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Bill Gunn’s Controversial And Rarely Seen Film ‘Stop’ To Finally See The Light Of Day (Once Some Minor Problems Are Cleared)

Bill Gunn’s Controversial And Rarely Seen Film ‘Stop’ To Finally See The Light Of Day (Once Some Minor Problems Are Cleared)

As I have said before, the 1970’s were
the greatest period of filmmaking ever. Boundaries were broken, all sorts of
taboos were being smashed and filmmakers had more freedom to do whatever they wanted
than they ever had before.

On top of that, film studios were desperately looking for
anything to pry people away from their TV sets at home and go to see a film. So
why not give them something that they couldn’t get on TV – namely sex and
violence? And studios were more open to
take risks with regards to subject, matter since no one knew what was going to be a hit. Could a film like John Borrman’s Deliverance or Ken Russell’s The Devils be made today? Not hardly.

So it wasn’t all that surprising when Warner Bros backed Bill Gunn to make his provocative film Stop in 1970, making him only the second black film director ever to make a film for a major film
studio. The first being Gordon Parks
when he made his semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree also for Warners, which was released in 1969.

And like Parks on Tree, Stop was also Gunn’s first ever
film as film director, and was pretty much a one man band, not only directing the
film but he also wrote it, was co-producer and was even the film’s casting
director, selecting Marlene Clark, who’s the only black actor in the film for
one of four starring roles, after Gunn
saw her in Hal Ashby’s United Artists film The
Landlord
, which Gunn wrote.

The film was pretty much ahead of time, or perhaps more accurately
of its time, dealing with two married couples who form a foursome while on a extended
vacation in Puerto Rico in the house of the brother of the
one husbands, who lost his house after he murdered his wife.

The mathematical possibilities of all those couplings with
the requisite sex and nudity in Stop got the film an X rating from the MPAA
(the equivalent to today’s NC-17
rating). Though. keep in mind that. during the early 70’s, an X rating for film wasn’t the kiss of
death that it later became after the rating became associated with porn films. And second, we’re talking about a film made
some 44 years ago, and what would be considered X rated and shocking back then, would
seem very tame to our jaded, seen-it-all eyes today.

However, the film, despite all the new permissiveness back
then, was too much for Warners to handle, and the studio recut the film and then
shelved it, not even releasing it to theaters.

No doubt the whole experience was a bitter disappointment
for the incredibly talented multihyphenate Gunn, who was not only a director,
but also a playwright, novelist and film and television writer, stage producer,
film TV and stage actor who passed away too soon at the age of 54 in 1989, from encephalitis, the day before
the premiere of what was his last play, The
Forbidden City
at the Public Theater
in New York.

As a result, when he returned to filmmaking, it was totally
independently, on his own terms, and he created a true cult classic, the horror
film Ganja & Hess – also with Marlene Clark – which we have written about on more than
one occasion on S&A (HERE).

Unfortunately the film was, like Stop, taken out of his hands
and recut, and only recently has been restored to Gunn’s original vision and on
blu-ray as well. And it’s the film that Spike
Lee
has, more or less, done a remake of for his new film Da Blood of Jesus.

But Stop has hardly been seen, except for very rare exceptions
here and there, such as one screening at the Whitney Museum of Art in N.Y.
in 1989 after Gunn’s death. There was talk that, years ago, it was released,
perhaps under a different title,  on a
bootleg VHS by some small video label, but finding a copy has proved to be
impossible. It’s one of those rare cult films
that no one has ever seen and is just getting by on its reputation.

However, it turns out that Warner Home Video had, in fact, remastered the film, and had plans
to release it last year on their DVD-on-demand specialty label Warner Archive.

Well, that is, they were, until, according to a Warner Archive
spokesman: “We were getting close to a release when plans came to a (no pun
intended) dead stop due to lack of proper documentation internally that would
allow us to release this film. Until we are able to resolve these issues, we
are on hold.

And what are those issues? Once again, according to the spokesman: “a lack of necessary information in corporate
files to confirm clearances. Nothing likely to happen until that is resolved.
Very disappointing.

So, evidently, there still are plans in the works to release
the film on Warner Archive DVD, once they get this matter involving the rights
to the film all straightened out.

Until then, it will remains one of cinema’s great mysteries.

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Comments

James Keepnews

If I’m not mistaken, the screening at BAM in 2010 was done from co-star Edward Bell’s sole VHS dupe, made around the time Warners struck a print for the Whitney retro in ’89. I’m happy to say I was fortunate enough to see it then — far from a masterpiece (and there’s reason to believe the edit they used for the print was by no means intended to be the late Mr. Gunn’s final cut), it’s beautifully shot by Owen Roizman in his very first film as DP and has a memorably psychedelic soundtrack that features players like a young Ry Cooder. Echoing Greg Tate from his Village Voice eulogy, if Bill Gunn had been able to make more films in his lifetime, his limited amount of films are so distinctive as to suggest we could be talking about one of the greatest American directors ever. As it is, the inability to see Stop! (and his later collaboration on video with his friend Ishmael Reed, Personal Problems) makes any real discourse about Gunn and his cinematic work conjectural at best.

Dennis Harvey

I thought actually it had some one-off archive/cinematheque or whatever screening within the last few years. Oh right (just did a web search): Temple of Schlock wrote that it was screened at BAM in 2010. So I'm not sure if it counts as "one of cinema's great mysteries" anymore.

Marc Edward Heuck

“a lack of necessary information in corporate files to confirm clearances. Nothing likely to happen until that is resolved. Very disappointing."

I am guessing it means that they are missing the original talent contracts and whatever guild provisions for payment or royalties were contained within, so they need to track down the principal cast (or the families of those that have passed on) and get new contracts signed with them in order to allow for the movie's public (and for profit) release.

William

Excellent news! However, why the use of the still from Putney Swope?

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