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January 12, 2012

Sweet Love, Bitter

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Herbert Danksa - 1966
Efor Films All Region DVD

One of my best memories of studying film at New York University was encountering Lewis Jacobs. Best known for his book, The Rise of the American Film, we had some lively discussions both in and out of class. I knew he had also co-written a screenplay to a film I had read about, but had not seen, and had wished that he had shown it in class. Sweet Love, Bitter might not be lost classic, but it is very much worth seeing both for a glimpse of a past era, and as an example of a true independent film.

I haven't read the source novel, Night Song, by John A. Williams, but I have read one of Williams' other novels, which told about being a struggling black American novelist in New York City, in the Fifties. I wouldn't be able to judge the veracity of the novel or film's portrayal of a fictionalized version of Charlie Parker. And I also don't think that much familiarity is needed, because the real focus is on the interconnected relationships between the main characters: "Eagle" Stokes, a famed jazz sax player to often controlled by his drug addiction, David, a university professor who tries to drink away the guilt for causing the accidental death of his wife, Keel, the owner of a coffee shop who acts as a caretaker for "Eagle" and takes in David to help run the coffee house, and Della, Keel's girlfriend. Della is the least defined character in the film, and the interracial relationship between her and Keel, while somewhat radical in an American film at the time, doesn't carry the same weight as the sometimes volatile friendship between the three men.

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The inspirations of cinema verite, French New Wave, Cassavetes, and Ingmar Bergman, are easy to spot, but what's best is seeing a film shot on the streets of New York and Philadelphia back in 1966. No sets here, but real apartments and night clubs. Not only are the apartments small and cramped, but sometimes truly grimy, very much lived in. And this is what makes Sweet Love, Bitter worth seeing. Even if one deems aspects of the story to be contrived, the characters exist in a very real, very unpretty world. The camera pans on the patrons in the bars and nightclubs, and these look like people from the streets, not from some casting agency. I'm not absolutely sure, but Professor Jacobs may have made a cameo appearance sitting in at Keel's coffee house.

The production is unique confluence of talent. Herbert Danska did some documentary work before leaving filmmaking for artistic expression as a children's books illustrator. This is the only film credit for Lewis Jacobs. Don Murray was in a transitory period between his early Hollwood stardom of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and a career primarily in television movies and series. This would be Dick Gregory's only substantial acting role. How much of the performance was improvised, I couldn't say, but there is a sense of rawness that adds laughter and anger. Murray reputedly was responsible for the casting of Diane Varsi, a Hollywood dropout who acted with Murray in From Hell to Texas, the same production noted for the contentious relationship between director Henry Hathaway and Dennis Hopper. In smaller roles, Bruce Glover, more famous for his son, Crispin, and John Randolph, one of his first big screen credits following being blacklisted. Sweet Love, Bitter did prove to be an effective launching pad for Robert Hooks, his first feature film, to be followed by work with Otto Preminger, and television series stardom in N.Y.P.D..

Whether the film is in any way "about" Charlie Parker is besides the point. After forty-five years, what does stand are the thoughts on art and artists, as well as the often taken for granted exploitation of artists. Even the racial aspects to the film, so topical at the time, are still issues that have not been fully resolved. Most pointed is a moment of truth between David and Eagle, where David fails in the courage of his stated convictions. Even more timeless is a brief moment when a would-be admirer of Eagle, a young white woman, eagerly tells the musician that she would do anything for him. The glimmer of hope for some kind of rendezvous sags to disappointment when constantly broke Eagle asks her to lend him twenty dollars.

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Posted by peter at January 12, 2012 08:28 AM