Monday, November 20, 2006

Rated X by an All-White Jury

So Tuwa saw Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song the other day, and following his lead, so did I (this was my second viewing). Why the crazy film grammar? I haven't done the research that might give us a really satisfactory answer, but let me speculate a little first, then I'll post a few facts about the film's production. Maybe a little later down the line I'll post more with some reading under my belt.

It's interesting that this film has come up on EL just at the same time I've posted the Sharits image (and, uh, "dialogue excerpt") from T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. We know, and can trace, the loose netting of connections between the low culture 'generic' or 'exploitation' film by the very late 1950s or early 1960s into the 1970s and those of the high culture 'modernist' (including, even, 'structuralist' or 'materialist') cinema of the same time. The experimental elements of classy Metzger (a swingin' and cocktail-slingin' Resnais) or trashy Meyer (a Mojave desert trucker-Eisenstein), for instance. A fellow cinephile on the Net, many months ago, suggested I check out Vernon Zimmerman and Andrew Meyer, who both began in the a-g but moved into exploitation. Andy Milligan? Jack Smith? So many possibilities, and I'm only mentioning (mainly) American work thus far. Sweet Sweetback boasts a straightforward narrative through-line: Sweetback, who has had a tough live but possesses great sexual prowess, is sold out in a to-be-minor way by his (black) employer, only to "break," and find himself on the run from the police.

Moment to moment, though, the film is disjointed, repetitive, "crunchy" rather than smooth. At one point in the film a woman complains about how, when her children get old and bad, the government takes them away from her--she might have had one named Leroy, but she can't rightly recall. On the soundtrack her couple of lines are replayed, with slight variation as to where they might stop or begin, at least a half a dozen times. What's the reason for something like this? What's the rationale behind stray cuts and nonlinear throwaway footage in Melvin Van Peebles' film? I would suggest that it's got something to do with whatever also inspired the likes of Snow. For this question I'm moved to suggest that the issue at hand isn't one of Everest-like aesthetic experimentation "trickling down" from the contemporaneous high-cinematic heroes of Manny Farber and Peter Wollen circa 1971 to the supposedly lower forms of Russ Meyer's bosomania and MVP's struggles against The Man. Rather it's a multi-front assault, where fringes of popular cinema--the trashy, the generic, the rebellious--working on, in their own way, the sorts of problems that artists like Sharits, Snow, et al. are expressing at the same time. (Again, let me emphasize I'm dealing mostly with an "American" scene--North American, if you will--for convenience's sake more than anything else.)

Sweet Sweetback is dangerous in part because it doesn't connect its critique of racism to a nice narrative that we can enjoy thoughtlessly ("we" here meaning white viewers, at least; I can only idly imagine how various non-white audiences saw and see the film). It's a brutal narrative, a story about ruthless domination, relentless pursuit, and unsolicited survivalism. The story almost has to be fractured on an experiential level (and simplified on a conceptual one) in order to deliver the real ... I hesitate, but: meaning ... of the film. That is to say, the tool of the three- or five-act narrative, with three-dimensional characterization, seamless pacing and continuity editing, which historically suits the fiction feature film so well, is usefully fractured in this particular fiction feature film because it renders more palpable the offenses dealt to its characters (and by association "The Black Community," credited as stars in the film, of course); it depicts more nakedly the structures and enactment of racial aggression and domination that whites, particularly powerful whites and their servant classes whether brain or brawn (not all white characters in the film are "enemies" though), carry out. The narrative doesn't carry us, we have to sit and watch each abuse, hear each sad or angry line, for what they are--and as pulled stitches out of what we may prefer to be a seamless narrative.

In short, my preliminary guess as to why Melvin Van Peebles made this film the way he did is that the techniques offered a utilitarian solution to his expression of flight, struggle, and solidarity in the face of the American racial/social structure. This is not to say that I think MVP didn't also have strong aesthetic interests in such techniques, too: he might have, much like someone like Sharits. But the pragmatic usefulness of these techniques seems to me to be a pretty unavoidable justification. (I haven't seen Story of a Three Day Pass yet, but the more traditional film Watermelon Man seemed pretty unsuccessful to me. It's worth seeing if it falls within one's personal or scholarly interests, of course, but I can't say it's quite as damning and--this is important--motivating an indictment of American race relations as Sweetback is.)

* * *

"Stating that what major studies like Columbia Pictures, which had offered him a three-picture contract, called a little control he called extreme control, Van Peebles dropped the contract to make a "revolutionary" and independent film. Produced for $50,000--the money he had earned as director of Columbia's Watermelon Man, a loan of $50,000 from Bill Cosby, and funds from nonindustry sources--Van Peebles's $500,000 production, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1970) changed the course of African American film production and the depiction of African Americans on screen. ... Unlike the experience of Gordon Parks with Warner Bros., Van Peebles avoided paying film industry craft union wages by claiming to be producing a porno picture. He also wrote and directed the film and composed the music, in addition to playing the leading man. Released through Cinemation, initially in only two theaters, one in Detroit and one in Atlanta, Sweetback grossed over $10 million in its first run."

-- Jesse Algernon Rhines, Black Film/White Money. Rutgers UP, 1996. p. 43-44. [Sic on the figures mentioned, by the way. I think that the first $50K might be a typo, that is, $500K?]

1 comment:

Tuwa said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Zach. I suspected I was missing something important and possibly obvious, and your theory makes a lot of sense.