending, which I will of course not reveal. Up until that point, you are swept along in some fine dramatic confrontations among people who can’t seem to get beyond their racism, no matter their best intentions. In a way, the “instructive” ending goes against Gilman’s professed intention which was to start a dialog rather than provide solutions.