Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Marcus Pinn - Bill Gunn's PERSONAL PROBLEMS ""

Friday, December 14, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Marcus Pinn - Bill Gunn's PERSONAL PROBLEMS

Marcus Pinn is the head writer for the film site PINNLAND EMPIRE.
In addition to maintaining his own site, he co-hosts the Zebras In America podcast with film score composer Scott Thorough and is a regular contributor for The Pink Smoke & Wrong Reel.

Between switching design jobs, helping to maintain a house, documenting the 2018 movie year, creating content for my own film site, co-producing a podcast (along with making multiple guest appearances on other people’s shows) and starting a great new relationship – I haven’t had much time to discover older movies that I may have overlooked in the past. This is a shame because I live in the mecca of repertory/retrospective theaters (New York City) but time was not on my side in 2018. I did however make it a point to check out Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980) as it made the rounds at the all the repertory theaters in the city this past spring/summer and I’m happy to report that it lived up to all its hype & mystique (this was a mostly unseen movie for over three decades).
In the era of the Black-led/“Black Is Beautiful” films of now (If Beale Street Could Talk, Moonlight, Dope, etc), the discovery/re-discovery of works like Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems is a breath of fresh air. Not to take anything away from the films of Barry Jenkins & Ava Duvernay (their films do serve a purpose and have a very authentic audience) but there is a little more substance to the (sparse) work of Bill Gunn. While a lot of today’s popular “Black films” don’t go beyond the surface of saying; “Black Skin & Black people are Beautiful” (which, as a proud Black person, is obviously something I subscribe to), a movie like Personal Problems delves in the complexities of “Blackness”, loyalty, infidelity, the power dynamic in the Black family/household and so much more (the same could be said about other older recently rediscovered Black films like To Sleep With Anger, Ganja & Hess, Ashes & Embers, etc). The more I watched Bill Gunn’s epic 2nd feature, the more I saw my parents, uncles, aunts and various 2nd cousins who used to drop on & off the grid from time to time. It’s almost like you could feel the cigarette smoke emanating off of the actors. I’m a child of the 80’s & 90’s so I remember when parents used to smoke cigarettes (...and weed) directly in to a child’s personal space. One Of my oldest memories of growing up during the 80’s in a Black household is that thick cigarette smoke, alongside Hennessy bottles, soul music & loud laughter. Personal Problems is all of those things and more (I also relate to Personal Problems on a deeper level as my Mother & Father are from South Carolina & New York City, respectively, like our protagonist couple in the movie).

While there is a plot (the two act film centers around a Black family living in Harlem as they struggle with money, work, infidelity & death), Personal Problems is really about the banalities and authentic qualities that you cant find in most films about Lower-middle class Black America. For those of you that don’t know, Personal Problems was shot on what appears to be a camcorder which just adds to the authenticity. At times you almost feel like you're watching a mix between a documentary and a heavily improvised Shadows-era John Cassavetes film full of energy and wonderful mistakes.

Personal Problems is a transgressive work of cinematic art that intentionally alienates some of its audience. It’s almost three hours long and the fact that it was shot on a cheaper camera brings on a whole additional chain of issues (the audio is far from perfect and it should go without saying that the visuals are quite grainy). Although it should be noted that the folks at Kino did a fine job of restoring the film. But, in my opinion, more Black films need to be transgressive & complex as opposed to catering to the opinionated (yet often uninformed) social media audiences that just want to be spoon-fed nice & happy things (especially when it comes to movies about Black folks). I mean how often does the issue of someone’s body Oder come up in a movie in a non-comical way? We get things like that in Personal Problems because Bull Gunn delves in to the nasty crevices that a lot of filmmakers avoid.

The theatrical release of Personal Problems couldn’t have come at a better time with the universal praise of Barry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. These two films would make an interesting double feature. Again - not to take anything away from Jenkins and his success, but at times Beale Street felt a little “Safe”. The issues in Beale Street (which come from James Baldwin’s writing) are quite real and not to be taken lightly, but the stylized slow-motion sequences and non-stop close-up shots of (beautiful) Black faces started to take precedent of the actual meat of the story. I don’t necessarily need a film (or anything/anyone) to remind me that Black is beautiful. I know this. But perhaps some folks don’t know this and need to be reminded of this from time to time (we still live in a world where Black lives don’t always matter). And that’s fine. That’s the audience for Beale Street. I like to think I represent the audience Personal Problems. There is a place in this world for both movies to exist. I just think there needs to be more complex & “difficult” films to balance out all the “safer”, “less threatening” films that focus on Black life in America.

Honestly – I’m just glad we have a new (Black) director’s body of work to include in the unofficial Black film canon that’s been curated mostly by white cinephiles and Black cinephiles who don’t delve deeper than Daughters Of The Dust and/or Killer Of Sheep. No disrespect to Julie Dash (Daughters Of The Dust) or Charles Burnett (Killer Of Sheep) but there’s a whole world of modern Black cinema out there waiting to be rediscovered and placed on a pedestal.

Perhaps the release of Personal Problems will bring about a larger lane for more transgressive Black films in the near future both old (Chameleon Street, Ashes And Embers & Sidewalk Stories) & new (Mulignans & Whiteface).

Personal Problems is out on DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber.
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