Written and Directed by: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, and Bill Gunn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Are you always cold?"
"What have you done about it?"
"Grown used to it."
"What have you done about it?"
"Grown used to it."
Provocation is at the heart of the Blaxploitation movement, but what happens when one of its filmmakers pushes back against it? That’s what infamously happened in the case of Ganja & Hess, Bill Gunn’s oblique response to the burgeoning black cinema surrounding him. Specifically conceived by investors to cash in on Blacula, the film became an opportunity for Gunn to shed genre expectations by crafting a film that’s as thoughtful about black identity as it is inflammatory about it. It wants to gnash at jugulars, but it also wants to luxuriate in the bewildering act and probe its meaning.
Gunn takes a familiar story and filters it through an askew lens to chart Dr. Hess Green’s (Duane Jones) descent into addiction. He specializes in studying ancient—some might say “dead”---African cultures, an obsession that’s allowed him to procure various artifacts. When he allows eccentric, suicide-obsessed associate George Meda (Gunn) to hang out in his mansion, Hess winds up on the wrong end of a mystical dagger. Rather than fatally wounding him, the attack apparently grants him immortality at the cost of craving blood. Once the associate’s widow (Marlene Clark) arrives in search of her missing (but estranged) husband, Hess seeks to introduce her to immortality.
A dreamy collision of Jean Rollin and the raw black cinema of the era, Ganja & Hess scatters a pile of contradictions. It’s often shot with tight framings and close-ups, yet it remains distant. An opening narration lays out the basic plot, yet the story often remains opaque. Black identity seems to be defined by one thing, then it’s defined by something else altogether. These shards lay strewn about, a mess destined to be unresolved by a film that has no interest in resolutions. Meeting it halfway still leaves you miles apart from it, its hallucinatory imagery acting as fleeting dispatches from whatever wavelength it’s on. This is genuine enigma that remains elusive and resists complete lucidity. Coherence is impossible for its characters, so it follows that its audience is left trailing behind in bewilderment.
The title characters rest at the center of this puzzle, where they become increasingly insular beings. Upon his introduction, Green is an affluent and charming member of the upper crust. He cracks jokes with his Meda during a proposed suicide attempt by pointing out that he’s “the only brother on the block,” which will do him no favors when the police come probing about a dead body on his lawn. At parties, he speaks fluent French with his son to indicate his assimilation into society’s elite. You have to think this was practically incendiary in 1973 in a way that other Blaxploitation films weren’t, and Gunn’s choice of Jones in the role seems pointed. In only his second (and final) leading role, Jones becomes another avatar for African-American culture, only Gunn seems more intrigued by black-on-black destructiveness here. His film may begin with imagery meant to jar white America, but he quickly points the camera in a mirror to examine Green’s decline at the hands of both his friend and his own tendencies. It’s no coincidence that the film turns on a dime when Gunn literally points a gun at himself.
The elliptical nature of this climactic event makes it hard to grasp: the source of Meda’s melancholic fatalism is unknown, as are his reasons for attempting to kill Green. All that matters is the stark image of the latter stumbling upon his associate’s body an immediately lapping up his blood from the floor. Gunn films this so tightly that it’s invasive and repulsing: the word “vampire” is never spoken, but this obviously subverts the Romantic image of bloodsuckers put forth by the likes of Blacula. Green doesn’t just fall from grace here—he plummets from it, landing in this sickly moment a shade of himself. By the time Meda’s wife arrives, he’s something of a ghost, a pale imitator of the charmer he once was.
Jones plays Hess slightly more aloof and cold as he becomes more ambivalent about his new life, a stark contrast to how Clark portrays Ganja's increasing curiosity of this bizarre lifestyle. When she arrives, Ganja is a firecracker that sparks the film from its morbid doldrums. Her lively presence allows the film to briefly stray into an absorbing courtship that finds Clark peeling away Ganja’s tough façade to reveal her vulnerability with a fantastic candle-lit monologue. Where her husband blasted a hole through his heart, she opens hers metaphorically. Her reward is the discovery of Meda’s corpse in Green’s basement, a crucial moment she takes oddly in stride by agreeing to marry the bloodthirsty doctor. Gunn’s film comes into focus in the aftermath here—but just ever so slightly. The horror here isn’t so much in the visceral acts but rather in watching these two burrow into a secluded world that has them preying on strangers. They are not the people we once knew, and only Green himself senses it and seeks salvation by the cross, an act that doubles as suicide.
Gunn seems intrigued by how these two reflect the puzzling, perhaps caustic nature of black culture. It’s interesting that one of the film’s earliest images features Green being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce because it’s the rare moment in Ganja & Hess that would feel at home in a typical Blaxploitation movie. It signals a certain power that was not often attributed to black characters in cinema at the time: it’s cool, calm, and collected, much like Green himself. However, this status is reconfigured into something awful by the end of the film, when he and Ganja have settled into a self-loathing ennui. The most enduring and disturbing moment is arguably a far cry from anything involving blood. Instead, it’s a scene where Ganja chastises and questions the “blackness” of Green’s black butler, a character whose face always seems to be cut out of the frame. What was once a status symbol of power becomes symbolic of abuse and these characters’ disconnectedness from their own race.
Note that the film doesn’t exactly lead you to this conclusion, but it seems to be its one unmistakable preoccupation. The African-American experience is not easily codified: for every character that’s exulted and dethroned, there’s one that recedes into the background, seemingly forgotten outside of their corpse (Meda) or their service (Green’s butler and chauffeur). All feed on each other without ever really connecting with each other or knowing themselves. Gunn’s Meda makes his longing for a coherent identity explicit in his discussion about schizophrenia, and Gunn the director obliges with a film that’s divided against itself, purposely fractured by the surgical removal of certain scenes that might have resulted in a more intelligible film.
But how could Ganja & Hess ever be truly intelligible? To be so would be a betrayal of the black experience, which is prone to ambiguity and confusion if this film is any indication. A formal cacophony of tribal music, industrial buzzing, gospel music, and half-hearted funk strains, the film collects similarly disparate imagery--Western art, bourgeois décor, ancient African tribes, inner-city streets lorded by pimps, a Christian church—and loosely stitches them together to reflect the characters’ kaleidoscopic identity. Uniting all of these fragments is the notion that African-Americans find little refuge in any of them: Green’s upward mobility paints him as a materialistic sell-out, while the vampirism that connects him to his ancestral past leaves him feasting on his own kind and craving oblivion via Western religion. There’s no place to turn, and the film offers little comfort: it ends with both martyrdom and baptism, fitting bookends to a cannibalistic cycle that seems set to resume as the credits begin to roll. Even in the end, Gunn refuses to find salvation in either of these acts—instead, there is only confusion, frustration, and the phantom pains of an identity denied. Buy it!
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