Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tasting Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

The Kickstarter era of movie-making is in full swing, with even veteran filmmakers using the crowd-funding platform to finance smaller-scale, more experimental projects that larger studios might not touch. And so Spike Lee has used the platform for the first time to fund a remake of Ganja & Hess, Bill Gunn's 1973 blaxploitation vampire allegory. With about $1.2 million raised (a miniscule budget by Hollywood standards, but more than enough to make a coherent movie) plus other financing via product placement, Lee shot Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 16 days, and after making the rounds of festivals it is appearing in rep theatres and on line. Wherever you can find this curious, uneven, but ultimately winning movie, it's well worth a look.

Lee's movie, it has been noted, is often a line-by-line remake of Gunn's, retaining Gunn's story: wealthy African-American archaeologist Hess Green (theatre veteran Stephen Tyrone Williams) is stabbed by his emotionally unstable assistant with a newly unearthed relic, a tribal dagger, which leaves Hess alive (after a fashion) but unquenchably thirsty for blood. The assistant's wife, the headstrong Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives on the scene, embarking on a strange but absorbing relationship with Hess, propelling them both on a harrowing and bloody journey into obsession, addiction, and, possibly, redemption.

Lee insists his movie is not a vampire movie, and it's clear that he's much more interested in the metaphors he's exploring (which exist in all vampire movies worth watching) than in delivering straight-up vampire carnage. Indeed, Ganja & Hess was originally borne of Gunn's desire to explore cultural politics within the grindhouse vehicle he'd signed on to make. It's been suggested that many of Lee's movie's lapses into stillness are simply a direct appropriation of Gunn's more relaxed style, but some of the movie's interludes - including two lengthy stops at a neighborhood church and a number of lingering closeups on NY Knicks logos - seem essentially Lee, borne from both his patient documentarianism and his now-signature expressions of his abiding love for, and pride in, his hometown. (This affection is abundantly clear in the movie's gorgeous title sequence, with dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley executing his patented moves amid Red Hook landmarks, which dropkicks us beautifully into the setting.)

Between the tightness of its shoot and these offbeat stylistic flourishes, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus doesn't always come together. (Williams' measured, occasionally somnolent line readings don't always mesh with Abarahams' natural exuberance, and even playing lovers they occasionally feel like they're acting in two different movies.) Yet Lee's earlier films have just as many different things on their mind, and something about Lee's approach here lays out each thing - addiction, African history, assimilation, religion, redemption, love - and gives us a Brechtian distance from which to take it all in. Take it all in we do, but even after Lee takes us all over the map a major character breaks the fourth wall, glares right at us, and nails us to our seats. This final gesture puts the onus of interpretation right back on us, and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus lingers in our minds. Our veins, even.

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