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Cinema Signal:


Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos

. "RIZE"

Fashion photographer David LaChapelle directs and produces this documentary that records the rise of a dance craze that grew out of one man's response to the Rodney King riots. Tommy Johnson, aka, "Tommy the Clown," tells how his energetic, spiritual, syncopated antics at birthday parties in South Central Los Angeles caught on and became the phenomenon called "Clowning," and how it evolved into the more aggressive variation, called "Krumping."

With an estimated 50 groups devoted to its expression, the central dramatic event, after an overlong introduction section, is a competition between the two vying styles of dancers held at the Inglewood Forum. The exposure and acclaim of a happy and supportive crowd on their feet with enthusiasm brings recognition and glory to one side, deep disappointment to the competition, all gaining by the attention and acclaim for their teams and their best exponents.

After that moment in which we see more talents on stage than the ones the film centers on, harsh realities of life return when Tommy receives a call that his house has been broken into while the contest was underway.

Amidst personal struggle, the articulation of dreams by the dancers is potent at times, but ultimately overdone. Speakers explain their attraction to the new form of expression, repeating its positive influence on their lives and the ability it has given them to avoid a life of gangbanging and worse. "What else is there to do?," is an oft repeated refrain.

With dance identities like Dragon, Baby Tight Eyez, Swoop, Daisy, La Nina, Lil Tommy, Lil C, Tight Eyez, El Nino, Big X and Quinesha --with attitude to match-- the film showcases several talents that rise to the memorable. Ms. Prissy, born Marquisa Gardner of Belizean parents, is one of the few who has had formal dance lessons. This shows in her balletic moves during a church performance, and it's no surprise that she has credits in music video and commercials.

When she and Dragon (Jason Green) let their dark, oiled bodies loose against a deep blue sky in Morgan Susser's starkly saturated cinematography, and a powerful back beat of hiphop rythm, it's moving sculpture and pure energy. This image becomes the iconic billboard for the film and for the free form of dance innovation.

My guess is that this film started with that sequence as part of a music video that impressed its first viewers to such an extent that it motivated LaChapelle to turn his core footage into a feature length documentary. Judging by the result, it was an ill-advised and over-ambitious decision. Sure, there are stories to tell here, but the ones covered don't sustain the length of the film. I'd be surprised if it repaid the advertising budget that's being poured into achieving commercial success.

In a community with fewer options than those of more upscale neighborhoods, LaChapelle doees illustrate how this phenomenon provides a rallying activity of positive social value--one that appeals to the creative, the physical, and the self-identifying needs we all want satisfied. The unrelenting self-promotion in this footage, however, weighs it down until self-expression becomes more chest-thumping pretentiousness than artistic accomplishment. The documentary's principle value is as a report on a community's constructive retreat from days of violence and confrontation. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how it grew from something so retro as a clown.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Clowning and Krumping
Out in the street, against an L.A. sunset


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