Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) A Film by Melvin Van Peebles

Of Melvin Van Peebles’ furious but short-circuited cinematic sojourn I’d only seen The Watermelon Man until now, which looks practically clinical and anonymous compared to the impassioned energy of the much more down-and-dirty Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. That so many have objected to the film on the grounds of its prioritization of technique over all else is a frustrating confirmation of the exact same dominant white man's aesthetic bias that Peebles is aggressively rejecting with this movie (walking out of the screening, friend and fellow critic Jake Mulligan astutely pointed to the discussion in Something in the Air about the extent to which revolutionary ideas must be expressed with revolutionary aesthetics, rightly implying that Peebles’ film lands on the side of the mad young radicals). Progressive intentions aside, though, it's clear that Song is expressing its ideas through discursive stylization rather than classical notions of narrative, character and theme, and it’s absurd to hoist upon it conditions which it doesn’t even set for itself.

Peebles’ gamble is more about destroying any sense of pleasantness, coherence (temporal or spatial), or fluidity from his film’s surface in an attempt to harass the cultural hegemony that habitually subjugates black expression. The movie’s violent layering of beats—a mash-up of various 20th century African-American musical heritages such as funk, jazz, spirituals, street folk—is the gutsiest move and achieves the most tremendous effects, as a cacophony of clashing sound escalates into a sonic mess that wages war with the buffoonish hollering of the white pursuers. Peebles complements this aural disarray with a splatter of visual excess: snap zooms covering the entire spectrum of some of the longest zoom lenses available to 16mm guerrilla filmmakers, in-camera superimpositions, prismatic filters, disorderly handheld work and an onslaught of staccato cuts to traveling shots, all filtered through a quintessentially 70s palette in which the sky’s more burnt orange than blue. This overabundance works best when Peebles’ own character (a fugitive escaping from the largely white police for typically dubious reasons) is on the go, less so when making pit stops at his whorehouse for inert vignettes of awkward missionary sex. Fortunately, Song’s final movement into the desert is relentlessly peripatetic, and it’s where the style crescendos to a primal scream of outrage. Who, during a sequence of such phenomenally grating sensory bombardment, would be foolish enough to go looking for “dramatic content”? Vincent Canby, that’s who.

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