Lone Wolf in Black America: A Bill Gunn Retrospective

Jun 16th, 2010

“I’ve liked every script I’ve ever written,” Bill Gunn told an interviewer in 1971, “I’ve hated every movie made from them.” It’s a prickly statement for a screenwriter, especially one with such a precarious reputation: fresh off two box-office failures, Gunn had already scandalized Warner Brothers with the wildly pan-sexual “Stop,” which the studio funded but then refused to release. Two years later Gunn would write and direct the gonzo vampire freak-out “Ganja and Hess,” making his greatest cinematic contribution while functionally ending his film career.

The quotation feels especially prescient now, more than 20 years after Gunn’s death, from encephalitis at age 54. His résumé is dismally short, filled with broken projects that range from the entirely ruined (prior to release, “Ganja and Hess” was carved up by the studio, reduced to a cheesy Blaxpoitation flick called “Blood Couple”) to the slightly mussed (Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord”). “Ganja,” which the 1973 Cannes jury named one of the most important American movies of the decade, has thankfully been restored on DVD. Yet in surveying Gunn’s contributions it’s still difficult to make a full assessment, partially because key elements of his oeuvre are so inaccessible. Both “Stop” and “Personal Problems,” Gunn’s experimental 1980 soap opera with writer Ishmael Reed, screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April, both on videotape. Neither has been released to the public in any form.

Even material that is widely available, like the 1976 Muhammad Ali biopic “The Greatest,” remains suspect due to interference from other writers. Gunn wasn’t even credited for his work on that project, the script of which was completed by Ring Lardner Jr. Yet even Gunn’s thin oeuvre is enough to showcase an obvious talent, an iconoclastic artist whose voice remains resonantly fierce, even in places where it may have been altered. His 1970s films approach race more intimately and angrily than any others of the period, twisting and defying conventions that others might have taken for granted. To quote Brandon Harris in Filmmaker magazine, “You could say that Bill Gunn was a man who came before his time, but that leaves you working under the flimsy assumption that a time more hospitable to this man of undeniable talents and mercurial preoccupations would some day come.”

Gunn’s career began and ended in the theatre, where he progressed from a ‘50s acting career to writing his own plays – the last of which, “The Forbidden City,” opened the day after his death. The ill-fated “Stop” was his first attempt at film, profiling a college professor and his wife on vacation in Puerto Rico, where their marriage disintegrates in a surreal welter of infidelity and emotional violence.

After “Stop,” Gunn wrote “The Landlord” which despite his negative assessment is probably the best of his scripts handled by another director. A wacky race comedy turned inside out, it follows the privileged Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), as he attempts to remodel a tenement building in a run-down black neighborhood. While seemingly poised to lapse into the kind of preachy comedy with a built-in stock of life lessons, “The Landlord” never makes that transition, battling its narrative constraints the entire way, finding time for some impassionedly real arguments and Gunn’s trademark surrealism. This occurs most notably in a party scene, where Elgar’s drunkenness gives way to a fever-dream of creepy close-ups — similar to the camera confrontations in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” — where his tenants’ real feelings about his presence are revealed.

In many respects “The Landlord” feels like a conventional new-cinema excursion layered over a more free-form exercise. Elgar’s arc, wherein he leaves home, meets girl, escapes parents, loses (and finally regains) girl, is a standard one. But thanks to Gunn, there are more subversive points lurking between these predictable points. An important key to the story’s ending is that, rather than settle in the building he has worked on for months, Elgar signs it over to its tenants. He moves out, settling with a mixed race woman in her comfortable apartment. This is a sign of growth, the manifestation of his newfound ability to respect the space of others, but also an admission that change occurs in stages. The détente Elgar reaches at the end of the film –- matured in some aspects, defeated in others -– is far more complex than its structure demands. On one level it plays almost like an urban version of Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” without a Kurtz, a descent into a foreign world that leaves him conquered but irreparably transformed.

“The Angel Levine,” released the same year, starring Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel, takes on a similar racial collision on a smaller (albeit more mythical) scale. Cloaked as an uplifting redemption story, it’s even more formulaically rigid, with a slim plot that exhausts itself two-thirds of the way through, circling the runway in search of an ending. But the fact that the movie is less successful also makes it more sneakily seditious, a seemingly unambitious disappointment dotted with punctured stereotypes.

Alexander Levine (Belafonte), fatally struck by a car in a failed shoplifting attempt, later appears to Morris Mishkin (Mostel), whose warning to the shopkeeper indirectly caused Levine’s death. Cinema’s first black-Jewish angel, he’s a messenger from God with a sketchily defined message: he knows he needs to help Mishkin to get into heaven, beyond that he’s clueless. Mishkin is doubtful, Levine is irritable, and the odd couple dynamic presents rote laughs against a grim winter backdrop, where it steadily becomes unclear whether Levine is here to save Mishkin’s soul or purify his own.

The key to the film’s limited success is that, while Levine is an angel, there’s nothing holy about him. Not imparted with any divine knowledge or purpose, he’s as confused about the hereafter as he was on earth, and as we learn, hasn’t really accepted his death. His girlfriend appears. They fight over petty things and the idea of marriage, without ever broaching the strange elephant in the room. Levine knows he needs to guide Mishkin, who has verbally renounced God in the face of his wife’s wasting illness, but has no idea how to go about this transformation.

Viewed forty years later, much of “The Angel Levine” feels like a prophetic riff on the ‘magical negro’ archetype, where a numinous black man (cf. Morgan Freeman) shows up out of nowhere to teach a white guy some important lessons. “The Angel Levine” is noticeably short on lessons, but as Mishkin’s disbelief evaporates, both at the existence of a black angel or a messenger from God without a coherent message, a theme of acceptance emerges, forged through discussion and the thrashing out of cultural conflicts. It may take a miracle to bring these two men together, but once they honestly face the subject of their differences, thorny as this encounter may be, those differences evaporate in lieu of some hard-earned common ground.

It’s not totally clear what made Gunn so unhappy about these films. Taken together, they stress the importance of dialogue in the face of great dissimilarity, while also acknowledging the inherent difficulties of accepting someone so different from oneself. It’s impossible to tell what was altered in the transition from script to screen, but one potential thread is the depiction of Gunn’s characters. Belafonte plays Levine with a soft-edged sense of false danger: he’s a tough-talking criminal, but you know all along his good heart will prevail. This removes the interesting potential of an angel possibly lashing out at a befuddled old man, and drains tension, specifically in a scene where he snatches away the last of Mishkin’s savings, only to quickly give it back.

Similarly, Louis Gosset Jr.’s portrayal of the sometimes-militant Copee in “The Landlord” is strangely broad, played as an over the top comic figure roughly half of the time. This leads to a scramble of emotions in the film’s climactic scene: as he chases Elgar with an ax, the action plays out as a confusing mix of comedy and horror.

It’s hardly surprising that Gunn’s undeniable high point came with “Ganja and Hess,” which gave him free rein to indulge his ideas without initial interference. An inspired, overloaded jumble of a film, it uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, developing this subtext into an examination of black class division and religious expression. After Dr. Hess Green (played by Duane Green, five years after his lead role in “Night of the Living Dead”) returns from Africa with a mysterious ancient dagger, he is brutally attacked by his unstable assistant George (Gunn) who plunges the dagger into his chest. George opens his wrists in a bath, leading to a hallucinatory scene where Hess is reanimated, sprawling supine to lap the blood off the bathroom’s tile floor.

Loaded with hazy inter-cutting of African chants, patiently unraveling scenes and copious male nudity, “Ganja” stands out as one of the boldest films of the era, with the significant distinction of making Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback” look relatively normal by comparison. Addled by his dependence on blood, Hess finds himself caught up by George’s gold-digging wife, a relationship eventually culminating in a ritualistic love/murder scene. The events that follow, where he revives her by cutting his own wrist with the shards of one glass, then pours that blood into another, stands out as a rigorously unsettling statement on the cycling toll of addiction.

Not really a horror film, “Ganja” is just as concerned with talk as Gunn’s previous projects, upholding it as the crucible by which his characters are judged. George stabs Hess after a failed suicide attempt, possibly brought on by an awkward exchange where the doctor rudely ignores an anecdote he’s sharing, itself about a communication breakdown between himself and a Dutch film director. Hess’s refusal to engage his subordinate is later by mirrored by George’s wife, who treats a black butler like he’s of an inferior species, giving maddeningly specific orders with haughty impatience. With any semblance of inter-face conflict removed, the issue becomes more about the importance of communication than anything else.

Despite adoration from abroad, “Ganja and Hess,” proved too much for the studio to handle. The hack job that produced “Blood Couple,” which runs for 85 minutes and makes room for only the blood and sex, signaled the end of Gunn’s mainstream career. Afterward, the thread of his writing practically disappears. He wrote nothing else for the movies besides “The Greatest,” a weirdly strident Muhammad Ali biopic (starring Ali himself) which abandons dry hero worship for a bizarre take on the boxer as seen by himself. Veering between giddy moments of outright weirdness (Ali impersonating the voice of an old lady in a faked complaint call to police, driving his brightly-colored bus onto Joe Frasier’s lawn in the middle of the night) and a dreary sense of self-satisfaction, the film contains only scant traces of Gunn’s style.

Searching “The Greatest” for these traces is analogous to finding the line between cult legend Monte Hellmann, who finished the film, and B-movie workhorse Tom Gries, who died during production. As a biography it’s irreparably scarred by the overwhelming Ali, who despite his charisma leaves a patina of narcissism all over the project. The flashes of Gunn that emerge in the final product, from the focus on talk to Ali’s fierce verbal take-down of his white managers, reverberate with his energy but not his style.

Ali seems like a potentially ideal Gunn protagonist, ready to reach across party lines and well spoken enough to explain his feelings, but he’s also depressingly one-sided. He doesn’t listen as much as act, fighting against racism with his fists and self-possessed attitude more than through dialogue. With Ali in charge of the production, Gunn’s early script-work seems to have largely vanished. Just as time nearly swallowed him, forgetting his exceptional trailblazing efforts, “The Greatest” completely consumes Gunn, burying his trademark style in its fawning devotion to its subject.

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