Mar 4, 2012

Movie of the Week - Mingus (1968)

What did Vincent Canby of the NY Times think at the time?: "MINGUS," the 60-minute documentary that opened here yesterday at the New Cinema Playhouse, is a very personal, very moving portrait of a man dispossessed—a freely photographed, large-pore close-up of Charlie Mingus, the jazz composer and bass fiddle virtuoso.

Most of this cinéma vérité feature, which was produced and directed by 23-year-old Thomas Reichman, was shot on a night in November 1966, when Mingus awaited the arrival of police and eviction from his Bowery loft for nonpayment of rent. As Mingus, a hulking but gentle man, moves back and forth through the clutter of crates, playing with his small daughter and talking to Mr. Reichman, who remains off-screen, it becomes obvious that his dispossession is more than just physical.

He talks tenderly to his 5-year-old Carolyn and asks her if she remembers the good old days when they lived on Fifth Avenue. He then observes that he'd like to live on Sutton Place, adding: "I'll kill—if I have to—to get there. I mean—people go to war and kill for locations."

At another point, at Mr. Reichman's suggestion, he pledges his allegiance "to the white flag of America" and almost moans: "How I suffered in this goddam society!"

Mingus also manages to touch on the sex life of his parents, describe a television commercial for a "zap" dress he has invented ("Zap! And it comes off!") and blow a hole in the ceiling with a shotgun. ("Hey, Tom, you dig that, man? That's not bad for not aiming!")

As this consciously choreographed, real-life performance progresses, the put-ons overtake one another and the real meaning of Mingus's dispossession is made sorrowfully apparent.

It is that of a black artist in a white world with which he can communicate only through a kind of supertalent.

Mr. Reichmnan's 16-mm. sound system is not, perhaps, the best medium for capturing the essence of the Mingus supertalent.

The director cuts away from the loft at intervals to show the star in action on the bandstand—where the emotion is clear but the sound is fuzzy, so fuzzy, that much of what is essentially a monologue also is difficult to catch. The camera, however, is mobile and unerring in capturing the performed truth.

"Mingus," like Shirley Clarke's "Portrait of Jason," makes no pretense to being the work of a hidden camera. Mingus knows—as we know—that he is being filmed. This frontal approach is, of course, as interpretive as staged, fictional cinema. Although it is one step removed from reality, it is no less true.

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