Bill Gunn's 'Personal Problems' and a History of the Video Revolution
Kino Lorber's release of Personal Problems can be seen as a major intervention in recovering "lost" videotapes, representing an important black collective creative contribution of US grassroots videomaking.
3 Jul 2018Other
The '60s and '70s signal watershed decades for the growth of alternative media in the West. The emergence of offset printing during the '60s allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of publications to bloom since it only required a typewriter, some glue, a few volunteers, and a vision. Pirate radio stations also proliferated across the United States, Europe, and Latin America during this time.
Perhaps nothing captured the excitement and utopian possibilities of the youth revolt like the video revolution. Although it required a costly initial down payment of roughly $1,500-2,000, the Sony Port Pak hand-held camera allowed collectives and individuals relatively cheap and immediate media-making capabilities compared to film. Tapes were cheap to purchase and could be recorded over again and again. As the technology advanced during the early '70s, videographers would immediately playback their recordings to the very people taped, allowing a degree of trust and transparency to develop between those in front of and behind the camera.
Furthermore, infrastructure was developing, particularly in the United States and Canada, to allow for the distribution of grassroots video productions over television through public access and UHF and VHF channels. Robust grants were to be had for collectives and groups interested in democratizing the media. The New York State Council on the Arts alone, for example, was offering grants totaling over $20 million in 1970-71 to video collectives.
Yet as I have more thoroughly documented, many of the key players of the video revolution came from relatively privileged backgrounds: white, middle-class, and from the West (Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017). This doesn't mean that historically disadvantaged groups and individuals didn't benefit from the proliferation of analog video technology and the cable revolution. However, as of yet, we have no clear and comprehensive documentation of how videotape technology impacted working-class ethnic communities and communities of color from this time at either a national level or worldwide other than through partial and often anecdotal accounts.
This historical amnesia results from many causes: 1. the highly unstable nature of early videotapes that lose magnetization and their images; 2. lack of proper storage facilities for early video tapes, which are often hidden in someone's attic, basement, closest, or the like that speeds tape deterioration; 3. limited official repositories where such tapes can be properly archived; and 4. those coming from the most disadvantaged backgrounds often lack access to those institutions with resources to archive their work. Plain and simply, a majority of the work produced on early videotape is lost, most likely exceeding the massive loss of roughly 75 percent of early silent film—though no comprehensive study has been done regarding the attrition of analog videotapes.
As a result, because of limited access to tapes, a common tale proliferates regarding the origins of early grassroots video that privilege the same players like Raindance, Ant Farm, Videofreex, Challenge for Change, and TVTV while continuing to obscure lesser known but equally important groups and initiatives like International Videoletters, Optic Nerve, Portable Channel, Broadside TV, Urban Planning Aid-Media Video Project, South Bronx Community Action Theatre, Cyclops, Video Kinetics, Community Video Center, Nebula Experimental Video, and on and on. These origin narratives tend to overplay the limited experiences of a few select groups rather than providing a more nuanced and diversified way of understanding how video technology intersected with communities that comprise a wide socio-political range and that hold different interests.
The recent release of Bill Gunn's Personal Problems (Kino Lorber) marks a major intervention in correcting this limited history. Not much has been written about it. Nicholas Forster, a PhD student at Yale University, is writing the first biography of Bill Gunn. The few writings about Personal Problems understandably position it in an auteurist framework of Gunn's oeuvre since he has been neglected by film history. Yet the Blu-ray release of Personal Problems can also be seen as a major intervention in recovering "lost" videotapes representing an important black collective creative contribution of US grassroots videomaking.
As film and media historians like David James, Chon Noreiga, Devorah Heitner, and Cynthia A. Young have chronicled ethnic cinemas and media proliferated within the United States throughout the '60s and '70s in the wake of anti-colonial global resistance, Third Cinema endeavors, the civil rights movement, and student upheaval. The recently established Ethno-Communications Program at UCLA provides fertile terrain for the development of many skilled black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, and Haile Gerima. But even more broadly, the Black Arts Movement, the Chicano Arts Movement, the American Indian Movement, among many others, inject youth with a desire to produce new artistic forms that not only better reflected their communities, but also were more intertwined with and produced by those communities.
So when Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon, and Joe Johnson formed a small publishing house named Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Co. to publish and distribute the works by black and other underrepresented authors, they were only one among a sea of independent ventures made by those coming from communities of color to own the creative means of production that allowed for a more diverse art and literature to spread beyond the confines that traditional cultural gatekeepers allowed. As time progressed, Reed suggested creating a black meta soap opera radio play since Steven Cannon hosted a show on WBAI in New York City and Reed hosted a show on KQED in California, where it could be broadcast. According to Cannon on a Blu-ray extra, "We were dissatisfied with the kind of stuff that was coming out of Hollywood, that Blaxploitation, Super Fly and that kind of bullshit. We wanted to do something ... more authentic and more realistic in terms of middle-class black people."
As Forster documents in the liner notes for the Blu-ray, the radio production was produced collectively with the three main actors playing Johnnie Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), Charles (Walter Cotton), and Father Brown (Jim Wright) improvising their lines while being recorded. Afterwards, the recordings were transcribed, edited and then performed for the on-air production. As Forster notes, "The 'script' that developed focused on the minor rhetorical battles waged between Johnie Mae Brown, her husband, Charles, and her father-in-law, Father Brown."
(courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Once Reed and Cannon met Bill Stephens, a founder of the video collective People's Communication Network, they decided to create a video pilot. People's Communication Network created videos for public access distribution. Perhaps its most famous video prior to Personal Problems was Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison (1973). Inspired by the 1971 resistance in Attica, prisoners at the maximum security Greenhaven Prison agitated for better conditions and led to a prisoners' community visiting day. Queen Mother Moore was one of the featured speakers that day. With hair in an ornate bun and beautiful white lace dress standing behind a podium, Moore speaks in no uncertain terms against "the super oppression of our people", where she advocates for armed resistance in the light of having her grandfather lynched. She accents the black history she learned from Marcus Garvey and stresses:
"You can't steal from the white man. All you can do is take back from him. Because everything he has got, he stole it from you. Everything. He stole it from you. You are not the criminals. I like to ask you. Have you stole anybody's heritage? Have you stolen children from their mothers and sold them on the slave block? Have you stole wealth from the lands and have you stole whole countries? You haven't been stealing."
Families and prisoners wildly applaud as her speech increasingly indicts not only the criminal justice system but America as a whole, all the while speaking in her best Sunday church attire.
With funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, Reed, Cannon, Stephens, and Gunn produced a 40-minute pilot, which is included on the Blu-ray. The pilot highlights a moment from the radio program, which will be re-performed for the full-length production, where Johnnie Mae and Charles argue about when she came in last night—she is having an affair with a musician while Charles is also having his own affair -- the movies they have seen, and the sudden arrival of her good-for-nothing brother-in-law Bubba (Thommie Blackwell) and his wife Mary Alice (Andrea W. Hunt).
Most notable about the pilot that differs from the full-length project are its overly theatrical conventions. Both Johnnie Mae and Charles have extensive soliloquies about their life and frustrations. Such moments allow the audience to process a large amount of information in a limited amount of time, but don't make for compelling viewing due to the largely static framing and excessive exposition. Furthermore, some blunt framing bludgeons the viewer with overt symbolism, such as when Johnnie Mae combs her hair in a mirror and is positioned between a wig and African totemic figure, suggesting her own tensions between assimilation and being true to herself.
Interestingly, a news broadcast about Three Mile Island and local labor issues runs under much of the dialogue, reminding viewers that the personal problems we are witnessing are embedded in a larger context. Yet what exactly the purpose of accenting this is not entirely clear. A similar confusing moment occurs when the camera pans out the window to the Hudson River while a black racist piece of memorabilia perches on the window sill. Something is being hinted at obliquely here about history and a racist past, but how it aligns with the family melodrama remains obscure.
(courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Ultimately, the pilot feels amateurish in its shooting and soliloquies. The lack of cutting and highly mobile camerawork speak to Stephen's guerrilla video influence. Editing, in addition to being a time consuming process with analogue video, was often shunned by video guerrilla practitioners as overtly manipulative in two ways: 1. it directed the audience's attention to exactly where the director wanted it; and 2. it removed one from the natural rhythm of the unfolding moment being recorded. Much of the benefit of video is its ability to capture duration in that it is not as expensive to shoot as film. One is no longer concerned about how much money each foot of film costs to process. Instead the tape can be left to roll, immersing itself into the setting, becoming a part of the process where incidental moments and spontaneous brilliance might emerge.
Videotape and the improvisatory style of the actors on Personal Problems well meshed with one another. Critics often speak about Personal Problems in relation to Gunn's earlier work Ganjia and Hess (1973) as if the two are more directly related than they are. For example, Steve Ryfle in a recent article suggests Personal Problems "might well be Gunn's greatest achievement, an attempt to create a new narrative form" ("The Eclipsed Visions of Bill Gun", Cineaste (Fall 2018), 27). But this is a difficult assessment to make, since both works are shot on completely different mediums and thus require different aesthetic approaches. Also, how much innovation can solely be attributed to Gunn is debatable, since Personal Problems was done collaboratively.
The full-length version of Personal Problems excels far beyond that of the pilot. One can identify at least four additional causes, besides Gunn's immense talent, to account for it: 1. the cast had now worked together on two-to-three earlier versions, strengthening their improvisational style; 2. the full-length version, which is two hours 45-minutes, provided the needed space for Gunn to tease out more nuanced textures than the shorter forty minute version allowed; 3. the replacement of Bill Stephens with Robert Polidori as cinematographer dramatically improves the framing of the production given Polidori's experimental film background; and 4. a larger editing team on the feature length version that replaced Stephens with Polidori and got rid of Don Q. Kelley by adding Walter Cotton, Niamani Mutima and Kip Kanrahan creates a more complex editing pattern.
The opening two scenes of the full-length version of Persona Problems don't even identify themselves within the soap opera tradition. The opening sequence begins with an interview with Johnnie Mae at the hospital in which she works. An interviewer, never identified off camera, speaks to her about her work and life as she looks towards the camera in a stationary medium shot. The moment validates Johnnie Mae's intelligence as she speaks thoughtfully about how she enjoys her work at the hospital and admits to resenting her mother working as a domestic for a white girl when she was a child who felt her mother's absence from home. Her observations accent the complex familial relations that exist between mother and daughter and expose how work life intrudes upon domestic life.
The opening sequence possesses a documentary naturalism as if shot on the spur of the moment, as many street tapes produced by video collectives were at the time. Her words come naturally to her, feeling unscripted, as the camera remains steadily trained on her full length body. The sequence anticipates the "confessionals" that will later become a staple of reality television. But rather than the rapid editing of the later that privileges soundbites, this sequence fosters the space for Johnnie Mae to express her complete thoughts.
(courtesy of Kino Lorber)
The only hint of a more "artsy" project at hand is when the tape sometimes cuts to other sequences as she speaks to the interviewer. For example, when she speaks about a patient coming in injured a few days prior, we cut to some of that video. Or when Johnnie Mae speaks about her love of poetry, we see her with Raymond (Sam Waymon), her lover, reciting poetry in a park. Remarkably, the sequence fuses the best elements of guerrilla video with that of film editing, drawing both traditions together in a way that is fairly unique for early video projects like this.
Personal Problems, at its best, allows moments of black middle-class life to open itself up before viewers unlike anything ever seen on television even to this day. During its second sequence we watch three women, one being Johnnie Mae, sit outside and gossip about their lives, work and romance, for 16-minutes. We learn at this moment that Johnnie Mae is seeing a man named Raymond. Only later, however, do we realize she's married. The video's soap opera elements remain mostly marginalized for more naturalistic moments that detail the robust patterns of daily life.
A similar moment occurs near the end of Personal Problems, as Charles and a group of male friends visit a bar after the wake for his father. The men drunkenly tease one another throughout, playing off each other's words and relating a sense of camaraderie and familiarity. There is an Altmaneque use of dialogue here where they speak simultaneously over one another throughout while sometimes one voice occasionally dominates: "I would like to toast to a sense of humor...", "Is that the toast?", "I'll drink to that.", "You'll drink to anything."
The camera work holds them all in a four shot, but at times smoothly moves closer to pan along the line of the men sitting at the bar for a close-up until gracefully moving back again. The seamless dialogue between the men is matched by a fluid camera work that highlights the men as a group as well as their individual idiosyncrasies. Again, the sequence accents duration through the rhythm of their dialogue, the flow of the camerawork, and their movements in relationship to one another. The camera immerses us in the moment, not just observing the men but feeling a part of their group until they jokingly argue over who will pay the bill when leaving.
This would be a miraculous moment of acting for any film, but keeping in mind the long history of racist Hollywood and television portrayals of African-Americans, particularly at the moment in time when Personal Problems was being shot, the video cannot help but be something akin to revelatory. Even with a strong African-American filmmaking tradition by people like the aforementioned UCLA film directors, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Robert Townsend, Bill Duke, William Greaves, Boots Riley, and Barry Jenkins, Personal Best stands out as a unique project.
(courtesy of Kino Lorber)
One cannot help but feel a kinship between Personal Best and Barry Jenkins' incredibly powerful recent film If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Within it, Jenkins similarly carves out space to get into the texture of its young protagonists' lives. A profoundly beautiful moment occurs when Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) consummate their relationship. The camera hangs onto their images, lovingly taking them in under the warm lighting of Alonso's apartment while the music gradually rises as if embracing the two young lovers protectively. The camera gently caresses the space around them as Jenkins conjures their connection into something palpable. The film slows down to allow this highly stylized yet personal moment take root as if luxuriating in a rare moment ever seen on commercial screens: two young black people fully in love with the worries of the world temporarily cast off of them.
Personal Best similarly immerses us into the textures of black life often unseen on commercial screens. But because it's shot on video, we can even more deeply immerse ourselves in these moments. Furthermore, a sense of "authenticity" arises through the acting, which film cannot emulate, since it's too costly to experiment and allow such lengthy improvisational styles to develop; this does not mean Personal Best is any less stylized than If Beale Street Could Talk. But it feels much less stylized, with a strong documentary impulse defining it.
Yet like thousands of other of video projects Personal Best remains largely unseen during the last 35 years. Despite a few small screenings at the time of its release in 1980 and 1981, the video suffered a familiar fate that haunts most videos: hidden away in storage, collecting dust . Yet, unlike most projects, Kino Lorber and a few enterprising individuals painstakingly digitized the 58 U-Matic tapes that Ishmael Reed had stored over the years. The importance of the project in terms of its worth as a collective black creative enterprise and its significance in Bill Gunn's limited filmmaking oeuvre could not be ignored.
Reed, during one of the Blu-ray extras, stresses how he sees Personal Best in a long line of independent African-American film production: "If Jake [Perlin] hadn't intervened and brought this back, it would have met the fate of most of the so-called 'race' films. They vanished. They faded. They were lost ... So we follow that tradition where there's an alternative to Hollywood." Yet it also belongs to a much lesser known tradition of ethnic media-making surging during the '60s and '70s, when the video revolution suddenly enabled select black and brown communities to take hold of this new technology in order to capture for the first time the rhythms and texture of their lives that remained (and still largely remain) absent from commercial screens.
If anything, the belated re-release of Personal Problems should serve as an important reminder of the need to locate, identify, screen, and document all the other "minority" video productions that occurred during this period of time; a trove of unknown productions could provide important bridges from the past to our present not only in terms of inspiring a new generation of artists but also revealing a hidden history of struggle and innovation that reveals the full potentiality and limits that the digital revolution might inherit from this earlier moment.