The City in Fiction and Film, week 18

Boyz_n_the_hood_poster.jpgWeek 17

This week we turned to African-American cinematic representations of the city, from blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion group up to the New Jack Cinema and Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991). We were guided by Paula J Massood’s argument in Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film that:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American terrifying other was a generalized inner-city ghetto; in the 1990s, it became the young black man. (166)

Last week, we ended with Taxi Driver’s vision of an infernal Manhattan populated by a profoundly fallen humanity (Scorsese is nothing if not a Catholic director). It is an overtly stylised world, often seen through the windscreen of the vehicle which lends Travis mobility while separating him from the world outside. Typically, blaxploitation has a rather different sense of the city and explores it through different aesthetic choices. These points came up in our discussion of the opening sequence of Shaft (Parks 1971):

  • daylight shooting
  • long shots (and some long takes) using zoom lenses on frequently uncontrolled locations
  • concealed – or apparently concealed – cameras so as to not draw the attention of passersby unaware that they are being filmed
  • the city is shabby, run-down, collapsing, but also lively – and there is an everyday rather than demonic quality to the hustling
  • Shaft (Richard Roundtree) moves through the crowded streets with a confidence that Travis Bickle lacked, untraumatised it seems by his experience of being in the world, mixing freely with others both black and white as if by his sheer presence he can command a world without racism
  • different kind of soundtrack, and different relationship between soundtrack and image

Manthia Diawara argues that

space is related to power and powerlessness … those who occupy the center of the screen are usually more powerful than those situated in the background or completely absent from the screen. (qtd in Massood 173)

The opening of Shaft also points to this key factor in blaxploitation – for the first time since the threadbare and now mostly lost race movies of the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African-Americans (not just Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, etc) got to occupy centre (and sometimes pretty much the entire) screen of a significant number of movies, as well as working in numbers behind the scenes. Richard Roundtree strutting easily through Manhattan to the sound of Isaac Hayes was and remains so utterly cool that we can perhaps still get some sense, 45 years later and an ocean away, of how important that moment must have been (even if we might be even more inclined now to question the gender politics and Shaft’s tendency to extract himself from the African-American community).

According to Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Cinema in the 1950s, the ‘exploitation’ in ‘exploitation films’ refers to
1) the way in which a film was advertised and marketed to entice an audience into the theatre
2) the way in which the film endeared itself to its audience – content
3) and finally as a particular kind of film

This kind of “exploitation” became a cohesive production strategy with three elements:
1) controversial/bizarre/timely subject matter amenable to promotion
2) a substandard budget
3) a teenage audience
i.e., triply exploitative – exploiting sensational events for story value, their public notoriety for publicity value, and a teenage audience for box office value

This is also pretty much the sense in which the ‘xploitation’ in ‘blaxploitation’ is intended.

In the early 1970s, African Americans constitute 25-40% of Hollywood’s US audience. Following the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis 1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Shaft (Parks 1971), a low- and medium-budget production cycle helped to restore Hollywood profitability, but was then abandoned with the emergence of blockbuster cinema – Jaws (Spielberg 1975), Star Wars (Lucas 1977), etc – and of different modes of distribution and exhibition, a process aided by the closure and/or grindhousing and/or pornification of downtown cinemas and an increase in suburban cinemas.

Ed Guerrero argues in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film that blaxploitation was part of a larger ‘black film boom’ that saw ‘ninety-one productions’ in 1971-73, ‘of which forty-seven can be considered models of the Blaxploitation formula’ (95) – a fomula that .

usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city. These elements were fortified with liberal doses of gratuitous sex and drugs and the representation of whites as the very inscription of evil. And all this was rendered in the alluring visuals and aggrandized sartorial fashions of the black underworld and to the accompaniment of black musical scores that were usually of better quality than the films they energized. (94)

Blaxploitation had African American critics of this sort from the outset. The term was coined by Junius Griffin, the head of the NAACP’s Beverley Hills-Hollywood branch, when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter decrying such ‘black exploitation films’ as Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972). Within days, he resigned from his post and co-founded the Coalition against Blaxploitation (CAB), with the support of various of the more conservative civil rights organisations (e.g., CORE, SCLC). In ‘Black movie boom – good or bad?’ (The New York Times 17 December 1972), he argued that

If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people and to fairly recording the black experience, we shall have lost our money and our souls [and] have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope’ (D19)

Griffin was by no means representative of all African Americans. In the same The New York Times piece, Gordon Parks describes the audience’s response to a crowded 4am screening of his Shaft:

Everything was ‘right on!’ A new hero, black as coal, deadlier than Bogart and handsome as Gable, was doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning. (D3)

Parks says of the ‘so-called black intellectuals’ demanding an end to blaxploitation that:

it is curious that some black people, egged on by some whites, will use such destructive measures against black endeavors. … The most important thing to me is that young blacks can now … enter an industry that has been closed to them for so long. (D3).

In Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2002), blaxploitation star and occasional director Fred Williamson criticises NAACP and CORE for coining the implicitly derogatory term, asking

Who was being exploited? All the black actors were getting paid. They had a job. They were going to work. The audience wasn’t being exploited. They were getting to see things on their screens they had longed for.

Blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry adds,

the organizations failed to understand that the community was really in need of their own heroes and black movies.

And The Black Panther newspaper devoted the entire 19 June 1971 issue to Huey P. Newton’s review of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which concludes ‘We need to see it often and learn from it’ (in To Die for the People (San Francisco: City Lights,
2009) 148).

Many blaxploitation films have an original music soundtrack, including Earth, Wind & Fire on Sweetback Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Millie Jackson on Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973), James Brown on Black Caesar (Cohen 1973) and Edwin Starr on Hell up in Harlem (Cohen 1973). Sound itself is also often used in interesting ways – partly post-classical stylistic innovation, partly symptomatic of the films’ extremely low budgets which relied on shooting without sound and dubbing later. For example, the opening ten minutes of Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972) contains extended sequences of a couple of would-be muggers walking through New York streets, Super Fly driving through the streets, and then chasing one of the muggers through the streets, much of it to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack; there are several similar sequences later in the film, including on using split screen arrangements of still images. On one level, an economy-driven necessity, it becomes an aesthetics concerned with occupying the screen (and soundtrack) space, and key to an actualité-ish depiction of black urban life.

Blaxploitation was often immensely profitable across the budgetary scale, especially in terms of box-office to outlay ratios. MGM budgeted $1.2 million each for Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft; the former grossed over $8 million domestically, the latter over $10.8 million in its first year of distribution. Low-budget Cinerama Releasing Corporation spent $200,000 on The Mack (Campus 1973), which grossed over $3 million, and AIP spent $500,000 on Coffy (Hill 1973), which grossed $6 million. The independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song cost an estimated $500,000 and took $4.1 million on its initial domestic release, dislodging Love Story (Hiller 1971) from number one at the US box office, and eventually grossed $10-15 million.

The soundtracks were also often successful. The soundtrack albums for Shaft and Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Super Fly, the first entirely black-financed film to be released by a Hollywood Studio, and the first to employ an almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican crew (mostly drawn from Third World Cinema Corporation, a Harlem-based collective co-founded by Ossie Davis in 1971), had an estimated budget of $100,000 but took $6.4 million during its initial run, eventually grossing over $12 million. Controlled and released by his own publishing company and independent record label, Curtis Mayfield’s singles ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ sold over 1 million copies each; the soundtrack album sold 12 million copies, earning him over $5 million. (See Eithne Quinn, ‘“Tryin’ to get over”: Super Fly, black politics, and post-civil rights film enterprise’. Cinema Journal 49.2 (2010): 86-105.)

Next, we moved from East Coast to West, to take a look at the sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song after Sweetback beats the cops to death and goes on the run. Van Peebles’s stylisations are even more overt than those of Scorsese, layering images, saturating them in psychedlic hues, and cutting with the rhythm of the music, which itself often seems to be improvised in conjunction with the images. Los Angeles is a disjointed, ruptured wasteland, more or less devoid of humanity. It is low and close the ground in contrast to New York, and seems to stretch on forever. Others might escape by plane, but all Sweetback can do is run and run and run.

And then we moved from blaxploitation – a category in which Sweetback does not always seems to fit easily, despite its massive importance to the cycle – to the LA Rebellion group. This network of African-American filmmakers, who studied at UCLA from the late-1960s onwards, made films that set out to resist Hollywood – and blaxploitation – norms, embracing the influence of Italian neo-realism and other European art cinema, and of politicised and postcolonial Latin American and African filmmaking. They made experimental and documentary shorts, documentary features and, later, videos, but the easiest of their work to access is their fiction features, including: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978); Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991); Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979); Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993); and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983).

We took a look at an early sequence from Killer of Sheep, in which African-American kids throw stones at each other and play in the wasteland between railroad tracks. While the landscape itself seems familiar from Sweetback, the grainy – but often beautiful – black-and-white photography (another intersection of budget and aesthetics) contrasts with Van Peebles’s restless (and desperate) innovations. It recalls, in different ways, a number of films we have already watched on the module (Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Passport to Pimlico, Cléo from 5 to 7, Ratcatcher).

The soundtrack is likewise naturalistic, just voices and sounds of the city, creating a rather different effect than blaxploitation’s commitment to cutting edge soul and funk (and to Bush Mama’s more experimental layering of fragmentary voices on its soundtrack).

The New Jack Cinema ran from roughly 1989-95. Its key filmmakers and films were
Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000)
Bill Duke: A Rage in Harlem (1991)
Matty Rich: Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)
John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997)
Mario Van Peebles: New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995)
Leslie Harris: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)
Allen and Albert Hughes: Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999)
Ernest Dickerson: Juice (1992), Blind Faith (1998)

As with the more or less simultaneous New Queer Cinema, it had a strong focus on male experience, and made efforts to diversify representation without reiterating stereotypes or insisting on ‘positive’ images. Its primary focus on African American urban experience was influenced by blaxplotiation’s and the LA Rebellion’s use of actual locations, but was also intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop culture over the preceding decade and more. The New Jack Cinema often depicted gang life, violence, misogyny and drug use in negative terms, but frequently also succumbed to the spectacle such things offered. There were also strong elements of melodrama and liberal handwringing, and a championing of education and middle class lifestyle choices. Unlike Beverly Hills Cop (Brest 1984), New Jack movies tend not to take a single black protagonist out of his own community and relocate him in a white community – a strategy also deployed by many post-New Jack movies, such as Training Day (Fuqua 2001) – but instead builds a picture of an ethnically, culturally, linguistically and generationally diverse neighbourhood, with a history

It is important to bear in mind bell hooks’s comments on the historical, political, economic, cultural and social context of gangsta rap:

The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (Outlaw Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 116)

Like blaxploitation, the New Jack Cinema was often extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in 12 days for $175,000 and took over $7 million in the US alone. (It is relatively unusual in being woman-centred, but is problematically centred on a woman whose choice to have multiple sexual partners is repeatedly eroticised and spectacularised.) Do the Right Thing cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US, with two Oscar nominations (best screenplay, supporting actor). Newspapers worried its ambivalent conclusion would lead to riots. Just Another Girl on the IRT was shot in 17 days for $100,000, took $500,000 at US box office (again relatively unusual, not only in that it focuses on female experience, but on teen female experience and was made by a woman). Like Boyz N the Hood, it ends in blood, but not a drive-by or gang-killing. Instead, it culminates in a long scene of protagonist Chantel’s (Ariyan A Johnson) agonising premature childbirth – she is in denial about and has concealed her unwanted pregnancy, and thus is completely unprepared. Boyz N the Hood cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US alone; 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for best director and best original screenplay Oscars.

We focused primarily on the kinds of spaces the film depicted and how they were shot. There is none of the excessive stylisation of Scorsese, no attempt to depict South Central as infernal. There is no attempt to depict the area as a crumbling ruin, as in the views of Manhattan in Shaft and Super Fly, or as an urban wasteland, as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Killer of Sheep. In fact, the ‘natural’ daytime light and often pastels palette imbues the hood with the sense of a potentially idyllic suburb of evenly spaced houses in a variety of styles, each set in a neat little garden. Unlike Fahrenheit 451 and despite the ubiquity of television, people still sit on their porches, chatting and whiling away the time. This is countered, to some extent, by the high walls around the backyards and fence around some front yards; by the invisible but nonetheless affectively tangible walls around neighbourhoods and the city; by the role of mass unemployment and limited future prospects in all that porch-sitting; by the eruptions of gang violence and police violence; by the junkie mother who cannot look after her children (even if everyone else in the neighbourhood watches out for them); and by the almost constant nocturnal sound of police helicopters patrolling the skies above.

While Sweetback can at least run past LAX (and run), Boyz begins with a stop sign (while a jet climbs into the sky behind it). Such entrapment – such limited mobility in a city built for cars – is central to the film.

(As, rather more problematically, is its focus on the need for fathers to raise sons as real men so as to end ghetto immiseration and violence, since this involves constantly blaming mothers – reiterating a strong current in the period’s far from progressive political discourse. This goes so far as to undermine its own advocacy of such middle class values as education, responsibility and property ownership by finding fault with aspirational black women.)

Week 19

Core critical reading: Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 145–74.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 8, ‘An Alternative Modernity: Race, Ethnicity and the Urban Experience.”
Bausch, Katharine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 257–76.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (1991): 121–41.
Farred, Grant. “No Way Out of the Menaced Society: Loyalty within the Boundedness of Race.” Camera Obscura 12.2 (1995): 6–23.
Gormley, Paul. “The Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 180–199.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Liam. Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Chapter 3, “Between Pathology and Redemption.”
Massood, Paula J. “City Space and City Times: Bakhtin’s Chronotope and Recent African-American Film.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 200–215.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 7, “Ghettos and Barrios.”
Mukherjee, Roopali. “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films.” Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 599–629.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Watkins, Craig S. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.

Recommended reading
African-American, Latino/a and Chicano/a ghetto fiction can be traced back at least as far as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s *The Sport of the Gods (1902), Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and more autobiographical work, such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).
It also draws on the pulp crime fiction of Chester Himes (e.g., A Rage in Harlem (1957)) and Donald Goines (e.g., Dopefiend (1971)), on blaxploitation cinema, New Jack cinema and hip-hop culture.
Contemporary examples include Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (1993), Sapphire’s Push (1996), Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) and Gary Phillips’s The Jook (2010), and such autobiographical works as Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993) and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993).

Recommended viewing
Key blaxploitation films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971), Shaft (Parks 1971) and Superfly (Parks Jr 1972).
The LA Rebellion group’s more neo-realist depiction of black urban life can be seen in Killer of Sheep (Burnett 1978) and Bush Mama (Gerima 1979).
Key New Jack cinema films include Do the Right Thing (Lee 1989), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Harris 1992) and Menace II Society (Hughes brothers 1993).
Depictions of ghetto life have become a significant part of world cinema, including such films as La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), City of God (Meirelles and Lund 2002), Jerusalema: Gangster’s Paradise (Ziman 2008) and Attack the Block (Cornish 2011).

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Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002; trans 2013)

51zqAenL6DL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Calixthe Beyala, born in Cameroon in 1961 and resident in France since 1978, is generally counted as one of the second generation of African Francophone female writers – a judgment that is not merely to do with when she started publishing fiction (the 1990s) but also a reflection upon her typically feisty, feminist, vulgar subject matter and her eschewal of standard French in favour of a Parisian-African vernacular (not that I can tell, being monolingual). For all that she has won a number of major literary awards, there is a lot of critical commentary (mainly by men, at least from the sample I have been able to access online) that portrays her as, in various ways, not a proper writer. And I guess there are what some might consider improprieties in this novel, but I found them interesting and/or enjoyable rather than shocking or somehow disqualifying.

How to Cook Your Husband the African Way begins with what appears to be a fantastical premiss, with the black protagonist/narrator Aissatou explaining that at some point she became white:

My roots are black. I’m a black woman, but being away from my roots has confused me. Let me be honest. I embraced dissipation. I abandoned myself to it as you abandon yourself to a heavy fog. … I don’t know when I turned from ebony to ivory, but I do know that I smear my hair with a product called White Glow. Guess what it does?

I am, as I said, not sure when I became white. I now smear my skin with Venus de Milo and other cosmetics made for whites. That isn’t the end of it, though. Because to be white you’ve got to be thin. I’ve tortured my body to make it as small as possible. So now, I don’t have any breasts and my thighs are flat geometries – all because the mirror of the world requires that I make my body pleasing to white men. A beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast. Melba toast snaps easily. Crickle crackle. (7)

However, as soon becomes clear (and is already hinted at in the full version of the quoted paragraphs), this fantastical transformation should not be read literally. This is not like George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man (1970). It is a moment of hyperbole that captures a certain truth of double-consciousness, of a black woman’s conformity to white standards of beauty, of her willed bodily transformation and the abandonment of African aspects of her cultural heritage it entailed:

I am a white negro woman and food poisons my powers of seduction. I make my body sing by peeling my buttocks, by minimizing my breasts, convinced that if I make a martyr of my stomach, I’ll win a great prize. The pores of my trim body will exude divine sensuality. (15)

And apparently, where white Parisian men are concerned, they do. Which is of no help whatsoever when she falls in love/desire/passion with the Malian Suleiman Bolobolo, the new tenant in her building, who lives with his senile mother, who keeps a chicken in their apartment and who thinks she is in contact with the inhabitants of planet Oburne.

Aissatou’s initial approach to winning Bolobolo is to follow her white consciousness:

Rainbows appeared in the sky to answer women’s need to seduce. When a woman wants to seduce a man, she must smell sweet and glitter. Which is why we visit the lingerie shops when we’re in love. The modern knicker is available in all the glorious colours of the universe. These are consolations the gods have granted us to make up for the fact that we are mortal. (28)

But she realises that she is both ‘in Paris and not in Paris’, bilocated between ‘the African jungle’ and ‘a different jungle, the metro’ (33). And although she cannot ‘be bothered’ (40) to return to or embrace some half-remembered/half-invented version of négritude or africanicity, she can follow the advice she imagines her mother would give:  cook for him, cook African meals that awaken his senses and sensuality, and thus capture his heart (and loins).

And in between each short chapter, there is a recipe or two – for meals as varied as paprika ngombo, boa in banana leaves, domba de macabe, mango puree on toast, and crocodile in tchobi sauce.

The novel tacks a course somewhere between essentialism and cultural constructivism, using the later to undermine the former even as it tend to rely on the former to explore notions of identity and hybridity. The tone throughout is a little bit raunchy – or at least blunt about sex – without ever being pornographic (a charge often levelled against Beyala). And while it is never laugh-out-loud funny, it is always comical.

Time heals all wounds though it doesn’t really wound all heels. If only. (9)

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.

Paris noir et noir – and hardly morbid at all

Richard Wright was cremated at Père Lachaise.

wright

But before that happened, he used to enjoy hanging out at the Café Tournon with Chester Himes. (You could also find James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington there, and it was where Duke Ellington made his Paris debut.)

wright a

wright b

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the management are only interested in letting you know that Joseph Roth lived there. I guess they figure the legend of an unholy drinker is bad for business. (Did you like the literary gag there?)

roth

Somewhere on this street, Chester Himes used to have an apartment.

himes a

himes

 

 

 

 

 

 

But when John A. Williams was visiting Paris and dropped by to see him, he found Himes had moved out, leaving the flat to Melvin Van Peebles.

We found Himes still keeping good company in the unexpected book department of Le Bon Marché, the first ever department store.

himes b

Another African-American in Paris:

baker

And Harry’s Bar. Where Humphrey Bogart used to hang out.

harry's bar

Their margarita is a damn fine margarita…

harry's bar inside

…but it is not as good a margarita as their mojito is a mojito.

Space is the Place (John Coney 1974)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 92 (2004), 97–100.]

Sun_Ra_Space_is_Place_21Imagine Philip K. Dick was born 15 years earlier, black and with an astonishing musical talent in Birmingham, Alabama . . . imagine that, and you might just get Herman Poole Blount who became Le Sony’r Ra who was known as Sun Ra. You might just get the other visionary genius of postwar American sf.

Reading John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Payback 1997), the comparison with Dick seems not entirely spurious. Both were phenomenally productive (Ra recorded over 1000 compositions on at least 120 albums). Both compulsively permutated and reiterated core themes and images whose shades of meaning and internal contradictions always seemed to imply a larger scheme in which they were reconciled. Both were innovators working with battered clichés. Both were treated indifferently at home and lionised in France. Both had run-ins with the FBI, possibly (in 1971 Ra and his Arkestra were invited to Oakland by Bobby Seale and lived for a while in a house owned by the Black Panther Party). Both were students of gnosticism and the Bible. Both had life-changing mystical experiences (in 1936 Ra underwent an ‘alien abduction’), but while the events of 2-3-74 led Dick to write his 8000-page exegesis, Ra lived his exegesis for the next 57 years, in person and on stage. Both were ontologically-troubled, perceiving the world as a veil (either that, or they were both persuasive charlatans). Both were self-mythologisers. Both have been called mad.

Of course, there were also many differences.

tumblr_mku7b2UL0I1s3e71xo1_1280Dick never claimed to be from Saturn, nor did he describe Star Wars as ‘very accurate’. He was not a major figure in post-war jazz, or the frequently unacknowledged godfather of world music, or one of the first musicians to experiment extensively with electronic keyboards. Dick did not mount spectacular lightshows before the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead and others whose attempts to transform gigs into overwhelming integrated audiovisual experiences are sometimes cited as inspiring VR’s total immersion grail.

Nor was Dick born black in Alabama in 1914.

And although Dick was keen, at one point, to make a movie (of Ubik (1969)), he failed. Ra, however, succeeded—even if it was not always clear that the barely-released, rarely-seen Space is the Place was a success.

The plot is straightforward enough. Ra, wandering in an alien garden, explains that he is establishing a Black colony there, to see what they can accomplish without white people around—but should he bring the colonists by ‘isotope transportation transmolecularisation’ or by teleporting them through music? Cut to Chicago, 1943. Sonny Ray is a nightclub pianist. Insulted by a well-dressed black pimp called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), his playing intensifies: glasses explode, smoke pours from the piano, everyone flees. Sonny Ray, now Ra, and the Overseer are transported to an arid plain—Chicago, it appears, was just another phase in an ongoing conflict. The Overseer accepts Ra’s challenge to a game of ‘the end of the world’. Ra flies to Oakland, California in a spaceship powered by the music of his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. The Overseer recruits Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a reporter for ‘stone jive Channel Five’, to his cause, along with a brothel madam and two female nurses (who are treated throughout as little more than sex objects). Meanwhile, Ra reaches out to the ‘black youth of planet Earth’ and opens the Outer Space Employment Agency. He convinces the Overseer to up the stakes by letting him put on a show. Government agents abduct Ra and interrogate him about his spaceship’s power source and the African space programme, torturing him with a tape of what sounds like a high school band performing a particularly chipper version of ‘Dixie’. But the show goes on, and Sun Ra returns to space, taking with him a selection of African Americans to establish a colony on an uninhabited garden world. In order to secure this reversal of the Middle Passage from the interference of white people, Sun Ra destroys the Earth behind them.

sun-ra-space-450Shot on 16mm with a tiny budget, the movie has some very rough edges: flat visuals, indifferent dialogue (Ra wrote his own), thin characters, weak performances, poor pacing and the kind of inconsistencies and incoherence one often associates with Ra’s self-consciously elusive and playful pronouncements. Director Coney cites movies like Rocketship X-M (Neumann 1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton 1954) as inspiring the deliberately cheesy special effects that, aware of budgetary constraints, they set out to create. Fortunately, this unpolished quality quite closely matches Ra’s own pre-punk DIY aesthetic—throughout his career, his and the Arkestra’s costumes were generally homemade and looked it, although those in the movie are of a better quality. (A more remarkable example of this DIY aesthetic is the drum Ra told bassoonist James Jacson to make from a lightning-struck tree opposite the Arkestra’s Philadelphia home—an incident Jacson recounts in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise). The movie’s rawness reflects the circumstances of its production. By Hollywood standards, it is only a little less professional than many blaxploitation movies, and more professional than some. But in judging such movies, Hollywood’s standards are not the most appropriate measure.

Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ identified three kinds of filmmaking. First Cinema is the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators. Second Cinema comprises auteurist cinema and art cinema; but however well-intentioned it might be, it is a bourgeois cinema dependent upon First Cinema distribution. Third Cinema is neither commercial nor bourgeois. In its most militant forms, it is closely aligned with political groups, has clear political goals and is unconcerned with politically-debilitating myths of objectivity and balance. It is an activists’ cinema, embedded in struggle. 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 spectacles, Third World countries should aim to create an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggle. In addressing Space is the Place and some of the more radically inclined blaxploitation movies – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), The Spook Who sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon 1973) – such standards and ideas might prove more appropriate.[i]

maxresdefaultIt is easy to deplore Hollywood’s destruction and depletion of other national cinemas. What is less obvious is the ways in, and extent to, which Hollywood has deprived the US of a national cinema, a tendency evident since the 1920s and currently foregrounded by the multinational ownership of the major Hollywood companies and their increasingly standard policy of treating the US as just one more territory in which they can sell movies. From this perspective, independent film can, depending on the degree and nature of its independence, be regarded as a national cinema manqué; and Space, Sweetback and Spook can be seen as efforts groping towards an indigenous Third Cinema.[ii] Their rawness and rough edges are products of the dialectics of perfect and imperfect cinema.

Space’s imperfections display the disjunctions of the era. Only a movie this marginal could:

  • display pictures of Angela Davis, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries quite so proudly
  • punish a villain by making his underlings, white and black alike, suddenly see him as a ‘nigger’ and treat him like one
  • depict a race war in which whitey loses so comprehensively.[iii]

Only Space could present elements of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology, blending an outer space future with a black Egyptian past – rejecting centuries of Christian metaphorisation of Egypt as a place of bondage and claiming it instead as the Promised Land, as black civilisation.[iv]

vlcsnap-2010-04-13-17h05m45s82And perhaps only such a marginal production could have displayed its misogyny so crudely. But to dismiss Space on this count would be problematic (and not just because many Hollywood productions of the period were just as bad, if more polished). Rather, it is another imperfection that opens up that particular historical conjuncture. This is not to exculpate – nor is it to damn with faint praise by reducing Space to the status of an interesting historical document. More accurate than Star Wars, it tries to offer a new hope, albeit an imperfect one.

Notes
[i]

Although as Mike Wayne argues in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (Pluto 2001) we should not regard these types of cinema as pigeonholes into which movies can be placed—instead, particular movies should be considered as embodying the dialectical interplay of these different cinemas.

[ii]

The films of the LA Rebellion group, which mostly rejected blaxploitation, can be understood as another attempt.

[iii]

Compare the wimped-out ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J Lee Thompson 1972).

[iv]

See Graham Lock’s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke 1999).

The Shining (Mick Garris 1997)

Stephen_King's_THE_SHINING_(mini-series_intertitle)Stephen King just won’t let it go.

There is an ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of Doctor Sleep (2013) that, under the guise of clarifying that it is a sequel-by-popular-demand to his 1977 novel rather than to Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining, says of the latter: ‘many seem to remember [it] – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest movies they have ever seen’ (483). The next paragraph does not proclaim the TV miniseries King himself adapted as superior to the movie, but it does sing the praises of his more-or-less-reliable-hack director Mick Garris’s Psycho IV, as if to trump Kubrick with a Hitchcock.

It is coyly done, as if King knows it is not at all convincing.

But anyway, as part of my ongoing preparation for teaching Kubrick’s film as a cult movie, after reading the novel I watched the miniseries over several nights. I would have got through it sooner, but after episode one my ever-patient housemate cried no más, and scheduling became an issue – poor thing missed out completely on the slightly less terrible second and third episodes…

The main problems with the miniseries are its plodding adherence to the novel and the deadening literalness of its treatment of the supernatural elements. All it takes is that first glimpse of Danny’s (Courtland Mead) imaginary friend Tony (Wil Horneff) bobbing about in the air to realise quite how brilliant Kubrick was to have Danny (Danny Lloyd) talking to his finger instead. (Probably didn’t help that it immediately took me back to being thirteen and watching Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) miniseries and bursting out laughing at the supposedly scary bit when the fat vampire kid taps on the window.)

These two intertwined problems began to fill me with dread when the first episode started obsessing about the topiary animals, trying to make them ominous. Will they be brought to life as badly as the cgi hosepipe? How could the bush-animal attack sequences – presumably originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Veldt’ (1950) – possibly work?

I generally find Bradbury overrated, but even I must concede the novel’s reworking of this material makes make him seem subtle.

Screen shot 2012-02-29 at 13.50.16Garris very sensibly, if not very effectively, relies on camera movements, editing and switching-in props to bring the topiary lions to life. Until the ‘cliffhanger’ ending of episode two, the final shot of which shows Danny being stalked unaware by three cgi shrubs. (They do not appear again except fleetingly in the climax of episode three. Thankfully.) To be clear, this is not ragging on the special effects because they are bad, but because they are badly chosen.

Generally, the physical effects work best, but there is something so amiss about the individual episodes’ and the series’  pacing that they too become a problem. The first couple of times a door opens or closes or an object moves mysteriously is fine, but you pretty quickly find yourself wondering whether it is always the same bloke hidden just out of shot pushing the door, how much he gets paid, what he had for lunch… Not so much ‘how did they do that?’ as ‘why?’ And it does make you wonder what exactly they spent the $25 million budget on.

I guess, in part, the format is the problem. Economics dictate that a network TV miniseries made in the 1990s can’t be too scary or unnerving or disturbing, so the supernatural horror has to be blandly by-the-numbers and the domestic abuse material has to be displaced as far as possible.

So I have a lot of sympathy for the cast.

Winifred Torrance is a badly underwritten character in the novel – all I can really remember is King banging on about her breasts – and she is no better served by a script that slaps on a bunch of embarrassing clichés. Garris does not seem to have any idea what to do with her, and Rebecca De Mornay struggles. Indeed, in episode one, she even seems to struggle to walk across rooms, although she does do one brilliant bit of almost indiscernible crabstepping down a hotel corridor that is simply not wide enough to accommodate three or four actors walking abreast.

Steve Weber, as Jack, has the easier job – do what Jack Nicholson did but not the way he did it. Even so, it is only when the later episodes allow Weber to ham it up that he becomes even remotely effective, and in the second half of episode theshining1997three, this is largely down to his make-up – which gives him the appearance of a beaten-up, tear-stained clown.

As Danny, basin-cut Courtland Mead clearly shares no genetic material with either of his parents. He looks like one of those profoundly unattractive children who used to get cast in Dallas or Dynasty for no reason other than that their dad was a producer on the show. His performance does get better in the later episodes, and his unexpected ‘I love snow’ song is a bizarre delight, but I kept finding myself wondering whether the alcoholic, physically abusive Jack ever used his son’s enormous teeth to open beer bottles.

Most of the time the three principals, especially De Mornay, have the air of people wondering how much longer they are going to have to keep this up for…

The decision to play Ullman (Elliot Gould) as a mincing lisper is a really poor choice, but not as badly judged as Stephen King’s cameo as bandleader Gage Creed – at least he didn’t black up for his terrible Cab Calloway impersonation. (There is a chummy array of horror-related cameos: Frank Darabont, Peter James, Richard Christian Matheson, David J. Schow – and Sam Raimi stealing the bread from his brother, Ted’s, mouth.)

Pat Hingle, as Pete Watson, is probably the only actor to escape with his dignity intact, professionally ploughing through this nonsense the same way he has done since the 1950s.

But it is Melvin Van Peebles, as Dick Halloran, who has the best line:

911 ain’t the answer, ma’am, only wish it was.

Good to know that baadasssss is still out there.

The_Shining_Melvin_Van_Peebles_01