Friday, September 30, 2011
Ganja & Hess
A vampire film which never mentions the word vampire, Bill Gunn's incredible film has often been cited erroneously as a Blaxploitation bloodsucker flick 1 - if only it had been, the film might have found an audience, but Ganja & Hess is one of those rare species of films that refuses to be pinned down by any shorthand description. A work of tremendous style and intelligence, the film is not easy to digest in a single viewing. At the heart of the film is the theme of Black Culture and its absorption by a dominant White Culture, the conflict between African religion (and heritage), represented by the ancient blood-addicted Nigerian civilisation Hess is studying, versus the White Christianity that swept it away. This idea informs the style of the film, which ebbs and flows with disassociated imagery (often violent and sexual), strange juxtapositions and fractured editing. If one had to describe the film in simple terms, you might say it comes somewhere between George Romero's Martin, and Cammell & Roeg's Performance, while sharing a certain kinship with the dream cinema of Vampyr, Carnival of Souls and Eraserhead.
Visually the film shot on Super16mm has a suitably grungy looking texture, but is often startlingly beautiful - like an early sequence in the film where Hess dreams of the Queen of the Myrthia people, with her incredible headpiece, or a shot late in the film where the arrival of death is represented by the gentle blow of leaves across a floor. Complimenting the images is the extraordinary musical score by Sam Waymon which takes in blues, jazz, Black spirituals, African work songs and electronic soundscapes. The film hinges on the excellent performances from the two titular leads - Duane Jones, who played the revolutionary role of the black hero from Night of the Living Dead delivers a fine, affecting turn as Hess, his cool, detatched manner hiding a heavy soul (from the need for blood and the necessity of killing for it), while his co-star Marlene Clark as Ganja is just as good, radiant and formidable in equal measure. She has one of the most memorable scenes in the film when she describes how an incident from her childhood helped shape her philosophy on life.
Thanks to the All Day Entertainment label, Ganja & Hess was rescued from oblivion when it first appeared on DVD in 1998. The transfer was struck from one of the very few surviving prints of the film, held by the Museum of Modern Art. Framed at 1.85, the image looks about as good as one would expect - the blow up to 35mm has resulted in some scenes looking excessively grainy (like a scene where Hess speaks to his son), while the apparent softness of the film was partly due to an aesthetic choice of cinematographer James Hinton. The audio track is better, the film's special sound-design sounds particularly powerful here. Extras include production stills and artwork, a reproduction of Tim Lucas and David Walker's article on the film from Video Watchdog #3 (“The Savaging and Salvaging of an American Classic"), plus a fine audio commentary with Marlene Clark, James Hinton and Sam Waymon. In 2006, All Day re-released the film as Ganja & Hess - The Complete Edition, which featured the same transfer and a few additional extras, but added a further 3 minutes of footage which was not included in the MoMA print.
1. The film's reputation as a Blaxploitation vampire film is due to the film's most widely seen, shorter version, Blood Couple, which was released on video in the US under a number of titles - Black Vampire, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, Black Evil, and the awkward Blackout: Moment of Terror. Unlike other hatchet jobs like the cutting of Once Upon A Time In the West, Blood Couple has a certain legitimacy - Fima Noveck, who doctored Ganja & Hess, reshaped the film in line with Bill Gunn's original screenplay (which was much more linear than the finished film) and includes scenes not in Ganja & Hess, but taken from the workprint. Blood Couple also includes different musical cues and sound effects and some instances of different dialogue, making it an interesting companion to the original film.