High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, June 26, 2004

Sweet Front and Center

I've been trying to remember when it was that I saw Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. It was a midnight showing, I was alone (who would have gone with me, after all), and I think it had to have been in 1994 during the 27 days of no sleep. The only detail that doesn't jibe is that I was seriously fucking broke in 1994---eating popcorn for weeks, no electricity for a while, and so on. So what the heck I was doing blowing money on blaxploitation? But there it is.

The print was lousy---huge splices, visible burn holes, desultory sound and so on. The film itself is technically oddball in parts, the kind of problems that come from no money, no resources, etc., though, rather than lack of skill or giving a shit. But the movie is a deadly serious undertaking without some of the true wackiness of other films nominally in the same genre. Rudy Ray Moore, for example, is no doubt totally serious about Dolemite, but he's also permanently Out to Lunch, and it shows.

Tonight we saw Badassssss! We went in thinking it was a documentary (thank you Chicago Reader for your way with absolutely contentless reviews) and were surprised to find it a "Bio Pic" in the literal sense of the term---Badasssss is about the life of a movie that happens to star Mario van Peebles as Melvin van Peebles directing, among others, Mario van Peebles.

The fact that it is not a documentary is in no way a disappointment, because the movie is so many things. It starts out almost surrealist, with Melvin, for the most part, holed up in a small, grim apartment, scrawling out the script on a yellow legal pad, tacking new pages to the wall as he's visited by images from the film and the images that are driving him to make the film and resist the studio's insistence that he provide another comedy. The film is so skillfully made that, even if one had no interest in the subject (and boo on you if so), it's entrancing to watch.

As he starts to put together the cast and crew, the narrative is more straightforward for a while, and the energy and momentum are infectious---Melvin at this point is charasmatic and abrasive and visionary and uncompromising and you know why it is that his long, strange trip of a cast and crew is there. They can't not be there. And most of them can't leave even when things immediately start to go to hell.

It's a harrowing, tiring movie if you've ever done this stuff (and I have, minus the loaded gun, I think---shooting [not guns!] without permits, making do with short ends, trying to feed people, worrying about injuries, constantly worrying where cash will come from, replacing missing actors), and the film does a great job of keeping the entire crew sympathetic as they try to handle the implosions going on throughout the landscape of the project.

As Sweetback is being made, Badasssss! begins to incorporate documentary elements---brief clips of the actors, in character, talking about their experiences during the making of the film are inserted. And even as these people are recounting the craziness of it all, there's a simultaneous documentary being made in Melvin's head as he reminds himself and the audience of why he needs to make the film, come what may: A thousand clips of whites playing blacks, Asians, Indians, and of blacks being allowed in the door only to play subservient roles or to be on the receiving end of abuse.

By the time Melvin, Mario, and the movie made it to Detroit, I was worn out and near a breakdown right along with them (is there any better sign of a successful story than, even when you know the outcome, you worry, hope, and pray every time that it will come out right?). The harsh reality of Melvin turning it on for the limited publicity he's able to do and switching it off so rapidly to lapse back into the borderline abusive person he's become resonates a little too well with---well, pretty much everyone during tech week or on the last days of shooting. As the credits roll, there are brief interview clips with the real people we've just seen in the film, ending with a silent shot of Melvin himself.

The cast is pretty fantastic across the board. I can't say enough about Mario van Peebles's performance---I hope it was cathartic for him, because otherwise, I think it just might have killed him. The other incredible stand out is Khleo Thomas as the young Mario. The objective facts of his 13-year-old involvement in the film are pretty brutal, but Mario the director/writer, constantly keeps the fact that he loves his father and loved and admired him even in the worst of times. Thomas has very little dialogue (like Sweetback himself), but he sells every moment of hurt, love, and ambivalence.

This is an amazing and important movie and, unlike many amazing and important movies, incredibly entertaining. Go see it, or I'll fuck your shit up.

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