Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Personal Problems (1980) dir. Bill Gunn

An unearthed treasure.


In 2007, the advent of the iPhone seemed to signal something which could change cinema: full democratization. With a camera in so many pockets, anyone with an idea and the will to act could create their own motion picture; no longer must the monied suits control the content. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. The proliferation of the personal camera created plenty of viral videos, documented injustices, and YouTube stars, but few widely seen films. The Powers That Be still select and distribute the feature length films, and besides that, revolutionary is it may be, not many people want to see things made on shoestrings. But just because the voices aren’t amplified, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Who knows what wonderful unsung iPhone masterpieces might exist deep in the trenches of YouTube — sift through the detritus long enough and you might find gold.

The iPhone camera is not a new anomaly. When videotape came to the market, many placed the same hopes and dreams upon it. The format provided unimaginable access to filming, but seemed only to help speed of production for the burgeoning porn industry. Yet in 1980, Bill Gunn, a Black playwright, author, performer, and director of the cinema classic Ganja & Hess, realized the potential. And he, along with poet Ishmael Reed, conceptualized Personal Problems, a “meta-soap opera” that, for the past thirty-eight years, has remained largely unseen. Thanks to Kino Lorber, the tapes have been restored, and are now being presented in several cities. At last, gold has been found.

Director Bill Gunn (center) with the cast.

Personal Problems is a gorgeous thing, truly an unearthed treasure, but a bit of tangle to wrap the mind around. For starters, one has to parse what the phrase ‘meta-soap opera’ even means. Narratively, the film follows a working-class African-American couple, nurse with poetic aspirations Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor) and her husband, Charles (Walter Cotton). Gradually, the story branches out, at first focusing almost entirely on Johnnie Mae, then extending focus to her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law, and the sensitive singer with whom she is conducting an affair, as well as the people he spends his time around. Here we can see why Gunn and Reed branded Personal Problems with the soap opera label: multiple storylines, sometimes dropped entirely, all centered around the family and often converging in emotional outbursts before cycling back to the status quo. It is, fundamentally, classic TV.

Yet the context is brazenly different. Where most soaps focus on well-to-do white people plotting and scheming, here we have a vast tapestry of African-American life, presented at times so realistically the boundaries of the project-as-cinema erode. And this is where the videotape aesthetic comes brilliantly into play. While obviously part of Gunn’s funding limitations, the videotape crafts a sense of reality stronger than most films, true or fiction, ever achieve. For the first half-hour, it is completely not apparent whether what the audience is seeing is documentary or performance. Gunn even begins the film with an interview with the character, creating the sense that he is perhaps narrativizing this woman’s true experiences and intercutting her telling with their own recreation. All this culminates early on in an extensive scene of Johnnie Mae sharing lunch with two of her friends. The camera takes delight in filming three Black women sharing a meal and discussing their lives, and until reaction shots of annoyed white people were spliced in I truly thought I was just watching reality. Someone’s home video tape, perhaps.

During this lunch, Johnnie Mae begins to talk about her lover, a musician, and Gunn executes one of the most powerful cuts I’ve ever witnessed, bringing us over to the character’s apartment, as he plays piano and sings a song. The performance is shown in its entirety, never cutting away, the only input on Gunn’s part a clumsy zoom toward Johnnie Mae’s face as she cries. It is shockingly powerful. Pure cinema. Music, movement, emotion. All captured with a cheap video camera.

The look of videotape itself has a strange beauty. The unforeseen artifacts, the strange blur around everything, the grainy tactile sheen reminiscent, in today’s world, of late night rentals and plotless scenes of family gatherings. On video, even a shot of, say, a simple flower can become all the more striking inside the bounds of the equipment’s limitations. Whether planned or through the passage of time, the aesthetic helps Personal Problems succeed at every turn. Also, whether through decay or just a processing error with the tapes, almost every movement on screen would leave behind ghostly marks. Probably unintentional, but fascinating to look at.

The screening was sectioned into two parts. It seems likely that Personal Problems was originally less a three hour film and more two proofs of concept for a larger project, now combined into a singular whole (each part retains its own respective opening and closing credits). On some level, I find this disappointing, as I’m more ambivalent on the second part. It starts off interestingly, reworking the hour-and-a-half which preceded it into ten minutes, presenting things in a different order than we witnessed them. It then goes forward again temporally, but this time following Charles instead of Johnnie Mae. This reminded me of something Korean director Hong Sang-soo would deploy (Sang-soo also came to mind with the videotape zooms), particularly in his film Right Now, Wrong Then,where the narrative rhyming both disorients the viewer and gently calls for critical consideration.

Yet Part One of Personal Problems feels like such a fuller, more realized work. A network of scenes and incidents paint Johnnie Mae’s life, showing us why she never gets to realize her passion for poetry. Part One gets at the heartbreaking truth of how reality can keep us from what we love. How commitments to others, to family, to work, can stop one from focusing on the self. Johnnie Mae gives so much of herself as a nurse to others, only to then have to come home and clean up the mess others left behind. When will she get to write her poems? When will she get to hear her love serenade her again?

Part Two also contributes to this story, but is focused more on how Charles processes the same elements that keep his life from going his way. It is shorter and less realized. Like an episode of a great television show that only kind of works — which I suppose is fitting considering the concept.

But one shouldn’t complain about more of Bill Gunn’s work being available. His visionary horror film Ganja & Hess has only recently been restored to its original presentation, and his debut film Stop! is still locked in the Warner vaults due to legal limbo (unseen publicly since Gunn’s death in 1989). The fact that we have these two parts of Personal Problems is a blessing. It is an empathetic videotape masterpiece, a lo-fi epic of unsung lives. It’s a reminder of the types of stories never told in America — tales of marginalized lives never considered profitable enough to be distributed.

The videocamera in Bill Gunn’s hands was a powerful tool. It’s a tragic shame he didn’t shoot a thousand more installments.

Personal Problems 
dir. Bill Gunn
165 mins.

New restoration! Screens through 6/14 at the MFA!

Co-presented with the Roxbury International Film Festival.

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