Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS                  C             
USA  (123 mi)  2014  ‘Scope d:  Spike Lee              Kickstarter page

Spike Lee has reached a troublesome point in his career, initially thwarted from making the Jackie Robinson story that he’d been trying to make for over twenty years due to lack of funding, only to find himself in a mysterious gulf of sudden irrelevance where his career has been redefined by the remakes of other people’s movies, where many scratched their heads over his choice to remake the Korean torture porn classic, Park Chan-wook’s OLD BOY (2003), a disastrous $30 million dollar venture in 2013 that became one of the biggest box office bombs of his entire career, leaving him working in small television projects while struggling for the major financing needed for a feature film.  Left to his own devises, he initiated a Kickstarter campaign (Kickstarter page), raising just under a million and a half dollars to remake Bill Gunn’s relatively obscure Blaxploitation film GANJA & HESS (1973), a black vampire film, supposedly a rival to BLACULA (1972), but shot on a $350,000 budget.  The film was something of a surprise, the only American film to be shown during Critics Week at Cannes in 1973, where the director was determined to create something far more ambitious than a genre film, using vampirism as a metaphor to explore the idea of addiction in all its forms while introducing specifically black themes that had traditionally been left out of American cinema.  Gunn was a television actor who previously wrote the screenplay to Hal Ashby’s offbeat THE LANDLORD (1970), who ironically died just a few months before the Cannes premiere of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), but this overlooked feature is a part of the post 60’s black independent film movement that Lee felt was in need of rediscovery, and if only out of curiosity, this film will lead many prospective viewers back to that original film.  

Much like Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Lee’s film, shot in just 16 days, is at times a similar scene-for-scene remake that feels weakly unfocused and out of time, paying homage to a film and an era that remains puzzlingly off the radar for most viewers.  And for those who lived to experience the revitalization of American cinema in the 70’s, largely due to the diminished power of major Hollywood film studios, unleashing untapped energy with a ferocity of spirit and imagination, Lee’s bland, badly acted, and almost wooden remake sadly falls far short.  Perhaps, like Scorsese or Tarantino, Lee might have simply promoted an updated restoration of the original film and distributed Gunn’s film in arthouses across the country.  Viewers probably would have been better served.  Instead we are treated to another Spike Lee bust, as the film was initially released over the Internet before an extremely limited release, where most people will be viewing this film on television.  While this tactic worked with Lee’s splendid Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), initially shown on HBO, there is little word-of-mouth buzz spreading any interest in this film, which may only titillate the interest of film scholars.  The story of both films is nearly identical, where the unique interest is that it doesn’t follow the normal rules for European originated vampires, where you won’t see the enlarged teeth from a typical first bite or a stake to the heart, no coffins to sleep in the daytime, and no flying bats, but immortality can still be achieved, though it follows a path with a direct link to Africa.         

Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a renowned art scholar and black archaeologist with an expertise in African civilization, living an excluded life of wealth and extravagance on the island of Martha’s Vineyard where the film was shot.  Traveling by a chauffeur driven Rolls-Royce, his home is a lavish, museum-like display of African artifacts that are spread throughout his luxurious estate, where one item in particular, an Ashanti dagger is used when his trusted assistant, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco in a role originally played by director Bill Gunn), grows delirious in a drunken state that resembles a nightmarish, out of control dream, stabbing Dr. Green and killing him with the cursed ancient knife before wandering offscreen and killing himself.  Green mysteriously survives, however, with no sign of a wound, but an insatiable appetite for raw human blood.  Seemingly immortal, his new life is defined by this unquenchable desire, seen driving into the city stealing blood bags from a hospital, but also preying upon lower class women, an unsuspecting prostitute and then another young mother.  However he is soon visited by Hightower’s widow Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) in an angered state looking for her missing husband, as she hasn’t heard a word about his whereabouts, but Green’s surrounding wealth has an intoxicating effect upon her, leaving her open to his powers of seduction, where she mysteriously joins Green in a world of the undead. Veering between B-movie exaggerated comedy, soft porn and horror, Lee combines a stylistic arthouse aesthetic along with a voluptuous former girlfriend named Tangier (Naté Bova) to introduce Ganja into the ways of blood feeding, using the director’s own fascination with lesbian sex and porn, prominently displayed in SHE HATE ME (2004) and Girl 6 (1996), becoming a confusing, mixed-up mosaic of salacious nudity, gratuitous gore, and often grotesque violence.  While the film wants to articulate a weighty societal message, what’s missing is any sense of urgency, as much of what we see feels laughable, more like an exercise in camp, where many of the themes of the original, discovering one’s true racial identity or exploring the contrast between African spirituality and Southern gospel Christianity, simply get lost in translation.  

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