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.