BETWEEN YOU AND ME

 NICK PINKERTON // March 30, 2018 // Art Forum

 

 

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes. Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor).

A WOMAN LISTENS TO A PLAINTIVE, MEANDERING KEYBOARD BALLAD performed by a musician, with whom she’s having an affair, for an audience of her alone, and as she does, tears run freely down her cheeks, as the camera almost seems to move to caress her face and comfort her, the scene running the full four minutes of the song. An amped-up white longhair buttonholes an incredulous black restaurant manager and self-professed Reagan voter at a party and proceeds to harangue him for trying to join the oppressing class. At a civil and quiet memorial gathering, the angry and unreconciled daughter of the deceased lashes out on all those assembled, refusing to be calmed down or hushed up.

The above are just a few standout scenes from the two-episode video diptych Personal Problems (1980), directed by Bill Gunn and described by cocreator and novelist Ishmael Reed(who plays that aforementioned manager of a “Doggie Diner”) as a “meta-soap opera,” conceived and executed by a largely African American cast and crew. With its elliptical leaps between scenes and long, unbroken stretches of often-hectic overlapping dialogue that serve no function in advancing exposition, Personal Problems would likely be deemed bad television by most any network executive with an eye for the bottom line—either in 1980 or today—and it is also a startling, totally idiosyncratic work of art.

Gunn and Reed’s work is exceptional precisely because of its engagement with the unexceptional, its dedication to sitting back and taking in the whole ebb and flow of conversation, whether it’s sitting in with three old girlfriends perched at a restaurant sipping white wine and gabbing the afternoon away or capturing the tone of slow, simmering mutual resentment in a longstanding marital feud, where preparing breakfast becomes an act of barely concealed aggression. Watching Personal Problems for the first time as part of a 2010 retrospective of Gunn’s work at BAMcinématek, I felt quite certain I was seeing something unlike anything I had seen before—even if, in point of fact, I wasn’t really seeing it too well at all, much less hearing it. Shot on a shoestring with a video camera using 3/4” U-Matic tape, the versions of Personal Problems circulating on occasion in recent years have been plagued by murky image and sludgy sound. What will be playing at Metrograph is something else entirely: a total reconstruction by Kino Lorber from original first-generation camera tapes, complete with a remixed soundtrack that fetches much lost dialogue from the thickets of talk, allowing both episodes to be screened in the best shape and most complete form that they’ve been seen in in recent memory.

 

 

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes. Raymon (Samuel L. Waymon). 

 

The piece began its life as an improvised radio program conceived by Reed; writer, radio personality, and man-about-town Steve Cannon; and stage actor Walter Cotton; a quotidian chamber drama focused on the daily squabbles which mark the lives of a middle-class black family in New York City. Each of the radio series’ four episodes, broadcast on Cannon’s WBAI show beginning in 1977 and distributed via cassette tape, featured the same three lead performers: Cotton; Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a multidisciplinary talent who’d toured with Sun Ra’s Arkestra; and, coming out of retirement, Jim Wright, an actor who’d appeared in Orson Welles’s famous Federal Theatre Project staging of “Voodoo Macbeth” way back in 1936. Gunn came aboard to shoot a television pilot for the program with the same actors in spring of 1979. The result was rejected by PBS, but won a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which underwrote the production of two proper episodes of ninety-three and seventy-two minutes.

The first begins with Smart-Grosvenor, playing South Carolina-transplant Harlem Hospital emergency room nurse Johnnie Mae Brown, seated and in direct conversation with Gunn, who plies her with questions from off-screen. This is the only such scene in Personal Problems, though there are other direct-to-camera addresses, and it feels less like an audition than a gentle, coaxing conversation, setting the tone for what’s ahead—a work profoundly interested in its characters, in how they feel, what they want, and how they manage to get in their own way before finally muddling through. The abiding tone is one of a quietly grumbling workaday discomfiture, as summarized by Johnnie Mae: “It’s not that I’m unhappy, it’s just that I’m not happy.”

Johnnie Mae is married but, as it soon transpires, has been seeing nightclub musician Raymon (Samuel L. Waymon) whenever she can slip away. We don’t meet her husband, Charles (Cotton), until an hour into the first episode, and when we do the reasons for her stepping out are obvious; he’s gruff, cold, aloof, and seems more interested in re-watching Guns of Navarone (1961) than in hashing out any of their marital difficulties. (He also, as it transpires, has a sidepiece of his own.) Rounding out the household is Charles’s father, the wiry, irascible Father Brown (Wright), and, fresh out of the slammer in California and newly landed at Port Authority, Johnnie Mae’s layabout brother, Bubba, and his wife, Mary Alice (Thommie Blackwell and Andrea W. Hunt). The first episode ends with an overtaxed and angry Johnnie Mae assembling the non-contributing members of the household for a thorough dragging and dressing down; in the second, she gets a bit of the peace and quiet she wants in the worst possible way when Father Brown goes for a routine surgery and winds up in the morgue. We see Bubba looking for work with a suave criminal overlord, Mr. Damien (Gunn) and Johnnie Mae and Raymon having a crack-up, though the better part of the episode is dedicated to the aftermath of Father Brown’s funeral, a process that ends with Charles and three of his dad’s friends bellied up at a bar getting plastered before plunking themselves down on the Hudson River waterfront as morning breaks.

 

 

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes. 

 

These scenes, with their jumble of slurred, jostling, overlapping dialogue and feeling for bibulous, raucous male bonding, suggest an African American equivalent to John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970)—though Gunn and Reed were working still further outside of the studio system than was Cassavetes, with even less money, hence their decision to shoot on video. In this case budgetary necessity is a boon: Shot largely with natural light by Robert Polidori, who had at this point only just begun to embark on his prestigious photography career, Personal Problems looks quite unlike any other drama, for cinema or television, of the period, exploiting the boxy broadcast-ready frame for its full potential for both intimacy and claustrophobia.

Reports from the set of Personal Problems have it that improvisation was key to the shoot, with Gunn and his collaborators outlining basic scenarios while giving the performers enormous leeway in developing their characters and dialogue. (That opening interview with Johnnie Mae suggests something of Gunn’s process—less stridently issuing commands from on high than gently offering prompts.) That Gunn should understand, respect, and trust his actors comes as no surprise, for he was himself a marvelous performer. He’d made his stage debut way back in 1954 in a production of Gide’s The Immoralist starring friend James Dean, and was a transfixing presence whenever he appeared on-screen—a dervish force of messy, frantic uncorked sexual energy in his own Ganja & Hess (1973), a sui generis vampire film which collides Euro-Christian and Afro-animist lore; erudite, faintly feline, and extremely self-amused in Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982).

Once upon a time Gunn had been a real contender, adapting Kristin Hunter’s novel into the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) and making his debut feature, Stop!, with Warner Brothers’s money that same year, but hereafter would struggle to maintain a toehold in the industry, as documented through his books Black Picture Show (1975) and Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981), the latter originally published by Reed’s imprint I Reed Books. To carve out a place as a black director in Hollywood was hard enough in any circumstances, but moreso for a defiantly out-of-step figure like Gunn, who was much more invested in individual peculiarities than sociological generalities, more interested in hearing what people had to say for themselves than in posing himself as the voice of a people.

Gunn got one more crack behind the camera at the behest of Reed and company, presiding over Personal Problems, with its polyphony of voices competing for command of the conversation— though the actual many-cooks creative collaboration behind the scenes seems by all accounts to have been harmonious to a rare degree, resulting in something that feels as unpremeditated and alive as the performances. In its restored version, as near to a definitive one as we are likely to get, you can sense the prospect of something still larger being gestured at. It was not to be. Gunn died in 1989, while Reed remains to introduce on opening night this rough and ragged work of a bygone time, bursting with emotion and ideas, trailing loose threads just waiting to be taken up by some intrepid soul.

 

Personal Problems screens at Metrograph through April 5, 2018.


 

Tribes' Steve Cannon is at it again

Bob Holman // December 17, 2015 // The Villager

A man who runs a gallery and salon in the East Village that has managed to survive even as the neighborhood’s bohemian past fades recently got some startling news from a visitor. Why, the visitor asked, was there a large metal sign on the man’s building announcing that it was for sale?

The gallery proprietor, Steve Cannon, who is blind, said he knew nothing about the sign. But he quickly asked a friend to call the real estate agency that had put it up.

The agent said the building was being offered for nearly $3 million, Mr. Cannon said. Furthermore, he added, the agent had told his friend that it could be sold without tenants.

Mr. Cannon, 75, was naturally alarmed by the news. He had sold the three-story federal-style town house on East Third Street between Avenues C and D to its present owner in 2004 believing that he would be able to occupy the second floor for at least a decade.

“I was surprised,” Mr. Cannon said on a recent afternoon as he sat inside his second-floor apartment. “Before that day, I thought everything was cool.”

The news sent shudders through generations of poets, artists, musicians and others, who felt a strong sense of devotion to A Gathering of the Tribes, a gallery and salon in the building, and to Mr. Cannon. A former humanities professor, who taught for 25 years at city university campuses including Hunter College in Manhattan and Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, Mr. Cannon decided in 1991 to turn the building, which he had bought for $35,000 in 1970, into a salon and open house where practically everybody was welcome.

The people who gather there have held art shows, published a literary magazine and arranged readings in cities around the country. For about the past 15 years, they have also organized a monthlong Charlie Parker festival at the gallery held in conjunction with an annual concert in Tompkins Square Park.

Now, Mr. Cannon and his supporters feel that their cultural pursuits, which were once inspired by the East Village’s energy and grit, may fall victim to the gentrification that has overtaken much of the neighborhood.

Faced with debt in 2004, Mr. Cannon sold the house on East Third Street to a woman named Lorraine Zhang. An agreement between them stipulated that Mr. Cannon could rent the second floor for $1,000 per month through August 2009, with an option to renew the agreement for five years at a monthly rent of $2,200, as long as he provided written notice of his intent to renew six months in advance.

Mr. Cannon said he thought that Ms. Zhang’s accepting of his rent checks since the end of the first lease constituted renewal. Ms. Zhang disagreed, saying Mr. Cannon and the gallery were still in the building only because she had allowed them to stay.

“I don’t want to give him trouble and ask him to move out, but legally I can,” she said.

A listing on the Web site of Marcus & Millichap, the real estate company hired by Ms. Zhang, listed the building for $2.9 million. The site said all four apartments inside were unregulated and added that a buyer could “potentially convert into a single-family town house.”

Mr. Cannon said he was exploring whether he had any legal recourse to oppose the sale in court. At the same time, he said, he would reach out to friends and arts patrons to see whether any of them might be interested in buying the building and turning it into an artists’ residence and cultural center.

Bob Holman, the owner of the Bowery Poetry Club, said the idea behind A Gathering of the Tribes was developed in the late 1980s, when Mr. Cannon and others began holding poetry seminars on the stoop of the East Third Street building. They were inspired by nearby performances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where loud, raucous poetry slams were changing the way the art form was viewed.

“To have this kind of poetry emerge in a world of advertisements and massaged neutral speech was a revelation,” Mr. Holman said. “And Steve lived it.”

Mr. Cannon became a mentor to a group of young poets, Mr. Holman said, spending hours on the stoop, listening to recitations, offering critiques and guidance and helping to shape raw emotion into literature.

After selling the building to Ms. Zhang, Mr. Cannon turned his apartment into a salon, where he fostered the artistic ambitions of younger people searching for a means of expression and a place to be heard.

One such group assembled on a recent Thursday night where they staged performances under the name the Catweazle Club, named after a similar series held in Oxford, England.

An organizer, Cal Folger Day, 23, who called Mr. Cannon “an indefatigable host,” said she preferred to hold events there instead of in a bar or at a theater because she wanted to be in an atmosphere where people gathered primarily to listen to one another, rather than to engage in commerce.

“We are not a moneymaker, however unfortunate, and neither is Steve,” she said. “So we decided to bring all the starving artists together.”

In one room, a few dozen people sat in chairs as a man sang a couple of songs, with his guitar and harmonica. A young woman and her dulcimer followed.

Mr. Cannon sat on the couch in the next room, listening and chatting with some of his young visitors.

“The real idea of Tribes is to be nonexclusive,” he said. “That’s why I always keep the door open to everyone.”


A Place Where Emotions Became Poetry Is for Sale

COLIN MOYNIHAN // March 6, 2011 // The New York Times

 

A man who runs a gallery and salon in the East Village that has managed to survive even as the neighborhood’s bohemian past fades recently got some startling news from a visitor.

Why, the visitor asked, was there a large metal sign on the man’s building announcing that it was for sale?

The gallery proprietor, Steve Cannon, who is blind, said he knew nothing about the sign. But he quickly asked a friend to call the real estate agency that had put it up.

The agent said the building was being offered for nearly $3 million, Mr. Cannon said. Furthermore, he added, the agent had told his friend that it could be sold without tenants.

Mr. Cannon, 75, was naturally alarmed by the news. He had sold the three-story federal-style town house on East Third Street between Avenues C and D to its present owner in 2004 believing that he would be able to occupy the second floor for at least a decade.

“I was surprised,” Mr. Cannon said on a recent afternoon as he sat inside his second-floor apartment. “Before that day, I thought everything was cool.”

The news sent shudders through generations of poets, artists, musicians and others, who felt a strong sense of devotion to A Gathering of the Tribes, a gallery and salon in the building, and to Mr. Cannon. A former humanities professor, who taught for 25 years at city university campuses including Hunter College in Manhattan and Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, Mr. Cannon decided in 1991 to turn the building, which he had bought for $35,000 in 1970, into a salon and open house where practically everybody was welcome.

The people who gather there have held art shows, published a literary magazine and arranged readings in cities around the country. For about the past 15 years, they have also organized a monthlong Charlie Parker festival at the gallery held in conjunction with an annual concert in Tompkins Square Park.

Now, Mr. Cannon and his supporters feel that their cultural pursuits, which were once inspired by the East Village’s energy and grit, may fall victim to the gentrification that has overtaken much of the neighborhood.

Faced with debt in 2004, Mr. Cannon sold the house on East Third Street to a woman named Lorraine Zhang. An agreement between them stipulated that Mr. Cannon could rent the second floor for $1,000 per month through August 2009, with an option to renew the agreement for five years at a monthly rent of $2,200, as long as he provided written notice of his intent to renew six months in advance.

Mr. Cannon said he thought that Ms. Zhang’s accepting of his rent checks since the end of the first lease constituted renewal. Ms. Zhang disagreed, saying Mr. Cannon and the gallery were still in the building only because she had allowed them to stay.

“I don’t want to give him trouble and ask him to move out, but legally I can,” she said.

A listing on the Web site of Marcus & Millichap, the real estate company hired by Ms. Zhang, listed the building for $2.9 million. The site said all four apartments inside were unregulated and added that a buyer could “potentially convert into a single-family town house.”

Mr. Cannon said he was exploring whether he had any legal recourse to oppose the sale in court. At the same time, he said, he would reach out to friends and arts patrons to see whether any of them might be interested in buying the building and turning it into an artists’ residence and cultural center.

Bob Holman, the owner of the Bowery Poetry Club, said the idea behind A Gathering of the Tribes was developed in the late 1980s, when Mr. Cannon and others began holding poetry seminars on the stoop of the East Third Street building. They were inspired by nearby performances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where loud, raucous poetry slams were changing the way the art form was viewed.

“To have this kind of poetry emerge in a world of advertisements and massaged neutral speech was a revelation,” Mr. Holman said. “And Steve lived it.”

Mr. Cannon became a mentor to a group of young poets, Mr. Holman said, spending hours on the stoop, listening to recitations, offering critiques and guidance and helping to shape raw emotion into literature.

After selling the building to Ms. Zhang, Mr. Cannon turned his apartment into a salon, where he fostered the artistic ambitions of younger people searching for a means of expression and a place to be heard.

One such group assembled on a recent Thursday night where they staged performances under the name the Catweazle Club, named after a similar series held in Oxford, England.

An organizer, Cal Folger Day, 23, who called Mr. Cannon “an indefatigable host,” said she preferred to hold events there instead of in a bar or at a theater because she wanted to be in an atmosphere where people gathered primarily to listen to one another, rather than to engage in commerce.

“We are not a moneymaker, however unfortunate, and neither is Steve,” she said. “So we decided to bring all the starving artists together.”

In one room, a few dozen people sat in chairs as a man sang a couple of songs, with his guitar and harmonica. A young woman and her dulcimer followed.

Mr. Cannon sat on the couch in the next room, listening and chatting with some of his young visitors.

“The real idea of Tribes is to be nonexclusive,” he said. “That’s why I always keep the door open to everyone.”