Editor’s note: In consideration of all the conversation about Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess,” given that it’s been officially revealed that Spike Lee’s “Da Sweet Bloof of Jesus” is a remake of that film, I thought this write-up of a film Gunn made before “Ganja & Hess,” 1970s “Stop,” was worth revisiting, even if only to introduce you to Gunn’s other work.
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 Warner Bros, 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.
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 remain one of cinema’s great mysteries.