Despite my preferences for narrative avant-garde film, Oh Dem Watermelons
is a great flick. Upon my initial viewing almost a year ago, the first thing I noticed was that the music was by Steve Reich. Reich helped to push the minimal composer "group" (along with other heavyweights Philip Glass and Wim Mertens) forward, his phasing becoming an instantly noticeable attribute. However, for the most part, especially with the steps he's been taking towards narrative, operatic music in recent years, Riech's music is always remarkably solemn, serious even. The music in Oh Dem Watermelons
predates his biggest steps toward notoriety, and above all, it's remarkably delirious and fun. The music starts out with a chorus of men singing a minstrel style song, eventually breaking down into what is ostensibly a round with the only lyrics being "watermelon." It loops and loops until finally the utterly ironic chorus from the beginning returns. Of course, music in a film isn't really important (to me at least) unless it's interacting with the images on screen.
The first audible noise after the film's title credits is a remarkably cheerful voice telling the audience to "Follow the watermelon and sing along!"-- an animated watermelon pops up along with the lyrics to the first verse of Reich's round and begins bouncing over the words, taking it's cue from children's cartoon singalongs. As the chorus ends, shortly before breaking into the "drone-ish" movement of Reich's music, a man runs into the frame and kicks a watermelon.
So begins an endless barrage of scenes, quickly cut together, all involving a watermelon. A group of men chase a watermelon down a winding road, watermelons are smashed, batted, and exploded in every way imaginable. Black men and women are shown eating or carrying watermelon in the presence of white people. More watermelons explode.
So, it's fun and dynamic, but does it mean anything? It does- the combination of the lyrics to the tongue-in-cheek song, the images of "the other" juxtaposed with a watermelon, and the violence inflicted upon a watermelon seem to want to combat the idea of the watermelon as a signifier of the racial other; Nelson seems to be pointing out that it's totally arbitrary to connect a watermelon with a black man, and that the stereotype is ridiculous.
So the montage continues at an increasingly frantic rate: more watermelons explode, animated collages reveal watermelons in the most absurd places (space!). But after the arbitrary nature of the signifier is revealed, Nelson reverts to the idea of the watermelon as the Black man. The transition point can be marked as a watermelon is cut open to reveal offal inside-- a remarkably alive, "human" signifier to displace the former assumption. But here at the end of the film, the watermelon has hierarchical prominence-- a nude woman opens a watermelon and smears it all over her naked body, dipping her breasts into the pulp. The white woman has passed over the white man in favor of the watermelon - by this point established as "blackness." And then at the end of the film, the watermelon that a group of white men had been chasing down a winding road stops, turns around, and through delightfully edited montage, chases the men back up the hill. The men scream and run as fast as they can, but the watermelon catches up, tripping some of the men. It's once the watermelon has caught up that the original chorus from the song returns, the racially minoritized is now in charge.
Of course, it's a bit naive and heavy handed at times, but for what is ostensibly a morality tale, it's remarkably fun, and more importantly, funny. And when avant-garde film is primarily characterized for it's serious tone and derth of humor, Nelson's film stands out as remarkable.