' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Aaron Loves Angela (1975)

Friday, April 09, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Aaron Loves Angela (1975)

“Here’s a movie,” Wesley Morris wrote of Adam’s Leon impeccable “Gimme the Loot” (2012), “that looks like it hails from a real place.” Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Aaron Loves Angela” feels like it hails from a real place too, even if that place no longer exists, not really, being 1970s New York, specifically Harlem and Spanish Harlem. The camera is at frequently at street level, like it’s catching events on the fly, or at a distance, the actors conspicuously talking in looped dialogue, allowing them to be right in the middle of some cityscape. The basketball game that opens the movie is seen from high atop in one of those bandbox gymnasiums with seats straight to the top, the camera hovering over them and swinging this way and that way, just like a spectator. Key events turn on an abandoned tenement building, which doesn’t feel like a set but a place where the film crew just went and set up shop. It also innately epitomizes the neighborhood. Teenage Aaron (Kevin Hooks) wants to turn a floor of this building into a clubhouse, and sort of does, though that clubhouse is compromised by the drugs a local dealer has stashed on another floor, putting into perspective the harsh realities of this world, one Aaron seeks to escape. Initially it seems like basketball is the way out, his father Ike (Moses Gunn) literally equating buckets with bucks, though in that opening game, when Aaron catches a glimpse of Angela (Irene Cara) in the stands and suddenly finds himself in love, everything changes.

“Aaron Loves Angela” sort of suggests a Romeo & Juliet-styled romance, epitomized in the names of the basketball teams, the Harlem Saints versus the Puerto Rican Devils. And that is there, a little bit, with the characters sneaking around behind their parents’ backs and a scene where Aaron is chased out of Spanish Harlem. But the movie is not titled Aaron & Angela but “Aaron Loves Angela” for a reason, revealing that it sees this story strictly through his eyes rather than hers, as much Aaron’s life and his neighborhood as it is about their romance. That’s not to suggest Parks Jr. shortchanges Angela. She is worldly, having traveled with her mother, in a way Aaron is not, and refreshingly she refuses to be at Aaron’s beck and call, urging more from him, not simply waiting around for him to change, calling him when he won’t. When we briefly see her on something approximating a date with another guy, it sets Aaron off, as such things will do to impetuous teen boys, though Parks Jr. is not callowly portraying her as a shrew. Rather, she is figuring out her own life on her own time. Cara embodies such poise, even if she convincingly lets in cracks of hurt when Aaron messes up, and boy does he. Aaron is as endearing as he is frustrating, the latter of which I mean in a good way, Hooks’s performance alternating between completely cocky and totally clueless, sometimes both at once, as true a teenager as you will see.

Angela is the way out, Aaron gradually begins to see, not basketball, though this subplot could have been sharpened. The game just sort of falls away after the opening scenes and when Aaron explains to his father he is not good enough to earn a scholarship playing hoops, Parks Jr. has submitted next to no evidence as to why this would be the case. On the other hand, while a father living out his failed dreams through his son is nothing new, “Aaron Loves Angela” nevertheless brings it to life with considerable terror and melancholy. In a scene where Ike drunkenly berates his son, the slide projector on which dad had been watching his glory days playing football still whirs in the background, each slide like a flash of memory as a shiv into the defeated man’s side. Ike owns a joint, a kind of bar slash ribs joint, though Parks Jr. juxtaposes this kind of practical entrepreneurship against the unscrupulous Beau (Robert Hooks), a drug dealer and a pimp. In one scene he sits at the counter of Ike’s place, chowing down on ribs with a cocky air, contemptuously asking about his playing days, forcing Ike to just stand there and take it, and then asking for more sauce as a means to reinforce who comes first in this world. But he also saves Aaron at a delicate moment, telling the kid he’s owed a favor, though “Aaron Loves Angela” is not the kind of moving to turn that into a plot point. It mostly futzes up the morals, a little, reminding you that somehow Beau remains on Aaron’s side even as he floods the neighborhood with drugs. 

If Aaron is told by his father that basketball is the way out because basketball provides money, Beau becomes something of an inadvertent middleman to that possible escape. When a deal with the mob goes wrong and Beau winds up shot, laying on a staircase in Aaron’s clubhouse with a briefcase full of cash, he hands the $250,000 over to the kid, telling him it’s the way out. The mob finds out Aaron has the cash, of course, leading to a climax in which he and Angela are pursued through the Harlem streets. The score, however, by Jose Feliciano is not dramatic or suspenseful, it’s jaunty, maintaining a wry distance from the seemingly high stakes. Indeed, upon scaling the staircase toward a train, Aaron turns and hurls the briefcase into the air, sending dollar bills fluttering. He and Angela laugh and embrace. A lot of movies will tell you love is the answer, but I have rarely seen a single image so joyously live it out.

No comments: