Jun 8, 2013

Ganja & Hess

While truly black directed cinematic works are marginal, Negro arthouse flicks are all but nonexistent, yet, as far as I know at least, there is only one quasi-Blaxploitation arthouse horror hybrid, Ganja & Hess (1973) aka Black Evil aka Black Vampire aka Blackout: The Moment of Terror aka Blood Couple aka Double Possession aka Vampires of Harlem directed by Bill Gunn (Stop, Personal Problems). Featuring Night of the Living Dead (1968) star Duane Jones in what is undoubtedly the black American actor’s second most 'famous' and arguably most important role, Ganja & Hess is a strikingly marvelous metaphysical vampire flick full of semi-psychedelic surrealist imagery, sanguine sex and blood ecstasy, seemingly inane intellectual psychobabble, pseudo-blaxploitation conventions, striking allegorical imagery, Negro Christian spirituals and racially conscious blood mysticism of the jigaboo fascistic sort. A film undoubtedly made for blacks by blacks, Ganja & Hess, not unlike Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), technically cannot be qualified as a blaxploitation work as it did not have a white/Jewish director, white actors (aside from a dubious phantom and druggy hooker of sorts), nor crew member (aside from a token Jewish producer) and was surely not made to capitalize off of the popularity of sassy yet satirical and stereotype-driven spade flicks of that time. In fact, if anything, Ganja & Hess has more in common with European New Wave movements of the same time period than any so-called blaxploitation and aside from a couple moments of unintentional humor, Gunn's flick is far from a sardonic Negro minstrel movie, but more like an Afrocentric avant-garde flick that is more focused on a deep love and kinship for one’s blood than an aesthetically repellant work rooted in a bloodthirsty hatred of honkies and other melanin-derived individuals whose ancestral roots all derive from the dark continent. A work featuring hallucinatory hottentot dream sequences of African tribes people, with the primary archetypical centerpiece of these surreal scenes being an obese fertility goddess resembling Aunt Jemima, and arcane (but assumedly fictional) African rituals, Ganja & Hess is surely a Negro völkisch flick that was apparently inspired by the somber arthouse flicks of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, yet totally, esoterically negrofied. Although originally intended as some sort of Blacula (1972) rip-off, Ganja & Hess created a totally different film using seemingly possessed improvisation and whatnot, even abandoning the script Gunn had originally assembled to impress the Jewish producer Chiz Schultz, thus assembling one of the truly authentic pre-hip-hop/pre-crack black America flicks as a decidedly diacritic work that is like Ousmane Sembène's Xala (1975) meets George A. Romero’s Martin (1978), except minus a good portion of the Negro negativity that is so typical of most black filmmakers, especially Spike Lee and even Melvin Van Peebles. 

 Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is a no bullshit kind of nigga who, as a Christian minister named Reverend Luther Williams (Sam Waymon, who also composed the film's score) who also acts his chauffeur (to help support his family on the side) states, is “an addict” (of intellectual obsession) and “victim” (of whity and his dominant kultur) who is “addicted to blood” (aka racial consciousness and later literal blood) and a brilliant professor of archeology and geology that is overseeing excavation of the ancient (and totally 'invented') Negroid civilization of Myrthia, but things get rather strange when he takes on a high strung, high yellow assistant named George Meda (played by director Bill Gunn). George is a self-described ‘neurotic’ Negro and a rare suicidal black man (indeed, suicide is much rarer among blacks in comparison to whites) who gives Hess a mess of trouble to take on. While in a seeming hypnotic state, George goes on a number of esoteric Afrocentric rants that seem to horrify and perplex Hess, but the good doctor seems more perturbed by his suicide attempts. First, George seems possessed by the unconscious collective memories of the slave days as he goes to lynch himself, but Herr Hess stops him in his troubled tracks. When Hess attempts to stop George another time, the sophisticated suicidal spade stabs him with an ancient African dagger (subsequently turning Hess into a vampire) and finally succeeds at self-slaughter after taking a sacrificial bath, which involves brushing his teeth in his own dirty bath water. While George is dead, he has left a beauteous black diva of a wife in Amsterdam and she comes to Hess looking for her husband (who she admits is ‘troubled’), but instead, starts a rather hot and heavy relationship with the archeologist even though she believes the man has killed her husband in oftentimes sordid scenarios that are the black melodramatic equivalent of a Fassbinder flick. 

 Discrediting Occidental man’s thought in a rather poetic way, George types up the following decidedly unhinged rant before committing suicide, “To the black male children, philosophy is a prison; it disregards the uncustomary things about you. The result of individual thought is applicable only to itself. There is a dreadful need in man to teach. It destroys the pure instinct to learn. The navigator learns from the stars. The stars teach nothing. The sun opens the mind and sheds light on the flowers. The eyes shame the pages of any book. Gesture destroys concept. Involvement mortifies vanity. You are the despised of the earth that is as if you were water in the desert. To be adored on this planet is to be a symbol of success. And you must not succeed on any terms. Because life is endless. You are as nameless as a flower. You are the child of Venus and her natural affection is lust. She will touch your belly with her tongue but you must not suffer in it. For love is all there is. And you are canon fodder in its defense.” Indeed, such words embody the reasonably positive spirit of Ganja & Hess, a rare pro-black film that focuses more on self-determination than self-hate and irrational hatred for the white man.

 After being stabbed with the seemingly demonic vampiric dagger, Hess becomes totally consumed by ancient African civilization that survives in spirit and has taken over the doctor’s spirit, thus acting as an allegorical connection between the past and present for people of black blood, but he also develops a thirst for literal human blood and he is slightly less racially conscious when it comes to that, even draining an urban white whore of her precious hemoglobin. Although I cannot positively articulate what sort of spirit and ‘mysticism’ Ganja & Hess permeates as a man of purely Northern/Western European ancestry, the film undoubtedly has a positively penetrating spiritual essence that more so permeates the viewer's soul over the intellect, which was undoubtedly director Bill Gunn’s intent because, while Hess is a brilliant man and a scholar of multiple fields, it is not until he receives something more visceral and metaphysical as a literal black bloodsucker that he becomes a more well rounded and complete individual, even if a couple black (and white) beauties end up dying in the process. As with any people, it is only blood, or ‘lifeblood,’ that lives on even when civilizations and cultures die and it is only when a particular hemoglobin is diluted or disappears that a people are totally finished and extinguished for eternity. Indubitably, it is through ‘blood memory’ and not archeological digs that Hess is able to fully understand what cannot be articulated through words nor understood by the mere and severely limited human intellect. Probably most interesting is that Ganja proves to be the most dominant and masterful character in Ganja & Hess thus hinting that the black female is the more dominant of the sexes (which is further supported by the fact that the Myrthian leader that Hess sees is a queen of the archetypical Venus physique and not an ultra masculine king), as she not only takes over the doctor’s house, but she ultimately inevitably controls Hess (who is initially in control of the situation) and his subservient butler Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja and Hess ‘marry’ not once, but twice, first in a traditional ceremony and then by ritualistic knifing when the doctor turns the black diva into a bloodlusting queen of the night. Unfortunately, Ganja proceeds to fornicate with other men after her undead transformation and Hess finds relief in his chauffeur Williams' black church despite being a quasi-Satanic entity of sorts, thus spurring a new sort of spiritual awakening in him. 

 Clearly made with a post-Civil Rights/counter-culture black audience in mind, thus making it virtually impossible viewing for white-girl-addicted and rap-loving modern day blacks, Ganja & Hess offers a dichotomy of the two ‘spiritual’ extremes and options for the American Negro community: black racial nationalism of the quasi-pagan sort, which is largely based in an ‘invented history,’ or American-Fried Negro Christianity. Director Bill Gunn seems to leave it up to the viewer to decide what Weltanschauung is preferable, but the Myrthian religion of blood seems to be a more ‘evil’ yet equally seductive lifestyle as portrayed in Ganja & Hess, hence its dangerous and spiritually schizophrenic effects on the characters of the films. Of course, European and European-Americans can learn something from Ganja & Hess as well because, like the National Socialist thinkers of yesteryear, who argued about whether they should adopt a neo-Pagan Odinist religion or maintain their Germanized Christianity (Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg totally rejected Catholicism), the characters of Gunn’s film must decide whether their ancestral roots are more important than transcending something new for the future or maintaining the Christian religion their ancestors were forced to adopt as slaves. A rather idiosyncratic work of metaphysical horror that nonsensically features European art (where African art should be) and black Americans speaking French and Dutch, Ganja & Hess is a film about a conflicted race of people that, whether they like or not, have been ‘culturally tainted’ by the white man and must now decide, as a culturally and racially mongrelized people (director Gunn's character symbolically being the lightest skinned and most psychologically conflicted), where their dubious future leads.  Even the title of the film, Ganja & Hess, brings up the question of the future of black American, with the hedonistic character of Ganja being a reference to marijuana (which is smoked throughout the film) and the character of Hess being a reference to a more Western, Christian, and intellectual future. Negro spirituality aside, Ganja & Hess is a film any prospective black (or even white) filmmaker should see if they are serious about making truly revolutionary and philosophical cinematic works with not only a penetrating message, but also a poetic style, as well as rare proof that truly original black auteur filmmakers can exist even if their works have been totally eclipsed by the popularity of artistically retarded rap 'music' and bestial twerk videos.

-Ty E

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