Movie Review: Window On Your Present
Back in the late 1980s when Spike Lee was helping to revolutionize the indie film world with vibrant, colorful, emotional and music-filled epics like School Daze and Do the Right Thing, his brother Cinqué Lee was traveling in the exact opposite direction with his own debut directorial effort, the drab and dreary Window on Your Present.
But, be warned: “Drab and dreary” are merely descriptions of this lovely, resurrected masterpiece and not criticisms to be lobbed against it. The film has gone largely unseen in the past 30 years, but has been recently released by BrinkDVD. It’s a shame it’s been out of the spotlight all this time since, based on the accomplished, thoughtful filmmaking on display in this first film. Had Window on the Present been released when it was made, Cinqué could have had an equally stellar career along with his more famous brother. Talent in the Lee family didn’t stop with Spike.
Appropriately shot in black & white, the film, we are told, takes place in a world where love and color do not exist. Lost souls randomly wander a desolate wasteland, either mindlessly picking through the rubble to pass the time or attacking each other for no other reason to stave off the boredom.
The main character is a woman, Europa (Maria Pineres), who narrates the entire film and tells us everything we need to know about it. There is no other point of view present other than what we can discern through the characters’ actions that Europa observes. Pineres also delivers her entire narration in a flat monotone. She never expresses any sort of emotion, be it either fear or anger or happiness or remorse. There are no high points, nor any low points for her. Things are just what they are.
While Pineres’ emotionless delivery sets the perfect tone for the entire film, Lee very smartly knows when to let the narration take a breather lest his audience become emotionally divested from the action onscreen. There are long and short stretches without words and the aural space is filled with an otherworldly sound design by Stuart Argabright and Steve Breck, as well as a low-key, non-distracting soundtrack by Cinqué’s father Bill Lee.
Europa may not know what love is, but she is drawn to a boy (Sean Bohary) whom she rescues from being killed by a gang. The companions eventually meet up with another couple, one half of which is Cinqué’s sister Joie Lee, and the foursome try their best to fend off feelings of despair. Unfortunately, one of them won’t be successful.
That’s one component of the slim plot that carries through the film. The action eventually picks up even more when Europa and her “boyfriend” swallow a white marble that allows them to be transported — albeit extremely briefly — to a world where color exists. Intrigued by the experience, Europa attempts to track down more marbles so that she and her friends can be transported permanently.
The introduction of the marble plot element throws the film somewhat into Philip K. Dick territory, except Window on Your Present doesn’t switch between realities nearly as much as Dick’s novels. Lee doesn’t need to as the drab grey reality he’s created is so fully realized.
Presumably filmed in Brooklyn, or some similar outer part of the NYC boroughs, through messy art direction and extremely deliberate camera angles, Lee and cinematographer Leslie Mentel have crafted an entire alternate universe. With the exception of a boat or two passing in a harbor, there is nothing that connects the world the characters are living in with the very real then-’80s era New York. Not an easy task given the oppressive omnipresence of the Manhattan skyline when one lives even close to the city.
Europa’s craving to escape her grey world through an ingestible substance, particularly a hard white one, does make Window on Your Present an obvious instant drug parable, especially after the quick rise of crack in urban centers when the film was made. But through the narrator’s passionless description of what the drug does, the film never advocates for drug use, nor does it condemn it. It just is.
Clearly, the central irony that Lee forges so well is that by draining his film of all emotion, he has crafted a very moving and affecting tale.
Watch the Window on Your Present movie trailer: