Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ganja & Hess (1973) dir. Bill Gunn

Logline: During a tussle with his suicidal assistant, anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed with an ancient African dagger, causing him to develop an insatiable appetite for blood. When the assistant's wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), arrives at Hess's home looking for her husband, she promptly moves in and begins to uncover the doctor's dark secret while falling in love with him. The couple soon descend into a nightmarish cycle of passion, addiction, and blood.

The potentially winning financial prospects for a black vampire film in the year after Blacula's massive success inspired Kelly/Jordan Productions to greenlight just such a project, placing their faith in producer Chiz Schultz to deliver an inexpensive slice of simplistic, easy-to-sell blaxploitation horror. Instead of aiming for that hard-to-miss goalpost, Schultz approached African American actor/playwright/screenwriter/author Bill Gunn with the project. Gunn wasn't at all interested in making a black vampire movie, but was very interested in directing a feature film, so accepted the job, figuring he could manipulate and transform the proposed vampire angle into a theme that interested him. The film produced from this uneasy marriage, Ganja & Hess, wound up resembling nothing close to a blaxploitation film, barring its use of an entirely black cast. Rather, Gunn's brilliant and chilling film was infected by the bug of independent 1970s arthouse cinema. In its direction, writing, and cinematography, Ganja & Hess has far more in common with John Cassavettes's early directorial output-- Shadows (1959), Faces (1968)-- than with Blackenstein (1973). The film is suffused with meandering conversations (equally as full of inanities as of profundities), disembodying close-ups of the actors, and frequent frightening dips into the well of nigh inscrutable surrealistic imagery. The film's distributors, horrified and befuddled by the seemingly unsaleable product Gunn and Schultz made with their money, mercilessly cut the film from its original running time of 113 minutes down to a breezy and incoherent 78, jettisoning all the material ancillary to their top priority for the film (blood-drinking). This version of the film, re-titled Blood Couple (and then given innumerable other titles for its various home video releases), though an affront to Gunn's original intentions for the film, was the only available version of the film for several decades after its brief theatrical release as Ganja & Hess (which included an acclaimed stop at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival).

What's lost in a re-edit of the film focusing on vampirism is that Ganja & Hess is a film concerned with addiction, not monster movie lore. These vampires walk in sunlight, drink their blood from cups, and haven't the ability to flap away into the night air as bats. (Though Hess, a wealthy and solitary man, does inhabit his own Dracula-esque mansion). The characters' vampirism is symbolic, pointing towards the codependent relationships spawned by addiction and the inevitable destruction they cause. (What addiction, precisely, the film's vampirism is symbolic of is left deliberately obscure. One might choose to read the characters' names as providing a hint, but the film most often seems to lean towards an addiction to sexual desire. Neither those nor any other explanation seem to fit the film precisely, which may indicate the film's decision to present a universal portrayal of addiction through fantasy, making it easily applicable to the real disease's numerous forms. Vampirism as addiction is a thematic device that's found its own comfortable niche in the artsy horror cinema of recent years, particularly in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995), Larry Fessenden's Habit (1997), and Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001).

Consequent to its emphasis on addiction, the film ponders issues of personal responsibility when a person is afflicted: is Hess, a person who has admittedly killed others to satiate his own, a criminal or a victim? A murderer or an innocent? Moreover, where's the dividing line between desire and need, and how are we capable of discerning which is which, of justifying anything as a desperate, uncontrollable need? (Hess's awkward, poetic, and suicidal assistant, George Meda (played by Bill Gunn himself), sums this dilemma up nicely in a monologue in which he asks Hess, rhetorically, "Do you know what hunger is?") When Hess selfishly shares his addiction with Ganja in order to bring them closer together, it in fact only tears them farther apart: Ganja, who is honest about her focus on her own self-interest and who has seen herself since childhood as a literal disease who infects others, learns to embrace her bloodlust while Hess, who is revolted at her behavior, his own behavior, or some combination of the two, chooses to save himself through a purifying-- and fatal-- embrace of the Christian religion. The film's offered conclusions to these issues and questions (especially those displayed in its enigmatic final scene) are provocative while being (at best) ambiguous. (Which is fitting, as the film itself is an ambiguous beast, mostly caused by its hallucinatory, discontinuous editing courtesy of editor Victor Kanefsky, who admits in an interview on Kino Lorber's excellent blu-ray release that he never bothered to look at the script while putting the film together.) If nothing else concrete, Ganja & Hess seems to posit that addiction is a natural force, a fact of life that we must either accept or fight against. None of us are immune, and we all have out own defining personal issues, Ganja explains to Hess. Our addictions only vary in their focus, and we can always learn to share them with one another: "You're into horror movies," she tells him, "I can dig it."

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