Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Either I've lost all critical facilities or I'm just feeling generous. I went to a screening of Thunderbirds Saturday expecting the worst, and actually enjoyed  it. My review will be hitting print on Friday and I'll provide a link to it. 

Meanwhile, the latest edition of "Senses of Cinema" - now a quarterly, to judge from the headline- is on line - check out the link at the left - with articles on Welles, Kill Bill, Guy Maddin and the latest from Jacques Rivette.


A new book and film take detailed looks at the creation of two cultural sensations of the 60s and 70s:  the scandalous comic novel "Candy" by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg and the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. Now read on....

Good Grief! It's our literary correspondent Nadja Bartleby!: 

 In the 1950s, two expatriate writers living in Europe collaborated on a dirty book. Well, not so much a dirty book - though there's no doubt that  lecherous thoughts provided inspiration - as a satire of pornography, of postwar America, of various  intellectual trends. Using Voltaire's "Candide" as their model, these two authors created the story of a naive but well-intentioned young girl whose empathy for the suffering and unfairness of the world somehow unavoidably leads her to provide sexual favors to every man she meets. It also became a marker in the legal road that would gradually undo literary censorship in this country and the victim of imprecise copyright laws in the US and Europe. Young Candy Christian would inspire not only lust but, outside the printed page, greed, litigation and outright theft. Not a bad streak for a girl who just wants to help others.
    The novel, of course, was "Candy", written by the great Terry Southern and the more obscure Mason Hoffenberg, but the story behind the novel proves to be every bit as absorbing as (though certainly less amusing than) the bawdy adventures of a their Voltairean innocent. With access to reams of unpublished material from both parties, as well as their first publisher, the notorious Maurice Girodias, Southern's son Nile,a keeper-of-the-flame without equal (In addition to compiling "Now Dig This", a collection of previously uncollected pieces, he was able to find a permanent home for Dad's archive and maintains a groovy website at, has produced a fascinating volume called "The Candy Men"  (Arcade Publishing, , $27.95) chronicling the strange and twisted story of the book, its creation and its subsequent career as both hip cultural scandal and legal battleground. 
     Southern and Hoffenberg were part of the wave of quasi-beat Americans who migrated to Europe after World War Two to write or paint or just hang out in cafes soaking up an artistic vibe, grateful to escape the stifling atmosphere Eisenhower America. Some lived on next to nothing, while others were fortunate enough to burn their way through a trust fund - or to attach themself to someone who had one. Southern was in the "next to nothing" category, while Hoffenberg, a soul-eyed poet with a serious fondness for heroin, had family money he could call for when things got too bleak.
     Enter Maurice Girodias, one of the most incorrigible con men to walk the streets of France. Girodias was a publisher who specialised in the kind of literature that couldn't be discussed in polite company, as well as more serious writing that strayed into taboos generally out of the realm of the mainstream publishing world. His ideal book was that which combined both, and he was the first to bring out such distinguished titles as "Lolita", "The Green Man" and "Naked Lunch".
     It was Southern's idea to take expand a short story about a young woman's wide-eyed journey through a jungle of sexually needy characters into a full-length satirical novel, perfect for Girodias' under-the-counter line.  With other projects also on the burner, he recruited Hoffenberg  to add a few chapters. (It was one of the misfortunes of Southern's career that the three works for which he was most known, "Candy" and the screenplays for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, were all collaborative, with later debates about credit inevitably rising. One of the welcome aspects of "The Candy Men" is that it clears up most of the confusion about who penned what.)  The work went slowly, but eventually the nubile heroine wrapped herself in a book cover (whose author was listed as "Maxwell Kenton" ) and made her public debut.
Then the troubles began.
     S & H had already learned how difficult it was to get money from Girodias while they were writing "Candy", but once published, it became next to impossible. "Gid", as he was known, would beg economic woe caused by his many legal troubles (which was partly true since most of  his titles, "Candy" included, were regularly found obscene) but it appears that he was constituionally incapable of paying royalties without duress. The authors dueled with him for years, but had to play their side very carefully since they had no easy way of verifying sales figures. (They didn't realise that he outwitted the ban on "Candy" by reprinting it as "Lollipop", an edition for which they never saw a dime.)
     By 1964, "Candy" was starting to the attention of America publishers, but clearing  ownership was as  difficult as negotiating with Girodias. By failing to hold a European copyright, the work was considered to be in the public domain, a major concern to Putnam who brought out the first US edition. (Their suspicion was justified: as the book became a success, more than a half dozen companies specializing in pornography made pirate editions.) The once-friendly authors became distant: Southern had made a name for himself writing for "Esquire", published " The Magic Christian" (which happens to be one of the funniest books ever written) and launched himself as a screenwriter with Strangelove. Hoffenberg, between bouts of addiction, became paranoid and insecure, irritated at press pieces suggesting that TS was,if not "Candy"'s sole author, then its most talented.
Between piracy, legal fees, vagaries of international copyright law and outright deception, the authors received very little  money from the book, even as it climbed the best-seller list   The complications over the rights, the pirates, and the ever scheming Girodias guaranteed that even with great sales and a movie deal on the horizon (the movie, which could be politely labeled a mess, came out at the end of 1968), neither author would ever see more than chump change.
   No staid literary bio (for these were not staid literary men) "The Candy Men" becomes  a frantic portrait of two men riding on the fringe of a cultural change, watching their book evolve from stoned fantasy to cause celebre, from a smut-for- hire job  to contractual nightmare. But there's not a dull page in it, thanks to the generous selections from the authors' correspondence. Southern, in particular,  was a master of the put-on, the absurd reverie, and notes to friends may have been his ideal medium. Fans of his distinct, wildly comic voice will find it here in abundance. 

     For an artist who has remaned largely in the margins of popular culture, Melvin Van Peebles has had a very busy career. He's been an actor, a novelist and a filmmaker, written and directed Broadway musicals, recorded his own songs and, for a brief period when he faded from public view in the 80s, even had a seat in the stock market. But while Van Peebles clearly likes to move around artistically, he will probably remain most fixed in the public mind as the man who made Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, a technically crude but sociologically daring film that launched the short but influential trend of black exploitation films in the early 70s. (MGM's Shaft, a more conventional crime film, opened three months later.)
Van Peebles published a diary of the making of Sweetback, a slim paperback that remained in print long after the blacksploitation trend had faded. (In fact, it's still in print today, in an updated edition.. see below) The book is stronger on personal information than technical advice,  but it's considered something of a primer in guerilla filmmaking. Of course, this was at  a time  when every film studio had a token hippie producer in hopes of luring a share of that Easy Rider-Woodstock green and an "indie" film hadn't become a euphemism for "self-indulgent crap that you can put on your resume to impress producers at the WB". 
      Sweetback really isn't much of a film (it's not nearly as entertaining as Superfly  or as ambitious as Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess), but that in no way diminishes its cultural and important significance. So perhaps it makes sensee that the story behind it, recounted in Van Peebles' book and now in a fascinating, comical film Baadasss!, directed by his son, proves to be more enduring that the object itself.
     Baadasss! ( still in release from Sony Pictures and due on home video  in the fall) , is a curious film, part companion to other recent tales of minor history like Ed Wood or Man in the Moon, sometimes playing like a dramatized version of a "making  of" featurette on a DVD, and always a manifesto about filmmaking, race and artistic independence. Mario Van Peebles' films (which I generally like, including New Jack City and Panther ) tend to be a bit more pedantic than those of his father, but he manages to lay the message on  with a light touch. He's like the rare high school teacher who can actually share his enthusiam for a subject, rather than merely drill it into the students.  And since he's actually portraying his own father and recounting his own reluctance, at age 13, to be involved with Sweetback (where he even had to participate in a sex scene), there's a built-in ambivalence to his story that could keep therapists shaking their heads for months. 
     Van Peebles sees his father's film and the struggle to make it as both a symbolic show of unity in the black (and hippie/political) community and a comic adventure. Besides having almost no money, the crew consisted largely of inexperienced if not outright amateurs. To prevent interference from the movie unions, they had to pretend to be shooting a porno film. Strapped for cash, the director even arranged a secret meeting to borrow from Bill Cosby, whose appearance in the fringes of the film (he's played by T.K.Carter) says much about the position of black talent at the time.
     Faced with a project both daunting and absurd, Melvin Van Peebles perservered and Baadassss! gives a pretty good picture of both the time in which it was made and the inspired madman who made it. For the first half hour, you might find yourself thinking "this is amusing, but why bother to tell this story?" By the time it's over - and especially after the final credits in which the real participants (including Cosby) reminisce about Sweetback- you'll be convinced that it's an episode in film history that deserves to be told.


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