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Personal Problems

  • Directed by Bill Gunn
  • United States, 1980, 165 mins.

Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess) directed this “experimental soap opera” from a script he co-wrote with his friend and collaborator Ishmael Reed, looking to upend the simplistic television narrative style of the late ’70s and early 80s. Personal Problems follows Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor), a New York City nurse whose husband (Reed) is cheating on her and whose extended family takes her domestic and emotional labor for granted. Johnnie Mae’s personal dramas play out through Gunn’s raw video aesthetics—which often take on a beautiful life of their own—in addition to his and Reed’s thrilling, unpredictable narrative digressions and loops. “Nothing less than an explosion of the television form…Gunn cannily manipulates video’s potential for inherent impressionism. 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.”—Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine.

“Personal Problems” by Ishmael Reed, courtesy of The Metrograph, New York City.

‘Improvisational Jamming’: The Process and Production of Personal Problems by Nicholas Forster, courtesy of The Metrograph, New York City.

Genres: Experimental, Soap Opera

Other Films by Bill Gunn

Ganja & Hess: Director’s Cut

Hired to cash in on the box office success of Blacula, Bill Gunn chose to make a stranger and more personal take on the black vampire narrative that challenged the then-popular blaxploitation subgenre. Shot on 16mm, leaning towards the avant-garde in structure, and piled high with sex and violence, this low-budget film tells the story