I understand why documentary filmmakers are usually pretty dogged in their search for Sociological Significance in whatever their subject happens to be. A failure to do so would leave the project open to criticisms of shallowness and neglect to explore to the fullest. Sometimes, though, simple observation is a documentarian’s most powerful tool, and I wish more of today’s filmmakers took a page from Frederick Wiseman’s book. The single most powerful documentary in recent years is To Be and to Have, which simply, beautifully watched as a rural elementary school teacher tended to his class.
I mention all this because Rize, David La Chapelle’s account of a recent dance sensation in South Central LA is at its best when it is observing, and at its worst when it is trying desperately to Explore. When the camera’s eye is trained firmly on the dancers — wholly compelling in their violent ritual — the movie soars, as we begin to read into the images most of the things that the film later comes out and tells us. I liked, in the beginning, the way LaChapelle implies things visually instead of spelling them out in plain English: we get the idea, for example, that the krump phenomenon has its origins somewhere in the Rodney King riots, but there is no grandiloquent narration to tell us how or why.
And that, I think, is why the first half of Rize works so darn well — little talk, minimal context, just a barrage of music and dance that somehow begins to assemble itself into a coherent, elegant picture of the subculture. It may not even have been an accurate picture — how can it be, with so few facts provided — but it was an abstract and interesting one, and I wanted to hold onto it. Not surprisingly, LaChapelle is not content with this, so after taking us through a cheesy but fascinating “dance-off” between the Clowns and the Krumpers (with the Clowns, predictably, taking home the crown — predictably because the host, emcee and judge was a man named Tommy the Clown), he launches into extended interviews with many of the personages, who offer their views on religion, life in South Central, poverty, etc. They also literalize the power of their hobby/lifestyle — anything we may have gleaned about it from the first half of the film is happily spelled out for us here.
Another demerit is the readily apparent lack of any genuinely interesting personalities — which is not to say that the people we see aren’t interesting, but that they don’t show it on screen. We get the sense that most of them are putting on a front, wanting to come off a certain way in front of the camera. Everything that is said is so principled and premeditated — listen to one of the dancers talk about his young protege, right in front of him — that nothing seems spontaneous, though most everything is quotable. No one is ever caught off-guard and nothing can be described as “candid.”
Rize is strong enough visually and has a few moments of pure exhilaration, and it’s a worthwhile film despite its flaws. Still, I can hardly describe my disappointment when, some fifty minutes in, LaChapelle veered away from his feverishly kinetic imagery in favor of talking heads and Significance.