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A Cinematic Masterpiece

I watched the documentary, “Sweet Black Film: The Birth of a Black Hero: Sweet Sweetback,” AKA, “Naissance d'un héros noir au cinéma : Sweet Sweetback,” the other night. It’s a doc about Melvin Van Peebles and his filmmaking career, particularly focused on the making of his film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” It was a good doc. It was tight and well put together.
There have been other documentaries made about the man and that film. Others about him and his son, actor and filmmaker Mario Van Peebles. But, this one is one of the best I’ve seen.
As stated, the doc is primarily focused on the man and his creation of, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It also speaks to his making of the film he created before that movie, Watermelon Man.
I remember seeing, Watermelon Man at the Wiltern theater when it can out in ’70.  The Wiltern was always one of my favorite theaters back when it was a movie theater. I saw so many movies there, through the younger years of my life. That movie itself was a fun comedy.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, that’s another issue all together. I remember seeing it at a Hollywood Blvd. theater, (I forget which one), when it was finally theatrically released in the early ‘70s. It’s a curious movie. If you watch any of the docs or listen to any of the interviews about the making of that film, and there are several, or read any or the writings or the literature, there is some blatant sex taking place in the film and even what is, (or at least verging on), child pornography. I won’t go into all of that here, but when you find out what went on, in some ways I am surprised the film was theatrically released at all. I don’t think it would be in today’s theatrical marketplace. You should read about the making of the film, there’s a lot of interesting information out there. In fact, in many ways, what went into the creation of that film is far more interesting than the film itself.
The doc is compelling in that it goes into how Van Peebles financed the film, shot it under the radar of the unions. It was a non-union film. How he sought out porn filmmakers to make up his non-union crew, and so on. A lot of interesting information is in it, narrated by his sons: Mario and Max, and his daughter, Marguerite, along with some other people.
One of the things that I find most interesting about that film and the filmmaker, at least in relation to independent filmmakers like myself, and the movies we create, is the fact that, yes, that movie is an idea example of independent, experimental, avant-garde cinema. Yes, it was shot under the veil, hiding from the powers-that-be. But, is it a good movie? Like all things, “Art,” that is up for debate. Did I like it as a young teenager? No, not really. Now, as time has gone on, and I have seen it a number of times over the years, I have really studied what went into the making of it, and it is definitely interesting. It has changed my appraisal.
Be all that as it may, that movie has gone down in the annals of filmmaking as a cinematic masterpiece. If a film like that is the standard, why haven’t, (for example), some of my Zen Films been so categorized? Why haven’t the creations of other avant-garde filmmakers of this modern era fallen under that heading? They only seem to receive criticism from the people that have not actually studied the films, the filmmaking process, or the philosophy of the filmmaker that went into the making of the films.
What’s the difference and why? Is it simply that, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made by a black man, with a theme focusing on the trials, tribulations, and the repression of black society at that point in U.S. history?
I believe this brings us to the essence of all of this. If you do not truly understand the foundations of a filmmaker, or the limitations they encountered in creating their cinematic pieces of art, whatever it is you feel, think, or say about the film is sorely lacking, defined only by your own predispositions.
Art is art, simply because it was created as art. What you or I think about that art, does it really matter?  And, if you think that what you think about someone else’s art should be heard by others, you should at least possess the discipline to study the entire process of and the motivation for that artistic creation before you ever mutter a word.
I could end with that statement, as it is a good conclusion, (I believe). But allow me to continue just a bit farther, adding some personal life realizations.
In many interviews, particularly when Zen Filmmaking was the Talk of the Town, I would be questioned, did I think if I had created Zen Filmmaking in European cultural it would have received a more welcomed response, as Europe seems to possess a more open mind to cinematic artistic endeavors than it does say here in the States? I would answer that question different ways at different times, deepening on how the question was phrased. But, I believe it all goes to a bigger question than this. Yes, in certain cultures, at certain times, art, by whatever medium, and however you define it, can be more accepted. But, there is also the world-mind, defined by the large(r) cultural awareness, that can come to be the definition of a particular piece of art.  For example, during time frames like the 1960s and into the 1970s, there was a more willing global acceptance to art that was presented in different and unique manners than there is today.

I mean, the fact of the fact is, Zen Filmmaking has influenced the creative process of many a filmmaker since its inception. Back when, some of those filmmakers would tell me so. Some of them were very well known filmmakers. Some would reference Zen Filmmaking as a creative source-point during interviews. Some would provide me with a credit roll, “Thanks.” Something… But, then (I guess) ego(s) took hold. Gone was the reference to Zen Filmmaking. They never again mentioned me or it. This, even though some would still tell me, person-to-person, that Zen Filmmaking was part of their creative process. …That what I had laid down had influenced them. I always found/find all of this very disingenuous. Yes, people should own what they create. But, if we, the artists/the filmmakers can't pay credit where credit is due, can’t pay tribute to our influences and influencers, where does our lineage lie? It is like the spiritual aspirant, they all wish to trace where the source of their knowledge came from. Similar to the Samurai, they always pay respect to their teacher and their teacher’s teacher. But, if borrowing technique and philosophy, without documenting the source, is all a filmmaker, their filmmaking process, and their film possesses, what is the true essence of their art?
Another of the things that also plays into this, Sign of the Times, was how art was viewed when, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was first screened. Back when it was initially released, there was not even buyable or rentable video tapes, as of yet. People had to go and see that film, if they did go and see that film, (or any film), in a movie theater. Meaning, viewing that film took effort. It became an interactive event. Not only the viewing of the film but interactions with those other people viewing the film around you all came into play in one’s overall viewing experience. Now, in the world of today, few ever leave the confines of their home to watch a movie. From this is born a singular mindset motivated by the Individual Self. Even if multiple people agree on what they see or feel or experience from a film, that realization is based upon a selfish, unenlightened, non-actualized, non-studied, viewing experience. Hand-in-hand with this is the ease at which one can create either a positive or a negative critique. With just a few keystrokes on a keyboard or a phone the viewer becomes a film critic. A film critic with no credentials, no degrees, no true understanding what it took for the filmmaker to make the film, what went into the making of a film, or the motivations or the philosophy of the filmmaker. Just simply the belief that what they think and believe about whatever it is they critiquing should be seen by the world. Something is truly lost in all of this.
In closing, (finally), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an ideal example of how by knowing what went into the making of a film, that knowledge can truly change the entire viewing experience of that film. Here’s a suggestion, take the time to know before you simply
think you know. As that true knowing can change your entire experience.