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Dr. Hess Green, an archaeologist overseeing an excavation at the ancient civilization of Myrthia, is stabbed by his research assistant, who then commits suicide. When Hess wakes up, he finds that his wounds have healed, but he now has an insatiable thirst for blood, due to the knife carrying ancient germs. Soon after, Hess meets his former assistant's wife, Ganja. Though Ganja is initially concerned about her missing husband, she soon falls for Hess. Though they are initially happy together, Ganja will eventually learn the truth about Hess, and about her husband. Will she survive the revelation? Will Hess? Written by
Jean-Marc Rocher <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Bill Gunn was paid to make Blacksploitation movie, basically a knock off Blacula and instead made an insanely ambitious, lyrical, high art film called "Ganja And Hess", which happened to have an all black cast and involve vampires, though the v-word is never mentioned.
One of the defining criterion of Blacksploitation cinema; a black cast working with white writers, directors and producers is absent in G&H. Bill Gunn wrote, directed, and stared in the film, where there are no white characters present anywhere at all (accept briefly in Hess' dreams/visions), eliminating the usual reference to "the man" as villain and planting the discussion singularly in the black community.
There is nothing exploitative about any of this, it just happens to be a movie with a low-budget. In fact I think it's the best and most complex film about African American Christianity I've ever seen. Ganja and Hess is not that simple, to say it's spiritual on one hand or a critique on the other, is a matter of whether you prefer Ganja or Hess.
Hess (Duane Johnson of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy anthropologist studying the ancient Mythria tribe in Africa who takes on a new assistant named George (played by Gunn), who begins to appear more and more manic.
Hess stops George's first suicide attempt, but George later inexplicably attacks him stabbing him with an ancient knife Hess keeps as a kind of tribal art on his bed stand. George then bathes ritualistically and commits suicide on his knees, naked with a gun shot to the chest.
Hess quickly adjusts to his new thirst which is cued by an echoing African chanting and images of tribal ceremonies in a field.
Hess drinks blood from a glass, an image later echoed in Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction", a similarly complex religious vampire film (and to think, Anne Rice said she couldn't write both at the same time).
Ganja is George's wife fresh from Amsterdam, who knows his "crazy" tendencies, and asks to stay at Hess' home to wait for his return. Ganja is confident and direct where Hess is cool and coy. Ganja berates and insults Hess' butler Archie, only after implying Hess treats him coldly and impersonally. She gages his reaction and when she see's he isn't concerned proceeds to dominate Archie, and subsequently positioning herself as mistress of the house.
The couple marry, and Hess seems genuinely in love, while Ganja is genuinely in love with her new position, and not in the least bothered by her belief that Hess killed George for some reason which to her doesn't need explaining. He loves her so much they have their second wedding as he sire's her with the Myrthrian dagger used on him.
This scene is as ritualistic as the Church wedding that came before, only now Hess pronounces they will be free of guilt, fear, and sin before knifing her. The sex scenes recalls Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, consisting of ambiguous body close ups and glistening sweat, only at the end of Gunn's scene, when the lights come on, the sweat is revealed to be blood.
Hess attends Wayman's church, perhaps put off by Ganja's sleeping with another man, or insisting that he was not dead when they took his body to the field, and in any event, experiences a religious awakening of his own in silent movements across his face like Dryer's "Passion of Joan of Arc".
This complicates what had been a simple binary of African ritual/savagery/hedonism to Christian/restraint/morality/love. This binary is further complicated when Hess allows himself to starve to death sitting in the shadow of a cross, and the scene is juxtaposed with a flash black of George killing himself. "The cross is only an instrument of torture; it's the shadow of the cross that creates its meaning. Shadows conquer everything.", says Hess to Ganja during one of their chats.
Neither is above reproach for Gunn though, one may be liberating to fault when over-indulgence becomes neurosis and eternal youth resembles eternal adolescence (George's character) while the other may only be repression of cultural traditions, class relations which amounts to ennui and stagnation.
I don't think Gunn wants us to pick a side, the film is called Ganja and Hess after all, and neither one's self sacrificing nor the others self absorption seems definitive. "I feel like both a murderer and a victim" George says early on. The rest of the movie plays on this contradictory impasse; the horror of the film comes from the philosophical ambiguity resembling a visually driven "No Exit".
Gunn is speaking directly to a black audience, his intended and studio mandated demographic, and though his themes are philosophically universal, they speak specifically to a newly radicalized post-Civil Rights black audience budding between calls for socially conscious realist Nationalism and Black Christian moralism; Hess and Ganja respectively.
The images of the field become a place of burial (corpses) and of things past returning (the procession of the ancient tribe). The music by Wayman predicts Animal Collective's droned out psychedelic African tribal chants by thirty years. The rest of the score is upbeat 70's pop, soul, and gospel, all styles that cascade together in the church scene, when the non-digetic music, is reveled as the church band, and a principle structuring element for much of the editing.
Ganja and Hess is at minimum a marginalized if not completely forgotten masterpiece of American cinema. It got a standing ovation at Cannes (where it was the only American film entered that year), and ensured no American producer would work with Bill Gunn on a theatrical film ever again. Bill Gunn's corpse is still locked in the cultural cellar, discovered from time to time, but easily (and tragically) ignored in favor of more profitable ventures.
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