Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Let Me Lay Something On You

My only goal in college was to read as much as possible. I had entertained the idea of going to law school, but that lasted about a month or two. I was a great student, but enough was enough. I didn't want to stay in college beyond four years. So I majored in political science, and took a lot of history and English courses. Nary a thought for career.

When I graduated, and embarked on a book a week schedule (commuting helped), I was frustrated by the inability to really make a dent in literature. How would I ever cover all the ground I needed to in order to become "well-read"? Now, 25 years later, I have made serious incursions into the great works and, rather than feeling inadequate due to the impossibility of reading it all, I move onward as fast as I can.

So with movies. Fine, I've seen all of Fellini, Truffaut, Scorsese, (save 1 or 2), but there's much ground to cover. The nice thing about films is that 1 1/2 - 2 hours later, you're all done. Here's the latest hole to be filled.

Though knowledgeable about the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970's, I'd never seen any. Not even Shaft or Superfly. I knew the soundtracks, not the movies. A few months ago that struck me as horrific and I began correct myself. Thank God for Netflix!

These movies always have better music than story. Shaft, Superfly, and Trouble Man are helped by a false sense of excitement due to their driving scores. It was quite a coup to enlist titans like Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye to write original music for B-movies. Slaughter gets a dynamite theme from Billy Preston. Even Blacula gets the funky groove treatment, weirdly inappropriate for a vampire flick.

Speaking of Blacula, it may have the best acting of the bunch. William Marshall plays the cursed Prince Mamuwalde with a grandness and hauteur that befits his royal breeding. He'd bring this same proud bearing to his role as The King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Thalmus Rasulala puts in a fine performance as well. These movies are marked by overall crappy acting, but Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Don Gordon (yeah, I know he's white) in Slaughter, these are great performances.

I was mostly disappointed by Melvin van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Seminal, my ass! It's unwatchable, although by sitting through it I proved otherwise. My favorite line is from Superfly, when Priest's partner Eddie can't believe his man main wants out of the drug game. "You got an 8-track stereo, color TV in every room and all the cocaine you need. You're living the American dream!" Something like that. Considering Priest lives in a tiny project apartment, a color set in each room may add up to one. Slaughter, starring Jim Brown as a guy who should have stayed a running back, was also pretty rough, except for the aforementioned Gordon and the always hot early '70's Stella Stevens. Ever since I saw her in a man's dress shirt and nothing else, climbing up the ship's ladder in The Poseidon Adventure, I've been a changed man.

I've written before about what a shit hole New York was in the 1970's, and how much I love a good filthy NYC picture. Shaft, Superfly, they've got that down, but all these movies are grimy. I like that. One thing about '70's nudity, and these movies tend not to be shy about a naked girl or two. There's an uncomfortable personal element to that decade's love scenes, and I know why. It's because these women are real! There's a sense that you are watching actual people, and that feels wrong. Not like today, when the actresses are created in a lab and bear no resemblance to actual human females.

Those are some preliminary impressions. Oh, there are so many to come: The Mack, Dolemite, Shaft in Africa, Black Caesar. You know that jolt of excitement when you stumble on something unexpected while thumbing through stacks of records, books or DVDs (or whatever you may shop for)? I had that last week, when I bought Slaughter and Blacula, each for for $5. The prospect of these movies hitting the remainder bin bodes well for a happy new year.

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