A bit of a pocket interest this week on Midnight Screenings, with two instances of foreign masters exploring the thick, sickly world of the American Southern Gothic.
A deep-water jambalaya of reptilian-brain sexuality, harebrained violence, delinquent cinematic disdain for social propriety, racial conflagration, and sensual tension overflowing in spurts of human combat, it is entirely fitting, and entirely Buñuelean, that one of the Spanish directors two meager English-language films manages to explode with traumatic awareness of American cultural disjunction better than arguably any other American film. A three-character barbecue of sun-scorched, humidity-flaring raw flesh left out to burn, the director’s foray into American racial and sexual politics is a political study only insofar as it slithers into the political found in the everyday terror of fighting for your life. This is no lecture, no dissertation on this director’s part; this is fetid, pungent, even foolishly carnal backwoods trauma of a corporeal, violently direct nature. It’s racial politics as out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire nightmare.
In this Southern tale, the director’s torrid, unfumigated style wafts with so much sweat and raw-boned brio that Southern Gothic – with its implications of built-up, partially upkept architecture fading against the acid of grotesque humanity – seems itself inappropriate for a story this primal and primordial. Even the suggestion of a social structure is too clean and respectable for a work that defines the South more as an imaginative hot-house of unsparing tempers and pulsating, pugnacious human desires nearly senseless in their dogmatic commitment to the unquestioned perniciousness of insatiable individuality and personal fetish. This is the South as a fable, a toxic fairy tale plunge into race and sex at their most hoarse and all-consuming, scraping away any and all the niceties of social propriety for an intentionally primitive study in unkempt emotion trampling all over imperious intellect. Of all the films about race in the American canon, The Young One is perhaps the one that claws itself most readily into the bowels of race as absurdist fervor sans justification or logic; it’s an illogical, hostile, inexplicable film for a subject matter that epitomizes all three.
The mythic sparseness of the film’s island location is an immediate suggestion of this nightmare-logic, blood-and-guts tale that dissects the innards of Southern culture with an admirable terseness and refusal to cater to the need to gussy up or play dress up with the norms of convention or reality. Compared to the curated, too-reputable, suffocatingly respectable likes of the films Sidney Poitier would be starring in yearly before the decade was done, The Young One makes no gestures toward pragmatism or respectability politics; this isn’t your well-to-do white liberal parents’ version of race in America, but an excoriating look at the base animalistic impulses of human attrition and power dynamics at their most unmediated by social convention.
While In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plead, lecture, and orate about the benefits of progress, The Young One reprimands, dissents, and assaults. Other racial films are modulated, safe-guarded, design-by-committee works designed to please everyone, institutional democrats in a world that needs a backwater socialist rebellion. The prior variant of film pats you and their own selves on the back. In comparison, The Young One is busy stabbing you in the back forever thinking the gossamer thread of social acceptance actually alleviates the hatred-spewing viscosity surreptitiously brewing beneath. Pardon my French, but while Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is busy applauding black exceptionalism and Barack Obama’s acceptance into the flattening institutional hierarchy of America, The Young One is asking what happened to Nat Turner. One seeks to find the few blacks who fit America’s understanding of “respectable” and introduce them to the system, while the other stages a coup against the notion of respect altogether.
Anyway, enough with platitudes, even if The Young One’s greatest strength is its refusal to cater to the faux-respectability of intellectual cinema, preferring the poetic discovery of real, noxious, nearly-surrealist feeling found in the gut rather than the head. The story of Traver (Bernie Hamilton), a black man accused of raping a white woman, escaping to an island, he eventually instigates a dalliance with a young mixed-race girl Evayln (Key Meersman) only to again be accused of sexual infidelity for this infraction, prompting the hatred of a white man who then tries to hunt Traver down. The Young One casually links white hunter Miller’s (Zachary Scott) desire to kill Traver with Miller’s impotent inability to accept that Traver, on balance, might be a superior adult figure, or sexual partner, for Evalyn than he.
Miller’s abusive attitude toward Evayln for interacting with Traver and her own mixed-race heritage is both friend and enemy to Miller’s simultaneous affection for Evalyn. This befuddling tension marks The Young One as one of the few American films willing to descend into the complications of sexual appraisal and paternalism among white men in a clandestine world that muddies the waters of parental figure and sexual partner when the justifying principle for men in both cases is the power they exert over women. Sexual power is the prime currency for racial tension in a film that is palpably acclimatized to the way that the dynamics of oppression, for all their ideological implications, are also battles over human flesh. The Young One understands that, for white men, their oppressive abuse of non-whites was both the product of their desire to retain power and their curiosity to test their own system through seditious acts of miscegenation or befriending of non-whites, knowing full well that this wasn’t really a test or disruption to the system when they as white people committed the act. Their slight bending of systemic norms ultimately proved their hierarchical position at the top all the more-so.
As such, Buñuel’s film is a work of provocative, lascivious exploitation as a commentary on the lascivious, exploitative nature of race and sex in America, a film that prefers – unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – to revel in the curdled nastiness of intersectionalities and power dynamics in America rather than painting over the rotting, festering rust with a single coat of social progress paint. Dinner is a comforting bedtime story about race, while The Young One is a fire-and-brimstone sermon at an African-American church, enlivened with the unhinged demeanor of a forested, secretive slave meeting, a liberating affair where the rules and regulations of normality and ownership were scraped away and the desire to contort, dance, and limber-up the human body violently rebelled against the ideological restraint and immobile stagnancy asked of slaves by their white masters. In its from-the-gut outbursts of primal emotion as a rejection of the pseudo-intellectual laws of a society that used those laws to oppress, The Young One rebels against the rules of “proper” filmmaking as a way to discover the liberating possibilities of exploitation cinema before the genre really existed.
Most race films try to break-down – or at least add a progressive addendum to – the master’s house with the master’s tools, to quote a much smarter scholar than I, relying on the same cinematic norms that constructed the very oppressive films that they are nominally in opposition to. Most race films turn cinema into a safe, learned, rational space that washes over the bubbling tension underneath. In contrast, Buñuel’s abrasive near-absurdism pays little heed to how we expect characters to act and interact, his bizarre reorientation of character logic (such as when characters neglect to kill one another, seemingly rejecting their stated intent without reason) dismantling the secure, sheltered normalcy of Western cinema. The Enlightenment rationality and reason that has for centuries proven a justification for racial oppression holds no power in The Young One, a work that holds court on this very cinematic rationality via its emotionally-unrestrained, sensory, erotics-first form. In this spirit, The Young One is an almost violently undomesticated film, recreating the spasmodic freedom-from-inhibition that has epitomized various forms of racial resistance, from slave-meetings to jazz and blues music.
In other words, while most black-focused race films simply apply the norms of respectable cinema – the very cinema that has emphasized white characters for decades – to black characters, The Young One actually threatens the way we represent race in cinema by obliterating the ideological prison of “moral” or “issue-focused” cinema style altogether. As a film, the racially progressive Mississippi Burning is different from, say, the racist The Jazz Singer or Cimarron as a matter of content – its politics are different, its choice of main subject matter is different – but the style and the form of the film are copy-pasted from the very conservative cinema that once held such progressive subject matter back. If Mississippi Burning is a reaction to racist cinema, it is entirely acquiescent to the formal norms of that very cinema it ostensibly reacts to; it is racially progressive but cinematically conservative, shackled to the milquetoast white-bread visuals it ought to reject. In contrast, with a style that owes as much to emotionally unrestricted, uninhibited African ritual as Hollywood film (recognizing that the Southern Gothic tradition is deeply entwined with slave culture and aesthetics), The Young One questions not only the content of Hollywood cinema, but the form of the medium itself.