Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1969)

Director: Frankie Dymon Jr
Screenplay: Frankie Dymon Jr
Cast: Ken Gajadhar as Raymond; Donnah Dolce as the White Girl; Merdelle Jordine as Georgina; Second Hand

Synopsis: An experimental work following a young black militant (Ken Gajadhar) and the various concerns he has, shown as both events around him and the truly strange incidents breaking out into reality too. Of his place as a black man in Britain at the time, and his romantic relationship with a white woman (Donnah Dolce) as a white associate of his is dating a black woman.

The title Death May Be Your Santa Claus will perk up the eyes of certain music connoisseurs, who would've heard of that bizarre title like I did from an album of the same name by Second Hand, one of many bands of the psychedelic-progressive-garde-experimental soup of the late sixties and seventies whose work developed a cult following from vinyl collectors. The little titular ditty, in a different form, however originates not from the 1971 of the same name, but this 1969 experimental short film of the same name. What has, until recently when the film was rediscovered1, been a film that's not been easy to ever seen since its original screenings is just as fascinating, one if not the only works from the British side of the Black Power movement of the time. Its director-producer-writer Frankie Dymon Jr decided with this short film, rather than a mere documentation, to channel his thoughts on the political climate surrounding him in a more metaphorical way, pulling his own personal concerns including that on the subject of miscegenation. Dymon Jr had brushed against cinema a year before, having a major part in Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One (1968). Renamed (and reedited) into Sympathy for the Devil, the film intercut the genesis of the titular song by the Rolling Stones in the recording studio whilst Godard intercut meta-textual digressions and skits (for a lack of a better term) about the political climate of 1968. Dymon Jr was one of the black militants in a vignette at a junkyard, talking directly to the camera as various tasks were taking place around him, and Godard manipulated sound and visuals in the midst of his speech.

Argubly, he took inspiration from Godard's films of that time like One Plus One to create Death May Be Your Santa Claus. The short work, less than forty minutes, is closer to a sketchpad or diary of an individual's thoughts than a structured narrative. One that (represented by the individual segments) don't necessarily for a modern viewer connect in a thru-line but do build up an emotional state instead. It cannot help, in the era of Brexit and debate on immigration, but bluntly remind a complacent modern viewer how little's actually changed in how we're still dealing with subjects like racism, opposition to immigration and culture that's not that of an orthodox Angle-Saxon white Britain still, something that particularly stands out here amongst other existential concerns and, whilst a dissertation from the position of Afro-British culture, could be expanded to other issues involving ethnicity.

On 20 April 1968, only a year before, was when Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech delivered. Far across the other side of the Atlantic, the sixties was the era of the African American civil rights movement which ended with the horrors of the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations, and the development of groups like the Black Panthers to motivate equality and black rights in ways which were seen as terrorist groups by the FBI. That chronological placement really helps fish out a pertinent emotional connection to what could be an odd curiosity, that in the midst of this a lot more of the film makes sense in connection whilst still feeling greatly relevant to the modern day still. The dialogue, openly discussing these existential concerns, do stick out and the absurdist tone, right from its title, has a delirious edge appropriate for a period, in terms of merely affording rights for all regardless of ethnicity, could've felt like being inside a madhouse. The subject of the main protagonist dating a white woman, and how it leads to flights of the unreal, doesn't feel dated either if you bear in mind that in an era where black and minority rights were being fought, concepts like miscegenation were still a taboo and a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier was a major Hollywood production tackling the subject. That the subject still rears its ugly head - such as a Louisiana justice of the peace called Keith Bardwell refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in 2009 - does mean that even this extensive theme of the film deserves to be reflected on. Only the fact that our protagonist's love interest is a pale, ethereal figure who only wears a thin cloth with a cape, like an elven hippy, or the brief moment of her in blackface with an afro seems absurd whilst the rest feels like its director, through the cast, channelling emotions on the issue.

Most of the film is a didactic work, one which is intentionally meant to be a springboard for the viewer to react to the material with their own opinion. There's a lot of scenes of talking and a lot of passages quoted from various texts, evoking the Godardian method of not going for conclusions but comparing and contrasting ideas to force a viewer to think for themselves rather than demand a blatant explanation. The scene of a public debate, where the black speaker is heckled by a white crowd before he can even begin his first sentence, whilst an older non-Caucasian man eventually joins in the debate heckling the hecklers, is probably the most rewarding scene of the whole film as if feels captured for real. An uncomfortable scene still to watch, opening up a sore with its depiction of a mass of arguments and jabs thrown about undercutting any sense of intellectual thought. Taken more for emotional and psychological effect rather than a linear text, this material is effective even if you think the rest is too vague. Where the film gets unconventional, more dreamlike and abstract, is when it hits the one scene in the park many know the film from. It starts as an act of violence against a black man, two white men flipping him over a railing into a pond, evoking a cruel victimisation. This reading becomes deliberately muddled as, in the infamous moment in Death May Be Your Santa Claus, the three individuals join together as if nothing has happened and assault a nearby male bystander randomly, proceeding in an act of castration and cannibalism that blatantly involves penis eating followed by his guts being chewed on by the three happily. The scene, played out as a farce, is where everything onwards becomes more stranger and more symbolic, with the intercutting of scenes more dreamlike onwards for the most part. This scene itself is also far more extreme and daring than even some of the grubbier British exploitation films from the seventies, just for the butcher shop organs straight from a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter flick. Unexpectedly, it's this experimental film from a black rights activist that makes something like House of Whipcord (1974) look like a Carry On movie, and clearly on purpose to express a (possibly?) a metaphor for the protagonist's sense of sexual anxiety that director staged the moment as a broad piece of Grand Guignol.

From then on the tome and structure of the short film is more unconventional, growing to include increasing odder moments that clearly have to be read as more metaphorical. Probably with the exception of Second Hand's own cameo in the film in a dilapidated house in various stages of undress, which adds a dose of the hectic to the material, the scenes all have a striking effect. That, whilst dated, the protagonist's girlfriend is the aforementioned elf hippy, strolling together in the countryside offering the happiness that the hippy ideal was meant to bring about. Or, another personal favourite, when what is effectively the Pope merely offers a prayer to a bare chested female beggar in the street, cradling two babies in each arm in distress, only for Che Guevara of all people to force the Pope to care for the one of the children, forcing the old man in holistic white uniform to crouch down in the middle of a London street like the beggar. Death May Be Your Santa Claus could be viewed as stereotypical of late sixties experimental cinema, in danger of pretentiousness, but I admire this era for even the most obscure of underground films having something unique or inspired in them. A film like this, whilst I do find it immensely compelling, also proves that in even the most stereotypically pretentious of the experimental films of the era they are tolerable for me as, even if it's one scene, they can all still have something of worth in their attempts of improvisation. Here in particular, Frankie Dymon Jr decided to not only tackle subjects of importance in terms of race but also in context of a visibly personal nature. For all the more extreme moments, it's more grounded document scenes still sting with some horrible sense that little's changed from the sixties in terms of racism and topics within its fold barring the fashion.

Abstract Spectrum: Avant-Garde/Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low

1 - And made available through the British Film Institute's Flipside physical media series, as an extra on their release Joanna (1968), a film made by the same director of the infamous Myra Breckinridge adaptation. 

No comments:

Post a Comment