Saturday August 21, 2010 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.
THE HARDER THEY COME, written & directed by Perry Henzel, starring Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barley, Carl Bradshaw and Basil Keane.
The Boston area has a long history with Perry Henzel’s first film. THE HARDER THEY COME was a midnight classic showing every Saturday for ten years at The Orson Welles Cinema until that theater was lost to an electrical fire in 1986. I became aware of the movie via Jimmy Cliff’s music video when I was in high school, back when MTV played songs. After numerous missed opportunities to see THE HARDER THEY COME in revival houses, the Brattle Theater offered the irresistible proposition of pairing it with Henzel’s second and final film, NO PLACE LIKE HOME.
It was worth the wait. Jimmy Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, a young man who leaves his deceased grandmother’s home in the Jamaican countryside, traveling to the city to bring his mother the remaining pocketful of cash from his grandmother’s savings. From there, Ivan’s path follows two cliched story lines — a) naive lad with a song in his heart trying to break into the music scene and b) decent but desperate unemployed guy descending into a life of crime. After a few false starts, Ivan succeeds both in recording his song, and establishing a foothold has a soldier in the ganja trade. The waters begin to muddy when corrupt local police team with flame-thrower bearing American soldiers, ostensibly to restrict international smuggling, while also potentially seizing distribution of a sacrament within Jamaica’s Rastafari movement.
As murky as the socio-political landscape becomes, so too does Ivan’s destiny. Within this story it appears Jamaica’s penal system has a problem similar to America’s: negative or violent behavior is not reformed but reenforced and enhanced. Early in the film, Ivan spends a brief period in jail, where he is humiliatingly beaten for a relatively minor crime. After being released from prison, Ivan gets in a fight with another man over a bicycle and brutally slashes his opponent’s face. If any confusion remains about Ivan’s path to becoming a bad@$$ anti-hero rather than a noble hero, compare his ambivalence during a church sermon to his exaltation while watching a spaghetti western. The latter sequence is hauntingly echoed as Ivan revels in his outlaw notoriety and imagines the eyes of the nation on he and his blazing guns.
THE HARDER THEY COME has been dismissed by some as being poorly made. I adamantly disagree. Cheaply made? Yes. It was shot in an impoverished nation on Super16mm, which in the ’70′s was a notch above your Uncle Larry’s home movie camera. It is unrealistic to fault a film made under these circumstances for not looking as crystal clear as the crane shots from THE CONSTANT GARDNER. This is no reason to ignore what has been captured here: the cracked and worn city across the tracks from the idyllic-fishing-village Jamaica most of the world had previously glimpsed in DR. NO. Henzel not only shows us a Caribbean nation as no feature film had done before, he shows what few have managed to do since. DePalma’s SCARFACE rushed to bask in the glamorous life, glossing over an opportunity both in Cuba and Miami to explore how Tony Montana’s street-level crime fed a much larger empire. THE HARDER THEY COME remains firmly rooted in that daily struggle that deludes thugs into thinking they can gain control simply by killing their immediate competitors, while unseen men grow rich on the blood of both factions.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME, written & directed by Perry Henzel, starring Carl Bradshaw, Susan O’Meara, P.J. Soles and Countryman.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME had as unusual a journey to the screen as could be imagined. Perry Henzel shot this quasi-metafiction story, in which actors and non-actors play versions of themselves, as an imperialism themed follow-up to the corruption themes of THE HARDER THEY FALL. What exists in the way of a linear story concerns an American camera crew attempting to shoot a shampoo commercial in Jamaica. The star of the commercial, P.J. Soles, disappears without a trace. Producer Susan O’Meara recruits driver-gofer-guy-in-the-know Carl Bradshaw to help her search the countryside for their star as the clock ticks on Madison Ave.
…And then … Henzel’s footage vanished. No friends, this is not a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or BLAIR WITCH trick, Henzel’s film actually vanished before he was able to edit it together! In a twist that would be considered incredible if one tried to pass it off as fiction, Henzel’s footage was recovered in a New York film lab nearly 30 years later. Henzel completed NO PLACE LIKE HOME, which premiered to a sold-out crowd at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, but he succumbed to cancer days before it was to premiere in Jamaica.
The resulting film is, on the surface, sexier and more playful that THE HARDER THEY COME. Carl Bradshaw finds time for afternoon delight (with Grace Jones!) in the middle of a workday, P.J. Soles lounges topless under a waterfall waiting for the camera crew to stop arguing, and Susan O’Meara notices that Carl is a pretty interesting fella while both of them are supposed to be searching for missing P.J. This is all surface, mind you. The point that Henzel drives home is that while these luxurious distractions occur, high-rise hotels are springing up and commercials are being shot, but little of the money being generated reaches the local economy. In 1972, Ivanhoe Martin risked the “If you can’t beat ‘em” option, as the aforementioned unseen criminal empire benefited from the blood on Jamaican streets. By 1976 the unseen benefactors of Jamaica’s sweat and tears had become more legitimate businesses, forcing Carl Bradshaw to face the “Join ‘em?” end of the equation.