SEE IT BIG: EXTRAVAGANZAS! (Part One)
Friday, December 17, 2021, 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 19, 2021, 4:00 p.m.
1998. 96 mins. 35mm. Directed by Hype Williams. Written by Anthony Bodden, Nas, and Hype Williams. Cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed. Film editing by David Leonard. Production design by Regan Jackson. With Earl “DMX” Simmons, Nasir “Nas” Jones, Taral Hicks, Method Man, Louie Rankin, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins.
Excerpt from Nick Pinkerton's "Bombast: Belly" from Film Comment.
When Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was released in 2013, at least a handful of viewers had the same response that I did to the blacklight-lit, slo-mo heist at the film’s climax: “Oh, hey, Korine is doing Belly.”
The reference is to a 1998 film, the first and to date only feature directed by music video visionary Hype Williams, which begins with a blacklight-lit, slo-mo heist. It needs be said that the borrowing goes two ways here: early in Belly, stick-up men Tommy Bunds (DMX), Sincere (Nas), and their partners in crime cool down after a job in Tommy’s immaculate house in posh Jamaica Estates. For a little late-night entertainment, Tommy throws on Korine’s 1997 directorial debut Gummo, which plays for the boys on his big-screen projector. “Shit is bugged out,” Tommy says by way of review, while on screen two white trash boys shoot another dead with pop guns. It’s a sly inverse of the cultural-tourist racial dynamic that occurred with white boys like myself in the Nineties who were absorbing rap music videos—Williams’s primary medium.
The Gummo cameo is one element in the dense network of allusions that Williams lays down in his first-reel pastiche. Tommy’s crib is overtly Kubrickian—a Steadicam prowls the open floor-plan, all Clockwork Orange spotless white, while Thierry Le Gouès’s black-is-beautiful photographs of ebony bodies recall the nude over Scatman Crothers’s bed in The Shining. After a bit, Sincere returns to his wife, Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, of the group TLC), and his more modest home in St. Albans, which is (under-)lit in shadowy mahogany tones that seem intended to recall the Corleone compound in The Godfather: Part II. (Earlier, we see a handgun being retrieved from a bathroom stall, a more direct homage to the Coppola films.) While Tommy jumps into the shower, Kurt Loder on MTV News delivers word of a new ultra-potent heroin hitting the streets, and Tommy’s girlfriend, Keisha (Taral Hicks), putting in a call to a telltale number on his pager, gets his 16-year-old sidepiece, Tamika (Tiara Marie), on the line. Tamika, who talks on a pink phone while wearing pink shorts and a pink bikini top in a pink room, looks like she’s being broadcast by MTV too—specifically, one of Williams’s color-coded videos. It’s hard to believe these spaces—Tommy’s crib, Sincere’s house, Keisha’s room—all exist in the same world, much less the same movie. Throw in the street-smart details of the script by Williams, Nas, and Anthony Bodden (Sincere notes he lives “not too far from where we grew up, right by the Vets’ hospital,” a tossed-off reference that situates the movie in a real, known New York), the touches of unexpected humor (DMX grunt-singing in the shower!), and you have the a taste of Belly, a film that, taken altogether, comes much closer to what Korine called “a pop poem” than does his own sniggery Spring Breakers.
I am hardly the first or only person to think of “pastiche” when it comes to Williams. The 2007 book Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones contains an essay called “Paradoxes of Pastiche: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, and the Race of the Postmodern Auteur” by one Roger Beebe, which begins by noting that it was only in the early Nineties that the names of music-video directors began to be added to the credits shown at the beginning and end of a video, joining the artist name, song and album title, and record label. This afforded the music-video director of the Nineties an unprecedented level of public name-recognition, which in turn tended to facilitate crossover into feature-film direction. Alex Proyas, Dominic Sena, David Fincher, and F. Gary Gray had already made the jump when Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers and Williams’s Belly were released in 1998. They were followed across the breach by Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road in ’99, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell and McG’s Charlie’s Angels in 2000, and Michel Gondry’s Human Nature and Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast in ’01. The transition has since become so commonplace that it hardly bears commenting on.
Hype would appear to be a more than usually publicity-averse figure—he notably declined to be interviewed for a 2008 oral history piece on Belly in King magazine—so I have only a handful of interviews to draw on in composing a biographical sketch. Born Harold Williams, his sobriquet comes from the time when he was a 12-year-old graffiti artist, tagging as “Hype 1” and “Hype Love.” He grew up in Hollis, Queens, went to Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights—also the alma mater of LL Cool J and 50 Cent—and studied film at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island. Somewhere around this time he began an apprenticeship at Classic Concepts Video Productions under the tutelage of “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels, whose program Video Music Box has aired on public television in New York since 1984, and is widely considered to have been the precursor for Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City. “We gave him his first videos,” McDaniels said of Williams, “[the ones] that we didn’t have the time to do.”
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