June 29, 2001: a great day in the history of cinema. Opening simultaneously at the multiplex, two movies pushed at the outer limit of big-studio weirdness, each in their own way epistemological essays on the impossibility of communication and stubbornly committed to techniques of estrangement. Both were greeted, to varying degrees of hostility, by accusations of incoherence, yet both went on to secure critical reappraisal and passionately devoted cults: Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi dissertation A.I. Artificial Intelligence and . . . Pootie Tang. They ain’t come one but many tine tanies.
Elaborated, barely, from a routine originating on The Chris Rock Show, Pootie Tang has basically one joke, and the movie works or not depending on whether you find it inexhaustibly funny or intolerably stupid. Movie star, recording artist, corporate crime fighter, ladies’ man, and master of the ceramic arts, Pootie (Lance Crouther) is a man of many hats and few words—all of them pure gibberish. The gist of Pootiespeak (“wa da tai,” “cole me down on the panny sty”) is an affectionate burlesque of blacksploitation jive and hip-hop slang, as well as of the action-hero catchphrase.
The movie opens on the set of a Bob Costas interview program where Pootie promotes his latest film, Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine. Written and directed by Louis C.K., Pootie Tang is framed as an extended excerpt of this magnum opus, a desultory mash of biopic, anti-corporate action flick, and randomly generated nonsense. Featuring both the greatest of all bullet-time parodies (slow-mo Pootie repelling projectiles with his braided ponytail) and the least likely of homages to John Cage (Pootie recording a smash single composed of pure silence), the movie is deliriously poised “somewhere between blaxploitation spoof and avant-garde freak-out,” as Dennis Lim wrote in his admiring notice for the Village Voice.
If Lim were among the few early champions of Pootie Tang, he wasn’t alone in prophesying its cult destiny. Variety grudgingly acknowledged the potential in a review that derided “one of the most amateurish features ever release by a major studio” for the nonsensical doldrums of its aggressive “non-style.” Pootie Tang is, beyond question, a movie with a flagrant disregard for consistency of any kind, but it’s precisely this dum-dum Dada multiplicity that its devotees embrace.
Where Pootie Tang’s verbal incoherence is the explicit gag of the movie, Pootie Tang’s narrative, visual, and tonal incongruity lends it a totalized feeling of radical absurdity. The general look is slightly aggrandized TV—albeit as shot by Willy Kurant, cinematographer on Godard’s Masculin Féminin—that spontaneously erupts in shitty b-roll montages, ersatz Hype Williams music-video interludes, psychedelic graphic design, and all manner of supremely idiotic non sequiturs.
Pootie Tang works, in part, because it doesn’t. Which is to say the movie’s special success is inextricable from the moments—and there are many—where it blatantly fails. It is one of the most amateurish features ever released by a major studio, full of manic, unfocused energy and shameless, semi-inscrutable silliness, as well as a sweetness and lack of cynicism reflected by its cheerful cult. The movie exerts a beguiling charm that can only be explained as the je ne sais quoi of sa da tay.
92YTribeca will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Pootie Tang with a screening and post-film conversation with star Lance Crouther on November 7.