Personal Problems

Personal Problems
Bill Gunn, 1980, 165’

“Gunn's story – that of a visionary filmmaker left on the sidelines of the most ostensibly liberated period of American filmmaking – is, unfortunately, not unique. It’s the story of William Greaves, Barbara Loden, Claudia Weill, and even Elaine May – of black filmmakers and women filmmakers (and, when Kathleen Collins made Losing Ground, in 1982, co-starring Gunn, the story of black women filmmakers, too). So-called New Hollywood was more Hollywood than it was new.”

Richard Brody1


“If Oprah Winfrey now says that she wants to do a television series depicting blacks as ordinary people, and not as popular mass-media stereotypes of the kind that she presented in last year's pilot for The Women of Brewster Place, then Personal Problems beat Ms. Winfrey and the millions of dollars behind her by a decade.

Personal Problems was before its time. There was no commercial backing for this eccentric version of the soap opera which permitted black producers, a black director, black actors, and black writers and actresses to have control over their work. A black composer, Carman Moore, had the freedom to write whatever music he desired without fear of censorship.”

Ishmael Reed2


“For the twenty-nine year old Robert Polidori, Personal Problems offered a space to experiment with form. Using two Sony cameras, he shot Personal Problems on 3/4” U-Matic tape, taking advantage of the capacity to record up to sixty minutes of footage. Working with Gunn and Cotton, he often kept the camera running even after a scene seemed to be completed. The set was driven by a number of political and aesthetic commitments and the young cinematographer followed Gunn’s lead as the director created an atmosphere of what Polidori called ‘improvisational jamming.’ Energized by Gunn’s direction and inspired by the D.A. Pennebaker’s work with Jean-Luc Godard on One A.M. (1972) and Norman Mailer on Maidstone (1970), Polidori joined in on the jamming, as he explained, to ‘set up the dramatic tensions’ where ‘the outcomes’ were not ‘predetermined.’

While the shooting schedule was limited, Gunn allowed actors to build their own backstories and develop dialogue on the set. Following a number of planning meetings and a few days of rehearsals, the cast established a strong sense of mutual trust. There were rarely more than a couple of takes for any one scene and while improvisation reigned, that improvisation rested on a foundation of collaborative practice and calm, if intense, focus. [...] This generosity and back-and-forth between actors and directors further distinguished Personal Problems from similar soap operas of the era. The crew worked in conjunction with one another, sharing ideas and moving as a singular unit.

While Gunn had some misgivings about shooting on tape, the technology foregrounded the project’s already experimental form. Apparent in the scan lines, shot composition and muffled sound, Personal Problems confounded the lines distinguishing documentary and fiction, and in doing so it undercut the widely-held misapprenhension that Black art was sociological first and aesthetic second. Echoing Bill Stephens’ earlier comments, Carman Moore, who composed the score for the radio show and video project, explained that Personal Problems was ‘nominally a fiction [movie] but it behaves like a documentary.’ For Black artists, video offered a tool to sidestep Hollywood’s protocols and create new worlds. Reed was clear about this, telling one audience that video will help Black artists ‘go out and create their own [image]... video cameras are cheaper than cinema technology. There is a possibility now of converting video into cinema.’

Seen now, it is apparent that Personal Problems is less a product than a process where an idea went through numerous translations and transformations. From idea to radio show to video, Personal Problems has never been a stable entity. For years, the project has required qualifications, amendments and annotations as it has moved across media and been shown under different viewing conditions. Typical categories fail to describe it: when the pilot was shot, the team envisioned something serialized and longer than a movie. Although later episodes aired on television, the project was more commonly screened in museums and theaters and art institutions. And yet the project’s narrative emphasis and production process seem to push it outside of the bounds of what, in the 1980s, was considered ‘video art.’ These thorny, not-quite-right, descriptions only further highlight the unique intervention Personal Problems was and remains.”

Nicholas Forster3

UPDATED ON 24.03.2019