235: Larry Clark’s Passing Through

Archival Spaces 235

Larry Clark’s masterpiece Passing Through

Uploaded 15 February 2020

Larry Clark, Bridges Theatre, 13 February 2020

On February 13, UCLA’s Melnitz movies screened Larry Clark’s thesis film Passing Through (1977) with Larry Clark in attendance,. It was the first time I had seen Larry since we restored the film for our L.A. Rebellion film program back in 2011 and the first time I’d seen the film again since that time. Like the first time I saw it, I was bowled over by the opening precredits and credits sequences, a free jazz symphony and red and blue that can hold its own with any avant-garde film, and not just because Pat O’Neill handled the continuous multiple exposures of musicians jamming. Wall-to-wall jazz music led one French critic to call Passing Through “the only jazz film in the history of cinema.”

The film’s reception in the mainstream press was mixed, because no one quite knew what to make of its use of Hollywood blaxploitation tropes in a film that clearly spoke the language of black power and Third World liberation aesthetics. Larry Clark theorizes in Passing Through that jazz is one of the purest expressions of African American culture, embodying the struggles of generations of Black people going back to slavery times but now co-opted by corporate interests that brutally exploit jazz musicians for profit. The opening seven-minute credit sequence is accordingly an homage to jazz and jazz musicians, beginning with a list of names and then featuring carefully orchestrated layers of images of musicians performing. Indeed, the notion that the jazz tradition has been disrupted is underscored by Womack’s first attempt to improvise with his band, when the spiritual aftereffects of prison keep him from connecting. The film repeatedly returns to scenes of various musicians improvising jazz, as well as flashback scenes (in black and white) in which Poppa Harris (the great Clarence Muse) teaches Womack to play saxophone. Jazz is seen as part and parcel of the cultural heritage of African Americans, yet as one musician states, “Niggers haven’t controlled the music scene since the drum.”

Returning from prison, Womack learns that the mobsters still control the business by paying some musicians with heroin. Like in numerous Blaxploitation films in which white mobsters run the drug or pimp/prostitution trade, Clark constructs a narrative in which white mobsters ruthlessly exploit musicians. When Womack suggests that his band free themselves from their music industry contracts and form their own recording and distribution company, the other musicians sympathize but back out, because they fear retaliation through blacklisting.

Unable to effect any change, Womack’s anger at white corporate powers only increases after he learns that his friend and fellow musician has been murdered by the mob. When Poppa Harris, seemingly from beyond the grave, tells Womack “to slay the dragon,” he springs into action. In a scene most heavily criticized by Clyde Taylor as unnecessary “Blaxploitation,” a female accomplice feigns a broken-down van to get the attention of the mobsters, who leer at her body. When they step out of their vehicle, they are gunned down by Womack and two colleagues who have been hiding in the van. The scene ends with a self-conscious freeze-frame of the fleeing gangster boss in the moment he is hit by bullets, thus implying that this scene may be a Hollywood fantasy, an expression of desire rather than an actual killing.  

Clark’s construction of the gangster’s demise can potentially serve as a cathartic release for African American audiences, happy to see the white mobsters get their due at the hands of black justice. As in other Black themed films of the time, the vigilantism of the African American hero or heroine is legitimized through claims to higher moral values than the corrupt system around them, as if fulfilling the false promise of American justice in the Constitution. The moral righteousness of Womack’s actions is legitimated through association with various African and African American liberation movements. The film’s apotheosis is a montage of photographs beginning with Malcolm X and continuing with Nkrumah and numerous other African independence leaders, captured in an iris, itself an archaic and self-conscious device. Clark also inserts a filmic montage of the rise of the Black Panthers out of the ashes of the 1960s urban uprisings, using various newsreel and audio documents. Finally, the struggle against the white mobsters in the music industry is connected to Third World liberation movements through the character of Poppa.

Nathaniel Taylor, Clarence Muse

It is the Africanism of Poppa Harris, as the spiritual center of Passing Through, that ties together black American jazz and the liberation movements of Africa and North America. In the early flashback sequences in sepia, Poppa Harris appears in African dress and teaches saxophone under the sky. Poppa’s funeral ceremony includes many individuals in African dress, while after his death he sends Oshun Bey (named after an African deity) as his medium, a Jamaican woman, who tells his fortune through cards. During this encounter, Womack tells Oshun that Poppa, who is perceived as a legendary jazz performer, taught him that the music comes from the soil, from the earth, leading him to bury his saxophone to improve his playing. The film’s final montage incorporates shots of African revolutionary leaders with a close-up of Poppa’s eye and close-ups of a Black hands holding the soil. Thus, through visual symbolism, the film connects jazz, Africa, and the earth in one mystical union and arguably, by extension, justifies the liberation of oppressed lands through popular struggle, whether in Africa or Los Angeles.

Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Barbara McCullough, November 2020

It has been Larry’s choice that only live audiences can see his film, since it is not and will not be available on video. Given the film’s breathtaking colors, I understand that choice, yet at the same time, I’m sorry it remains inaccessible to younger audiences of color.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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