Godspeed you black maestro

Melvin Van Peebles turns 80.

He decided on the direct approach and made a film inspired by his blob of desert-spent jism and visualized a parable of a modern black fugitive/runaway slave told in the raw, liberating language of a poet-warrior. (Chairman Ho Chi Nigger, aka Darius James)

Birthdays and anniversaries are usually rather self-congratulatory affairs, opportunities for a reassuring dose of back-patting platitudes and anecdotage. But that is not likely to be the case for Melvin Van Peebles' 80th birthday that will be celebrated tonight at the Film Forum in New York. Though the Afro-American polymath has reached that venerable age, his body of work is not ready yet for retrospective mummification. Now that Obama's "hopeful" prosthetic surgery is peeling off, Van Peebles’s grandiloquently titled masterwork Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song feels as urgent as it did first released in 1971.

“Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury”, this dissonant viual poem – an insurgent confession of a psychedelic soul on ice – epitomises Van Peebles’ protean genius and vision. His determination to autonomously produce, direct, edit, score and star in the first independent black film to rock the foundations of Hollywood remains unmatched. By turning the censors’ scissors into a marketing asset, subverting the dominant depiction of black people on the silver screen while offering black audiences the ransom of respect, Van Peebles made history. Sweetback, which had to be disguised as a pornographic film during production in order to bypass showbiz restrictions, tells the story of a black hustler who, after having killed a cop, flees the urban jungle for the desert. As he escapes, Sweetback enjoys the solidarity of, variously, a priest, Latino drag queens and fellow black brothers and sisters, thus turning his solitary deeds into a kind of collective identification. The film’s different layers coalesce into a vivid whole of lysergic colours, strident sounds and agit-propping jump cuts.

Possibly the first experimental film to acquire blockbuster status without coming to terms with the formal requirements of the box office, Van Peebles’s film gave voice to a previously voiceless black community desperate to see itself on screen for the first time, unleashed. “To create a commercially feasible vehicle, our society being capitalistic and all that, plus to do something that wasn’t Uncle-Tommy,” was Van Peebles’s intention. In doing so, he avoided the besetting sin of militant cinema: elitism.

The New York Times's Vincent Canby wrote the film off as “a slight, pale escape drama about a black man” while authoritative voices from the Black Arts movement dismissed it as stereotypical and exploitative. Huey P Newton, chairman of the Black Panthers, dedicated an entire issue of the party's newspaper to the film hailing it as a revolutionary masterpiece. Newton noted the economic paradox by which the film’s radical agenda defied The Man: “corporate capitalists are so anxious to bleed us for more profits that they either ignore or fail to recognize the many ideas in the film, but because we have supported the movie with our attendance we are able to receive its message”. Predominantly black audiences flocked in, a new "constituency", as the director called his spectators, was born. The film ended up grossing around $10-million having cost $500,000 to make. As this previously untapped market opened up, Hollywood quickly monopolised and neutralised the revolutionary potential of black movie-going: "Blaxploitation" was born. Notable exceptions notwithstanding, the genre, as its name suggests, traded on stereotypes while advancing a sort of Afro-Capitalist-cum-Black-Supremacist-revenge worldview wholly removed from Van Peebles’s idiosyncratic insurrectionary stance.

Godspeed you black maestro, and happy birthday!

Revolutionary road: Melvin Van Peebles in 2008 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear