Long Lost Lo-Fi African-American Experimental Drama is Resurrected in HD



You may think your personal problems aren’t like anyone else’s.  But you’d be wrong.  Actor/director Bill Gunn, on the other hand… his Personal Problems are indeed unlike any others.  

Among the lowest of the lo-fi soap operas to ever clutter the world, Gunn’s New York City magnum opus of working class black folk navigating dark points of their lives is presented in two feature length portions.  Though shot with early 3/4 inch video gear in a manner that could be described as more than a little amateurish, Personal Problems is deceptive in its professional accomplishment.  An accomplished African-American poet (Steve Cannon), actor (Walter Cotton), novelist (Ishmael Reed), filmmaker (Bill Gunn; Ganja & Hess), and experimental artist (videographer Robert Polidori) all collaborated to launch this most unusual of projects.

The final result- a two hour and forty-four minute obscurity that’s been more or less lost to ages until now- is a mixed bag.  Though hailed as a lost masterpiece of groundbreaking resonance, this critic fails to see the ascribed out-and-out greatness herein.  Personal Problems’ significance, however, could be a slightly more accessible consideration.  

It is good that Kino Lorber has saved Personal Problems from its own inherent decay.  Like so many salvations and salvages, the fruit of it remains out of reach for many, resulting in an array of perplexing “Whys?”.

Personal Problems is both full of well-realized visual compositions as well as murky, irrevocably degraded images- almost always one and the same.  Each and every shot is wrought with nearly forty year-old standard definition scan lines and unintended light haloing.  The backstory on the film’s very troubled history tells us that Personal Problems, in a technical sense, never looked good.

In addition to that reality, it’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of a boom mic or a light stand.  No camera move is without turbulence.  The question quickly can’t help but become, “Is this film really this poorly made??  Or is this the intended aesthetic?  Is this shoddiness somehow intellectually intentional…?”

On the Film Comment podcast, Violet Lucca refers to a “poverty of scholarship“ when comes to black art.  Proper academic discourse and dissection of such work has remained niche and singularly focused- not unlike the perception of so much of the work itself.  Lucca and her guest, Tobi Haslett, seek to course-correct in their small way as they discuss Personal Problems, its legacy, and its restoration on their March 6, 2018 episode. Unsurprisingly, they come down on the side of Personal Problems being a meta-textual formative experiment, one that knowingly  grafts the boiler-plate soap opera onto then-contemporary everyday black existence.  A kind of black Cassavetes, forsaking 16mm emulsion immersion for this differently hyper-immediate smeary and instantly-degraded video realization.

The best news of any when it comes to Personal Problems is that the performances are across-the-board excellent.  The late performer of stage, screen, and Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Vertamae Grosvenor, plays the leading role, Johnnie May Brown.  In between her long night shifts as a nurse’s aide at Harlem General Hospital, she finds herself juggling the gruff demands of her windbag husband (Walter Cotton) and an extramarital affair with a smooth lounge singer played tenderly by Ganja & Hess composer Sam L. Waymon.  From these strained relationships, numerous other characters are introduced and explored.  Personal Problems is nothing if not honestly mundane; the day to day existence of these people as aggressively unsexy as the movie itself.

But is it a movie, really?  Originating as a radio spoof of soap operas before snowballing into a National Endowment for the Arts-funded public television project turned experimental art film, its difficult to process how or if certain format shifts occurred.  But then, it went underground, its reputation living on as a footnote in annals of black cultural cinema, spoken of alongside of the more obtainable masterpieces Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash.  Far too much in the way of historic consideration, importance, and effort- both in its origins and particularly in its recent restoration by Kino Lorber- has been applied to Personal Problems for a white, middle-aged, mid-western film critic such as myself to call b.s. on it after one viewing.  That is not and cannot be the purpose of this review.  Yet, the unyielding roughness of the film is inescapable.

Still, Personal Problems is worth experiencing for its unique dwelling on black life in this very critical moment in New York and American history.  As the denizens of the movie sometimes chuckle about the old days of the civil rights “revolution” (as they refer to it), no one could’ve known that the crack epidemic and further gentrification was just around the corner.  The new morning in America was on the brink.  This 20/20 hindsight grants yet another fascinating layer to the 2018 resurrection of this already melancholy and meandering existential experiment.

Any movie that leads one to alternate between “Why am I watching this…?” to “Should I be watching this?” is probably worth watching.  Personal Problems, a film built entirely of loosely scripted long takes, abruptly alternates between being boring and being gripping.  Gunn’s project, one lost and now found, is indeed not at all like other movies.  This, one must conclude, is for both better and worse, as the barriers of the amateur equipment and execution are rather insurmountable; though the performances, milieu and empathy of the thing make it uniquely worthwhile.  

The Blu-ray is a comprehensive package, housing not just the new HD restoration of the movie itself (broken into its two separate parts), but a newly produced thirty-plus minute documentary on the history of Personal Problems, as well as a whole host of extended takes, an unseen thirty-nine minute alternate preliminary version directed by Bill Gunn, Q&A footage from the recent sold out restoration premiere, the 1977 six-part radio drama, and a full color glossy insert booklet with new essays on the film by the outspoken Ismael Reed and film historian Nicholas Forster.  After decades of no Personal Problems, suddenly we have all of this.

It is good that Kino Lorber has saved Personal Problems from its own inherent decay.  Like so many salvations and salvages, the fruit of it remains out of reach for many, resulting in an array of perplexing “Whys?”.  In an age of GoPro reality TV in which people race for the opportunity to publicly air their personal problems, the answer, one muses, lies in the surface realities of all parties involved with the project:  These artists, actors, their characters and creators, no doubt, each have personal problems that are similar to yours.  (Jobs, finances, health, relationships, secrets, exhaustion- all while feeling stuck in a world of crumminess). And now, thanks to Kino Lorber, we can all have the same Personal Problems.