Billed as a “meta-soap opera,” Personal Problems is nothing less than an explosion of the television form. Directed by Bill Gunn, the two-part, nearly three-hour miniseries was shot on video for a low budget and played on a few stations in 1980. At this time in American culture, it was believed that video might democratize film and TV production in a fashion that was partially realized 40 years later by the invention of smartphones and other portable cameras that could fit in one’s hand. It’s initially jarring to behold the blurry, grainy, proudly imperfect images of Personal Problems from the vantage point of 2018. We’re accustomed to “perfection”—in Blu-ray releases of classic films, and particularly in prestige television shows, which are, with few exceptions, all rendered in images of an impersonally pristine gorgeousness that we interpret as representing “reality.” The gritty materiality of Personal Problems is initially a shock but soon proves to be a font of exaltation.
Gunn cannily manipulates video’s potential for inherent impressionism. The buildings of late 1970s-era Harlem sometimes blend into diaphanous blasts of color, with figures passing by in rushes of movement. In close-ups, we’re reminded of the pitilessness of video, as actors are viscerally observed in all their warts and beauty. We can’t always hear what characters are saying, usually for one of two reasons: Gunn artfully obscures sound, emphasizing the evocative cacophony of groups a la the films of Robert Altman, or sometimes he simply doesn’t have the means to capture everything characters say. Who’s to say that we need to hear, or to know, everything? Our contemporary grasp of films and TV is so drearily literal-minded, rooted in “spoiler” warnings and explanatory think pieces that collectively serve to compromise the chaos of art and life. Personal Problems puts us back in touch with this chaos.
Embracing the roughness of their technology, Gunn and co-writer Ishmael Reed (who conceived the project) weave their run-and-gun production methods into the fabric of the narrative itself. Their improvisational means of filmmaking implicitly mirror the struggles of the characters at the center of the narrative: a working-class African-American couple, Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor) and her husband, Charles (Walter Cotton), who’re tormented by their extended family of eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells. The tightness or seeming stolen-ness of compositions comes to reflect a fragility of privacy and sanctity that’s particularly felt by Johnnie Mae and Charles. When Johnnie Mae rushes to the small kitchen to let someone else use the bathroom, her face dappled with beauty cream, one can feel the efforts of the filmmaking team to fit into that kitchen along with Grosvenor and Cotton.
The narrative of Personal Problems is a lively tangle of dead ends, tangents, and scenes that circle back on themselves in surprising fashions. Structurally, the miniseries is all over the place, suggesting what might happen if a hand grenade had been tossed onto a traditional television script, and the surviving pages were free-associatively reassembled to emphasize emotion rather than plot. Personal Problems is a family melodrama, yet over an hour of running time elapses before viewers meet anyone in the central family apart from Johnnie Mae, an emergency-room nurse at a Harlem hospital who’s having an affair. We’re initially led to believe that the production will be filtered entirely through Johnnie Mae’s point of view, but her story splinters off in different directions, to reflect the many disparate elements that compose a single, even ordinary life. Gunn and Reed don’t parcel out story in digestible yards, but offer shards that are self-contained, cumulative, and overwhelming.
Gunn and Reed offer riffs on seemingly every texture of African-American life, forging a political vision that derives its politics less from platitude than from an uncompromising sense of emotional irony. In one of the production’s most startling and original scenes, a black Republican (played by Reed) gets into an argument with a smug white liberal. The filmmakers aren’t blind to a familiar hypocrisy: that the liberal wants the black man to seek liberation on his terms. Yet the white man isn’t demonized as he would almost certainly be in a fashionably modern liberal film or TV series. The white man’s despair—and white shame over his race’s legacy of atrocity and privilege—are acutely felt, as is the black man’s understandable urge to transcend his inherited identity as a victim who must be saved. These emotions—thorny, irresolvable, dangerous—bubble underneath the surface of a misleadingly casual comic scene, in which the black man says he’s voting for Ronald Reagan for president because Reagan was once a movie star who had a monkey.
Throughout Personal Problems, Gunn and Reed let such scenes hang—refusing to give the audience a tidy “out” with pat resolution. Sometimes, punchlines arise to sequences hours after the fact, reflecting the random closure that can unexpectedly come about in actual life. The political debate is eventually revisited, fleetingly, in the context of another character’s crisis. Johnnie Mae embarrasses herself at a party, and Reed’s character can be heard revising his political rhetoric in the background—in a brief interlude that’s easy to overlook. Such subtle and intricately structured moments underscore the challenge of extending empathy to others while wrestling daily with the bullshit of living. Johnnie Mae, so momentarily blinded by hurt and embarrassment, misses the procession of the miniseries of her life.
Personal Problems is composed of a handful of very long scenes, which are punctuated with bursts of montage that undermine the chronological reality of the narrative. Certain lively, extraordinarily intimate images recur, bracketing themselves, suggesting that long portions of the production are memories running through a character’s head over the course of a few minutes. When Charles walks to work thinking of his own infidelity, or sits by a window reflecting on his father’s recent death, he might be conjuring vast stretches of the narrative that follows. Gunn and Reed collapse conventional notions of reality, providing simultaneous glimpses into the minds of dozens of characters, lingering on scenes and informing them with confessional intensity. Most modern TV looks hopelessly prim and ritualistic when compared with Personal Problems, which bears a greater resemblance to novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Finnegans Wake, and to the modern, woefully underseen independent cinema of filmmakers such as Joe Swanberg, Robert Greene, Nathan Silver, and Josephine Decker. Gunn and Reed used video experimentally, laying a foundation for expressionism that awaits rediscovery for the sake of aesthetic reeducation.