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On Charles Burnett’s "Warming By the Devil’s Fire"

 

Charles Burnett’s “Warming By the Devil’s Fire” is one of the three historical episodes in Martin Scorsese’s seven-segment PBS series on the blues.* The other two were Scorsese’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Wim Wenders “Soul of a Man.” Burnett’s is by far the most fully achieved and most interesting of the three.

This is the film’s story: Junior (Nathaniel Lee, Jr.) , an 11-year-old boy living in Los Angeles, is sent home to Mississippi to be baptized. His blues-loving fast-living Uncle Buddy (Tommy Redmond Hicks) picks him up at the New Orleans train station. Buddy introduces Junior to the black South, to the music it produced, to sex, to their shared past and present. Junior does little in the film but look and listen; Buddy does little but give Junior lectures, plop Junior into adult social situations in which he is puzzled or astonished or eroticized, or provide lead-in lines for sequences of archival footage. If it weren’t for the music and the archival footage, Burnett’s film would be unbearably tendentious. But there is the music and archival footage, a great deal of both, and the way Burnett weaves them in and out of that remembered Mississippi boyhood summer of sin make for a film that is surreptitiously wonderful. It is a film that has to be seen a second time.

The structure is bluesy, episodic. There are narrative segments, but except for the beginning (where Uncle Buddy picks up Junior at the train station) and the end (where Uncle Flem the preacher takes Junior away from Buddy at a country jukejoint) there is no necessary order to them. Most of the segments could be rearranged and it wouldn’t make any difference in the narrative structure. But shifting or deleting the segments would make a huge difference in the development of feeling_which is the way blues works. The film has narrative segments, but at heart it is lyrical, as are blues.

Burnett uses a great deal more archival footage than Scorsese or Wenders, and he uses it in a very different way from either. Most of the time he makes little or no attempt to integrate it into the narrative. His archival musical and visual images appear, without introduction before or explanation afterwards. They are in the visual air, like odors in the air of a summer night.

The film is as much about memory as it is about music. Continuity and reflection are provided by the voice of the adult Junior (Carl Lumbly), looking back, trying to make sense of it now. Sights and sounds swirl and blend in his story and in what we see on the screen.

A note on Charles Burnett

Burnett bases the film in part on his own youthful experience. He was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1944, but moved to California at an early age. He has only made a half-dozen feature films, a few shorter pieces, a few films for tv. His work is not widely known in the general public. He is highly-regarded by other filmmakers and critics, especially for To Sleep with Anger (1990) and his first feature, Killer of Sheep, 1977, which was an expansion of his UCLA MFA thesis film, and which was one of the first films chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry when it was created in 1990. Burnett did everything on that film except act in it: he was director, cinematographer, writer, producer, editor. One of his teachers at UCLA was Basil Wright, a member of the BBC documentary group headed by John Grierson. He got a MacArthur in 1988, and he used that to help make To Sleep With Anger.

Martin Scorsese says that Burnett was the first filmmaker he thought of when he got the idea of making the blues series.

The two well-meaning white guys

Scorsese’s film, “Feel Like Going Home,” coagulated around Scorsese’s notion that all black music of whatever sort and from whatever source was equivalent. A huge portion of “Feel Like Going Home” is devoted to a fife and drum band, which Scorsese never connects to the blues, and conversations between a young black American blues revivalist musician and African musicians who have little to say about American music other than platitudes.

Wim Wenders’ “The Soul of a Man” is romantic docudrama married to lumpy Politically Correct White Guy documentary.** He first attempts to recreate the experiences of Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson in the early 1930s and then offers long takes of deadly talking heads_a Swedish couple who seem straight out of a Monty Python parody about humorless BBC ethnographic documenarians. The couple talk interminably and show some of their depressingly wooden old footage of the excellent blues musician J.B. Lenoir, who surely deserved better. Along the way, Wenders cuts to performers like Bonnie Raitt and Lou Reed, all filmed in approximately the same light and perhaps in the same studio, performing blues songs. There is no comment, no connection to anything. I assume that we’re supposed to know that these shots of white musicians playing the blues have some kind of Meaning. What Meaning? I dunno. Maybe it’s this: ‘If these well-known modern musicians are playing the blues then the blues must be good.’ Perhaps there is some deeper meaning known only to Wim Wenders. But he never tells or shows us what it is, other than that these white musicians cover those older songs. The whole film is bracketed by a visual riff on the blues and galactic travel. Barf.

Both Scorsese and Wenders have made important and successful documentaries about performing musicians. Scorsese, in The Last Waltz (1978), had The Band at his disposal to perform and interview as he wished and Robbie Robertson as his producer. It was a terrific film about The Band. Wenders, in The Buena Vista Social Club (1999) had Ry Cooder ramrodding the whole thing, and a bunch of spectacular Cuban musicians performing and talking in gorgeous filmic situations. That was also a terrific film.

But in the blues series, it was Scorsese and Wenders on their own, trying to reconstruct a past with which neither of them had any real links at all. They had good feelings about the music, they had contrived asides, but it takes more than good feelings about music and contrived asides to make a film that works. Some of the nonhistorical films in the series did that, and so did the film by Charles Burnett.

Convicts in stripes

The moment that for me best illustrates the difference in Burnett’s “Warming by the Devil’s Fire” and the films by Scorsese and Wenders comes early in Scorsese’s “Feel Like Going Home.” Scorsese shows archival footage of a performance by Leadbelly, who wears convict stripes and stands and sings “Goodnight, Irene, ” while four other convicts in stripes sit on the floor around him and a white man at screen right putters with something we can’t see. One of the four attentive convicts rocks in rhythm to Leadbelly’s song. There is a cut to one of them, looking soulfully toward where Leadbelly must be in the reverse shot. Then it cuts back to Leadbelly singing and playing his 12-string guitar.

It’s all bullshit. That footage wasn’t shot in a prison; it was a Hollywood screen test. Everything in it was staged. Everybody was acting, including Leadbelly, who was acting in his own sad exploitative docudrama, hoping something good would come out of it. Nothing ever did. It was an experience that went nowhere for him; it was an experience he hated.

Scorsese doesn’t tell the viewer any of that. If he knows it, he should have; if he doesn’t know it, then that tells you about the kind of technical counsel he sought and found in the making of his film. So far as I can tell, both he and Wenders thought their warm fuzzy feelings for the blues was all the solid information or counsel they needed. They were wrong.

Burnett also has a long convicts-in-stripes sequence in “Warming by the Devil’s Fire.” The setup is Uncle Buddy telling Junior that there was a flood where they now stand and that black folk were forced to work at hard labor because of it. The sequence opens with convicts in stripes getting out of a barred wagon and ends with them getting back into it. Between those two archival shots are scenes of black laborers doing a wide range of brutal work. The music in the sequence varies, though much of the time it is Texas convicts singing “Lost John,” an axe-weilding tree-cutting song, which is perhaps the only kind of gang labor we don’t see them doing in the sequence.

The difference between what Scorsese and Wenders did and what Burnett did is this: their images are either staged misplaced, while the images and sounds in Burnett’s film are all real. His musical and visual pastiche is grounded in authentic performance. He lays a variety of musical utterances over a variety of visual images and knows perfectly well what he is doing. Burnett understands the difference as Scorsese and Wenders did not. His visual and aural images are based on his sense of the music; theirs is based on their sense of themselves.

Memory

In one segment of “Warmed by the Devil’s Fire,” Junior wanders into a country church and hears sounds of voices talking and singing. Burnett cuts back and forth from him alone in the church to archival footage of activity in similar churches. When I first saw that scene I thought it passive and contrived, a way to work black church music into the movie without actually filming a black church service. Then, the night after “Warming By the Devil’s Fire” aired, a good friend of mine who had been watching the series every night, told me he hadn’t much liked Scorsese’s or Wenders’s films, he had liked Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis” (which was the third film in the series aired), and he had really liked “Warming by the Devil’s Fire.” He talked specifically about the scene in the church: “I been there, Bruce,” he said, “I been right there. That brought it all back to me. He really got it.”

And that was when I realized that Burnett’s film wasn’t about the blues or the fictional Junior’s experience of Mississippi in the 1950s, but rather about the memory of the blues and the memory of having experienced that music. Instead of trying to document something that can’t be documented_the experience of blues musicians in the 1930s and 1940s or the experience of his own youth_Burnett chose to compose instead a rhapsody to the memory of music, to a place where everything has equal legitimacy, where every remembered tune and image can interweave and be omnipresent.

I thought of Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, the book in which Momaday shows how Kiowa myth means. Instead of explaining each narrative, Momaday recounts a myth, then tells something historical that relates to it, and then he tells something out of his own life as a child with his Kiowa family. He doesn’t equate the three parts; what he does is put the three parts side by side, each informing the other.

I also thought of William Faulkner’s last novel, The Reivers, which he labeled on the title page, “A Reminiscence.” The first two words of The Reivers are in small caps. They are, “Grandfather said.” The rest of the novel is the story that grandfather told. The voice of whoever said, “Grandfather said” surfaces only a few times in what follows. But those few times are enough to remind the careful reader that this is not simply a story, but the memory of a story.

Likewise Charles Burnett’s “Warmed by the Devil’s Fire.” It is not just a film about a child’s trip to the family home or a film documenting blues. It is a film about the memory of both. That trip and those old blues moments are in the past; the memory of both is very much in the present. Burnett’s film is about something alive, not about something frozen in amber.

The crossroads

Let me tell you about the film’s final three sequences.

A shot of Buddy’s car coming up to and stopping at the intersection of two dirt roads. The sun is bright. The next shot is nighttime. The camera comes up from the front of the car and looks into the windshield.

Buddy: We goin’ to wait to see if the devil comes. This is the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil,***

Junior: What devil?

Buddy: The real devil.

Cut to a shot of a full moon in the trees over the crossroads. Then back to the car where Uncle Buddy is conveniently asleep and snoring and Junior is wide-eyed awake.

Cut to a shot through the windshield from Junior’s point of view. A ghostly figure we realize is W.C. Handy talks. Then a sequence of archival shots of W.C. Handy talking, Handy singing “St Louis Blues,” which segues into “St. Louis Woman” with shots of women singers and women’s voices, and finally that segues into a long segment of Bessie Smith sitting at a bar singing it and being maltreated by a man. It is from the only film Smith ever made, the 16 minute short, St. Louis Blues, made in 1929.

Junior wakes Buddy up.

Buddy: You saw anything?

Junior: A ghost.

Buddy (laughing): I was only jokin’ when I say that stuff about the devil. Can’t nobody sell his soul to the devil.

Junior: I did see a ghost.

Buddy: Okay, okay, okay. You saw a ghost. Yeah.”

Cut to Junior walking alone with the adult Junior’s voiceover saying, “That couldn’t have been the ghost of W.C. Handy then because he was still alive. It could have been the devil playing tricks again.”

And then_70 minutes and 45 seconds into the 84 minute and 45 second film and without any transition_Burnett goes to a musical sequence that is 9 minutes and 25 seconds long. It is, I think, the longest sequence in the film. Not only is it not specifically connected to what came before, but the individual pieces are not, or are only marginally, connected to one another: Elizabeth Cotten plays “Freight Train” and talks talking about working as a child and getting paid 75 cents a month and after a while getting a raise to $1 a month; Willie Dixon sings “Nervous” after which Dixon sits with some other musicians and talks about blues, with a brief dropped in cut of Big Bill Broonzy from someplace else; Son House talks about the blues; back to Willie Dixon singing “Nervous” at his bass; then to Victoria Spivey singing “T.B. Blues”; then Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry doing “Key to the Highway” for a white audience at a folk festival; then John Lee Hooker alone on a stage singing “Boom Boom,” with a great shot showing what his hands are doing on the guitar for more than a minute, the kind of shot you never see in the fast-cut-post-MTV world; then a slow archival shot of a moving female ass and people dancing.

Then Burnett moves back into the fictional film for the final four minutes and twenty-two seconds.

That consists of Buddy’s car pulling up outside a jukejoint at night. Buddy and Junior go inside, with John Lee Hooker’s music continuing from the previous pastiche but now providing the rhythm for the jukejoint’s dancers. That musical overlap moves the archival construct into the filmic present.

Someone comes over and tells Buddy he’s crazy to bring a kid into a place like that. Archival shot of people dancing. Back to Hooker. Back to Buddy at the bar. A fight in which someone is knocked out after which Buddy says to Junior, “Havin’ fun? Now you got a good reason to get saved.” Cuts back and forth from B&W shots in his Burnett’s jukejoint scene to archival footage of people doing the same dancing, while the adult voiceover of grownup Junior says, “As Buddy would say, the people who played the blues are my kind of people.” Hooker’s singing and guitar continue.

Then the man who chastised Buddy comes in with Uncle Flem to rescue Junior. The adult voiceover says, “I learned so much on that trip back home. I never forgot a second of it. I draw a lot from that time I spent with Buddy. For years Buddy was Buddy. The years went by and Buddy left the book for me to finish. [In the course of the film, Buddy several times refers to a book he’s writing about the blues and how the blues played out in the lives of the people he knew.] I did, in my own way. [By making this film.] Buddy ended up becoming a preacher, like so many of the blues players.”

The final shot is Buddy and another man, both in suits, both holding bibles.

The two keys to it all

One of them is outside the film, the other inside, and it comes at the very end, after the PBS promos and the film’s own credits.

The outside key is in Burnett’s interview on the PBS “The Blues” web site, in which he says:

I really admire a work by James Agee called Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. He and Walker Evans went across the South and documented workers–black and white–during the Depression. What made that book remarkable was that it provided this sense of history told from a certain perspective. Yet Agee was also concerned about exploiting the subject; he wanted to be as objective as possible. The result was a document that gives a feeling of the period that would have been lost otherwise. That’s one of the things I was trying to achieve–to go beyond information and convey a feeling for how these people lived and how they felt.

Which is to say, I’ll describe things to you, as Agee did, but what matters is helping you feel what the life those descriptions are about felt like. Agee used his own and quoted words and Walker Evans’s photographs, and Burnett used his enacted scenes and the archival footage, but the heart of the matter in both works was in the emotional meaning undergirding all of it. It’s those emotional resonances you have to learn to read in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and to experience in “Warming by the Devil’s Fire.”

The inside key to “Warming by the Devil’s Fire,” comes at the very end of the film, after all the final credits have rolled save the dedication. It is almost a throwaway. It consists of a slow motion shot of Mississippi John Hurt on a stage, with a voice-over of Hurt saying, “I’ve liked music ever since I was a little boy. I just liked music.”

NOTES

*In April 2001, Belinda Clasen, associate producer for the series (her title then was series researcher), told me that they planned six one-hour films:

Show One (Spike Lee) The origins of the Blues Show
Two (Charles Burnett) “City” versus “country” blues, and the advent of the race record
Show Three (to be decided) Americas Post War blues boom
Show Four (Wim Wenders) The birth of the blues capitol on the south side of Chicago
Show Five (Marc Levin) The color of the blues becomes increasingly black and white
Show Six (Mike Figgis) The influence of the blues on world music

The group of films aired by PBS in October 2003 was:

Feel Like Going Home by Martin Scorsese
The Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders
The Road to Memphis by Richard Pearce
Warming by the Devil’s Fire by Charles Burnett
Godfathers and Sons by Marc Levin
Red, White & Blues by Mike Figgis
Piano Blues by Clint Eastwood

**Full disclosure note: I provided the producers of the Wenders episode transcripts of some of my conversations with Skip James and some unreleased recordings of Skip and John Hurt.

***Crossroads as metaphor turns up a lot in blues, and the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for musical ability turns up a lot in folklore about the blues. Those stories and how they move through culture are examined in at least three recent and forthcoming books: Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch’s Robert Johnson Lost and Found, Patricia Schroeder’s Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture, and Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. There’s a good bit of information on Johnson on Wald’s website, http://www.elijahwald.com/rjohnson.html

BRUCE JACKSON is editor of the Buffalo Report and author of Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu

 

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Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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