by Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman
Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 30-36
GANJA AND HESS (1973) was suppressed in the United States because it did not turn out to be the Hollywood genre film which its producers, Kelly and Jordan, had commissioned the writer and film director Bill Gunn to make. They produced GANJA AND HESS at a time when blaxploitation movies like SHAFT, with supercops who were black repetitions of James Bond and Charles Bronson, played as blockbusters in black neighborhoods. The producers wanted a film that would exploit black audiences — a black version of white vampire films.
However, the producers withdrew the film when Gunn went beyond the vampire genre to create an original product. That the producers literally dismembered the original GANJA AND HESS is a tragedy. Fortunately, at least one good print of the work survived so that the original is back in circulation today.[open notes in new window]
In fact, the original version received many favorable reviews. It received the critics' choice prize at the Cannes Festival, and James Murray of the Amsterdam News hailed it as "the most important Black produced film since SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSS SONG." James Monaco, too, describes the film as the great underground classic of Black film, and, I think, the most complicated, intriguing, subtle, sophisticated, and passionate Black film of the seventies. If SWEET SWEETBACK is Native Son, GANJA AND HESS is Invisible Man (Monaco, 205).
GANJA AND HESS violates conventional narrative devices such as beginning, middle, and end, a clearly defined hero and heroine, and cause and effect. Therefore, it is difficult to summarize. On the surface, the film deals with Dr. Hess Green and his relationship with his assistant George Meda, a chauffeur who's also a part-time minister, and Meda's wife Ganja, who becomes Hess Green's wife after her husband's death.
Early in the film we know that Green works as an anthropologist and archivist in a museum. He does research on an ancient African tribe which had been destroyed by a blood disease ten thousand years before Egypt. We also know that Green is an elegant and sophisticated man by his clothes, Rolls Royce, and magnificent mansion, where a servant meets his every need. The film accentuates Hess Green's aristocratic aspect — he's shown as an ex-married man who likes to entertain on his large estate; he slips easily into foreign languages and decorates his mansion with art from Africa, Asia, and Europe. He sends his son to boarding school.
As we learn these things about him, we also see Green's daily activities at work and around town, and we meet the other main characters of the story. We see Green's chauffeur as the minister of a small church. The chauffeur/minister tells us about other important aspects of Green's life, including the fact that his employer is addicted to blood. In daylight Green robs blood banks or kills people, sucking their blood to satisfy his vampiric needs. He contracted this (lust for blood) disease, which also makes him immortal, from an artifact he collected in Africa. At the same time that we meet the chauffeur/minister, we also meet Meda who has arrived to become Green's new assistant at work.
Green invites Meda to stay at his mansion until the assistant finds his own place. George Meda is a frustrated artist who has attempted suicide several times. At the mansion, Meda finally succeeds in killing himself. Green sucks his assistant's blood and preserves the body in the freezer for his future needs. Some time later, Ganja comes to town looking for Meda and soon finds her husband in the freezer. Wasting no time in mourning, she becomes Hess Green's bride and, like him, a vampire. Toward the film's end, Green, tiring of his vampire lifestyle, goes to the chauffeur/minister's church to redeem himself. He dies, but Ganja lives on, continuing the vampire tradition.
GANJA AND HESS is stunning and complex. The camera lingers on Green's art collection in a magnificent country estate nestled in the all-white landscape of Westchester county in New York. In addition to his preacher/ chauffeur, Green is tended by a retainer Archie, who serves as butler, valet, and all-purpose servant, with genteel manners and closed mouth. In visual style, the mansion has all the trappings of the most successful haute bourgeoisie, yet it also seems in a state of sumptuous decay. The film indicts Hess Green's very wealth and class position as vampirism.
When George Media comes into this environment, he is an artist and self-proclaimed psychotic who gets drunk and philosophizes about death while sitting in the branch of a tree, his legs dangling in close proximity to a noose. The first person whose blood we see Green drink is George's. The film thus pits the pleasure-loving materialist and the artist against each other in a struggle which the artist appears to lose.
When George's beautiful wife Ganja arrives from Europe, she and Hess begin a torrid, sensuously depicted sexual relationship that culminates in their marriage, even after Ganja discovers George's body in the freezer. As Hess initiates her into his life-without-death, he even provides an evening of pleasure, including a handsome young man whom they subsequently kill. After feeding from his blood, they dispose of his body, although Ganja insists the victim is still breathing.
Though Ganja doesn't, Hess repents. He does not become satisfied now that he has a partner in addiction; he desperately wants to be free. Hess goes to the black church where his chauffeur preaches, and he stands in the shadow of the cross, knowing he will finally be able to die. Although he tries to get Ganja to go with him, she refuses. After Hess' body is carried away, she waits inside the sumptuous mansion, now hers, for the young man who rises out of the pool, out of death, to join her.
STARKLY CONTRASTING IMAGES
From this skeletal outline of what seems to be a variant of the Dracula tale, one hardly begins to understand the powerful images that Bill Gunn has assembled. The film opens with medium and close-up shots of western art — sculpted alabaster figures, inordinately white, as though the camera has chosen to shoot them in the brightest possible light. Throughout the film, the framing juxtaposes western objets d'art against various pieces of African art from the museum and from Hess Green's palatial home. In fact, the film manipulates many kinds of "doubles" — scenes that deliberately match other scenes; objects and gestures that either repeat or contrast with elements of each other, depicted in linear or circular relations.
Characterization, in particular, abounds in these contrasts and contradictions. For example, a white administrator holds out his hand in the western gesture of politesse, and an African woman's hand gesture indicates only ambiguous welcome. Hess Green is drawn into the relation with George Meda through the white administrator. Hess Green's death comes through a primitive African implement that infects him with his blood addiction. He lives a life completely separate from other black people, yet he represents a success in white bourgeois materialist terms, with an estate, cars, servants and clothes. His taste is impeccable. His son, one step further removed from black people, has received the best private school education and the boy speaks French as easily as English. In stark contrast to Hess Green is his chauffeur, the preacher whose church we see immediately after we see the very white and cold western art.
The church and the gospel music exude a warm personal and worshipful attitude. The cross figures here in its usual environment, but the compositions use it symbolically in other settings — around the minister's neck on a chain; behind Meda as he commits "suicide"; in the scene with Ganja when Hess Green has determined to die. Because GANJA AND HESS is so rich in visual and narrative texture, we can analyze it in a number of different ways. To analyze the narrative, however, is particularly rewarding. In this film, as James Monoco has noted, director Bill Gunn provides us with "an impressive arsenal of narrative techniques — straight documentary, high melodrama, dark ritual, and cool realism — each of which he handles with simple assurance" (p. 206).
Thinking of narration as an active process by which a character produces a space allows us to analyze and understand the relation between the storyline and the trajectory of the images. The script will place other characters and/or objects in the storyline's space. In a fictional film both the narrative and the events that make up the narrative depend on the process of spatial narration. Narration must therefore be considered a broad concept which goes beyond the positioning of the camera to include the character's/ narrator's world view and judgment. We learn and the narration shows us how the characters deduce meaning. Thus, as soon as a character/narrator creates a filmic space, he/she is simultaneously placing the viewer in relation or reaction to that space. What makes GANJA AND HESS such a rewarding and complex experience for viewers is that we must see and interpret the film through the eyes of different characters and implied narrators. Through the film they all compete for the final narrative authority.
FIRST TEN SEQUENCES
To illustrate our point let's look at the first few opening sequences of GANJA AND HESS. The sequences are numbered in the order in which they appear:
(1) A written statement about Hess Green explains in an authoritative way his profession, his habits, and the reasons for his immortality. Biblical references are drawn to support these claims.
(2) Fade to a display of Greek Statues. The camera pans left and more statues are revealed. As the camera pans or fades to more statues (old and new), a religious song on the soundtrack tells the history of the world from a Christian perspective.
(3) Cut to a church scene with the religious song still on the soundtrack. As we hear this song in the foreground, another song is heard in the background, sung by the minister and his congregation. The first song stops and is replaced by the words of the minister who introduces himself as a part time chauffeur for Hess Green.
(4) An outdoor scene showing the minister/chauffeur driving Green around town. We hear the words which started in the church in the audio foreground. In the background the audio picks up natural street noises, such as cars and sirens. As the car pulls up at the scene of an accident, we see a bleeding man on the ground and learn from the soundtrack that Green is addicted to blood. We also hear that he is not a criminal but a victim. The car stops in front of a house, and the chauffeur opens the door for him to exit.
(5) The story about Hess Green told on the soundtrack stops for a while. In long shot, George Meda (played by director Bill Gunn) in a three-piece suit looks at his reflection in the mirror. Cut to an extreme long shot of the outside seen through a glass window. The minister/chauffeur opens the car door and Green exits. The camera cuts back to a medium close up of Meda taking aim with a gun. We don't see what he is aiming at.
(6) Cut to a long shot of the interior of the museum where Green works. A white man dressed in executive dark blue comes to meet him and takes him along the hallway. The white man's voice introduces Meda to Green. We do not see the meeting. Instead we see paintings and statues in the museum. A last shot zooms to an extreme close up of the statues. The story about Green on the soundtrack resumes with quotes from the Bible.
(7) Story on soundtrack stops again. Fade to a close up of Meda's face, matching his right eye with the eye of the statue previously seen — another "double." Meda is smoking a cigarette and looking scornful.
(8) An extreme long shot of the three men (Meda, Green, and the white man) walking out of the museum. As the three men talk in the background, we hear Meda express his gratitude to Green in the audio foreground.
(9) The music which started at the beginning of the film comes back up as the chauffeur drives Green and Meda home. The camera travels with them giving the impression that a great deal of space has been covered. The viewer feels s/he has embarked on a journey beyond land and sea. The song in the foreground makes references to a pre-Christian era, to slavery and to Christendom. They arrive at Green's house. Song stops.
(10) In the interior of Hess Green's living room, primitive paintings and African masks are revealed. He is sitting with Meda. The retainer Archie brings them food. Meda thanks his host profusely and begins to tell him an anecdote. Green does not laugh at the joke.
An understanding of how these scenes relate to each other and to the rest of the film is crucial to the understanding of GANJA AND HESS. The challenge Bill Gunn poses to the viewer is to infer which character has the narrative authority in each scene. Identifying the main narrators can thus help the audience grasp the ideological and aesthetic assumptions that underlie the film. As the mapping of the scenes shows, our potential narrators here are the minister and Meda. Later on in the film Ganja, too, will emerge as an important narrator. Our task is to analyze the kind of narration established by each character and to show whether or not the "meaning" each establishes is complementary, or whether these "meanings" contradict or challenge each other.
THE MINISTER'S POINT OF VIEW
Let's begin with the minister's narrative since it is the most conspicuous on the soundtrack of the film. As demonstrated in our mapping of these first sequences, the minister assumes the role of a first-person narrator in the film. From the time he introduces himself in the church to the time when he says that he is a part-time chauffeur for Hess Green when he tells Green's story, the film's sound- track seems to be cast in a documentary style in which a voice-over narration comments on the images that are shown. In this sense we can say that the first sequence which consists of a written statement about Hess Green, and the second sequence of statues shown under a religious song, also become part of the minister's narration. Because of their religious content, these two sequences serve as an introduction to the minister's point of view.
At this point let us look more closely at the minister's narrative to see its structural elements, for his sermon has an ideological substructure. We can detect three temporal epochs in what he says: a distant past, an immediate past not very remote from the present, and the present. The distant past refers to the pre-Christian era of a blood-drinking African tribe as depicted also by the statues and the religious song that follows. Then we move to an exhibit of Greek statues and to the coming of Christ. The filmic narrative space visually depicts passage of time from a pre-Christian era of Africans and Greeks to the coming of Christ in two ways.
One way is through continuity editing. Gunn presents the minister's narrative in a straightforward documentary style with events arranged in a linear manner. The sequences succeed each other, maintaining continuity and making a statement about the African tribe. When the camera fades from the last sequence to the Greek statues, the way the camera pans from left to right or fades from one statue to another maintains continuity. A religious song on the soundtrack accompanies the sequence of the statues, part of the sequence in the church, and the sequence in the car going to the estate; this song tells us about the history of the world before and after Christ, and it establishes linear continuity on the audio track.
The immediate past which the minister tells us about is Green's story going from his alienation from God, his passing under the Cross, and his death. Here the minister gives us an authoritative account of how he knew Green. He worked as his part time chauffeur. In this account, we get a documented description of the man's life moving from stage to stage.
In the present tense, the minister tells us his employer is an anthropologist who has developed an affinity for a primitive African tribe of the pre-Christian era. After being stabbed with an artifact from that primitive tribe, Green becomes addicted to human blood just like the Africans he was studying. This then becomes the source of his alienation from God. At first he struggles against his addiction; later he lets himself go, making the gap between himself and God wider and wider. Toward the end, unhappy and unfulfilled, he abandons his instinct of vampirism and joins the church.
The minister uses the present tense as a way of giving a speech to his church. The way he speaks in the present establishes the temporal preaching relation between him and his congregation. We see him praising the Lord after Green's death when his congregation is also shown singing with him. Clearly, the minister is asking his audience in the story and in the theater to follow the example of the repentant Green and to become the lamb of Christ the shepherd.
Consider the ideological assumptions already apparent in the minister's narrative. His words are molded in a Christian worldview and have a didactic message: Find God by the way of the straight path and "live happily ever after." The minister makes this worldview an imperative when he speaks according to the Christian teleological notion of history. That is why the verbal audio organization of these sequences reinforces the linear conception of time. We go from a pre-Christian era to a Christian era, presumably in order to achieve true happiness. In this sense, such a narration places the African tribe as the remotest in history and the least aware of God. In their "godless" world the Africans in the film seemingly live only like vampires. As the song on the soundtrack states, they are unaware that "the blood of the thing is the true blood" and that only Christ's blood guarantees everlasting life. Consequently they are cursed for drinking each other's blood.
From the minister's point of view, Green's problem seemingly derives from failing to accept Christian teleology. Born in a Christian era, Green goes against time back to a primitive African era. He surrounds himself with African icons and artifacts, and like the Africans referred to in the film, he drinks human blood to live. Rather than acknowledge the abundant life that Christ promises to those who come to Him and drink His "blood," Green chooses human blood. The film shows Green's anti-Christian attitudes in many ways, especially with the match cuts of the minister's point of view contrasted with African masks and statues. Green is often composed in the same frame as African artifacts and paintings of devils. Finally, Green attempts to build an earthly "white" paradise and to live forever with servants around him to fulfill his every wish. Such an eternal "richness" on earth stands opposed to the Christian notion of eternity and is therefore a sin against God.
Unlike Green, who tries to revalorize the Africa which ignored Christ, the minister exhorts his parishioners to turn back on Africa's dark moment and to trace history from the time Christ arrived. It is in this sense that we see Christ as the hero of the minister's narrative, and the Africans — and Green, when he was following their example — as the villains.
Clearly the minister's narrative is very important in the film. It uses a didactic documentary style to shed light on Hess Green's character and to make clear his version of the place of the black church in black history. But can we say that the whole film is told from the minister's point of view? Does everything that takes place in the film fit into his narrative or at least complement it? The end of the film, after Hess Green's death and the final church scene, shows Ganja at a window, smiling at a naked man running toward her. How can we reconcile this scene with the minister's narrative?
MEDA'S POINT OF VIEW
Of equal importance are the scenes involving Meda. If the narrator's point of view at the end of the film parallels that of the minister, surely Meda's narrative also contradicts the minister's. Let's analyze Meda's and Ganja's two points of view to see how they stand aesthetically and/or ideologically in relation to the minister's.
First, Meda's narrative: How do we establish Meda as a narrator from the sequences we have outlined? We already know the minister's overall claim to authority in the film. Moreover, the minister has been able to establish himself as an amiable and reliable character; he loves his congregation and is loved by them. He seems a father figure when he refuses to condemn Green, showing compassion for him instead. Finally, the minister assumes a prototypical storyteller's role when he uses voice-over narration in order to explain the images to the viewer. It is therefore against the minister's overall narrational authority that any claim to an alternate narrative voice must be put.
Meda's narrative takes place within an Oedipal scenario that also shapes the film, i.e., an attempt to destroy the father in order to secure an identity. In the film, Meda, played by Bill Gunn himself, is a black artist plagued by the problem of identity. He tells Green in a conversation that he is schizophrenic: Meda feels sometimes like a victim and sometimes like a murderer. Meda is literally the victim in the film; he is attacked by a vampire, Green. Meda, as a black artist in the U.S., is also a victim of the condition of racism: He cannot create, from a sociological standpoint, without accusing white America, but he also cannot create without involving Black America. This becomes clear in the scene where Meda attempts suicide. He tells Green that he has tried not to involve him. The doctor replies that that would be impossible since he is the only "colored" man in the area. Thus, any black action always inevitably involves other blacks. The film emphasizes this when we see Green feed off the blood of black victims. Then the images are almost always close ups. Not so with the white victims — they're distanced from us by the camera and shown in long shot.
Meda, the artist, is also a murderer. His art is the romantic's art of silence and negation. In fact the open letter that he reads to a "black man" attests to this. He tells the black man to stay away from philosophy and any kind of action so as to remain innocent like a flower. Truth and purity for Meda can only be found in death. With death we can conquer time and action, for time is volatile and action is futile. Thus, part of Meda's art, in the tradition of romantic nihilism, are his many abortive attempts at suicide, as well as his final one, which succeeds.
The visual montage of Meda's death scene allows at least two readings. Perhaps Green, the vampire, kills him. First we see Meda pointing a gun at himself; then we see Green standing up and touching his stomach to imply a hunger for blood; then the gun goes off and we see Meda falling. Perhaps Meda succeeds at suicide. The film implies ambiguity.
Art as death for the black artist is the theme of Meda's narrative. Meda himself examines the whole process of narration. Should the black man follow the linear narrative technique the minister used? For Meda, this would be a repetition of the same, and that "same" has always denied him an authentic voice. On the contrary, Meda believes in interfering with the minister's logic, deconstructing it in order to bring out the truth. Meda's narrative is therefore metafilmic; i.e., it questions the teleology so strongly assumed by the minister.
Indeed, Meda's narrative seems a "narrative film about filmmaking." In sequence ten above, Meda tells Green an anecdote about filmmaking. In it Meda shows how dense in meaning words and images are. The implication of the anecdote, and of GANJA AND HESS as a whole, is that it is erroneous to take anything for granted, even the minister's narrative or the Hollywood continuity editing style.
MEDA CONTRADICTS THE MINISTER
Let us look in detail at how Meda's narration contradicts the minister's. We know that in sequence five, when Meda is introduced for the first time, the minister's voice over does not accompany the shot. We see Meda in a long shot, looking at himself in the mirror self-critically. Immediately following that shot we see an extreme long shot, taken from behind a glass window, of the minister opening the car door, and Hess Green exiting. If we compare this shot with its "double" — the one at the end of sequence four, of the minister opening the car door for Hess Green — this will shed light on Meda's narrational space. The two shots are separated by the long shot of Meda looking at himself in the mirror. However the shot of Meda does not constitute a transition between the two shots. There's no continuity between them. The long shot of Meda seems to stand in the way of the minister's story, block its continuous flow, and begin a new narrative going in the opposite direction.
In fact, the "double" shots of the minister opening the car door are taken from two different points of view. Clearly the first shot, the one at the end of sequence four, represents the minister's point of view, for it logically follows the shots of the minister's driving Hess Green around town. The composition shows the minister with his back to us when he opens the car door, and Green facing us while getting out of the car. The angle thus provides a conventional over-the-shoulder shot from the minister's point of view. Furthermore, the shot is placed within the sequence according to all the rules of Hollywood continuity editing, and it depicts both a probable time and space.
The second shot, the "double" however, cannot fit into the minister's narrational framework. This extreme long shot taken from behind a glass window seems to represent the point of view of another person inside the house who is watching the minister and Green as they get out of the car. The minister could not occupy this viewpoint and stand in the street at the same time. Nor does the shot follow any linear flow. Rather, it repeats exactly the same action depicted in a previous shot: i.e. the minister coming out from behind the wheel and opening the car door for Green. Not only does such a repetition disrupt continuity editing, it establishes that the narrational space has shifted from the minister's point of view to Meda's point of view.
The film establishes Meda as the implied narrator of this shot and subsequent ones in many ways. First, the shot described above comes between two shots of Meda: one long shot of him looking at himself in the mirror, and another, a close up of him taking aim with a gun. This unusual editing style in fact has a pattern. The first shot shows Meda as a subject looking and/or thinking; the second shot of the minister opening the car door depicts what Meda sees; the third shot of Meda is a reaction shot. Although Meda is standing in the bathroom — an unlikely position to see the scene in the street — we can call shot two his point of view simply because he is recreating it. It's an action that has already taken place by the time we see Meda. We first see him critically examining his other self in the mirror, we may assume from shot two that he is examining a past action in his mind. And in any case, it is significant to the film that Meda's narrative is not linear.
Another way the film establishes Meda as the narrational determinant of this and other shots in the sequence is through graphically matching his eye in scene seven with the eye of a statue at the end of scene six. At the end of scene six, we see Green walking in the museum hail with a white man, whom we hear introducing Meda to Green. The camera, after following the two men, focuses on a classical statue and zooms in to a close up of the statue's right eye. At that time, the eye takes on a lifelike quality. Through a fade, this shot matches a close up of Meda's right eye before the camera zooms out to reveal the rest of his face, as he puffs on a cigarette. We see a look of scorn implying he remembers seeing the white man introduce him to Green, but perhaps from another (the statue's) dissociated viewpoint.
The look of scorn on Meda's face here also reveals his attitude toward the minister's story. Looking at scene six in the museum, we know that its narrational spaces seem shaped by the minister's point of view. After all, the minister's voice over accompanies the shots. But when we begin to see the shots in scene six from Meda's point of view, we realize how much the minister's linear narrative leaves out, how much is literally unseen.
The minister's narrational space simplifies and reduces everything to a Christian worldview. For example, this scene, from Meda's point of view, contains images of his first day at work, the way the white man introduces him to Green, and the art works displayed in the museum. For the minister, that moment is only about Green and Green's estrangement from God's truth: i.e. "He who shall drink my blood and eat my flesh shall live forever." Clearly Meda resents the minister's straight-forward but severely limited narrative. For Meda it does not leave room for ambiguity; the minister's story sacrifices everything for the sake of the denouement.
The film also depicts Meda's reaction against a linear narrative (i.e. that of the Christian) by the way Meda takes aim with a gun in scene five. Although we don't see what he's aiming at, the editing leaves no doubt as to his intentions. He wants to kill something, silence it forever. The probable targets are these: his other self which he sees in the mirror, the minister and Green as they come out of the car, or Green and the white man as he sees them in the museum. It is in this sense that we refer to Meda's narrative act or narrative space as establishing an art of death. He has to go back and forth in circles killing everything that has repressed and suppressed his identity.
On an idea level, the concepts of blacks are damaged both by the minister's teleological conception of history and the white man's philosophy. He, Meda, must also kill his other self, the one in the mirror, because it is false and inauthentic. Clearly, therefore, death represents a positive element in Meda's art. The black artist, by killing the father (here the minister), does devalorize tradition (here the linear narrative). By killing himself, at last the black artist enables a new person to be born in the viewer. In this sense, the black artist, like Christ, rewrites history by assigning it new directions. Thus the film compares him to Christ through recurrent match editing or matching shots. The visual symbolism is especially clear in the death scene where the crucifix is prominent behind him as he falls to the floor.
Let's now turn to Ganja's narrative and see how it unfolds. The minister's narrative has reached its climax in Hess Green's suffering, despite material wealth and sensual pleasures. It ends with Hess Green's repentance and death and the song in the church praising the Lord. The scene with Ganja smiling at the window and a naked man running toward her follows the church scene, but that scene is set up from a point of view different from that of the minister's. In the remaining pages of this essay we will argue that the narrative point of view here, the narrational and cinematic space, is Ganja's. She, too, defies the minister.
Ganja is introduced in the film in medias res. She arrives on the scene after George Meda's death. However, her narrative does not begin with her introduction into the film. Her first appearances can fit into the minister's linear narrative. In this sense we can say that she seems to appear as a wife who has come looking for her husband, Meda. When she finds out about Meda's death, she begins seeing Hess Green and later marries him. Significantly Ganja and Hess are married by the minister/chauffeur, who sees both of them as sinners in need of God's mercy. The fact that Ganja is not a narrator — that her story is told and that she does not determine any narrational space — can be seen from the way she's characterized when first introduced in the film.
We see Ganja as a rude and uncouth woman who has no respect for Dr. Hess Green or his employees. She's overbearing and even insulting to Hess' retainer and seems in no hurry to find her husband. When asked by Hess to state her real motive for coming to his estate, she replies, "money." She soon goes to bed with him. Both on a verbal and visual level, the film never presents her subjectivity at this point, but rather it exploits a negative depiction of Ganja so as to present her from the minister's Christian moral point of view.
However, as soon as Ganja finds Meda's body, our perception of her changes. Gradually we begin to see her through more appreciative eyes. Specifically, this change in point of view takes place in Hess' dining room. Ganja and Hess are sitting at opposite ends of a long table. There is silence in the room. Hess is eating and Ganja is looking at him. The camera cuts to a classical painting on the wall, then to a primitive painting, and to a Satanic-like character (a man with horns and a tail). Then we see a shot of Ganja still staring at Hess. By association we can say that Ganja has changed from looking like the classical "good" painting via "primitivism" to looking like the "devil." Judging her through the minister's eyes, we might see this as a transformation she would have to go through before marrying a man like Hess.
However, when Ganja moves from the end of the table to a position on the left, near Hess, things begin to change. We are now seeing a new Ganja. She is defying both Meda and the minister and tracing the trajectory of her own narration. As Ganja puts aside the impact of Meda's death, the film allows her narrative to plead for our sympathy. She tells Hess her life story and talks about the unfair treatment she received from her mother. Unloved all her life, she decided to love and protect herself. While Meda's anecdote had had no impact on Hess, Ganja's story moves him greatly. He falls in love with her and they marry. Visually, the style changes from deep-focus long shots when Ganja is sitting at the end of the table, to medium close ups which imply more warmth and love.
Ganja challenges both Meda and the minister's narrational styles and takes over their narrational space. The film effects this in many ways. We have already pointed out that Meda's narrative consisted of killing himself, Green, and the minister. As a black artist, his hope is that a new and better generation will take their place. Ganja comes and, in defiance of this world view, revalorizes Hess Green's life style and adopts it. In this sense she devalonzes Meda's narrative. She rejects his romantic nihilism. We can even say that she kills him and takes his place, in the sense that he was Hess' assistant, and now she is Hess' wife.
Ganja also defies the minister's morality and linear sense of causality, and she takes over his "space" in the filmic narration. This is made clear soon after her marriage to Hess. We see a shot of her standing on the terrace looking down on the minister getting out of the car. This, in fact, "triples" Meda's perception, as described earlier. The low angle which depicts Ganja by shooting up at her shows a look of scorn on her face and implies her superiority, or at least her challenge to the minister/chauffeur's authority. Ganja's narrative also stands the minister's narrative on its head. She approves everything the minister condemns. She has learned to like blood because, like a hallucinatory drug, it helps her escape into a land of pleasure. Although she did not willingly become a vampire — Green had appropriated her to escape his own loneliness (he "kills" her in a simulated African ritual) — she takes control of the situation once she realizes what has happened. She enjoys the earthly paradise Hess built because it is immediate and real.
Ganja is a contemporary black woman. She is tired of being subservient to the church and to black men. She's glad that Meda and Hess, the self-destructive artist and the bourgeois patriarch, are gone. It is in this sense that we understand her cunning smile at the end. She's in command. The last image of her potential sexual pleasure and control comes as a surprise, because the two major narrative threads had been woven from a male perspective.
After all, Gunn entitled his film GANJA AND HESS!
1. According to James Monaco, GANJA AND HESS was reedited, redubbed, and renamed BLOOD COUPLES. Another alternative title was DOUBLE POSSESSION. This version bears no resemblance to the original. See Monaco, American Film Now (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p 207.
[Editors' note: GANJA AND HESS was housed at the Museum of Modern Art for more than seven years after the film was pulled from circulation and reedited as THE BLOOD COUPLE. It was one of the most demanded films at the Museum of Modern Art, which held the print as a courtesy to Bill Gunn. Gunn gave permission for each request to screen that one remaining print. In 1980, GANJA AND HESS was screened in Paris at the Independent Black American Film Festival, where Gunn was one of ten independent U.S. black filmmakers invited to present his work. That program of forty films then toured New York State later that year.
Pearl Bowser met with John Gottenberg to discuss the proposed withdrawal of the print from circulation there so as to protect the only existing print until funds could be found to make a 16mm internegative. Bowser volunteered to raise the money to insure the continued availability of the film for exhibition and to preserve the work of an important African American director. Bowser worked with Gunn to setup a series of advance bookings and personal appearances for Gunn from Washington to Florida. Since GANJA AND HESS had become a cult film, money was raised to pay the lab fees and small honoraria for Gunn. In this way, community groups, libraries, museums, media centers, and colleges around the country provided the $10,000 needed to preserve GANJA AND HESS. The film is distributed now in both 16mm and videocassete formats by African Diaspora Images, PO Box 3517, Brooklyn NY 11202 (718/852-8353). It is also distributed by Third World Newsreel, 335 W 38th St., NYC 10018; 212/947-9277.
[Editor's Note: 2006, A restored version is available used on DVD or video but is not currently in distribution.]
2. James Murray, "Reel Images, the Film Scene" in the Amsterdam News, date unknown.
3. Ganja is not unlike Billie Holiday. She is a woman who defines her values in the skepticism of the Blues tradition. It is in this sense that Ganja is a modernist. It is also interesting here to compare Ganja to Shug and Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Like Blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, they are modem women who are not restrained by race and value-based constraints.
4. This essay was originally written in 1983.