Those Were the Days 

Back to the 70s: Baadasssss! and Anchorman.

Melvin Van Peebles 1971 film Sweet Sweetback s Baadasssss Song is rightly remembered if at all as the film that launched the so-called blaxploitation movement. But in retrospect, Van Peebles film, the first to show a black man kill a white cop and get away with it, has less in common with the surface sex and violence of films such as Shaft and Superfly than with other, more obviously countercultural, revolutionary entertainments of the era, such as Easy Rider and Medium Cool.
Baadasssss!, son Mario Van Peebles fictional account of his father s struggle to make Sweet Sweetback, realizes this. Its extended opening credits ape the arty sound and vision of his father s film. It also mixes file footage of martyred heroes and American street violence with clips of cultural violence in the form of racist cartoons and Hollywood movies. The younger Van Peebles is implying a link between the twisted images we digest and the corrupt acts we commit or experience. He also suggests that it was precisely this relationship that his father set out to smash with Sweet Sweetback s Baadasssss Song.
The father-son connections between the two films are uniquely rich: In Sweet Sweetback, Melvin Van Peebles plays the title role of a sex-show stud who becomes radicalized after watching a pair of white cops beat a Black Panther. The handcuffed Sweetback attacks the cops and then goes on the lam, becoming something of a folk hero in the process. The film opens with a flashback to Sweetback as a child, played by then-13-year-old Mario Van Peebles, losing his virginity to an adult prostitute. In Baadasssss!, Mario plays his father, both in front of and behind the camera, casting young actor Khleo Thomas as himself and having him hang out on the set of the film just as Mario once did.
An ultimate act of father-son solidarity, the younger Van Peebles doesn t sugarcoat Dad. He shows Melvin cheating on his wife, using his kids, and basically making everything in his life secondary to finishing his film. But this is a decision the filmmaker son now ratifies, as if to suggest that liberating his audience was ultimately more important than being attentive to his family.
After its head-spinning opening credits which make a promise Baadasssss! can t quite live up to the film settles into a relatively conventional biopic/making-a-film feature, though the younger Van Peebles does make tremendous use of footage from the original film, expertly splicing these images alongside his re-creations. The story behind Sweet Sweetback is so compelling that this strategy succeeds.
Negotiating an early- 70s Hollywood of drug dens, racist producers, easy sex, and countercultural weirdos, Melvin confronts a number of hurdles on the way to completing his unlikely project: Barely self-financed (with a desperate $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to get through post-production), the film is couched as porn ( a black beaver flick ) in order to work outside the all-white union system with its partly amateur, mixed-race crew. It s shot in half the time a studio picture would use a mere 19 days and without professional actors. Along the way, Melvin partially loses his eyesight, finds a portion of his crew in jail and fires several others, punches out his editor, and finds potential distributors filing out of a screening. Opening in just two theaters, in Detroit and Atlanta, the film becomes a word-of-mouth hit largely through its embrace by the Black Panther movement.
As Baadasssss! makes clear, the elder Van Peebles, with a studio movie under his belt, could have played ball with the suits and led a safer career. Instead, he chose to break from the system for something that had never been done. As one character in Baadasssss! says, Good things do not come to those who wait.
More than 30 years later, Sweet Sweetback s Baadasssss Song comes across as a pretty bad movie clumsy, pretentious, unavoidably amateurish but as essential film history, which makes it a perfect subject for the kind of mediation it gets here. Melvin s 90s essay on Hollywood racism, Classified X, holds up better, but it is Sweet Sweetback a film starring the Black Community and dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters that had enough of the Man that captures a moment in time like few other films.
At the time of its 1971 release, Sweet Sweetback s Baadasssss Song was refused an R rating by the motion picture ratings board. Rather than make cuts to his film, Melvin Van Peebles released it anyway with the slogan Rated X by an all-white jury. This son-to-father tribute, originally titled How to Get the Man s Foot Outta Your Ass, is a defiant, loving reminder of what the elder Van Peebles went through to make it happen.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell s hugely marketed spoof of local TV news and Seventies style, may attempt to link a certain kind of journalistic brainlessness with a specific era, but the film s inclusion of the media panda-monium surrounding one of the San Diego Zoo s cash cows as a key plot point will only help Memphis audiences connect this satire to the here and now.
Ferrell plays Burgundy, the TV news anchor as quintessential local celebrity, a very important person in San Diego during the polyester Seventies. Faux-sophisticated and achingly insincere, Burgundy s great gift (and great weakness) is his ability to read anything anything off a teleprompter in a confident, convincing manner.
Burgundy is joined on-air by a trio of similarly shallow sidekicks: overcompensating macho sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), sleazy roving reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and IQ-impaired weatherman Brick Tamland (The Daily Show s Steve Carell), who makes sure to say everything with bright forcefulness even when he has no idea what he s saying.
These local heroes inhabit a time before cable, an age when only men were allowed to read the news. But their world is thrown for a loop when the station, seeking diversity (a word that stumps Burgundy and his cohorts), hire female reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Burgundy and his buddies don t mind complimenting Corningstone s breathtaking heinie, but share airtime with her? Maybe this whole women s-lib thing has gone a bit too far.
Saturday Night Live alumnus Ferrell co-wrote the film with Adam McKay, a former SNL scribe who also directed. Unsurprisingly, Anchorman has the quality of sketch-comedy blown up to feature-film proportions. Anchorman gets most of its comic mileage out of its newsroom and anchor-desk scenes, out of the act of delivering the news itself, but it can t plumb these settings for enough material. Thus we get desperate but not unfunny filler such as talking animals, a Gangs of New York spoof, jazz-flute solos, and the hilariously odd spectacle of Burgundy and the rest of his action news team singing Afternoon Delight, the utter ickinesses underscoring what might be the most gloriously awful soundtrack ever conceived. (Bread, Kansas, etc.)
Anchorman gets more laughs out of the look of the era than Starsky & Hutch, this year s earlier descent into leisure suits and shag carpeting, but the film s pleasures are still more verbal than visual. Among the most memorable moments are surely Burgundy s penchant for stentorian non sequiturs: Knights of Columbus! Great Odin s raven! By the beard of Zeus! This is also reflected in the one-upping newsroom banter as the battle between Burgundy and Corningstone escalates, a winning element that is either a rip-off of or homage to the Chevy Chase/Jane Curtin-era SNL Weekend Update skits.
Severely disjointed but still intermittently guffaw-inducing, Anchorman can t help but be a minor disappointment following the comedic successes of previous Ferrell vehicles Old School and Elf. In those films, Ferrell portrayed guileless characters with a gonzo commitment that sucked the audience in. Ferrell doesn t inhabit Burgundy to quite the same degree. Though Burgundy is plenty dense (the saying When in Rome perplexes him), he isn t quite the savant that Frank the Tank of Old School or Buddy of Elf were, and Ferrell struggles to make this somewhat more reserved, more calculating character as believable as his previous roles. With Anchorman, there s always just a trace of winking acknowledgment, and that s enough to keep the film from fully connecting. n

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