American Pimp, the documentary by the twins Allen and Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents, Menace II Society), may not be the most garrulous exploitation film ever made, but—James Toback, eat your heart out—it surely sets the modern record for the use of the word bitch in an 86-minute film.
Alternately mind-expanding and brain-numbing, American Pimp splices together interviews with a dozen or more macks, players, and perpetually wired gentlemen of leisure who—smooth, persuasive, and hyper-verbal—seize every opportunity, and more, to run their riffs. The pimp who compares his mouth to an Uzi has it exactly right. These guys talk so damn much and with such relentless self-justification they might be trying to drill a hole in your head.
An opening montage of assorted honkies dissing pimp morality immediately establishes mackdom as a race thing. Offering some history lite, the Hugheses identify their subjects with the trickster figures of West African folklore and make a vague connection to the material conditions that followed slavery. Surely more could have been done with this, but then American Pimp is not an educational film. (The distinctions between “macks” and “players” or “real pimps” and “perpetrator pimps” are left hanging.) The mode is strictly subcultural show-and-tell.
American Pimp is most concerned with the spell cast by an image. As more than a few rap artists have been, the Hughes brothers were captivated by Iceberg Slim’s perennial best-seller Pimp, The Story of My Life and inspired by blaxploitation cult classics like The Mack and Willie Dynamite. The peacocks who strut through these movies so strongly resemble their real-life models that, given this rare example of Hollywood verisimilitude, one naturally wonders who was the model for whom. The Hughes brothers quote scenes from the movies while their pimps paraphrase the dialogue.
Moving from Honolulu to Vegas to San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington, D.C. (where a pimp posed in front of the Capitol laughs that he’s “making more money than the president”), American Pimp has a tawdry jet-set ambience. If prostitution is understood as a version of interactive showbiz, the pimps are a movie in themselves—and not a silent one. “The name is internationally known: Bishop Don Magic Juan,” says one by way of an introduction. Global reputation or not, the pimp in question has a collection of pictures in which, resplendently turned out in matching gator shoes, suit, and sombrero, he’s posed with such kindred hustlers as Ike Turner, Marion Barry, and Donald Trump. (Later, the good Bishop reveals that “one of the greatest pimps who ever lived is called . . . God.”)
As with all small entrepreneurs, the pimps’ commitment to the work ethic is total—so long as you’re working for them. They constantly return to the bottom line, and whether or not it’s true that, as one mack boasts, “anyone can be turned out,” they can recognize their prey getting off the bus in any big city. One mack is as proud as Rudy Giuliani to have taken some bitch off welfare. To a man, they disdain the idea of violence or abuse. Dripping with rings that could double as brass knuckles, they promote pimping as a head trip: “I don’t steal nothing but a bitch’s mind.” A successful pimp is the street-smart equivalent of a chess grandmaster; explaining “pimpology” to a square would be like “talking astrophysics to a muthafuckin’ wino.”
The plenitude of snapshots and group portraits of pimps’n’hos suggests a sort of perverse family structure. Human sentiment is not completely absent. “She was the first ‘ho to pay me,” one pimp recalls with a tenderness somewhat more convincing than his subsequent bid for sympathy in recounting the story of a hooker killed in action. This movie is the celluloid equivalent of a term at the Citadel. Could there possibly be a female point of view? (A paper could be written on the sociology of American Pimp as a dating flick.) The filmmakers interview only a handful of ‘hos, and the most articulate is a legal sex worker employed by a sanctimonious white businessman at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch. The few minutes that the Hugheses spent soaking up the circus maximus atmosphere of the Players Ball is virtually the only time in the movie we get to see the pimps together with their employees.
Not unlike the ‘hos, American Pimp feels more than a little cowed by its subjects. The pimps are as hungry for stardom as Andy Warhol’s drag queens, but the Hugheses are almost always outmanipulated. There’s no going beneath the surface with the pimps themselves—although several reveal ambitions going back to childhood. A more creative psychologist than the filmmakers, Iceberg Slim—briefly heard incanting a poem from his ’70s LP Reflections—posited an Orestes complex. Suggesting that pimps were taking vengeance on their rejecting mothers, he claimed to have personally known “several dozen” who were “dumped into trash bins” as infants. Of course, for some, the privilege of golfing with white business swells on the spectacular overlook of some Honolulu country club would be justification enough. Or, as another pimp snarls: “I’m not going to wipe your toilets. Fuck you.”
For all its gaga repetition, American Pimp manages a few suggestive narrative shards. The saga of Fillmore Slim and the L.A. track is a Tarantino flick waiting to be made. (And just how did Bishop Don Magic Juan get religion?) I appreciated as downbeat Americana the case of the retired pimp who turned blues singer so he could keep his wardrobe. And melancholy as a twilight western is the tale of the pimp called Rosebudd. Down to one last ‘ho, he married her and turned square, working to support his family as a telemarketer.
Having impersonated a nattering Woody Allen in the execrable Celebrity, Kenneth Branagh goes the master one better with a high-flown equivalent of Allen’s musical wannabe, Everyone Says I Love You. Branagh’s cloddish adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost recasts the play as a faux 1930s musical—albeit one that suffers mightily for the absence of a few pimps and ‘hos.
Branagh is not the first to imagine a musical version of LLL. The composer antihero of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus contemplated the play as the basis for an anti-Wagnerian opera. Branagh’s own deal with the devil dictates that he alternate Irving Berlin anthems with severely shortened Shakespearean speeches, and stage them both with fart jokes so insipid they would embarrass Benny Hill. The result is a double travesty—a triple one, actually, if you consider the quality of the singing and dancing.
Hamming shamelessly as Berowne, Branagh is overseasoned for his part; leading his colleagues in a swishy version of “I’d Rather Charleston” or declaiming “I Won’t Dance” (no such luck), he’s as desperate as a veteran social director at a Catskills hotel about to fold. Alicia Silverstone, concentrating to the max as the Princess of France, handles her tongue-twister dialogue better than her musical numbers. Although her valiant surplus of chin-action gives a poignantly confessional spin to the line “A heavy heart bears not a nimble tongue,” she’s upstaged by her lady-in-waiting Rosaline, willowy Natascha McElhone, who can actually put across a song. Branagh’s conception is so gratingly jolly that even a natural cutup like Nathan Lane is rendered tiresome—required to recite the first few choruses of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as a dirge before the bewigged chorus prances on.
Triple travesty? Why not a quadruple bypass? When the long-simmering war finally breaks out, Branagh orchestrates a tap dance in combat boots and pastiches the last scene of Casablanca, making a segue to actual World War II footage as his cast solemnly sings “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Ah, but they can. Remarkably tolerant to this point, the largely German audience with whom I saw LLL at the Berlin Film Festival seemed properly perplexed to find the destruction of their city (among other wartime horrors) accompanied by Branagh’s lachrymose invocation of “the way you sing off-key.”
Taking off from the Voice‘s year-decade-century’s-end critics’ poll (results still available online), BAMcinematek has scheduled a 16-film series, “The Village Voice: Best of the ’90s,” beginning this weekend with Todd Haynes’s 1995 Safe (which topped the poll) and Cannes laureate Lars von Trier’s 1996 Breaking the Waves. The series, which continues Saturdays and Sundays through July and features appearances by several Voice critics, also includes films by such reigning international masters as Jane Campion, Atom Egoyan, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jim Jarmusch, Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh, Martin Scorsese, and Wong Kar-wai. Among the rarities: Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (starring the young Virginie Ledoyen), and Werner Herzog’s post-Gulf War doc, Lessons of Darkness.