Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Movies: Superfly and The Warriors

Before, between, after, and occasionally even during the films of this non-Noirfest night of the Noirfest so far, I had to listen to the yenta sitting behind me squawking. First into her cell phone, and after the call had ended, out loud to anyone in the theatre who would listen, she chewed on about what a classic Superfly is, and how it's part of this New York City No-are Festival even though it's a color movie, and it's the only color movie in the festival (totally untrue, even The Warriors, which she would see that very night, is color), and how the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack is so amazing, and did Curtis Mayfield do the soundtrack for Shaft, too (Isaac Hayes, pointed out a helpful older white man, who seemed to know far too much about Blaxploitation for his own good). She also did a monologue (which she repeated twice—once on the phone, and once to some poor young people who sat next to her, not knowing better) on how the people sitting next to her during Superfly were deaf, and one of the three, who could speak and hear somewhat, had signed to the other two throughout the whole movie, and when she asked him how The Warriors was, he said that it had a lot of people in it, and that his comment hadn't been very astute, but perhaps if one were deaf and trying to sign an entire movie, that's the thing one would notice (it turns out that there are a lot of people in The Warriors, noticeably so). I really wanted to stick it to her since she wasn't catching onto my angry glares as I turned my head to punctuate each of her sentences.

Ron O'Neal is the long haired, finely attired cocaine dealer (and addict, it appears) Priest, and as the film opens, he is getting dressed after bedding a white woman with fine, round buttocks encircled by a Wesselman tan line. He puts on his pimp hat and his pimp coat and walks out to his pimpmobile, remembering to zip up his fly halfway through the street. Then he rides out to find his partner, who's shooting crap with some other brothers, his fists full of dollars. Priest pulls him out for a private conversation: he wants to get out of the business, he wants to be free (free to do what? his friend asks; he doesn't know, he just has to be free). He wants to invest all of their savings ($300 Gs) into a final big buy of coke that they'll sell for $1 million. The problem is finding enough cocaine to buy. They go visit his old hookup, a bar owner who does his own short order cooking (Curtis Mayfield and his backup band are performing Pusher Man live to the thrill of all the afro-sporting extras), and even though he's gotten out of the business and doesn't want to get back in, he agrees to help Priest out by selling him the little coke he has left.

On the way home from the buy, Priest and his partner are stopped by some old white men in trench coats. At first they're afraid it's the cops, and it turns out it is, but these are crooked cops, and they're in on the action. They've heard that Priest has the biggest best network of dealers, and they're willing to hook him up with the 30 kilos he wants. They make the deal. A long sequence of music and still shots show Priest and his crew cutting and weighing the coke on a big party table, wrapping it up in little rectangles of aluminum foil. The montage continues with split screen stills of his dealers on the streets. Meanwhile, there is a long and nearly X-rated sequence of Priest in the bathtub with a different lover, a black woman with an unfortunately hairy upper lip but an ample ass off of which, one of my friends might say, "you could bounce a quarter." (Forgive me, I pay only as much attention to these woman's bare backsides as the camera does; far less, actually.) For a long, wet, bubbly time, we see unidentifiable body parts rubbing against other unidentifiable body parts, and try to decipher how her leg can be over here when the other half of her leg is over there.

Now all the coke is sold and Priest is ready to get out, but he knows (thanks to his short-order connection, who's been killed (!) that the man at the top isn't going to let him get out easily. Knowing this, he plans ahead, and takes out a $100,000 contract with the mob to kill the big man if anything should happen to him. This will come in handy, because when he goes to his partner's house to get the money, his partner rats him out to the big boss immediately. But Priest is no fool, and he's planned for this. His girlfriend (the black one) meets him in the elevator and takes the briefcase full of money, giving him another briefcase filled with empty laundry. When the crooked cops come pick him up, he's ready. They take him to the big boss, where he shows them the dirty laundry, kicks some ass, and tells the big boss all about the contract he made with the white killers. He is free to go, gets in his pimpmobile, and drives off to meet his African princess and be free.

All of this happens with extremely little dialogue, a lot of Curtis Mayfield (too bad there's only three or so songs that repeat throughout the entire 93 minutes), and a lot of snorting (every time, it seems, Priest meets up with someone else, they all take a snort up each nostril, often from Priest's own stash, which he serves up on the tip of his neckchain's gold crucifix). It's not a good movie, for all of its flash and 1970s aesthetic. I remember once reading a review that blamed the sorry state of contemporary movies made for black audiences on the barebones trash of the Blaxploitation era, and I can't help but agree. Then again, at the risk of saying something perhaps inappropriate, I never did see so many black people at Film Forum as I did this night.

They all left before The Warriors began, even though this movie featured many of, ahem, their kind as well, although in a completely less realistic setting. At the beginning of the film, nine members of an interracial Coney Island gang (as if there was ever an interracial gang) are discussing the nighttime trip they are about to take up to Pelham Park for a city-wide meeting, where nine representatives from each New York gang have been invited to come, unarmed, to hear Cyrus, the leader of the biggest gang in New York, make an announcement. If you are not familiar with New York, this means that the Warriors will have to take the subway from the end of the line in Brooklyn to the Northern-most part of the Bronx. This is established over the longest opening credit sequence ever, as the Warriors pummel through subway tunnels at high speed, and we see the delegates from other gangs getting onto subway cars all over the city. Each group is dressed in matching "colors," some tough, some weird, and some totally nerdy (it was, after all, 1979). At the meeting, Cyrus announces his plan: a truce between all the gangs so that they can unite against the police and rule the city. The truce doesn't last long though; a goony, spiral-permed, disturbingly womany member of the black leather gang—the Rogues—pulls out a gun and shoots Cyrus dead, causing a mad rush as hundreds of young thugs in matching outfits try to evacuate as the police drive up. The shooter sees one of the Warriors see him with the gun, and immediately shouts out that it was a Warrior who did the shooting. Now, the Warriors have to get all the way back to Coney with every member of every gang trying to get them: dead or alive. Eventually, they make it, but they lose a few on the way.

The pleasure in watching this movie is in the unsettling tone (not unlike the tone of the fight sequence in The Wanderers) and the sheer strangeness of the gangs' different costumes and attitudes. The Warriors have run-ins with the Orphans, who are poor and dirty and scared and wear dirty green t-shirts (picking up the big mouthed, pink leotarded Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the film's femme fatale), then the BaseBall Furies, who wear Yankee uniforms, carry baseball bats, and have faces fainted à la Kiss, then the Lizzies, a neon pink (and conveniently bisexual, it seems) all-women outfit, then the Punks, an outfit with a rollerskating leader, whom they battle in a terrific row in the subway station bathroom, and finally, on their own home turf of the Coney Island beach, the Rogues, who wear black leather caps and vests, crossing the young Iggy Pop with Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. Just as the Rogues pull out their guns (the Warriors are haphazardly armed with whatever broken bottles and lead pipes they could scrounge up from a nearby construction site), all the members of Cyrus' gang, the Grammercy Riffs (who are all black as can be) show up—they find out the truth, and they punish the Rogues accordingly. This movie is as camp as camp gets, with intermittent "updates" provided by a negress' set of heavily glossed, disembodied lips against a microphone at a radio station giving low-pitched updates to all the "boppers" out there and playing particular songs to cue their next action (e.g. Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide). It's definitely a midnight movie.

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