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
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
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