It's difficult to get at what Pootie Tang in "Sine Yo Pitty On The Runny Kine" really is. Screening midnight Friday and Saturday at The Belcourt, it's widely acknowledged as a spin-off from HBO's The Chris Rock Show, it's the directorial debut of comedian/raconteur/stylist/genius Louis C.K., and it's a most distinctive anomaly on the resume of cinematographer Willy Kurant (whom you might remember from his time working with another language-annihilating absurdist, Uncle Jean-Luc Godard). An odd character study, this film. One that springs from its sketch comedy origins and never hesitates to go somewhere far weirder at any given moment.
But it's also an extract of itself (if you accept it on its own narrative terms) and a quilt of a film, assembled by multiple hands and creative forces following a contentious post-production process that found the director and his editor locked out of the edit bay and unable even to see the film until after its release. “Inept” is the word I used when initially reviewing the film in the summer of 2001, disparaging its cobbled-together madness even while praising its grocery store seduction and family tragedy/industrial accident sequences.
Thankfully, with DVD, one can remedy such grievous mistakes. A second viewing allowed for a much different experience, and in the intervening decade, I'd safely say I've watched Sine Yo Pitty... at least 50 times, and it just keeps getting funnier with each successive viewing. Wanda Sykes' Biggie Shorty, what with her Peter Greenaway wigs and absolute willingness to become the physical incarnation of scene transitions, is the pragmatic heart of the piece, capable of dispensing wisdom and filling in plotholes with grace and brightly colored verve.
At this point, it would be a tragic mistake not to address the magic that star Lance Crouther evinces in the title role, that of a combination social activist, rock star, superhero, belt-fu master, nightclub impresario and, not least of all, cobbler. He makes the battle for the integrity of a man who sonically is speaking madness into a moral imperative. The stakes in this film are simply unique — Pootie Tang's reputation is built on helping children, respect for women, and promoting awareness of healthy eating and living habits for everyone.
The main conflict of the film is whether or not Pootie will sell out for a monstrous paycheck. His value as a person is defined not by the bodycount he racks up, or the records he sells, but rather by remaining true to the people who trust him. It's a strange film, one coming from a very weird moral place. And yes, the film is a moral one, though one with a fairly schizophrenic approach to sex workers.
As proof, there is Ireenie — perhaps the most complex corporate ’ho we have yet cinematically encountered. If you like movies, you know that Jennifer Coolidge is a treasure. Here, in one of her five films from 2001, Coolidge creates a character who uses allure and erotic power as a weapon, but who noticeably is the only character in the film who wields actual transitive power of any sort. Ireenie's power lies not in a belt, or minions, or holdings — her power is visceral, and it turns the major wheel of the story.Once she has uncovered the secret of Pootie's weakness, she aims to take him out in the grocery store, in a Bell Biv DeVoe-scored scene of violent consumerist eroticism. It takes the yuppie commodification of 9½ Weeks' food-based tableaux and lays them bare in front of the generic potato-chips aisle. Also, notice that Pootie is a superhero/community figure/international superstar who shops for his own groceries. He doesn't pass the buck in any context.
Now most of the time, whenever somebody from The Wire shows up anywhere, they're always '_____ from The Wire.' So, imagine then, if you will, sitting down to watch 2003's Colin Farrell vehicle S.W.A.T. and nearly dropping my drink when who shows up but the tough Sergeant, Reg E. Cathey (or, as I called him in a review and subsequently to anyone who will listen, Sergeant Dirty Dee). Dirty Dee is the most interesting of the film's villains because he's got the most personality, but it's also a delight to see a veteran character actor like Cathey tear the screen up. When he rhapsodizes over "that good country dirt," I defy anyone not to be swept away by the utter joy he's radiating. Dirty Dee may be the character who can best project relatable human emotion, but he is still most certainly a baddy-daddy lamatai tebby-chai.
Ah, the Pootiespeak. In its portrayal of language, this film is fairly singular. You have fantasy epics (like the Star Wars films and the RZA's The Man With The Iron Fists) where some characters speak English, some speak subtitled foreign or alien languages, and some speak unsubtitled foreign or alien languages but everyone seems to understand one another. But Pootie Tang is something wholeheartedly different. His speech, musical and expressive, will often use the same word in completely different contexts, and as such it becomes impossible to literally translate almost anything he says.
Yet everyone around him seems to understand him — barring some sort of malapropism that always surfaces toward the very end of the discussion, which is then rectified through the simple addition of a syllable. Because he is unbound by language, he achieves a very weird and palpable universality. In this same way, we see Pootie as an avant-garde stylist (as onlookers attest, the most profound artist since Al B. Sure!) who is capable of having a hit record (“Macarena” big! “Electric Slide” big!) despite not using any lyrics, music, or sound. He simply is not subject to the social expectations of sound.
You have to look back to an unheralded classic like William Witney's 1975 messterpiece Darktown Strutters to find a film this adept at playing with the conceptions of blaxploitation and serving up something so gleefully goofy and righteously concerned. It's unfortunate that we've never been able to see Louis C.K.'s full vision for the film that became Pootie Tang in “Sine Yo Pitty On the Runny Kine,” but perhaps this weird amalgram of competing visions was simply meant to be, so the other involved parties could continue on, finding their own path.
For the time being, this film is an absurdist treasure. If cults can spring up for something truly atrocious like Birdemic, or something as sincere but inept as The Room, might there be space in the cinematic heart of today's cinephiles for this odd duck? Wa-da-tah there is... Wa-da-tah there is.
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