July 1- 7, 2004
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Thu., July 1, 7:30 p.m., free, New Jersey State Museum, W. State St., www.trentonfilmsociety.org) Long tarred with the blaxploitation brush, Ivan Dixon's 1973 adaptation of Sam Greenlee's novel is too incendiary to be lumped in with the likes of Truck Turner. Like Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, Spook is close to an out-and-out call for African-American revolution, though it's coolly satiric where Sweetback overheats. Inspired by the caustic novels of Chester Himes and better capturing their tone than Ossie Davis' 1970 adaptation of Cotton Comes to Harlem Greenlee's story begins when a white senator, desperate to raise his standing among black voters, prompts the CIA to draft its first class of black recruits. Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) earns his classmates' enmity by refusing to choose sides, but the strategy of keeping his head down pays off: The CIA never intended to hire any of its new recruits, but Freeman clears every hurdle in his path. For his trouble, he's made "top-secret reproduction center section chief" (i.e., he makes copies), but being the CIA's house Negro doesn't seem to bother Freeman much. The film drops hints of a hidden agenda Freeman compliments a prostitute by comparing her to an African queen, and makes short work of a bigoted karate instructor but Freeman remains intriguingly inscrutable until he quits the CIA five years later, having barely advanced in rank.
What comes next isn't much of a shock: Freeman takes his training and turns it against his former bosses, training a cadre of urban soldiers and reinventing himself as a guerrilla leader named Uncle Tom. What's surprising is how rational Dixon and Greenlee make race war seem. Freeman isn't a fanatic, and he has no patience for them. When an eager recruit tries to curry favor by telling Freeman how much he hates white people, Freeman reprimands him, "This ain't about hating white folks. It's about loving freedom enough to kill or die for it." Though the conflict escalates to the point where armed troops roam the ghetto streets (a sight then familiar from the recent past), the film keeps the onscreen carnage low, except for a memorable moment when a dying white soldier asks "Why?" and the response comes, "Because it's war." (The line is delivered with unapologetic resignation, not action-movie bravado.) A Korean War veteran, Freeman stresses the horror of killing another man: It may be necessary, but it's not to be enjoyed.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door has outraged its share of viewers, and rumors persist that its abrupt disappearance from theaters a few weeks after its initial release was abetted by the FBI. More than 30 years later, it's still a hot property: The DVD released in January, which rescued the film from years of bootleg obscurity, is structured so that you can't see the film without first watching a four-minute history lesson. But the movie's sly polemicism has arguably aged better than the revolutionary rhetoric that inspired it. Rather than demanding dignity, Freeman uses Establishment racism as his Trojan horse. When the revolution runs short of funds, he dresses a group of light-skinned brothers in suits and ties, stages a bank robbery, then chuckles as the police search for white males. The CIA, blind to Freeman's qualifications, assumes that the black revolutionaries must have a white leader, a Russian perhaps. Hailed as a landmark and denounced as racist, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is, at the very least, still worth arguing over. And who better to host that argument than Dixon and Greenlee, who will attend the screening along with actor-director Tim Reid, who helped orchestrate the film's re-emergence.
The Spook screening kicks off six consecutive Thursdays of the Newark Black Film Festival in Trenton, whose schedule includes several powerhouse guests. Jim Brown will be present July 8 for a screening of Spike Lee's documentary Jim Brown: All-American, while Oscar Micheaux expert Pearl Bowser hosts the July 15 screening of Micheaux's Symbol of the Unconquered. James Earl Jones and David Dinkins are scheduled to appear with Cry, the Beloved Country July 22, and director Hafiz Farid hosts her documentary Pillar of Salt: The Angry Woman Syndrome July 29. The season closes with a program devoted to the winners of the festival's Paul Robeson awards, given to emerging black filmmakers and hosted by Paul Robeson Jr.
Shake Yr Assthetic (Thu., July 1, 7:30 p.m., $4, Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 744 S. 17th St.) There was a point, around the time Derek Jarman was making promos for The Smiths, when it seemed like music television might open a back door to American culture through which experimental filmmakers might smuggle themselves and their small, noisy cameras. Oh well; better luck next medium. Filmmakers and musicians are exploring the overlap between their art forms with sometimes revelatory results. (Don't make me plug Michel Gondry again, though his video for Gary Jules' "Mad World" is yet another three-minute masterpiece.) But until viewing films, even short ones, online becomes a less compromised experience, we're at the mercy of MTV.
Enter the enterprising folks at Small Change, who've corralled 13 videos for your viewing enjoyment. There's no introducing-the-band stuff here. The video for Spoon's "Everything Hits at Once," by Waking Life animator Divya Srinivasan, retells the song's story of post-breakup angst with flowing, sparsely detailed animation that evokes the feeling of imminent dissolution, while Matt McCormick and Greg Brown's take on The Shins' "The Past and Pending" makes up a story of its own. The lyrics sift through the ashes of a shattered relationship, but McCormick shifts the scene to a battered sedan driving through deserted Midwestern tourist sites. A young man and an older man drive silently as the landscape peels away behind them, the young man occasionally emerging to snap pictures with an old-fashioned camera. You're tempted to assume that the two are grandson and grandfather, but given the song's concern with being "trapped by the past, too aware of the pending," they might as well be reflections of each other, crisscrossing a landscape littered with relics of happier times. If you like what you see, stay tuned for a more complete retrospective of McCormick's films in the fall.
Johnne Eschelman's The Vanishing Point, with music by his band The Distance Formula, certainly harks back to the glory days of experimental film, with its found-footage collages and bleed-through superimpositions. As such it should make a perfect companion piece to Thom Andersen and Malcolm Brodwick's --- -------, aka short line, long line, the 1966 piece that Andersen described, in part, as "A documentary about rock 'n' roll. Making, buying, selling. Radio, jukebox, Scopitone, pinball, pool hall é . A pastiche of cinematography, a parody of montage." Also warming up the Waybac machine is Leah Giblin's Asylum, the third part of her '80s-flashback Leahtard trilogy, which finds Giblin shaking her legwarmers in a variety of unglamorous locales. This time, the setting is her childhood room, which her parents are about to convert into a bathroom, and the soundtrack is "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," natch. As Giblin enjoys one last dance, childhood treasures start to disappear from the walls, until eventually she disappears as well. Too apt, actually, since the Small Change member and TLA clerk is about to vanish for points north. But with the simplicity and directness of a good pop song, Asylum sticks in your head, and might choose any moment to put itself on endless repeat. Also on the program is Small Change/Robot Boy fella Ted Passon's new Kimya Dawson clip, still under construction as we go to press.