Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Baadasssss! aka How To Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (t’other Van Peebles 2003)

bigtmp_20824[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]

In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]

This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.

In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).

tumblr_m5vimzquPt1qf5ylso1_500Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.

‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.

But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:

sweetback_12

Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]

Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).

According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic

historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)

Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)

But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.

In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.

baadasssss-movie-poster-2003-1020233016Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.

In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.up-badass2_lg

As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.

At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,

Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.

The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.

Notes

[i]
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.

[ii]
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.

[iii]
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.

[iv]
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.

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Le temps du loup aka Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke France/Austria/Germany 2003)

18363600[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 94 (2005): 134-137]

Although it has always produced outstanding sf and fantasy—from Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Švankmajer—there was a time, back before I was born, when European arthouse cinema was synonymous with both cinematic and science-fictional excellence, when the nouvelle vague gave us Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). This period is best captured not by Bernardo Bertolucci’s joyless The Dreamers (2003) but, for all its gaucheness, Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001), in which a young American filmmaker in Paris, desperate to be Godard, ends up completing a pop-camp sf movie even more heavily indebted to Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik (1968) than to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in which a sexy space-age spy must infiltrate the lunar base of Billy Zane’s Che-like rebel leader.

Over the last couple of years, European arthouse directors have again been drawn to the fantastic and science-fictional. Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love (2003), Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2004) attempt, with mixed success, to populate their Dickian/cyberpunk-flavoured tales with characters who at least vaguely resemble human beings. Vinterberg manages to produce several genuinely strange and estranging moments, but is undercut by a star-based narrative logic which forestalls complex intersubjectivity and opens the door to the worst kind of greetings card sentimentality; Assayas generates some sense of the perpetual displacement of the subject jetting through the spaces of global capital, but his film is no Pattern Recognition; and Winterbottom’s impressive vision of the future which looks just like the contemporary Third World succumbs to the picturesque (and a really problematic rape scene in which Maria (Samantha Morton) literally asks for it). In Fear X (2002), Nicolas Winding Refn transforms a Wisconsin which already looked pretty alien—positively Canadian—into somewhere distinctly Lynchian, while Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika (2003) occasionally rises above the ordinariness required of a Halle Berry vehicle. Although all of these films contain things to recommend them—some more than others—none of them measure up to those of forty years ago or, indeed, to Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup.

An immaculate MPV glides along a forest road. In it are Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent, their mid-teens daughter, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier), and her younger brother Ben (Lucas Biscome). Fleeing the city and some never-specified catastrophe, they have calmly made their way to their weekend house in the country; but a family of strangers have already moved in. When the agonisingly reasonable Georges offers them welcome and a share of their supplies, he is killed and Anne and the children are turned away. Despite knowing the Laurents, local villagers refuse them aid or shelter, and so they begin to wander the countryside, first joining up with an unnamed boy (Hakim Taleb) and then with a proto-community dominated by the petty tyranny of property-ownership and commerce—a set-up which does not survive the arrival of a larger group of refugees. Together, these displaced people await the arrival of a train which might take them to somewhere better.

It could be a trick of perspective, but the last few years seem to have produced a number of texts which return to the the kind of post-apocalyptic fiction once dismissed as cosy catastrophes (Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998), Lovegrove’s Untied Kingdom (2003), Roberts’s The Snow (2004), Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004); the TV series The Last Train (1999); movies such as Reign of Fire (Bowman 2002), Twenty Eight Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004) and Dawn of the Dead (Snyder 2004)), the best of which display at the very least an occasional flash of New Weird vigour, reinflating—with narrative and, occasionally, wit—a subgenre exhausted by the New Wave. What distinguishes Le temps du loup from them is a quite remorseless austerity, first signalled by the opening titles: small white uncluttered text on a black background, without music or sound. There are no CGI dragons. There are no zombies, enRaged or otherwise. There is no Big Weather. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the offscreen murder of Georges with the in-yer-face provocations and hi-jinks of Haneke’s earlier home-invasion movie, Funny Games (1997).

In an accompanying interview, Haneke explains Le temps du loup‘s restraint in terms of not wanting to make a generic disaster movie but a film about personal relationships, of wanting to give the comfortable westerners used to watching the unfolding global catastrophe on TV a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them. In this he succeeds, but not necessarily in the way he intends.

The film relies on ellipses. The nature of the catastrophe is never explained (although livestock burning on a pyre in the background of one shot might provide a clue). We do not see Georges’s death or his family having to bury him; we do not see their expulsion from their home or their theft of a bicycle; we do not see Ben’s discovery of his dead budgerigar or a barn going up in flames; we do not see Anne’s response to the letter Eva writes to her dead father, in which she talks about having to careful around her mother as she is on the verge of cracking up; and so on. Along with these omissions, there are also a number of scenes set in a pitch-black night, illuminated intermittently by the flame of a cigarette lighter or a handful of burning straw, and a number of unexplained events. This eschewal extends even to refusing emotional spectacle: when a sick child dies, there is a 30 second shot of hands fashioning a crude cross and placing it on the grave, followed by a two-and-a-half minute shot of the legs of the people gathered around the grave, the only sound being the mourning cries of the child’s out-of-shot mother—and in the extreme distance, as the mourners move off, the flaming torches of an approaching group of refugees creep into shot, blurs of distant light in the falling dark.

The refusal to show does not extend to the characters; rather, all that the camera does is show us their stunned and stunted responses, and in this Haneke seems to be deliberately pursuing the kind of humanist-realism championed half a century ago by André Bazin. The camera’s cool gaze stays resolutely outside of the characters, but frequent long takes provide the time to watch minute gestures and changes of expression and to ponder motivation and meaning. There is, for example, an aching moment when we can see Eva trying to choose between loyalty to a mother ill-equipped to handle the new situation and the teenage boy who has already learned to strip whatever he needs from corpses (and some time later, we see her growing realisation that the boy is differently, but equally, ill-equipped). In the same sequence, a close-up reveals the sorrowful wisdom of the even younger Ben who, unlike his family, knows there is no point running after a passing train, crying for help. This sense of externality counters Haneke’s desire to focus on relationships, and perhaps only twice produces the kind of the effect on the viewer he seeks. First, and overwhelmingly, is the sense of disconnection: just as the family have no idea what has happened or what will happen next, so the film’s omissions and ellipses makes the experience of the narrative an uncertain one; while it grips, the succession of incidents also produces a sense of being stunned, akin to that experienced by the characters. Second, the conclusion that Ben reaches, the sacrifice he decides to make to save his family, simultaneously comes out of the blue and is inevitable. It is a moment every bit as human and as terrible as the scene in Thomas Disch’s ‘The Asian Shore’ about the young boy struggling to carrry two buckets of water whose shoes come off every time he takes a few steps; and the ground is freezing; and every time he puts his shoes back on he spills more of the water over himself; and he is freezing; and just as Disch’s narrator cannot help because he cannot communicate with the boy, so we cannot save Ben from his decision even though we know it will not work and its cost is unimaginably high.

The low-budget Last Night (McKellar 1998), dubbed ‘the Canadian Armageddon’, stands out among the recent ‘not-so-cosy’ catastrophes, not least because it refuses the apocalypse a post-. Similarly, and like Weekend, to which its long tracking shots might pay homage, Le temps du loup is ultimately not about life after the apocalypse—the survivors are numb, powerless; there is no attempt to rebuild civilisation—but about life during the apocalypse going on around us, mostly unseen. Like Benjamin’s angel of history (and, perhaps, Code 46), Haneke’s film sees not progress but one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The closing shot, which lasts for over two minutes, is filmed, the soundtrack implies, from aboard a train as it races through a verdant French countryside. We do not see the train. We do not know whether it is the one for which the characters have been waiting or, if so, whether it stopped to pick them up. We do not even know whether it is real, or merely a fantasy like the one spoken of in the preceding scene (‘maybe tomorrow, there’ll be … a big car racing up. … And a guy will get out and say everything’s fine again. And water will flow in our mouths with roast pigeons and maybe the dead will come back to life’). And while the final shot shows that the land, like the people whose story we’ve followed, endures, it is a land, perhaps significantly, deserted of people.

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer 2014)

x-men-days-of-future-past.25428and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), the sequel to 2011’s queer classic X-Men: First Class aka Brokeback Mutant, is not its inability to work out what to do with female superheroes who aren’t blue and naked – Storm has two whole lines of dialogue, which might be more than Blink does, and one brief meteorological dabble; Rogue, for all that Anna Paquin comes seventh in the credits, gets a two-second wordless cameo; and Kitty Pryde has the clunkiest, most thankless line of exposition in a film full of clunky, thankless and repetitive exposition because if it’s too hard I won’t understand it, and then gets to spend the next two hours kneeling down trying not to stroke Wolverine’s sideburns – nor is it Professor Xavier’s claim that the ‘greatest of powers’ is ‘hope’, when clearly he means ‘cliché’, nor is it that given the opportunity to transport Wolverinator, the huge jackass, back in time to change one thing that will in turn change everything they send him to strut around 1970s New York like some kind of white Shaft rather than to the script conference that set this humdrummery rolling (where he could have killed everyone with impunity because we would never have known this universe containing this dreary mess of a film ever existed – would you like me to exposition that for you a couple of times, or are you keeping up all by yourself?), but the fact that the film is so leaden and uninvolving that nothing, nothing at all, can distract you from coming up with an amusing alternative title for it … although, in a truly damning indictment of just how exhausting work has been the last couple of weeks, the best I, the actual (god’s honest truth) coiner of Brokeback Mutant, could come up with was the half-assed X-Men: Days of Farty Pasta … and in an equally devastating indictment of Fox’s apparent collusion in undermining the one genuinely lucrative Marvel property to which Disney does not own the film rights, it turns out that getting to call this tiresome piece of crap Days of Farty Pasta is actually the very best thing about it…