Sunday, May 22, 2005

Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles 2004)

Melvin Van Peebles was a genuine artist struggling to make a tough, uncompromised film. Mario is an actor who can raise funding. And that’s the difference. It’s no accident that Mario seems more interested in Sweet Sweetback’s original grosses because otherwise he doesn’t seem to understand what his father accomplished. Baadasssss! is pure Hollywood, following the familiar story about a troubled artist fighting a corrupt system to make a “revolutionary” work. Even though most of the events appear to have actually happened the key is the presentation, the details. Movie-Melvin writes the entire film in a montage sequence and except for a short bit with a crew member later this is pretty much all of the creation shown. Movie-Melvin mentions that Sweetback only has six spoken lines but when did he decide that? And why? Was this really something planned before he knew he’d be playing the part himself? There’s a lot of talk about community which is something you can definitely see in Sweet Sweetback’s but not Baadasssss! where--except for a nice through-the-mirror imaginary sequence--you get easily characterized figures in front of a hazy background. Where did the original’s visual style come from? It’s an odd mix of Bruce Baillie-esque cityscapes, B-movie bluntness, documentary grime and even a near-hallucinatory desert sequence. That wasn’t all due to start-stop filming and using short end film stock. Baadasssss! of course is slick and professional to the point of being practically a betrayal of its inspiration. Baadasssss! includes some short interviews with the film characters that made me wonder why Mario didn’t go the Reds route and include the actual people. Then they turn up doing exactly that at the end but mostly saying positive, cheerleading statements. Which leads me to believe that either the interviews were so bland that the Reds technique wasn’t a fruitful option or much more likely Mario didn’t want to push far enough for any real complexity. After all, Movie-Melvin comes across as much nicer than the real Melvin does in interviews, though to be fair the ones I’ve seen are about three decades after Sweet Sweetback’s. It’s hard not to wonder what Mario actually thinks about having been put into a sex scene when he was thirteen by his dad. Perhaps some psychodrama would have enlivened Baadassss! but it’s worth noting that Mario cut the film so that Movie-Mario isn’t shown remotely near that scene (talk about a structuring absence). By the time the film winds down to a ridiculous scene about the Detroit premiere, I was wondering whether the whole story should be redone but this time complete with documentary interviews, animation, Gilliam-inspired surrealism, conflicting voice-overs, slow-motion, readings from related paperwork, etc. Just go crazy because Mario's timid recreation is hardly even a footnote to the original. The DVD includes a promotional piece about the “Birth of Black Cinema” that completely ignores Oscar Micheaux and any black actor or filmmaker earlier than Poitier. In it Mario and others also make the claim that Sweet Sweetback’s inspired Shaft and other blaxploitation films but considering that Shaft was released only about four or five months after Sweet Sweetback’s it couldn’t have been directly inspired by the Van Peebles film.