Monday, August 24, 2009

The Two Versions of GOODBYE UNCLE TOM

In my last post on the subject I equated Jacopetti & Prosperi's Mondo apocalypse on American themes with The Birth of A Nation. As far as they were concerned, however, it was their Intolerance, an answer to critics of their previous documentary, Africa Addio. When that film was released in 1966, the filmmakers were accused of having executions staged for their cameras, but what really stung was the charge of racism against Africans. Africa Addio is a survey of the changes underway in the title continent, with too much emphasis on civil war and atrocities for many people's tastes. The argument was that Europe had withdrawn from Africa too soon, leaving Africans unprepared for self-rule. Critics interpreted this as if J&P had said Africans were incapable of self-rule, and no more than savages. Jacopetti resented the charge, and thought that a compassionate account of the ordeal of slavery suffered by Africans would prove the critics wrong. How naive.

In the Godfathers of Mondo documentary included with Blue Underground's historic Mondo Cane Collection, Jacopetti deems Goodbye Uncle Tom a failure, since it left many viewers only more convinced that he and Prosperi were racists. If the viewers didn't get the point, he concludes, that's his fault, not theirs. This is an unusually generous attitude for a controversial filmmaker, but it begs a question: what didn't audiences get? Is the argument of Goodbye Uncle Tom nothing more than "We're not racists?" There are more economical ways to make that point, but when you consider the actual film you realize that J&P are trying to say something else -- and what that is depends on the version of the film you watch.

As Blue Underground puts it, the original version of Addio Zio Tom "was an experience so incendiary that distributors forced the filmmakers to completely re-cut the film and radically re-write its extreme narration, removing more than 13 minutes of race-war politics and inserting alternate scenes -- creating what would become an entirely different film -- before it could be released!"

Today, we have at least two versions of the film: the American cut and what Blue Underground bills as a "Director's Cut" restored by Jacopetti, "presented uncut and uncensored for the first time anywhere in the world." This implies that the version that played in Europe, which we might otherwise deem the original release version, is not the same as the Director's Cut. How it differs from the final Jacopetti version and the American version remains a mystery. But we can compare the Director's Cut (hereafter Zio) and the American cut (hereafter Uncle), the latter being the version I saw on videotape a decade ago, but spruced up for DVD by Blue Underground. They are profoundly different from one another, but I wouldn't exactly define the American cut as toned down. Dumbed down, maybe, but it's still an incendiary film.

Zio is 136 minutes long, Uncle 123. The difference is accounted for only partly by subtraction. What's subtracted is almost all present-day footage, which in Zio is spread throughout the film. Uncle preserves only the most controversial and inflammatory part of this footage, the fantasy sequence inspired by William Styron's controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I'll discuss further in a later post. In one instance, Uncle presents some of the present-day footage, shots of Civil War re-enacters, as if it were actually portraying the Civil War. The other major footage from Zio missing from Uncle is the sleazyrotic Madame La Laurie sequence, which we'll examine more closely in a post on the (s)exploitation aspects of both films.

Uncle shows men playing at war, but Zio shows them picking up their toys and going home.

Zio is structured more like a mondo movie than Uncle. The American cut drops us right into the phantasmagoric premise of the film, that Jacopetti & Prosperi are able to travel back in time in a helicopter to the Old South and see for themselves how slavery worked. Zio actually attempts, in a joking way, to explain this at the end of a prologue that establishes what else they intend to explain. Zio opens with footage of Martin Luther King's funeral, perhaps filmed by J&P's own team given the great picture quality compared to news footage that appears later. They include an unusually moving shot of automobiles going about their business in complete indifference to the massive procession going on behind them, as if to assert an ultimate insignificance of the mournful demonstration.

Riot footage follows, along with quotes from radical Black Power leaders calling for violence. The filmmakers argue that the proposed or hoped-for uprising was a dismal failure, with whites suffering little damage from black rage. It becomes clear that Zio is meant, in part, to explain by reference to the slavery experience why the black uprisings failed and how the heritage of slavery remains a handicap for American blacks. The prologue closes with a protest at Cape Canaveral during a moon shot, as the narrator invokes Einstein's relativity theory to suggest that a journey into the future can actually take us back to the past, and the film proper begins.

Zio returns to the present frequently for mondo-style actualities (i.e., very possibly staged) showing different aspects of modern race relations, ranging from a hippie repentance ritual on top of a Manhattan skyscraper to rampant race and gender mixing during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The narrators return often to the concept of "Negro-ness" (the subtitle substitute for what used to be called negritude) as a wrong direction for blacks to take. As if pre-empting criticism of their own humiliating treatment of black extras, the filmmakers show Old South re-enactment tours in which blacks are paid to pretend to be slaves.

The final present-day scenes, apart from the Nat Turner fantasy, show an anonymous black leader riding through a ghetto in a police car, telling the hood that repaying race hatred with race hatred (the filmmakers' reading of "Negro-ness") is not the way for blacks to solve the race problem. In retrospect, the slavery footage in Zio seems intended to establish a purely racial grudge that explains a lack of genuine radicalism on the part of the Black Power movement. That footage also allows for a different explanation of ineffective protests, but I'll defer that discussion to another post.

Uncle leaves the Nat Turner fantasy as the only present-day response to the slavery experience. Let me stress again against charges that Uncle is toned down that the Turner footage is the most inflammatory part of the film because (in Uncle especially) it portrays the random slaughter of white families as the black response to slavery. In fact, the American cut of the Turner section goes further than Jacopetti now wants to. In his Director's Cut, he cuts at the last possible moment from the scene of a black radical about to dash a baby against a bedroom wall to a shot of a live baby at the beach. The American cut lets the baby-bashing scene last a few seconds longer.

Uncle (below) boldly goes forward where Zio hesitates at the brink of infanticide.

In at least one counter-instance, Uncle tones down a scene from Zio. A violent action sequence portraying a hunt for fugitive slaves ends in the Director's Cut with the slave hunters posing for a photo beside a mound of dead bodies. Uncle lets the scene run a few moments longer for a comic coda: the slaves in the photo are only playing dead so the hunters can get a good picture. The shot made, they're ordered to scatter.

These are two small instances in which Uncle has footage missing from Zio. There are many more substantial additions to the American cut. I'll close this installment out by listing the most important bits unique to Uncle.

The "flashback" Civil War footage (i.e. the present-day re-enactment footage from Zio) is followed by a scene of slaves burying the dead, followed by an aerial shot of a cemetery, while the Italian-accented narrator explains that "for every negro brought from Africa, a white man fell in battle." The commentary that follows is the part of the American script most clearly designed to exculpate the U.S. from special moral responsibility for slavery, as the narrator states that the nation went on to liberate most of the world from slavery, "an institution America had not invented, but had inherited and endured."

To the assembly-line footage of slavery processing at Fort Bastille is added a visit to the "Veterinary" office, where the bizarrely bandaged Doc White presides over inspections for genital infections and mass enemas.

A nearly idyllic stop by a river during the inland slave march is made more sinister by the burial of a dead baby, the convulsions of sick slaves, and the abrupt murder of fellow slave trader Charlie Wilson by the "benevolent" Mr. Schultz, who warns the narrators off with his pistol to end the scene.

Harriet Beecher Stowe makes a cameo appearance at the plantation first visited by the narrators, announcing her belief in black inferiority but crediting them with "embryonic intelligence" and condemning slavery while declaring her plan to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The narrators arrive at the big slave market scene in a wagon decorated with a "Jacopetti & Prosperi Travelling Photographers" sign that for some reason is one of my most vivid memories of my first viewing of the American cut. The filmmakers are more modest in the Director's Cut, cutting their self-advertisement out of the film.

At the slave market, there are three extra scenes. In the first, a white instructor teaches the slaves proper deportment in the presence of whites; they are not to look whites in the eye. "Look at me!" he demands of one of his students, who is slapped for doing so. "Thank you, master," he says. The second is a visit to a dusty insurance office where the narrators learn that individual body parts of slaves can be insured and give the clerk a ballpoint pen. Finally, the narrators encounter an educated slave who gives a speech out of Southern pro-slavery propaganda favorably comparing his situation with that of working-class whites who have no job security and no paternal authorities to look after them. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" the narrators tell him, "You're a dishonor to your race!"

The visit with the racist pseudo-scientist Dr. Cartwright is extended with a demonstration of one of his inventions, an anti-masturbation device consisting of a big board the slave can't get his arms around.

Overall, Uncle comes across as something more like Fellini's Satyricon (to the point of Riz Ortolani seeming to ape Nino Rota in some more decadent scenes) than an all-out mondo movie, dropping us in an utterly strange world that's even more alien than we thought it would be. It's less overtly political than Zio but is inescapably political because of its subject matter, though its only contemporary relevance, in its own imagination, is its ability to provoke murderous thoughts in certain black people. Whether blacks come off better in Uncle than in Zio, or whether one version is more or less "racist" than another, is a topic for another post. It's enough for now to say that both films pack a visionary wallop with potentially oppressive force, as Jacopetti & Prosperi dare you to look or look away. The American cut is slightly more violent and gory than the Director's Cut, but the sheer conceptual violence of slavery is so omnipresent and overwhelming that the relative use of special effects seems trivial. Choose your poison, some might say, but either way Tom is a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that film buffs can add to their memories like a badge of courage.