Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Kobe and Spike

I've always thought that even Spike Lee's failures tend to be relentlessly interesting, but I have to agree with the general assessment (made by Bill Simmons, among others) that Kobe: Doin' Work is both the dullest and the most uncomfortable film he's ever made. In case you missed the worldwide cable television debut, here is the idea: Spike chases Kobe around for a day, toting a phalanx of cameras, gaining unprecedented access to a locker room full of teammates who seem highly amused by this whole notion, and then Kobe steps in months later (on the night of his 61-point explosion against the Knicks at the Garden) to provide voice-over narration, detailing his thoughts and insecurities and quantum theories during a blase regular-season victory over the San Antonio Spurs. In other words, it is ninety minutes of Kobe "encouraging" his teammates by displaying an embarrassingly high-octane level of enthusiasm, ninety minutes of Kobe droning on about execution and laughing hollowly his at his own jokes, ninety minutes of Kobe reinforcing his perceived place as Phil Jackson's intellectual equal. At one point, he actually begins diagramming defensive rotations on a whiteboard. At another moment, Kobe lovingly declares that he and Jackson are kindred spirits because they "both love basketball, and we both love details."

Such are the psychic revelations of Kobe: Doin' Work.

I presume that this was Spike's attempt to craft a strictly technical film about the game he loves, a profile of a man in his element, sort of a documentary version of John McPhee's classic book-length profiles of Bill Bradley and Arthur Ashe. There is, in fact, no discussion of Kobe's background, or of his experiences outside of basketball, except for some platitudes about his children; as with every other attempt to understand Kobe, it is impossible to ignore the glaring omission of a single event that continues to define him, more than anything else, despite his best efforts to distract us.

Still, Spike had an intriguing idea--a thorough dissection of the complexities of a single NBA game through the eyes of its best player, an attempt to capture Kobe Being Kobe. The problem is that Kobe refuses to reveal himself in any way that even seems remotely real. His persona is either A.) laughably contrived or B.) completely hollow. At times, it is vaguely Batemanesque.* It is almost as if he is trying to make his public self as boring as possible, as if this will somehow negate the sins of his past. There are ways to get at this, to peel beneath those layers and reveal what is perhap the strangest superstar arcs of our time (as Mike Sager did here), but this is not that movie. This is ninety minutes of extremely unsettling small talk, ninety minutes of a man who would clearly prefer it if we just loved him for being Kobe. Whatever the hell that is.

*Though let me make clear: I do not think Kobe is a serial killer. Nor do I believe he is a fan of Phil Collins' solo career.

(Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images/ESPN the Mag)

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