Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Dir. Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee & Bill Gunn
Starring Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Elvis Nolasco, Felicia Pearsons
So, it turns out Spike Lee’s contribution to our current cultural movement of pushing the media ever further into an all-vampire-all-the-time format is pretty weird. I mean, it’s even weirder than the phrase “Spike Lee is making a vampire love story” would suggest, and frankly I’m not sure that sentence even makes sense. If I just read that phrase and I hadn’t seen the finished product for myself, I would assume there was a translation error or something before I would believe it was a real thing. But nonetheless, I can assure you, it is real. I have seen it. And it’s a weird one.
When last we checked in on the ongoing and baffling trend of indie auteur darlings making inexplicable vampire films for no discernable reason, it was Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE which was flummoxing us. That one was almost wholly an exercise in dreamy atmosphere -- probably a little too dreamy, in fact; at times it’s nearly comatose. So I was counting on Lee to address the balance by making a different kind of vampire film. Lee comes with his own set of problems, but the one thing he’s never been accused of is understating anything. So even once you’ve managed to accept the idea that he’s making a vampire film, there’s at least one more shocking surprise in store for you: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is, if anything, even more slow, quiet, and dreamy than ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. What the fuck is happening to the world!?
Now I gotta be honest with you. I have a superpower. It’s not super strength or telekinesis or something useful like that. I’m more like one of those poor sad mutants you see in the background who have an extra eye that can see microwaves, or they lay eggs, or they’re just real ugly. The kind that never get invited to join the X-Men, and when they ask there’s a real awkward moment where Wolverine or somebody has to unconvincingly tell them they’re all full up at the moment but if you’ll just leave your resume dot dot dot. In my case, my superpower is that I’m incapable of not enjoying a Spike Lee movie. I’ve seen, I believe, every one of his theatrically released films except LOVE AND BASKETBALL and HE GOT GAME (guess I’m not into sports) and liked all of them and loved most, even the ones that most people hated. From wildly unwieldy recent fare like MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA to wildly uneven masterworks like RED HOOK SUMMER to wildly provocative button-pushers like BAMBOOZLED to wildly ingratiating crowd-pleasers like MALCOLM X to even the wildly unnecessary OLDBOY REMAKE… they’re all fierce, wild things of beauty, filled to the brim (and often spilling over the brim) with ideas, love, anger, politics, and raw, ragged humanity.
But DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS isn’t like that. Where Lee is usually passionate and provocative to a fault, here he takes the exact opposite approach: JESUS is languid and vague and cold. It’s a very strange approach that doesn’t really suit his talents very well and results in the first and only Spike Lee movie that I probably dislike more than I like, though of course there are pockets of greatness here as well.
A big part of the problem is that this isn’t really a Spike Lee movie at all. Despite the credits identifying the film as “an Official Spike Lee Joint” (a jab at his previous film, the studio-compromised remake OLDBOY, which carries the more impersonal “A Spike Lee Film”), there’s a ghost haunting the entire production, and one who Lee seems beholden to to the film’s detriment. That ghost is the 1973 avant-garde horror(?)/art film GANJA AND HESS, and its writer/director/co-star Bill Gunn. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is not billed as a remake, but in fact it’s in many cases a direct scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot copy of its predecessor, to such an extent that Lee gives co-writer credit to Gunn (who died in 1989).
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. GANJA AND HESS is a pretty amazing movie; a talky, philosophical, sexy, mysterious and engrossing acid trip through some bizarre funhouse mirror of Black American anxieties in the early 70’s. And DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS clearly understands and aspires to those superlatives as well; it mimics the movements of GANJA AND HESS obsessively, changing a few details but openly and faithfully aping GANJA AND HESS’s unique blend of dreamy philosophy, mysterious plotting, and sexual frankness.
The story, such as it is, is pretty simple: wealthy anthropologist and African art collector Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams, primarily a stage actor) is attacked by an unstable assistant (the excellently-named Elvis Nolasco, small parts in CLOCKERS and OLDBOY REMAKE), who stabs him with an ancient African dagger and then kills himself. Greene seems to die, but then mysteriously awakens as an invincible, immortal being who must have human blood in order to live. When the assistant’s estranged ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams, British TV shows Waterloo Road and Coronation Street) shows up looking for her husband, she and Greene quickly become lovers and in time she becomes a vampire too. Eventually, however, Greene begins to tire of his new supernatural life.
The story itself isn’t particularly the point, though; Gunn wrote the original with the stated intention of using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, but the finished product is even stranger and more surreal than that -- it’s a disorienting, mysterious dream. The problem with Lee’s remake here isn’t that the source material isn’t great, or that Lee isn’t great. The problem is that they’re both great for entirely different reasons with staggeringly little in common save their interest in race, which is somehow both a completely central and maddeningly inconsequential point of reference. Race is obviously enormously important to the film and its whole perspective, and yet it’s in subtle, slippery ways which don’t exactly add up to a coherent point. What does GANJA AND HESS have to say about the African-American experience? I don’t know, exactly… and the problem is I don’t think Lee really knows, either. Lee obviously knows the movie is great, but I suspect his slavish devotion to the inexplicable narrative rhythms of the original are the result an attempt to backward-engineer a intricately complicated device which he does not fully understand.
That’s a problem for an artist as strong as Lee is, because it means he’s unusually restrained here. He seems fearful that if he adds too much of himself, he’ll alter the delicate chemical alchemy that make the movie great to begin with -- and he’s right. But he’s also incapable of exactly recreating the original work --let alone the context-- in a way that recaptures its original potency. His attempt to rebuild a piece of art which he doesn’t entirely understand --and maybe doesn’t even have a concrete explanation-- piece by piece ends up feeling alienating and disingenuous. It’s like George Carlin once said about playing the blues: “its not enough to know which notes to play, you gotta know why they need to be played.”
The result is a wildly schizophrenic film which boasts numerous strong sequences but just as many that are absolutely stultifying, a word which I would never have guessed could be fairly associated with a Spike Lee film. Many of Lee’s films have an overload of ideas which don’t necessarily hang together --a problem for a lot of critics, but never for me-- but here Gunn’s original work and Lee’s new additions openly negate each other. Mixing Gunn’s stagey, wandering soliloquies with Lee’s own ear for modern patois results in jarring shifts that sound like they’re coming not just from different movies but different planets. Lee, ever the literalist, also can’t resist trying to explain a bit more about what’s going on here than Gunn ever attempted --in the movie’s worst scene, the protagonist explains he’s a vampire, a word which I don’t believe is ever actually uttered in the original-- but making parts of the plot lightly more concrete just emphasizes how nonsensical the rest of it is. Gunn couches his ambiguity in drug-tinged 70’s hallucinatory cinema; Lee steadfastly keeps things concrete and grounded in at least some kind of realism, which just makes the movie’s inherent strangeness feel like a mistake rather than a central feature. You get the sense that Lee is trying and failing to communicate a story here, whereas his 70’s counterpart never had any intention of doing so to begin with. Attempts at modernization like a brief sequences that references AIDS and a lesbian gender switch near the end find Lee feeling a bit more in his element, but they also seem maddenly isolated from the rest of the movie.
The performances, too, suffer in comparison to the original. Stephen Tyrone Williams is perfectly serviceable as the opaque, isolated Greene, but the actor seems uncertain and a bit timid in the role. He’s got a genuine charm --immediately evident on the few occasions he gets to smile-- but the role clearly doesn’t play to his strengths. Original star Duane Jones (known for his only other major film, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) had a fierce, imperious take on the role which made him magnetic and compelling despite his elusive character. Williams simply feels reserved and a little bored. Zaraah Abrahams, as Ganja, fares better with a more active and relatable character, but doesn’t come close to Marlene Clark’s effortless portrait of gilded toughness. Clark is just naturally commanding; Abrahams feels a little more needy and demanding, even a little bitchy (her suffocatingly posh British accent doesn’t help matters; not that it’s her fault, but that voice is the quintessential embodiment of vapid English upper-crusty spoiled brats). Nothing about her feels steely or damaged the way Clark originally did, though her performance is sympathetic enough to effectively command our attention, and as the movie rolls onward she seems to find enough confidence in the role it make it her own. Really, though, the person best served here is Rami Malek, as Greene’s amusingly resentful butler. Even with very few lines, he’s allowed to instill his character with a lot more personality than either Williams or Abrahams are, which makes him instinctively more appealing to both Lee and the audience.
|Oh by the way, Snoop from The Wire is in here.|
Watching Malek, it’s easy to remember what a great filmmaker Lee can be, but it’s also obvious why his strengths are ill-suited to this particular adaptation. Lee thrives on colorful, larger-than-life characters, rich humanism, and provocative social experiments -- all things which are fundamentally the opposite of GANJA AND HESS’s icy, surreal, fractured intellectualism. Plenty of Lee’s personality sneaks in around the margins, but he’s so beholden to the spirit of the original that the real meat of the story seems to be actively working in opposition to his best instincts. And when he applies some of his trademarks --earthy, lurid realism, long dialogue takes, sly humor-- to Gunn’s material, it’s sometimes a flat-out disaster, as the painfully amateurish scene where Hess explains his vampirism demonstrates. Even so, as the movie gradually winds towards its climax (and in doing so, generates some fitful stirrings of intelligible drama) the beautiful photography alone is ample reminder that Lee is a talent to reckon with. He may not always make the best choices (the aggressive, sometimes seemingly deliberately out-of-sync musical selections here, for example*) but he’ll never be uninteresting. An extended long-take seduction sequence --which starts off a bit awkward but gradually builds a real sexual and dread-inducing power-- is a stunner. A lengthy musical sequence near the end --strikingly similar to his previous RED HOOK SUMMER, but also a fairly direct lift from GANJA AND HESS-- is mesmerizing, and finally engrossing and mysterious in exactly the same way its progenitor was. And as the movie reaches its final destination, Lee finally seems to find his footing and lets the movie’s enigmatic symbolism speak for itself, creating some genuinely haunting --if still totally inscrutable-- images.
With all its contradictions, dead-ends, and surreal plotting, this was already going to be a film for a very select audience, and having seen it I can understand why even a lot of that audience was put off by it. Frankly I’m not even sure what the point of making this film was; Lee, like Gunn before him, still seems to suggest that the film is in some way about addiction; it seems like it should be, but the final product suggests nothing of the sort, as neither vampiric character seems especially bothered or really even interested in their so-called addiction and are really too opaque for us to really understand what they’re thinking in the first place. Certainly there are other intriguing elements here --the film’s curious Christian imagery juxtaposed with its explicitly African curse, the isolating effects of Greene’s wealth, the contrast of vampiric death and rebirth-- but nothing resolves into anything resembling a specific point. This, then, is ultimately a film not to be parsed for meaning but to simply experience. If that experience is a somewhat less fulfilling one than the original (perhaps always destined to be the case when remaking movies so strongly of their time in a vastly different era), well, at least it’s still a unique one. I’m glad to live in a world where “Spike Lee’s Vampire Film” is a real thing that exists, but I hope the next movie he makes has a little more of himself in it,** especially after two remakes in a row. Remembering the greatness of the past is important, but let’s not let it take over our future, OK Spike? Ancient African daggers are not the only thing that can turn us into bloodless vampires -- overly respectful tributes to the cinema of the past can do it too.
That having been said, if you could drop a vampire or two into your upcoming CHIRAQ, I ain’t gonna complain. Or get a wolf man in there or something. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.
*Culled from over 800 unsigned artists who submitted music to him specifically for the movie
**Speaking of which, why the hell is he not playing the part of the unhinged assistant, which was played by Gunn himself in the original film??