Friday, December 15, 2017

All the Sex on the Road to Freedom

In the 70s, in the face of oppression, a hero arose, a hero who showed there was no problem that couldn't be solved with fantastic sex. 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is also a testament to what one filmmaker can do with a shoestring budget--written by, produced by, directed by, scored by, and starring Melvin Van Peebles, this story of a sex performer on the run from the law features a brilliantly weird string of characters and incidents united in a single hero myth with subtly layered comedy.

We first meet Sweetback played by Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, who's inducted into his career of providing extraordinary sexual satisfaction at a young age. Melvin replaces Mario in a jump cut to where he's lying atop the same woman who seduced him as a youth and soon we see Sweetback is now a performer in bizarre live sex shows staged by a brothel.

The cops take Sweetback as part of an agreement with the brothel's proprietor--Sweetback is to be a temporary fall guy because the cops can't be bothered to find the actual culprit in a recent crime. Sweetback goes along willingly, it's part of his job, but things go wrong and after beating the cops with his handcuffs Sweetback escapes with a young Black Panther (Herbert Scales). The two separate and we get the first of a series of montages of Sweetback running alone accompanied by a grooving score performed by Earth, Wind & Fire.

There's a noir-ish humour in the obvious corruption of the cops and the way it's presented as a status quo everyone's used to. Sweetback getting beaten in one scene followed by another where circumstances dictate he must have sex with a beautiful woman also recalls Raymond Chandler. Although the film reflects real issues of racial inequality there is a clear fantasy element, something not everyone reacted to positively. The Wikipedia entry quotes from an essay by Lerone Bennett in which he says, in part, "it is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom." But is it really? Isn't the audience smart enough to see a Hercules for what he his, fulfilling the desires that can never be met in reality?

And while sex might not actually save anyone from handcuffs or a biker gang--as in the movie's wonderfully absurd "duel" scene--in a sense one could say taking pleasure in sex is a rebuke to an oppressive system that would condemn people to misery.

The film also reminds me of Vanishing Point or Bonnie and Clyde with its focus on an outlaw hero who's shown to become a symbol for a wide variety of people chaffing under a corrupt system. But Van Peebles' performance is much more low key--despite his sexual exploits he maintains the stone face of Buster Keaton and hardly has any lines. He becomes a point of view and the film ends up being more about the weird priest, the guy who talks about helping Sweetback while unabashedly sitting on the toilet, the woman in charge of the biker gang. Combined with the music and the frequently layering of visuals the film's explosive plot is downplayed to greater effective, becoming a kaleidoscope, a steady rhythm of life.

Twitter Sonnet #1064

A talking knee informs on feathers late.
In calculated quills designs're ink.
No pedal claimed a fortunate debate.
A legion flanked the rusted desert sink.
From penny worlds a fish'll watch a glass.
To-morrow's tub fulfils the jug to-day.
A boulder like a boot observes the pass.
No eyes or neighbours brook a creek delay.
Extending fast beyond the length of legs.
A wristed arm amounts to ample reach.
Beneath the punch a plastic spelled the eggs.
And down a mat the final grain's a beach.
The endless word reflection blurs to noise.
While boots and cannons seem like less than toys.

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