Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The cinematic sword of Damocles

Owing to a shortage of time—or more correctly, editorial staff—I find myself having to tone down my usual level of loquacity this week and offer something in the way of the merely anecdotal. (I suspect that this skimpiness of staff has has something to do with Labor Day, which’d be fine except that I never benrfit from holidays personally.) There are doubtless those who will consider my forced brevity a good thing.

Actually, I’d been planning on doing something on this topic for some time—at least as far back as last night when the stars aligned and brought an eventuality into being. In this case, the celestial line-up consisted of Orbit DVD offering a sale, me pointing this fact out to co-critic Justin Souther and Justin attending said sale. Being a dutiful friend, Mr. Souther did not wish to return from his outing empty-handed where I was concerned. Oh, and empty-handed he was not as he waltzed (yes, I think that is the word in this case) into the room clutching his little treasure and presenting it to me. And what was this offering? Why, it was nothing less than a copy of the infamous Pootie Tang.

Not being one to hog the joy, I immediately placed my hand on Justin’s shoulder and assured him that not only would I be happy to share this impending viewing treat with him, but I insisted he join me for all 81 minutes of delight that is—if memory serves—Pootie Tang. And since he is nothing if not a gracious sort, he has agreed to this plan. The idea was that we would watch it next week some time and that I would tell of this heroic deed in this column. At the very least, the viewing will take place—and I will undoubtedly write of the event—but for now, reassessment is not in this week’s offing. In its place, is the vague sense of dread at having Pootie Tang dangling over my head.

I’m sure that at least two or three people out there are asking what the hell Pootie Tang is. What indeed. Pootie Tang is the legendarily awful brainchild of writer-director Louis C.K. and Chris Rock—a spin-off from a skit on Rock’s TV show. It deals with a kind of super hero of the ghetto, Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther, whose first and last starring role this is), who fights injustice with his belt and speaks in a largely incomprehensible language. He says things like, “I’m going to sine your pitty on the runny kine.” The “gag” is that the characters in the movie appear to understand this. The rest of the world is another matter—and the truly difficult thing is understanding how and why the movie ever got made. It is much easier to understand why Mr. C.K. hasn’t had another directorial gig.

When the film first appeared, I opened the review thus—“Sweet Merciful King of Glory! What the hell is this witless mess?” The archived review on the Xpress website—www.mountainx.com/movies/review/pootietang.php—grants the movie a full star, though this is the result of someone other than me translating the old rating system to the star rating system. I would have gone for the half star most likely—albeit a special kind of half star. You see, there’s something weirdly appealing about the sheer dreadfulness of Pootie Tang. It’s the kind of dreadfulness that makes cult movies—and Pootie Tang has certainly moved into that select realm. It’s even a bit of a cult item with people who do not actually revisit the work. I can attest to this, since I’ve given a special “Pootie Tang Award” in subsequent years on Best of/Worst of lists, bestowing the coveted Pootie on comedy films of notable jaw-dropping awfulness.

I first (and at this point, last) encountered Pootie Tang on the evening of June 29, 2001. Paramount had given the movie the bum’s rush in terms of release and foisted it on a single venue locally. (No, this was not an attempt to let the film find its audience and build. This was the release equivalent of dumping a cat in a neighboring county and hoping it wouldn’t its way home.) The hapless theater was the Hollywood 14 where the theater manager didn’t even like to say the title. Who can blame her?

The choice of the Hollywood posed a slight downside for me, since it wasn’t one of my usual haunts. Nothing against the theater, mind you, but it was far less convenient for me than the Carmike and the Beaucatcher, and between those two it was rarely necessary for me to seek out mainstream fare elsewhere. The upshot of this was that I wasn’t immediately known at the theater, which resulted in me having to go to the box office and announce, “I’m Ken Hanke from the Mountain Xpress and I’m here to review Pootie Tang.” As personally embarassing as this statement was on its own, it was a crowded Friday night (no thanks to Pootie) and the person working box office had some difficulty understanding me. Owing to this, I got to triple my embarassment by having to say that three times before making my mission known and securing a pass. There probably was no one in line who hadn’t witnessed my shame by that point.

I had my choice of seats once I made my way to the auditorium. In fact, until just before the film started I was the audience. At the last moment, however, our ranks swelled to maybe six. I honestly do not recall hearing a single laugh during the entire movie, but neither do I remember seeing anyone walk out. My best guess is that they were as mesmerized by the positively surreal level of badness unspooling before them as I was. Whatever else Pootie Tang is—like stupefyingly cheap and funny odd rather than funny ha-ha—it is determinedly peculiar. It is so peculiar in fact that it attains a level of fascination—or so I remember eight-plus years later. That I remember it eight years later attests to that. I’ve had occasion to look up the titles of much better movies—Neal Slavin’s Focus (2001) comes to mind—and been surprised to find that I not only had seen them, but reviewed them. Somehow they didn’t stick with me while Pootie Tang did. Traumatizing the viewer has its rewards, I guess.

Another very strange thing about Pootie Tang is that unlike nearly every other bad comedy I can think of, the damned thing is actually about something. The movie has an agenda! The story is all about the evil head (Robert Vaughn himself) of an evil corporation that wants to either corrupt or do away with Pootie, because his existence as a clean-living role model for children interferes with the corporate desire to sell cigarettes, fast food and malt liquor to the youth of today—and specifically to the youth of the ghetto. That’s a fairly heavy theme for a patently stupid comedy—and it’s not buried in subtext. No, the thematic quality of Pootie Tang is upfront and center. I’ll certainly give the movie kudoes for that, if nothing else.

So here I am all these years later staring down the barrel of revisiting the mighty Pootie Tang. I don’t think the question is whether or not it will hold up, so much as whether or not I will. I’ll have to get back to you on that—assuming I survive the experience.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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26 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The cinematic sword of Damocles

  1. “See, my damie, Pootie Tang don’t wa-da-tah to the shama cow… ’cause thats a cama cama leepa-chaiii, dig?”

    What’s hard to follow about that?

    It’s a really dumb movie, but I think upon re-watching it you’ll be struck by how much less dumb it is than so, so many movies that followed it. “Meet The Spartans,” for instance. And, as you point out, it’s bad in a highly idiosyncratic manner. I can’t think of a single movie that is bad in the exact same way that “Pootie Tang” is.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it even merited that full star it currently has over in the reviews.

  2. Ken Hanke

    It’s a really dumb movie, but I think upon re-watching it you’ll be struck by how much less dumb it is than so, so many movies that followed it.

    And I think that’s true for me on a personal level. Consider that I’d been the head critic on the paper since December. That’s only a few months. Prior to that, I was pretty selective in my viewing. That joke I make about going from being someone who saw four or five new movies a year to being someone who saw four or five new movies a week isn’t really an exaggeration — at least not as far as theatergoing is concerned. I’d never have deliberately gone to a movie like this (not that there really is another movie like this). Only a few months in I wasn’t exactly cinematic atrocity virgin, but I was still inexperienced enough to be easily shocked.

    Of course, that title and the cult following and Chris Rock himself cracking jokes about the movie have helped keep it in the memory.

  3. Piffy!

    Pooty Tang Rules, you over-edumacated spoon twisting Cracker Saltine.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Pooty Tang Rules, you over-edumacated spoon twisting Cracker Saltine.

    Piffy, the problem is that I understood your churlish insult, you churlish insulter.

  5. Tonberry

    Wow, I remember being in Jr. High when ‘Tang’ came out. I remember Chris Rock sitting at a dinner table and hitting his son quickly with a belt, I remember Wanda Sykes talking to the camera how much she loved Pootie, and I remember being very confused through the whole thing.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I remember being very confused through the whole thing.

    Care to join us next week to see if your confusion was justified or merely a folly of youth?

  7. Tonberry

    Care to join us next week to see if your confusion was justified or merely a folly of youth?

    I’m there.

  8. Care to join us next week to see if your confusion was justified or merely a folly of youth?

    There’s a viewing somewhere? When?

  9. Ken Hanke

    There’s a viewing somewhere? When?

    There’s a plan that Justin and I will watch it. I don’t know if that amounts to a viewing. The when is very undecided at this point. Should I call you?

  10. There’s a plan that Justin and I will watch it. I don’t know if that amounts to a viewing. The when is very undecided at this point. Should I call you?

    Absolutely.

  11. Mary

    This column qualifies as the opposite of loquacious, Ken?

    I would NEVER approach a movie like Pootie Tang with even the proverbial ten-foot pole, but I have to admit that there is a sense of glorification in your writing about it that appeals to me. That and the goofiness of the back-and-forth nonsense in these comments may inspire me to search this thing out. Now, that was not your original purpose, was it?

  12. Adam Renkovish

    Mr. Hanke,

    That’s hilarious! I find it fascinating that you are now the proud owner of your very own copy of POOTIE TANG. I know you will treasure it for years to come. I’ve seen it once, and I still haven’t completely recovered from it. All I know is that once it started, I couldn’t cut the darned thing off. It’s so freakin’ bad that you just can’t turn away from it. Well, I do hope that you will survive your next viewing. I’d like to hear about it! LOL.

  13. Ken Hanke

    This column qualifies as the opposite of loquacious, Ken?

    Well, in relative terms it’s pretty short.

    I would NEVER approach a movie like Pootie Tang with even the proverbial ten-foot pole, but I have to admit that there is a sense of glorification in your writing about it that appeals to me. That and the goofiness of the back-and-forth nonsense in these comments may inspire me to search this thing out. Now, that was not your original purpose, was it?

    My original plan, no? However, if it has that result, I cannot deny that it will greatly amuse me.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Well, I do hope that you will survive your next viewing. I’d like to hear about it!

    It may not warrant an entire column, but I will certainly remark about said Pootie Expedition.

  15. Come_on

    Pootie Tang is awful, but it brings the LOLs, which is really the most important thing here. The reveal of Chris Rock as corn cob alone makes the experience worth while. And it’s got a message we can all get behind. Who here hasn’t wished the corporations would stop selling our children malt liquor?

    I may be giving Louis CK (probably the best working stand-up comedian today) too much credit, but after recently viewing other blaxploitation films like Super Fly and Sweet Sweetback…, I wonder how much of the awfulness was intentional.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Well, it was almost a last minute thing and so it turned out to be only Mr. Souther and myself at the screening. I must say that it didn’t exactly “bring the LOLs” (I cannot believe I have typed “LOL”) for either of us.

    Overall, I didn’t exactly mind sitting through it. It’s terrible, but it has a goofy quality that’s kind of likable — and I get the sense that it wasn’t made by morons, just guys who were off on a tangent that amused them personally. That said, I do think that twice in one lifetime is probably sufficient for me.

  17. Come_on

    “LOL” has come full circle and is now cool again. You must not have gotten the memo.

  18. Ken Hanke

    “LOL” has come full circle and is now cool again. You must not have gotten the memo.

    I ignored it. It was written in chat-speak.

  19. Pfffffff

    [b]“LOL” has come full circle and is now cool again. You must not have gotten the memo.[/b]

    It’s only cool in a hipster/ironic faux-populist kind of way.

  20. Ken Hanke

    It’s only cool in a hipster/ironic faux-populist kind of way.

    Richey uses it.

  21. Tonberry

    From Chris Rock’s Ain’t it Cool interview Oct. 5th 2009: “It’s hard to get the band back together, but I would love, love to do another Pootie Tang.”

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