Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - January 2001
Germany, Pale Mother
Mon Oncle
The Unbelievable Truth
The Three Musketeers (1921)
The Silences of the Palace

Brink Job
Thirteen Days
Sound and Fury
Traffic

Flicks - December 2000
La Guerre est Finie
The Toll Gate
The Old Maid
Sleeping Beauty
Dog Star Man

 

 

XALA (Ousmane Sembene, 1975).

A wealthy importer named El Hadji (Tierno Leye), a member of Senegal's potcolonial elite, decides to take a third wife. But on his wedding day he finds that he is unable to consummate his marriage. Someone has put a curse on him and made him impotent.

Sembene, a distinguished writer as well as film director, is rightly considered the father of sub-Saharan African cinema. His influential and provocative films have fearlessly addressed many political and social issues facing Senegal and Africa in general. Xala is a biting satire of the "independence" supposedly enjoyed by Senegal after the end of French rule. It caused something of a sensation, playing to packed houses in Senegal and at film festivals around the world.

The picture has a decidedly low budget feel, and some of the acting (by non-professionals) is awkward and naive. Moreover, the film gets off to a rough start with some obvious buffoonery - the French rulers are expelled from the government to be replaced by black men in business suits, whereupon the Frenchmen return as "advisers" carrying briefcases full of cash which they distribute to the new rulers. This is all understandable, considering Sembene's extremely limited resources. What is remarkable is that Xala gradually evolves, despite its limitations, into a sly, perceptive work of art that is intelligent. absorbing, and quite pointed in its criticisms.

El Hadji's wedding allows us to meet his two previous wives, the first being a traditional matriarch, the second a vain, westernized (and amusing) shrew. His daughter by his first wife is perhaps Sembene's symbol of hope for the future - she accepts some aspects of modern life, but insists on speaking the traditional language (Wolof) instead of French, which produces a comical effect in conversations with her father. El Hadji himself is a gross example of European privilege, instructing his chauffeur, for example, to wash his Mercedes with imported Evian water. In order to regain his sexual potency, he visits a series of marabouts (shamans) who prescribe various magical rituals - an opportunity for Sembene to draw humorous contrasts between the mimicry of European ways and the culture's traditional roots.

Impotence is of course a metaphor for the complete failure of the Senegalese elite to effect any meaningful change for their country. The film's savage critique was not lost on the government censors, who made over a dozen cuts in the picture. In fact, Xala ends rather abruptly, but the cuts don't succeed in obscuring the film's message. It was a landmark in African film, and lent courage to aspiring filmmakers throughout the Third World.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
(William Wyler, 1946).

There was a moment in the studio era when a true naturalism broke through the constraints of genre and dramatic convention, resulting in a work of beauty that was different than anything done in Hollywood before, and seldom achieved since. That moment was this film.

It's about three servicemen (Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell) returning to their homes after the war. Of course they expect everything to be better now, but instead there is unease, disappointment, and a general difficulty in readjusting to civilian life, both for them and their loved ones. After years of rousing flag-wavers, it is amazing that any film would tackle this troubling subject at all, especially in such a sensitive and adult manner. (The excellent script is by Robert Sherwood, from a Mackinlay Kantor novel.) But it is Wyler's direction, more than any other element, which lifts the film to greatness. This is the epitome of his meticulous technique - patient, relaxed in style yet focused on the characters, above all a sense of classical simplicity which can only achieved through a vision which is essentially poetic. The story gently rolls along instead of being pushed at us. The timing of the characters' dialogue and actions are surprisingly realistic, with a modesty and understatedness that allows emotions to arise naturally rather than be imposed on the material. Wyler found a freedom here, an almost perfect union of form and substance, that turns the film into a revelation.

He elicited superb work from the actors. March gives arguably his greatest performance - a flawed, thoroughly human character, sometimes exasperating, yet essentially decent. (There is a scene where he gives a speech at a banquet that is a masterpiece, hilarious while retaining its dramatic point.) Andrews projects a sense of confusion and loss that is perfect for the role. Russell, the real life amputee playing the sailor who has lost his hands, is extremely touching without ever seeming pathetic. Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, as March's wife and daughter, are bright and alert and completely believable. If you are accustomed to the usual sort of acting in a studio film, you might observe these performances the way you'd watch a tightrope act - expecting some slip, some error, to mar the effect. It never does.

The picture was shot by long-time Wyler colleague Gregg Toland (his seventh and last film with Wyler). It has the trademark Toland look - deep focus, visual crispness without overemphasis in the lighting, careful composition within the frame. As usual, Wyler uses long takes, although here the technique is more effective than ever because of the studied naturalism. There are some elements of the film, it must be said, that are more simplistic than they should be. Virginia Mayo, as Andrews' selfish wife, is a caricature rather than a character. The Andrews-Wright romance story adheres to the old boy meets/loses girl formula, and as such seems too pat for a film of this depth and level of feeling. But these faults are never glaring. In fact, they are hard to notice at all, because the script, and Wyler's technique, add nuances of humor and genuine pathos to the material.

Sometimes an aura of prestige can prevent people from visiting a classic film. The Best Years of Our Lives won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor (March) and director. Don't let that frighten you away. This is a case where every award was richly deserved. I cried watching this movie, freely and unashamedly. It is quite simply one of the greatest achievements of American film.

ON THE WATERFRONT (Elia Kazan, 1954).

A former prizefighter (Marlon Brando) is caught up in a corrupt union headed by a mobster (Lee J. Cobb), but starts to question his beliefs when he falls for the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of a man who was murdered for informing.

Kazan's boldly emphatic style was never put to better use than in this gritty social drama, which captured the Oscars for picture, director and actor. The atmosphere of menace which had hitherto been confined to the crime picture (later known as "film noir") was here skillfully expanded to a wider realm, and combined with a visual style that emphasizes the desolation of the urban landscape and the cramped inner life of the working class. It was something new in American pictures, the product of a decade-long shift away from studio to location shooting, and from the old "seamless" technique to a rough-edged style influenced by the school of method acting. If in some ways it seems old hat today, part of that is due to its immense influence on later productions.

For all its starkness and sense of alienation, On the Waterfront still suffers from a simplistic story and script, and an overwrought dramatic emphasis. It's safe to say that the film probably woudn't have worked at all but for the great lead performance of Brando. His Terry Malloy - brutal, ignorant, mutely suffering, constantly wavering between tenderness and aggression - is a fully realized dramatic creation that demonstrates just why he was the most admired actor of his time. Watch him, not only in the great scene with Rod Steiger (as his brother) in the taxicab, but also in his scene at the bar with Saint, or on the rooftop with the young toughs, or in just about any of his scenes - and marvel at the way his inflections, hesitations, body movements, everything about him, displays an inner conviction and power that makes his character exist in the flesh. He carries the film on his shoulders and makes it work.

Most of the other actors do fine, particularly Cobb, who is his usual larger-than-life self. The one glaring exception is Karl Malden - unconvincing in the admittedly misconceived role of a crusading priest. Leonard Bernstein's music is great on its own terms, but too overpowering at times as a film score. And the ending - well, it's dramatic, alright, but if you think anything like that would really happen outside of a movie, you haven't seen too much of the world.

It's hard to watch the film without relating it to Kazan's own controversial decision, two years before, to turn on his friends and "name names" to HUAC during the witch hunts. There is something awfully defensive and self-serving about the aspect of the film which treats of informing as a moral act. Seen without reference to the director's history, however, it doesn't create the impression of a reactionary tract, but rather an impassioned drama about the moral awakening of an unlikely hero. The film's crude theatricality has not worn well over time, but the visual style, and especially the central performance by Brando, insures that it has a place in the pantheon of classic films.

A CHINESE GHOST STORY
(Ching Sui-Tung, 1987).

One of the classics of Hong Kong cinema, A Chinese Ghost Story combines adventure, romance, comedy, martial arts, sorcery and the undead. It's like the ultimate Saturday matinee movie, and it has all the unpolished and primitive qualities implied by that description. Compared to the slick editing and visual texture of a Hollywood film, it seems positively slapdash, with poor dialogue, overacting and a general lack of restraint. But they weren't out to make Howards End here - this is pulp fiction, folks, and as such it is of the highest quality.

The story follows a hapless young scholar (Leslie Cheung) who stumbles into a haunted castle, almost gets killed by stepping between two duelling swordsman, and then encounters a beautiful ghost (Joey Wang) with whom he falls in love, unaware of her true nature. The picture revels in goofy slapstick - a lot of the gags have a childlike quality that I found endearing. The castle is inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls, but Cheung evades their grasp by sheer dumb luck every time. Then there are the fights and other stunts - Ching uses lightning-fast cuts to accentuate the movement, and often when a fighter moves, the camera moves too. The effect is dizzying in a pleasant way. The picture is crammed with weird visual touches and special effects. Talk about inventiveness - the villain employs a tongue that appears to be about forty feet long and at least a yard wide. How does anyone think of something like that, let alone figure out how to show it? Then there is a sequence towards the end, done mostly in blue, with the heroes attacking evil in the "other world" that achieves a strange beauty. Finally, the chemistry between Cheung and the truly gorgeous Wang is real. The romance is indeed captivating, and that makes a big difference.

I found myself exhausted by A Chinese Ghost Story. It's a bit too much, like an elaborate dessert with too many different kinds of sweets. But there's no denying the fact that it's fun and inventive, it has a soul, and there's nothing else quite like it.

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY
(John Mackenzie, 1980).

A gangster (Bob Hoskins) is about to close a deal that will make him a major player in the London business world. But someone is trying to put the hit on him, and he has to stop him before the deal falls through. The question is - who is it?

I must report disappointment with this picture, which doesn't live up to its high reputation as one of the best crime films. The story is not very interesting, the direction is pedestrian at best, and to top it off, the movie is saddled with a loud, tacky musical score. What it does have going for it is Hoskins, in the role that made him famous. He displays just the mixture of coarseness and cunning that a real mobster of this sort might have. Another plus is Helen Mirren, always worth watching, as his mistress. There is one scene of sudden violence that is well done, and a few nicely humorous touches in Barry Keefe's script, but overall I have to wonder what the fuss was about. Well, without overrating the picture, one may admire its apparent prescience concerning the Thatcher era that was about to dawn in all its greed and viciousness.

Chris Dashiell, 2001