my Movie

Movie Details

Title:   Penitentiary
Director:   Jamaa Fanaka
Year:   1979
Genre:   Prison
Times Seen:   2
Last Seen:   06.06.07

Other Movies Seen By This Director (4)
- Emma Mae
- Penitentiary II
- Penitentiary III
- Welcome Home, Brother Charles

Notes History
Date Viewed Venue Note
06.06.07Alamo Downtown Since we were still running so late, the Q&A was held back until after the second show and everyone shuffled in pretty quickly to get the movie started. Fanaka introduced Penitentiary as being his third film that he made at UCLA that got picked up for distribution (at the time he was the only one to have that happen, maybe he still is). He said Ellie May was his thesis film but after they they wanted him to graduate! He knew he wouldn't get anywhere in the traditional Hollywood structure so he insisted on staying and using their resources, along with a series of educational grants, to make this film. He also said that by the end of shooting he had absolutely no money but all of the cast and crew were so invested with finishing the film that they passed a hat around and actually finished the film on food stamps, that people had given up their subsistence to help him finish the movie. Penitentiary went on to be the most successfull independent film of 1980 and since he raised the money himself he owned the negative so he ended up seeing a great deal of money from it. He said aside from Penitentiary 3, his family owns the negative to all the films (which is great and really rare). More than once he mentioned that Pielberg doesn't own E.T. but he owns his movie, obviously a point of pride for him (as it should be). He also shared an anecdote about shooting and how they didn't have money for trailers or anything so they put up sheets in some of the prison cells to act like dressing rooms and "the smell of sweet pussy was in the air like ambrosia." As it turns out, this was just a taste of what was to come later on during the Q&A, but for now the lights went down and we watched the movie.

I remember seeing this last February as part of the Alamo's black history month programming (along with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Tick...Tick...Tick, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Abby, and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde) and remember thinking it was a pretty solid prison movie with some memorable fights. Watching it again, I liked it a lot more. Afterwards I went out and put down another 20 bucks for Penitentiary 1 and 2 DVDs (and he was kind enough to sign my Mr. Goodbar).

Penitentiary is about Too Sweet, a drifter caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and sent to federal pound-you-in-the-ass prison. Once inside, his roomate, a crazy man missing teeth by the name of Half Dead, tries to bust him out (and by that I don't mean escape). A sweaty oily face-mashing endurance-fest of a fight scene ensues. Having successfully defended his cherry for one night, he doesn't make any new friends when he tells a punk to stand up for himself; that he can make a fist too. The warden, a business-minded fellow with a brother-in-law in the boxing game, all but forced Sweet to participate in the prison tournament and rooms him with elder boxing trainer Seldom Seen. Seldom's an institutionalized old fart filled with useful life lessons and dramatic monologues. After some training, the fighting starts and tensions between Sweet and his enemies grow until the ex-punk with his pees-standing-up newfound manhood steps up and blocks a shiv meant for Sweet. In righteous rage, Sweet beats the holy hell out of his adversary and earns early parole in order to box on the circuit. The movie ends with him drifting off down the road.

Yeah there's colorful characters and great dialogue on display, but what I think I neglected to notice last time around was the abundance of heart and reluctance to drop into any sort of stereotypicality. Sure it's a prison movie and there are guys you root for and guys you root against, but they're all also people. And it's funny. and it's genuinely sad at the end. and although the rapists in the beginning of the film were white devils, the honkey warden who could've easily been a malevolent force in the movie was actually a pretty nice guy. It's not really the people that beat these guys down but the system itself. That this movie has any statement at all is a refreshing surprise, but that it managed to communicate that in the midst of an entertaining story is even better. (although I bet if Too Sweet had Brother Charles for a lawyer, none of this would've happened).

Both of these movies are really excellent and the work of not some hack out to feed his habit or use the casting couch but of a real artist doing what's important to him regardless of money. It's a shame that his work doesn't have the polish to become more of a mainstream subject because I think the quality's there. I'm really excited to watch the two DVDs I haven't seen and track down his two other films I don't own. I'm also incredibly happy and grateful that the Alamo could put something like this together and expose me to this guy's work. I'm not sure how many other theaters would take a chance like this. I'm just glad they do and I'm here to see it.

So the Q&A! It was hilarous. Three people in a row asked questions about the prosthetic dong from Brother Charles, which got Fanaka on a big tangent about the origins of the whole penis size stereotype and the reasonings behind it and the eventual effect and ultimate unimportance of it all. My personal favorite moments were when he mentioned being at a party where two lesbians retired to the bedroom and he heard the sweetest most beautiful sounds in his life and he knew there wasn't one dick in that room so what's the big deal. "Besides," he said, "sometimes you can do a lot more with your tongue than your dick anyway." Here here! This cracked the crowd up. Not that he only talked about sex though. He talked a lot about the school he's trying to start where he lives, giving kids an alternative to gang life by working on movies and making videos like he did. He also talked more about his history and that he's writing Penitentiary 4 right now and thinks that Tarantino, a fan of his, would be great to direct it (if not himself). I think he talked about other stuff too but it was really late by the time it all let out so I'm sure I'm forgetting plenty.

All in all it was a great double feature. Shame about the first movie of the night but oh well. This was an event which clearly did not appeal to everyone (although Weird Wednesday filled up) but I think for those that were there it was pretty special and that's what it's all about. It's like Eddie Muller earlier in the week. For me and a handful of others it made our month. I realize that doesn't make the theater rich, but I also hope they realize how taking a chance sometimes pays off in ways not immediately evident. Great times!
02.20.06Alamo Downtown Black prison movie that turns into a black prison boxing movie. This has some sweaty muscular guys fighting over who's topping who then a subplot where a sissy regains his pride then dies. All in all, it's everything a prison movie should be and, while I wouldn't stack it up with my favorites of the genre, I thought it was worth watching.

Also, Alamo Downtown has a new menu. no more schlitz! different kind of chocolate cake! new quesadillas and pizzas! oh my...
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