Between You and Me

Nick Pinkerton on the restoration of Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980)

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes. Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor).

A WOMAN LISTENS TO A PLAINTIVE, MEANDERING KEYBOARD BALLAD performed by a musician, with whom she’s having an affair, for an audience of her alone. Tears run freely down her cheeks as the camera almost seems to move to caress her face and comfort her, the scene running the full four minutes of the song. An amped-up white longhair buttonholes an incredulous black restaurant manager and self-professed Reagan voter at a party and proceeds to harangue him for trying to join the oppressing class. At a civil and quiet memorial gathering, the angry and unreconciled daughter of the deceased lashes out on all those assembled, refusing to be calmed down or hushed up.

These are just a few standout scenes from the two-episode video diptych Personal Problems (1980), directed by Bill Gunn and described by cocreator and novelist Ishmael Reed (who plays the aforementioned manager of Doggie Diner) as a “meta-soap opera,” conceived and executed by a largely African American cast and crew. With its elliptical leaps between scenes and long, unbroken stretches of often-hectic, overlapping dialogue that serve no function in advancing exposition, Personal Problems would likely be deemed bad television by most any network executive with an eye for the bottom line—either in 1980 or today. It is also a startling, totally idiosyncratic work of art.

Gunn and Reed’s work is exceptional precisely because of its engagement with the unexceptional, its dedication to sitting back and taking in the whole ebb and flow of conversation, whether it’s sitting in with three old girlfriends perched at a restaurant sipping white wine and gabbing the afternoon away, or capturing the tone of slow, simmering mutual resentment in a long-standing marital feud, where preparing breakfast becomes an act of barely concealed aggression. Watching Personal Problems for the first time, as part of a 2010 retrospective of Gunn’s work at BAMcinématek, I felt quite certain I was seeing something unlike anything I had seen before—even if, in point of fact, I wasn’t really seeing it too well at all, much less hearing it. Shot on a shoestring budget with a video camera using 3/4-inch U-Matic tape, the versions of Personal Problems circulating on occasion in recent years have been plagued by murky images and sludgy sound. What will be playing at Metrograph is something else entirely: a total reconstruction by Kino Lorber from original first-generation camera tapes, complete with a remixed soundtrack that fetches much lost dialogue from the thickets of talk, allowing both episodes to be screened in the best shape and most complete form that they’ve been seen in in recent memory.

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes. Raymon (Samuel L. Waymon).

The piece began its life as an improvised radio program conceived by Reed, the writer, radio personality, and man-about-town Steve Cannon, and the stage actor Walter Cotton, as a quotidian chamber drama focused on the daily squabbles that mark the lives of a middle-class black family in New York City. Each of the radio series’ four episodes, broadcast on Cannon’s WBAI show beginning in 1977 and distributed via cassette tape, featured the same three lead performers: Cotton. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a multidisciplinary talent who’d toured with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and, coming out of retirement, Jim Wright, an actor who’d appeared in Orson Welles’s famous Federal Theatre Project staging of “Voodoo Macbeth” way back in 1936. Gunn came aboard to shoot a television pilot for the program with the same actors in spring of 1979. The result was rejected by PBS but won a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which underwrote the production of two proper episodes of ninety-three and seventy-two minutes.

The first begins with Smart-Grosvenor, playing the South Carolina transplant, Harlem Hospital emergency-room nurse Johnnie Mae Brown, seated and in direct conversation with Gunn, who plies her with questions from offscreen. This is the only direct-to-camera scene in Personal Problems, though there are other such addresses, and it feels less like an audition than a gentle, coaxing conversation, setting the tone for what’s ahead—a work profoundly interested in its characters, in how they feel, what they want, and how they manage to get in their own way before finally muddling through. The abiding tone is one of a quietly grumbling workaday discomfiture, as summarized by Johnnie Mae: “It’s not that I’m unhappy, it’s just that I’m not happy.”

Johnnie Mae is married but, as it soon transpires, has been seeing nightclub musician Raymon (Samuel L. Waymon) whenever she can slip away. We don’t meet her husband, Charles (Cotton), until an hour into the first episode, and when we do, the reasons for her stepping out are obvious; he’s gruff, cold, aloof, and seems more interested in rewatching Guns of Navarone (1961) than in hashing out any of their marital difficulties. (He also has a sidepiece of his own.) Rounding out the household is Charles’s father, the wiry, irascible Father Brown (Wright), and, fresh out of the slammer in California and newly landed at Port Authority, Johnnie Mae’s layabout brother, Bubba, and his wife, Mary Alice (Thommie Blackwell and Andrea W. Hunt). The first episode ends with an overtaxed and angry Johnnie Mae assembling the noncontributing members of the household for a thorough dragging and dressing down; in the second episode, she gets a bit of the peace and quiet she wants in the worst possible way when Father Brown goes for a routine surgery and winds up in the morgue. We see Bubba looking for work with a suave criminal overlord, Mr. Damien (Gunn), and Johnnie Mae and Raymon having a crack-up, though the better part of the episode is dedicated to the aftermath of Father Brown’s funeral, which ends with Charles and three of his dad’s friends bellied up at a bar getting plastered before plunking themselves down on the Hudson River waterfront as morning breaks.

Bill Gunn, Personal Problems, 1980, U-Matic video, color, sound, 164 minutes.

These scenes, with their jumble of slurred, jostling, overlapping dialogue and feeling for bibulous, raucous male bonding, suggest an African American equivalent to John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970)—though Gunn and Reed were working still further outside of the studio system than Cassavetes was, with even less money, hence their decision to shoot on video. In this case, budgetary necessity is a boon: Shot largely with natural light by Robert Polidori, who had at this point only just begun to embark on his prestigious photography career, Personal Problems looks quite unlike any other drama, for cinema or television, of the period, exploiting the boxy broadcast-ready frame for its full potential for both intimacy and claustrophobia.

Reports from the set of Personal Problems have it that improvisation was key to the shoot, with Gunn and his collaborators outlining basic scenarios while giving the performers enormous leeway in developing their characters and dialogue. (That opening interview with Johnnie Mae suggests something of Gunn’s process—less stridently issuing commands from on high than gently offering prompts.) That Gunn should understand, respect, and trust his actors comes as no surprise, for he was a marvelous performer himself. He made his stage debut in 1954 in a production of Gide’s The Immoralist, starring his friend James Dean, and was a transfixing presence whenever he appeared on-screen—a dervish force of messy, frantic uncorked sexual energy in his own Ganja & Hess (1973), a sui generis vampire film that collides Euro-Christian and Afro-animist lore, and an erudite, faintly feline, and extremely self-amused, in Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982).

Once upon a time, Gunn was a real contender, adapting Kristin Hunter’s novel into the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) and making his debut feature, Stop!, with Warner Brothers’ money that same year. Hereafter, though, he struggled to maintain a toehold in the industry, as documented through his books Black Picture Show (1975) and Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981), the latter originally published by Reed’s imprint, I Reed Books. To carve out a place as a black director in Hollywood was hard enough under any circumstances, but more so for a defiantly out-of-step figure like Gunn, who was much more invested in individual peculiarities than sociological generalities, more interested in hearing what people had to say for themselves than in posing himself as the voice of a people.

Gunn got one more crack behind the camera at the behest of Reed and company, presiding over Personal Problems, with its polyphony of voices competing for command of the conversation—though the many-cooks creative collaboration behind the scenes seems, by all accounts, to have been harmonious to a rare degree, resulting in something that feels as unpremeditated and alive as the performances. In its restored version, as near to a definitive one as we are likely to get, you can sense the prospect of something still larger being gestured at. But it was not to be. Gunn died in 1989, though Reed remains to introduce on opening night this rough and ragged work of a bygone time, bursting with emotion and ideas, trailing loose threads just waiting to be taken up by some intrepid soul.

Personal Problems screens at Metrograph through April 5, 2018.