To describe a filmmaker, or any artist for that matter, as “underrated” usually doesn’t mean all that much. In most cases the critic tossing that word around simply doesn’t know of the swelling support under the surface for the said art or its creator, or they do but see their approval as the defining turn in the artist’s cultural cache. However, there are certain circumstances where describing a filmography as “underrated,” “undervalued” or “under seen” is not only apt but allows for the right historical context to be created when a discovery is made from within that oeuvre.
Such is the case with director Bill Gunn, and the recent rediscovery of his “meta-soap opera,” Personal Problems. Gunn (himself a polymath with two novels, numerous plays and a trio of films of various levels of availability) teams with legendary writer Ishmael Reed for this breathtaking film that’s part formal experiment and part wide ranging familial epic that feels as intimate in its artistry as it does contextually broad in its narrative.
The film introduces us to Johnnie Mae Brown (played by the captivating Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor), a blue collar night nurse at New York’s Harlem Hospital, who tries to find a break from her stressful home life by sparking an affair with a local keyboardist (Sam Waymon) and continuing to work on her passion, her poetry. As tensions rise between Johnnie Mae and her transit worker husband Charles (Walter Cotton), himself having an affair, his father begins living with them. Pair that with the arrival and continual presence of Johnnie Mae’s brother Bubba, and his wife Mary Alice, and you have the setting for a film that narratively feels very much in conversation with the melodrama tradition, but is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
At first glance, the film’s style may leave one scratching their heads, or at least unsure of the film’s artistic intent. Shot on video, and without any interest in hiding that fact, two things happen. From the outset, a sense of verisimilitude is instilled in the viewer. Verite documentaries can’t be far from any viewers mind, particularly with the film’s very first sequence being a long conversation between an off-screen cameraman and Johnnie Mae, about her life before the picture begins. There are truly powerful moments of fly-on-the-wall type filmmaking throughout the film’s nearly three hour run time, all given a sense of energy and urgency by a camera that is admittedly quite static, but bursting at the seams with a tactile, lived in vitality. And sure, calling it “lived in” really doesn’t mean much in the abstract, but to see sequences ranging from a dinner conversation between a husband and wife on the brink of collapse or a group of friends at an outdoor restaurant (which has one of the film’s truly great cuts, a cut that shouldn’t be spoiled for it forces the viewer to confront things culturally in a way that’s kind of groundbreaking), the film plays all the more like an actual epic narratively. It’s quite an achievement.
The other aspect of this film’s aesthetic that one will find captivating is how for a format as synonymous with “the home” and “the family” as video was and will always be, Gunn’s film feels in many ways almost expressionistic. From moments where people walk across screen with a hazy, almost apparition-like softness, to the use of music, Gunn’s film looks incredibly strange to the 2018 eye, sans powerful iPhone cameras or superficial Snapchat filters. There’s a roughness that seems both drawn from the format itself and yet almost supernaturally from the world it’s used to document, placing the viewer squarely in a specific moment in time without ever losing sight of the broader context of the action. And it helps that these scenes are usually incredibly long, incredibly fluid, incredibly compelling. This is not a film of quick cuts, flashy camera work or baroque compositions. Instead it’s a film long shots that allows the performers time to give layered performances without putting any punctuation on the fact that you’re watching a long scene. It’s all about bringing life to these characters and their relationships. It’s film as time capsule, in many ways. A film as a time capsule of a family, a relationship, a city and of a society.
Calling the photography occasionally apparition-like is fitting, as this film’s broader sociological and historical context is never far from the surface. While the narrative itself is incredibly specific and incredibly contained, come the film’s bittersweet finale (think more bitter than sweet) there are no real answers given, no tidy bows thrown on. From Johnnie Mae’s relationship to her Southern heritage, her role as a caregiver in both work and home, to even the relationship of African American women to their expected performance in public settings (again, the above mentioned cut during a dinner sequence is profoundly thought provoking), Personal Problems is a film about a family as well as the world and history that they are a part of.
But this would all be for nothing if the performances were not as superb as they truly are. Smart-Grosvenor is an absolute revelation here as Johnnie Mae. Her performance is surprisingly nuanced and textured, surprising only because films of this low a budget usually aren’t led by an acting performance with such range and depth. There’s a clear evolution here, from the first scene to the last, and in between we become privy to a performance that’s as confident as it is layered. Cotton is also quite good as her stilted husband Charles Brown, a performance that leans on the petulance that comes from a very specific type of toxic masculinity in the face of a strong female companion. Supporting performances from Jim Wright, Thommie Blackwell and Andrew W. Hunt are all uniformly good and varied, adding their own sense of realism through giving this family a rightly singular cast of characters.
A Kino Lorber restoration and release, the film is now playing at New York’s Metrograph theater in its premiere US theatrical run, and along with Fassbinder’s Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day is one of the year’s great film canon discoveries. Hopefully this will help readjust history’s view of director Bill Gunn.