Friday, November 27, 2015

ENTER THE VOID: a review of "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus"

Based upon the film "Ganga And Hess" Written and Directed by Bill Gunn
Screenplay Written by Bill Gunn and Spike Lee
Directed by Spike Lee
*** (three stars)

In a bizarre way, I am wondering if everything that Spike Lee has been up to during the last several years is actually coming together.

During the entire filmography of Writer/Producer/Director Spike Lee, at least as far as his narrative features are concerned, he has consistently delivered a ferocious and unrepentant vision of social justice and injustice yet filtered through an artistic vision that presents a worldview through a heightened sense of reality. Through his innovative visual aesthetics, musical backdrops, all the way down to the names of his characters ("Buggin' Out," "Radio Raheem," "Flipper Purify," " Bleek Gillam" etc...), Lee has cultivated a cinematic universe unlike any of his contemporaries for nearly 30 years and counting, and I still contend that he remains one of the finest, and sadly, most misunderstood American filmmakers working today.

That being said, and as I have mentioned often upon this site, this past decade and a taste more has not been terribly kind to Spike Lee and his self-professed cinematic Joints. While he has remained uniformly in peak performance as a documentarian, most notably with his searing, compulsively watchable New Orleans pre and post Hurricane Katrina lament "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts" (2006) and his up close and completely immersive document of the final performances of the Broadway smash "Passing Strange" (2008), his narrative features, save for the slick heist thriller "Inside Man" (2006), have found his intent and execution not coalescing as tightly as with the bulk of his uncompromising output.

His well intentioned World War II drama "Miracle At St. Anna" (2008) was undone by a surprising sluggishness. But it was within the satires, cultural commentaries and tone poems of the widely underseen "She Hate Me" (2004) and "Red Hook Summer" (2012) as well as the morally repugnant, career worst "Oldboy" (2013), which Lee himself has seemed to disown due to the never before seen on-screen credit of "A Spike Lee Film" instead of his trademark "A Spike Lee Joint," where I wondered if Lee had perhaps creatively gone off of the rails. I have always contended, and vehemently against the standard criticism of Lee's oeuvre, that his films are definitely not muddled. Spike Lee's films are defiantly multi-layered and demand more than one viewing to possibly unearth everything that has been weaved into his singular and idiosyncratic cinematic fabrics. Even so, I have been so unsure as to how to enthusiastically defend these more recent films, for they have just confounded me so tremendously as I just do not know what the creative impetus happens to be.

Now, we arrive with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," the latest effort and credited as "An OFFICIAL Spike Lee Joint." While this Kickstarter funded feature (I contributed) may not convince his detractors or even fully convince his supporters that he has returned to top narrative form, I do think that the film does indeed find Lee on more solid cinematic ground even as he extends his palate even further. Granted, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is a strange, weird film. But it is also undeniably elegant, often hypnotic, and its deliberate pacing does indeed weave a dark spell that has haunted me since watching it. Even further, it quite possibly has shed some light over Lee's most recent narrative features, possibly encapsulating what may have been an intentional creative phase or undertaking.

Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is in fact a remake of the late Writer/Director Bill Gunn's experimental horror film "Ganja And Hess" (1973). As with that film, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" stars a strongly malevolent Stephen Tyrone Williams as Dr. Hess Green, a highly affluent anthropologist and African art collector who obtains a large dagger which originated from the Ashanti empire, an advanced culture who supposedly became addicted to blood transfusions.

When Hess Green is later attacked, stabbed and seemingly killed with the dagger at his Martha's Vineyard abode by Lafayatte Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), an increasingly unstable colleague who soon commits suicide, Green is apparently "resurrected" the following morning, now unable to eat or digest foods and beverages and shockingly housed with an insatiable thirst for human blood.

As Hess Green begins his pursuit of human blood, first through the theft of blood bags from medical facilities and soon through his nocturnal vampiric hunts during which he seduces and murders his victims in order to consume their blood, he is ultimately confronted by Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who arrives at Martha's Vineyard searching for her missing, estranged husband. Hess Green falls immediately and completely in love with the brittle, British Ganja and the twosome quickly become lovers. Yet, Hess Green still possesses his uncontrollable urges, not only placing Ganja within mortal danger, but also risks whatever remains of Green's humanity and soul.      

Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is a chilly mood piece, a slow motion nightmare of unsettling erotica, and a grim thriller that merges elements of horror and dreamscapes, which all serve to illustrate an uncommonly striking ode to isolation, alienation and spiritual decay. In many ways, the film is a testament to the fact that Spike Lee is indeed a natural born filmmaker who certainly knows how to stretch a dollar to its breaking point all to ensure that, at least upon a visual level, his work stands as tall as the highest mega-budgeted feature. "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is of no exception, especially as the film was shot entirely in a mere 16 days! Lee, working alongside Cinematographer Daniel Patterson, have created a luscious palate that subtly alternates between warm and cold colors, fully augmenting the film's storyline and characters.

Another most notable element of the film is undoubtedly the music. Spike Lee has historically existed as one of our finest cinematic DJ's as he is truly one of the few filmmakers who intuitively knows how to merge sound and vision to masterful effect. "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" possesses ax excellent musical bedrock that perfectly captures the hypnotic and tragic elements of the story and characters. In keeping with the film's more independent spirit, Lee handpicked a collection of songs from entirely unsigned artists (out of 800 entries) and all of them serve the sonic world of the film brilliantly. Even better is the work of Composer/Pianist Bruce Hornsby, who remains an audacious choice as the figure to supply the film score (instead of frequent Lee collaborator Composer Terence Blanchard), which alternates between jazz and classical textures, which enormously assists the chamber piece like nature of the film as a whole.

The film's opening credit sequence is also a first class gem. Clearly serving as an echo to the brilliant edited and performed Rosie Perez dance sequence over the opening credits to "Do The Right Thing" (1989), "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" features the graceful and sophisticated moves of dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley over the opening credits and just as brilliantly edited as Lee's earlier masterpiece. Yet, where Perez's sequence was righteous and combative, Riley's dance is one of mournfulness and somberness, again perfectly setting up the viewer for everything we are about to witness over the course of the film.

Further still, I also love the connective tissue Lee places within his films, linking one Joint to another effortlessly. Essentially, and despite the fact that the majority of the film takes place on Martha's Vineyard, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" could possibly stand as another entry into Lee's self-described "Chronicles Of Brooklyn" series, which houses "Crookyln" (1994), "Clockers" (1995) and "Red Hook Summer" among others, as the Li'l Piece Of Heaven church sequences within this new film are set at the exact same church depicted within "Red Hook Summer" and the fate of that film's primary character is also addressed. It is just yet another touch that makes Lee's output stand as a full body of work while also presenting an experience that flies into considerably more sinister territory.

And yet, I still had problems with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" overall. To begin, I just felt that Lee rushed the action and the primary act that sets the story in motion without firmly establishing precisely who Dr. Hess Green actually is. Within moments of meeting him, as well as Lafayatte Hightower, Green is stabbed and killed, Hightower has committed suicide and I haven't grown that accustomed to who each of those men happened to be. Another sequence set later in the film and featuring Ganja and Green's former lover Tangier (Nate Bova), begins a bit awkwardly and almost becomes the sort of prurient, male based fantasy sequence that Lee has been criticized for in the past (and rightfully so regarding "She Hate Me" for certain), yet, considering the nature of vampiric seduction, I felt he ultimately pulled it out of the fire.

What I felt most troublesome as I watched the film was that I was unsure as to what the point of this whole escapade even was. I mean, aside from Spike Lee obviously honoring Bill Gunn, what else was there to this experience to justify its existence? For much of the running time, I was reminded of Lee's phone sex fantasia "Girl 6" (1996), a film that was visually enthralling, deeply immersive and captivating but also seemingly empty. It was the first time during that stage of Spike Lee's career where I found myself disappointed because it seemed as if the material got away from him, or possibly he never really knew what he wanted to do or say about this excursion in the first place. This very feeling revisited me with "She Hate Me" for certain and to varying degrees with "Red Hood Summer" and "Oldboy" and for quite some time of "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" but then Spike Lee took me to church...

There is an outstanding sequence near the end of "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" where everything quite possibly began to click together. Not just for this film for for what Lee may have been devising and exploring for several years now. Set back within the Li'l Piece Of Heaven church, a choir band, featuring no less than Raphael Saadiq on vocals and guitar and Valerie Simpson on piano and vocals, performs a selection that consists of only four lines:

"You've got to learn
To let it go
You've got to know when it's all over
It's over"

As the congregation is swept away with emotion, Dr. Hess Green sit silently and emotionless in the back of the church, contemplating his existence after having already committed several murders in order to obtain blood. He soon begins to slowly approach the altar but is ultimately unable to reach the destination before turning and leaving the church altogether.

With that sequence, which Lee filmed beautifully and richly, I felt that perhaps Hess Green, realizing that his actions have violated the natural law and/or God's law regarding life and death, thus making him live a soulless existence. Having tainted the "sweet blood of Jesus" through his murderous actions, Hess Green is trapped within an existential crisis, where his needs of immortality have outweighed any sense of higher morality, thus making "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" exist not as a story of vampires necessarily but as a tale that possibly speaks to our societal moral and spiritual decay regarding our soullessness to our fellow citizens of Earth.

As I have previously stated, Spike Lee has always presented a heightened sense of reality within his films. But with "She Hate Me," "Red Hook Summer," "Oldboy" and now with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," it seems as if he has traded a heightened yet recognizable outlook with one that exists on a grander surreal landscape, as if he is looking at America through a fun house mirror. "She Hate Me" dealt with whistle blowing and an addiction to money yet filtered through a squadron of lipstick lesbians, animated sperm, allusions to Watergate and the slavery auction block. "Red Hook Summer" told a simple tale of a Southern teenager's summer visit to Brooklyn but weaved in the story of the fall of a beloved, respected preacher in a dying Black church located in a re-gentrified section of New York. The less said about "Oldboy" the better but with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," the addiction to blood by any means necessary did eventually strike a chord, especially when dealing with the uber wealthy African American characters who are already isolated within both White and Black cultures.

I wonder if Lee was making a commentary about the uber wealthy Black people who do not attempt to do more to uplift the race but ultimately, cultivate a singular existence for themselves. With Dr. Hess Green, his wealth was amassed through his parents and then singularly for himself. He has surrounded himself with priceless works of African art and historical antiques, not to share and use to educate other, but for his own possession. And once, he does become a vampire, he preys upon the ones who have attained less than himself, in one instance a hooker (played by Felicia Pearson from "The Wire") and in another, a resident of the housing projects, two figure who are meaningless in Green's world. Only Ganja is seen to be an equal in Hess Green's eyes and even then, the twosome share a dance that proves deadly for both of them--like a snake eating its own tail. And I guess it is that very mournfulness that is sitting at the center of Spike Lee's recent output and I cannot help but to wonder if that was indeed the primary focus at hand.

Is that what "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is necessarily about? Who knows. Was this surrealistic approach in this film and others the full intention of Spike Lee? Again, who knows. With Lee's upcoming "Chi-Raq" appearing as if we are returning to the Spike Lee cinematic blitzkrieg of old, only then may we discover any creative similarities and differences within his next chapter of motion picture cultural critiques. But for now, with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," we are given a flawed yet wholly intriguing film that certainly kept me involved, guessing and scratching my head.

And I still cannot shake its grasp.

If your curiosity has been piqued, how can you see this film? It is now available on both DVD and Blu-Ray formats and it is also running on premium cable channels as well. Since this is a 2015 release, it should not be that difficult to seek out at this time.

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