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Remind Me

Ganja and Hess

The immensely talented director, writer, and actor Bill Gunn (1934-1989) was a seminal figure in African American art. Recognized in his lifetime as an important playwright and stage director, he is now best known for his work in films. Yet his contributions to cinema were limited, no doubt mainly for two reasons: an institutional racism that confined and tokenized African Americans and Gunn's refusal to work within ordinary commercial frameworks.

In 1973, the year of Gunn's major filmmaking achievement, Ganja & Hess, Gunn had already directed one film, Stop (1970), for Warner Bros. Dealing with both male and female homosexual relationships, the film was saddled with an X rating and shelved by its distributor. It remains unreleased, though a video copy was screened in 2010 in a Gunn series at BAM in Brooklyn. Writing on that occasion in the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton called Stop "a Puerto Rico-set, bisexual, interracial ménage à quatre - a languid, druggy-decadent psychodrama of high emotional toxicity at a time when emerging black filmmakers were expected to work in familiar genre and earthy 'reality.'"

Perhaps inspired by American-International Pictures' announcement of their production of Blacula (1972), independent company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises approached Gunn in 1972 to make a "black vampire" film on a $350,000 budget. Gunn accepted with misgivings. "The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film," Gunn confided in a friend. Nevertheless, he thought he could redeem the project by using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. "If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood," he later said. The producers' inexperience meant that Gunn had a free hand in writing, directing, and editing Ganja & Hess. Shot on location at the Apple Bee Farm (Croton-on-Hudson, New York) and the Brooklyn Museum, the film was released in 1973 and was selected for the Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Discouraged by poor box office, Kelly-Jordan took the film out of distribution and sold it to another company, Heritage Enterprises, which issued a rescored and drastically recut version under the title Blood Couple. (This version has been released on VHS under a number of titles.) Gunn disowned this version, and, fortunately, his original cut was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, whose screenings of Ganja & Hess helped build its reputation as a neglected classic of independent African American cinema.

The bare outline of the plot of Ganja & Hess suggests a very strange horror film. The hero is Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy anthropologist who is doing research on the Myrthians, an ancient African nation of blood drinkers. When his unstable assistant, Meda, stabs him with a Myrthian ceremonial dagger, Green becomes a vampire endowed with immortality. Meda's wife, Ganja, comes to Green's house in search of her husband, who has committed suicide, and Ganja and Green become lovers.

What the recital of the plot fails to make clear is the extent to which Gunn has incorporated the horror elements of his story into the rich texture of a work that deals with a range of themes: the opposition between African religion and Christianity, class and social divisions among urban African Americans, sexuality, the independent Black Woman, and more. Gunn's complex storytelling makes it impossible to reduce Ganja & Hess to any simple allegory. Preying on the black urban underclass, Green is not only a romantic, aristocratic hero but also a murderous exploiter of people. On the other hand, his final search for redemption in the arms of the Protestant church is a surrender and a betrayal. Ambiguities abound: what are we to make of Meda's obsession with suicide, or of Ganja's hostility toward Green's docile butler? By complicating the viewer's responses to all the characters and situations, and to the religious and cultural symbols surrounding them, Gunn evokes some of the paradoxes of African American experience, seeking not to resolve them but to place the viewer in the middle of them. In its strengths, Ganja & Hess is reminiscent of Hal Ashby's stunning The Landlord (1970), for which Gunn wrote the script, and it seems likely that the most interesting aspects of The Landlord are due to Gunn rather than to Ashby (whose later and better known films do not reproduce these elements).

Languid, cloying in the beauty of its images, Ganja & Hess sometimes accumulates great visual force. In a scene of love-making-slash-killing, the victim seems transformed into a glistening apparition, as much crystal as flesh. The soundtrack is striking, with its insistent use of African chant, contrasted with soul-rock passages. The warped solemnity of much of the film is successfully tempered by elements of deadpan black comedy (as in the scenes between Ganja and the butler). Gunn draws effective performances from Duane Jones (the male lead of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead [1968]) as Green and Marlene Clark as Ganja. Jones's elegant, abstracted bearing sharply delineates the doctor's psychological predicament, while Clark, matching him in poise, negotiates Ganja's transformation from a tough, aggressive, me-first survivor into a romantic increasingly fascinated with her new lover. ("Ganja is not unlike Billie Holiday," write Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman. "She is a woman who defines her values in the skepticism of the Blues tradition.") Gunn himself makes a strong impression as the enigmatic and ill-fated Meda. In casting himself in this role, Gunn perhaps had in mind the link between art and death that is one of the underlying themes of his film; perhaps he also had in mind the chronic difficulties of the black artist in the United States, difficulties he had long struggled with and that helped ensure that Ganja & Hess would be his last film.

Producer: Chiz Schultz
Director, Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Cinematography: James E. Hinton
Film Editing: Victor Kanefsky
Art Direction: Tom H. John
Music: Sam Waymon
Cast: Duane Jones (Dr. Hess Green), Marlene Clark (Ganja), Bill Gunn (George Meda), Sam Waymon (Reverend Williams), Leonard Jackson (Archie).
C-110m.

by Chris Fujiwara

Sources:
Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman, "Ganja and Hess: Vampires, Sex, and Addictions," Jump Cut, no. 35 (1990), pp. 30-36. Online at http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC35folder/ganja-Hess.html.
David Kalat, "In Search of Ganja & Hess," Video Watchdog, No. 130 (May 2007), pp. 20-25.
Phyllis Rauch Klotman, editor, Screenplays of the African American Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Nick Pinkerton, "'The Groundbreaking Bill Gunn' at BAM," Village Voice, March 31, 2010. Online at
http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-03-30/film/the-groundbreaking-bill-gunn-at-bam/
John Williams, "Bill Gunn (1929-1989): A Checklist of his Films, Dramatic Works, and Novels," Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Winter 1991), pp. 781-787.

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