Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess, originally released in 1973, has had a checkered career, to say the least. It was chopped, slashed, re-edited, and re-released no less than FIVE times throughout the 70s and 80s with five additional titles--very likely a record. Its original length of 110 minutes was sliced down to 78 minutes by Fima Novick in the original chopped version (Blood Couple), but as Tim Lucas points out in his terrific essay included in this DVD release, Novick introduced a few elements missing from the original that were actually helpful in clarifying the action.
This DVD release is the full director's cut and that is all to the good. Yet this version of the film is hard to follow unless you have some backstory. For example, without knowing that the main character, a black intellectual, Hess Green, somehow came across a Myrthian dagger and then accidentally (or is it on purpose?) was scratched or stabbed with it by his assistant, George Meda (played by the director himself)--AND that this dagger's touch can bring on vampirism--you would never know how Hess got to be the way he was. The scene in which this is supposedly revealed has such vague exposition that it leaves you scratching your head trying to figure out how things got from point A to point B.
Yet the film also boasts some brilliant dream imagery, some of the best in any film from the 70s, if not since then as well. These dream scenes give the film tremendous power.
But the dream scenes are juxtaposed with other scenes that seem somewhat too long for their purpose, or that don't really go anywhere. For example, in one scene, deleted from the chopped version, Hess talks to his son--who looks to be about 13 or 14--speaking in French to him, asking him about his studies at his private school. This is no doubt meant to bring out Hess' social and intellectual standing as a man of culture and refinement. But the son is never seen in the rest of the film and the scene seems completely isolated from the rest of the movie.
In another scene, Hess visits a white woman from a trashy part of town. It's obvious what the purpose of the visit is, and this is no doubt to bring out Hess' conflicted character. This does work to some extent, in that later on, he goes to church, supposedly for absolution based on his deeds, but there is too much fragmentation of purpose working in this film to make it cohere.
It's a fascinating failure. Ganja Meda, played by Marlene Clark, is another frustratingly developed character. She discovers her husband, George, is dead, but while suspicion definitely points to Hess as the perpetrator, she's walks around mad for a couple of minutes and then is lovey-dovey with him.
There are threads here that do fit together and make sense and cohere and there are just as many that don't. This is not an easily followed film, nor one that lacks intelligence. With greater coherence, it could have been a brilliant film. As it is, it is an intriguing, seriously flawed work that comes this close to being an amazing, resonant film.