Friday, 30 September 2011

Ganja & Hess

Strange, perplexing and utterly extraordinary, Ganja & Hess, from 1973 is one of the great lost artifacts of Black Cinema. Misunderstood on it’s initial run, the film almost immediately sank without a trace only to resurface in a different guise under the title Blood Couple. In the film, Dr. Hess Green, an anthropological professor studying ancient African civilisations hires an assistant George Meda, a depressed alcoholic who fatally stabs Hess with an African ceremonial dagger, before turning a gun on himself. Hess though is not dead, at least not quite, the magical dagger returns him to life as an immortal vampire. Later on Hess forms an intense sexual relationship with Meda’s widow, the ethereal beauty, Ganja. Soon after marrying, Hess transforms Ganja into a vampire, but Hess weighed down with guilt and sorrow makes a fateful decision…
A vampire film which never mentions the word vampire, Bill Gunn's incredible film has often been cited erroneously as a Blaxploitation bloodsucker flick 1 - if only it had been, the film might have found an audience, but Ganja & Hess is one of those rare species of films that refuses to be pinned down by any shorthand description. A work of tremendous style and intelligence, the film is not easy to digest in a single viewing. At the heart of the film is the theme of Black Culture and its absorption by a dominant White Culture, the conflict between African religion (and heritage), represented by the ancient blood-addicted Nigerian civilisation Hess is studying, versus the White Christianity that swept it away. This idea informs the style of the film, which ebbs and flows with disassociated imagery (often violent and sexual), strange juxtapositions and fractured editing. If one had to describe the film in simple terms, you might say it comes somewhere between George Romero's Martin, and Cammell & Roeg's Performance, while sharing a certain kinship with the dream cinema of Vampyr, Carnival of Souls and Eraserhead.


Visually the film shot on Super16mm has a suitably grungy looking texture, but is often startlingly beautiful - like an early sequence in the film where Hess dreams of the Queen of the Myrthia people, with her incredible headpiece, or a shot late in the film where the arrival of death is represented by the gentle blow of leaves across a floor. Complimenting the images is the extraordinary musical score by Sam Waymon which takes in blues, jazz, Black spirituals, African work songs and electronic soundscapes. The film hinges on the excellent performances from the two titular leads - Duane Jones, who played the revolutionary role of the black hero from Night of the Living Dead delivers a fine, affecting turn as Hess, his cool, detatched manner hiding a heavy soul (from the need for blood and the necessity of killing for it), while his co-star Marlene Clark as Ganja is just as good, radiant and formidable in equal measure. She has one of the most memorable scenes in the film when she describes how an incident from her childhood helped shape her philosophy on life.


Thanks to the All Day Entertainment label, Ganja & Hess was rescued from oblivion when it first appeared on DVD in 1998. The transfer was struck from one of the very few surviving prints of the film, held by the Museum of Modern Art. Framed at 1.85, the image looks about as good as one would expect - the blow up to 35mm has resulted in some scenes looking excessively grainy (like a scene where Hess speaks to his son), while the apparent softness of the film was partly due to an aesthetic choice of cinematographer James Hinton. The audio track is better, the film's special sound-design sounds particularly powerful here. Extras include production stills and artwork, a reproduction of Tim Lucas and David Walker's article on the film from Video Watchdog #3 (“The Savaging and Salvaging of an American Classic"), plus a fine audio commentary with Marlene Clark, James Hinton and Sam Waymon. In 2006, All Day re-released the film as Ganja & Hess - The Complete Edition, which featured the same transfer and a few additional extras, but added a further 3 minutes of footage which was not included in the MoMA print.

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Notes
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1. The film's reputation as a Blaxploitation vampire film is due to the film's most widely seen, shorter version, Blood Couple, which was released on video in the US under a number of titles - Black Vampire, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, Black Evil, and the awkward Blackout: Moment of Terror. Unlike other hatchet jobs like the cutting of Once Upon A Time In the West, Blood Couple has a certain legitimacy - Fima Noveck, who doctored Ganja & Hess, reshaped the film in line with Bill Gunn's original screenplay (which was much more linear than the finished film) and includes scenes not in Ganja & Hess, but taken from the workprint. Blood Couple also includes different musical cues and sound effects and some instances of different dialogue, making it an interesting companion to the original film.



12 comments:

  1. I'm a big fan of GANJA AND HESS. A very under-appreciated film when it comes to African American cinema, and just an incredibly well-done, haunting film in general. I absolutely love the borderline experimental score as well. Great write-up.

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  2. Many thanks Aaron... Yeah, the score is just incredible, I love the electronic processing of the Work Song, lending the film a very druggy ambience. I've ripped out the track that closes the film "You Got to Learn to Let It Go" as an mp3, so I must upload that and add a link to the review... fantastic tune.

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  3. I have often wondered about this film but very little seems to have been written on it. It sounds like it was almost buried until 1998. Fascinating review, Wes, - I will definitely seek this one out.

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  4. I think you would like this one Jon, it's full of allusions, enigmas, allegories and esoteric references. I kept the review as short as possible but one could easily write a thesis on the film...

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  5. "you might say it comes somewhere between George Romero's Martin, and Cammell & Roeg's Performance, while sharing a certain kinship with the dream cinema of Vampyr, Carnival of Souls and Eraserhead."

    Who doesn't want to see this film now?

    I remember reading the article in VW and thinking it sounded excellent but never got around to picking it up, must correct that. Great stuff Wes as always.

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  6. Ha, thanks Mart... yeah, that's my story and I'm sticking to it ! I watched the film twice in as many days in preparation for this review - something I never do, and it seemed just as fresh on the second viewing. I think it's a masterpiece.

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  7. Great review. This film is definitely a grower. I wasn't sure if I liked it at first, but as it went on, I was placed under its spell. The performances by Jones and Clark, and the haunting score by Sam Waymon (Nina Simone's brother) are a big reason. I wish I could get a copy of the special edition DVD for a reasonable price!

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  8. Many thanks for the comment Ryan and welcome ! Yeah, tremendous score by Sam Waymon, for once I would have appreciated an isolated music score track on the DVD. I missed out on the second DVD release of the film too - I have the original issue and was dawdling about picking up the re-release and then one day its gone and going for ridiculous money.

    Ryan runs a great cult film blog over at Thrill Me! I would highly recommend a visit...

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  9. Wes,

    Just saw 'Ganja' and was awed by the soundtrack. Did you ever upload an mp3 of 'You Got To Learn To Let It Go' somewhere? I'd love to have a copy of that song (would kill for the whole soundtrack but can't find that anywhere).

    Thanks for the great blog!

    Steve

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  10. Steve, thanks for the great comment. I'd forgotten about that upload, and while I can't give you the OST (I'm not sure if there ever was one), I can give you You Got to Learn to Let It Go. I've ripped the track from the All Day DVD (I don't have the Kino Blu yet), so expect a little tape hiss. You can grab it from Mediafire

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  11. Dear Wes,

    Thank you so much for the 'You Got To Learn...' mp3 and for writing back so quickly. If you ever do a rip of 'The Work Song' please let me know! Opening the film (which looked so odd right off the bat) with that hallucinatory tune was a real knockout! Chilling....

    All the best-
    Steve

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  12. I saw this on VHS under different titles - always knew what movie it was thanks to the cast list. I never rented it for whatever reason - but now I'd like to see both versions!

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