Friday, January 20, 2017

Black Girl

BLACK GIRL (LA NOIRE DE...) (Sembene, 1966)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 24, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

It's difficult to live up to a title like “the father of African cinema” but Ousmane Sembene never shied away from a challenge. Sembene blazed his own trail from a grade-school dropout in the Casamance region of Senegal to sharpshooter in the French colonial army to semi-literate dock worker in Marseilles to published novelist en route to becoming one of the world's most celebrated filmmakers. Whether or not Sembene was truly the first sub-Saharan filmmaker to shoot and release a film theatrically – Beninese/Senegalese director Paulin Soumanou Vieyra has a valid claim on that distinction – he was indisputably the major voice in African cinema in the years immediately following independence (1960 for Senegal).

Critics may have applied the label “The father of African cinema”, but Sembene embraced the responsibilities that came with the honor: “I am the eyes and ears and voice of millions of people.” He viewed his mission as vital (“If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear”) and remained clearly focused on his homeland even as he won ever-greater praise on the international film circuit: “Africa is my audience; the West and all the rest are just markets.” His career spanned forty years and tackled controversial issues such as the complicated role of Islam in Africa, the exploitation of African soldiers by the French colonial government, and the horrors of female genital mutilation. His boldness led to struggles with both censorship and financing, further exacerbated by his open embrace of the Marxist influences that shaped his (self-)education.

Sembene's debut short film, “Borom Sarret” (“The Wagon Driver”, 1963), adapted from his own short story, reflects Sembene's class consciousness in part through a protagonist who doesn't share it. The titular wagon driver (non-professional actor Ly Abdoulay) identifies more with his partly-mythologized ancestry than with his fellow citizens as he makes his daily rounds through the streets of Dakar on a cart driven by a horse named Albourah (the driver, unlike the horse, doesn't get a name). In voice-over narration, the driver complains about the cheapness of his various riders, looks down (literally, from a high angle shot) on a crippled beggar, and fails to sympathize with a man whose child has just died. Their problems simply aren't his. He is, however, seduced by the ostensible trappings of success: first, by a charming griot (a traditional African storyteller/musician) who flatters with beautiful stories of a heroic past, and then by a nattily-dressed businessman who cons our hero into a free ride.

In this first screen outing, Sembene displays an obvious affinity for Italian neo-realism, most overtly by having the driver wear a fedora similar to the one featured in Vittorio de Sica's “Bicycle Thieves” (1948). “Borom Sarret” observes the driver's daily routine in great detail and paints a vivid portrait of a Dakar divided into the “white” section of gleaming modern buildings high on a plateau and the lower elevation “black” area of dirt roads and wooden homes. The driver's constant bellyaching does not lead to any cathartic epiphany, with the final scene promising little hope for a newly-independent Senegal that is not, in Sembene's view, particularly close to actual independence.

Shot a few years later, Sembene's debut feature “Black Girl” (1966), also adapted from the director's own story, displays an evolution in style. Though it's another film about the daily life of a working class protagonist, “Black Girl” displays a formal sophistication that points straight to Sembene's training at the prestigious Gorky Film Studio in Moscow.

Title character Diouana (M'Bissine Therese Diop, a teenage seamstress and art student making her film debut) arrives in France from Senegal for a new job that doesn't match her na├»ve fantasies. Back home in Dakar, she was delighted to work for her white bosses, dancing in celebration near her home after being “selected” at a street market, and reveling in the opportunity to care for the couple's children. Diouana interprets an invitation to return with the couple to France as something between a promotion and a vacation, but soon learns that in “The Promised Land” (the English title of Sembene's short story) she is seen as nothing more than “the black girl” or, more properly, as “the black girl of...” (“La noire de...) indicating her status as property.

Sembene deftly emphasizes Diouana's isolation; she marvels at the beautiful Riviera beach through the window of the car that whisks her to her new home. Once there, she will continue to see the beaches only through windows as her world shrinks to little more than the kitchen and bathroom where she cooks and scrubs for the increasingly imperious Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and the generally clueless Monsieur (Robert Fontaine). Nimble shifts from low to high-angle shots establish the hierarchical structure, but Diouana's refusal to be comfortably framed by this set-up suggests that its foundation is crumbling, a sense augmented by the journey of a traditional African mask from Senegal to France, then back home.

“Black Girl” provides the first evidence of Sembene's keen interest in the plight of African women. He once stated that, “When women progress, society progresses” and that if they do not, society cannot. That argument is somewhat difficult to square with the events of “Black Girl,” but Sembene definitely turns “the black girl of” into a full-fledged character with agency and a developed inner life, related both in French voice-over by Haitian singer/actress Toto Bissainthe and by Diop's expressive face in strategic close-ups.

“Black Girl” won the Prix Jean Vigo, and if it didn't quite sweep across a continent (Sembene often bemoaned the miserable state of film exhibition in Senegal and other nearby countries) it announced the full emergence of an eloquent new voice in world cinema. For a brief period, Sembene was viewed more or less as the global representative of all of African cinema, which, of course, wasn't accurate at all. Thanks in part to his pioneering efforts, other great directors like Djibril Diop Mambety and Safi Faye (among many others) soon made their presence known, and Sembene would have to settle merely for being “the father of African cinema” instead of all of it.

“Black Girl” is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer, undertaken by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, was created in 4K resolution at the L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative... Additional restoration was undertaken by the Criterion Collection using MTI Film's DRS and Digital Vision's Phoenix.”

The old New Yorker DVD wasn't bad, but this high-def transfer from a restored print represents a significant improvement. The brighter spots in the B&W film looked washed out in the old DVD, but that's not a problem here at all. Grain structure is subtle and pleasing, and the image quality really shines in close-ups.

The linear PCM mono track is clean and efficient if not particularly dynamic. The music, a contrast of jaunty French piano tunes and African kora music, is treated well by this mix. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Criterion has come through in a big way with a diverse array of substantive supplemental features on this new Blu-ray release.

“On Ousmane Sembene” (2016, 20 min.) features an interview with scholar and Sembene biographer Samba Gadjigo. Gadjigo has written or edited multiple English-language books on Sembene while also co-directing the documentary “Sembene!” (2015). He brings his expertise to this concise interview which provides historical background regarding filmmaking in Africa under French colonial government along with more biographical background on Sembene's journey from Casamance to global fame.

“On Black Girl” (2016, 21 min.) features an interview with scholar Manthia Diawara, who also directed a documentary on Sembene included on this disc (see below). Diawara emphasizes Sembene's interest in highlighting the struggles of African women, while also analyzing some of the film's major themes.

“Black Girl” fans will be thrilled to catch up with lead actress M'Bissine Therese Diop in this new interview (2016, 12 min.) She mostly repeats information she has shared in interviews previously, including that she had little interest in acting at the time and at she (a part-time dressmaker at the time) designed most of her own clothing for the film. Diouana has become such a legendary, defining character in African cinema it's always exciting to see the woman who brought her to life.

It's not much, but the “Color Sequence” (1 min.) finally provides an opportunity to see the scene once believed lost – when Sembene shot in color as Diouana looks out the windows of a car and sees France for the first time. Restored here by the British Film Institute.

“Borrom Sarret” (1963, 20 min.) is included as an extra, but should be considered simply as one of the two primary films on this release. The menu option for this short film also includes another extra, “On Borom Sarret” (2016, 12 min.) gives Manthia Diawara another opportunity to provide context and analysis.

The heftiest extra on the disc is “Sembene: The Making of African Cinema” (1993, 60 min.), a documentary directed by Manthia Diawara and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. It's fun to see directors like John Singleton show up, but no doubt the central draw here is seeing Sembene in action at festival appearances or holding court for young, aspiring filmmakers at his Galle Ceddo home. Another brief highlight is Sembene discussing his fondness for Charlie Chaplin, who he once met.

The final extras are a short 1966 interview with Sembene (2 min.) from the French TV show “JT de 20h” in which he relates how he found out he won the Prix Jean Vigo, and a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.) for “Black Girl.”

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Ashley Clark.

Film Value:
Off-hand, the only other African films I can think of in the Criterion Collection are Djibril Diob Mambety's “Touki Bouki”and Ahmed al Maanouni's “Traces”, both part of the “Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project” box set. “Borom Sarret” and “Black Girl” have both been restored by World Cinema as well. Here's hoping there are many more African films to come. As for this Criterion release, it does justice to Ousmane Sembene, one of world cinema's greats.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Favorite Films of 2016

“What is your opinion of art?”

“I am very glad you asked me!”

“I withdraw the question.”

-Groucho Marx and victim in Animal Crackers

My mistake all along has been thinking of cinema as a year-round event. If you have the money to travel to multiple major film festivals good movies might fill the calendar, but relying exclusively on theatrical releases most of the time produces long, grim stretches of despair that lead inevitably to pointless pontifications about the death of cinema.

In this new year, this final year of Western civilization, I plan instead to think of film like a sports league: its season runs from November (when screeners start to hit my mailbox) to February (when the previous year's late-December awards hopefuls finally straggle out to theaters). During the March to October off-season, I'll just hope for a few good superhero movies, and consider anything else a bonus. Although mostly I'll just be watching baseball.

I have not yet seen Toni Erdmann, Elle, Aquarius, Silence, The Eagle Huntress, or The Death of Louis XIV (please, someone release Albert Serra's films on Blu-ray in North America), all movies I expect would have a reasonable chance of making my favorites list. I'm sure they will all survive without that singular honor. I have seen critical darlings such as Arrival, Hell or High Water, Neruda, Eye in the Sky, Manchester By the Sea, La La Land (to be fair, I gave up after 15 minutes), Weiner, and Jackie, and mostly wish I hadn't.

The worst of the year for me was Jackie, partly for Pablo Larrain's annoying employment of multiple framing devices, but mostly for Natalie Portman's passionately devoted but misguided attempt at slavish mimicry, the most irritating performance since... well, OK, since Jesse Eisenberg's inexplicable, indefensible rendition of Lex Luthor in the most pointless superhero movie ever made.

I'll spare you the oversized still for every single pick and shoot for a few images you might not have already seen instead.


O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (Ezra Edelman)

I sincerely hope this series represents an emerging strand of mainstream documentary film-making, the long format providing the opportunity to present the degree of context necessary to tell this quintessentially American tragedy. I love that Ezra Edelman can stop to spend about ten minutes talking about the Hertz commercial campaign because it forms a crucial part of the argument he carefully develops about Simpson's evolving sense of identity. It would have held my interest at twice the length.


Peck's masterful documentary makes me feel ashamed that I have yet to read anything by James Baldwin, who I was also tempted to nominate for this year's Best Leading Actor. Baldwin is the dynamic star, but Peck and his team know just when to cut away from the historical footage to more recent events. An abrupt cut that jumps ahead half a century from one screaming mob to another provides queasy evidence that the only real change in some cases is the addition of a cheap-ass red ballcap.

CAMERAPERSON (Kirsten Johnson)

Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson's equally masterful documentary also hops through time, and across continents, to create one of the most moving essay films of recent years. Dozens of hand-wringing reflexive documentaries have fussed about the potentially perilous interactions of filmmaker and subject, but I cannot recall one so clear-eyed in its ethical vision. If you've never previously thought much about documentary cinematographers as artists (or at all), here's your chance to re-think. I hope to have a chance to discuss this remarkable movie in sufficient detail when Criterion releases it on Blu-ray next month. For now, I'll settle for calling it one of the great films about filmmaking. It also deserves all the Best Editing awards.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Anthony and Joe Russo)

My favorite feature film of the year? Make Mine Marvel! This is everything I used to dream a super hero movie could be. For starters, the directors, writers, producers, or whoever deserves credit on a corporate product like this get all the characters right. Every single one of them. How the hell do you make Ant-Man so much fun? Even Stan Lee couldn't. And it takes Tom Holland all of five seconds to flat-out own the role of Spider-Man for as long as he wants. For seconds, even beyond the flawless adaptation from page to screen... omigod, that airport battle! I've watched Civil War five times, the airport battle many more. Hold on, I'll be back in about 15 minutes.

THE WITCH (Robert Eggers)

In another twenty years or so, we can decide where this grim, slow-burn chiller ranks all-time among directors' debut features. For now, I'll just savor the most evocative and convincing horror film I have seen in years, a rare multiplex release bold enough to embrace the power of silence. A lot of my favorite performances this year were logged by very young actors – Anya Taylor-Joy shouldn't get lost in the shuffle just because her movie came out almost a year ago.


I laughed, I cried. OK, I just laughed. The bookend two-parter of the new X-Files season was kind of a dud, but the episodes in the middle recaptured the old fun. Darin Morgan's contribution, unsurprisingly, towered above the rest, presenting an antagonist-protagonist with a genuinely unique perspective on life. There are now two fictional characters I closely identify with: Bartleby the Scrivener, and Rhys Darby's Were-Monster. Also, Scully must really be immortal 'cause... wowsa!

THE FITS (Anna Rose Holmer)

The Fits is one of the most formally ambitious American features of the year, and director Anna Rose Holmer's wisely wraps up her hypnotic audiovisual tour-de-force in a brief running time. Continuing the youth movement, I did not see a lead actress performance this year better than Royalty Hightower's (seen immediately above).

HAIL, CAESAR! (Ethan and Joel Coen), KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick), CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt), PATERSON (Jim Jarmusch)

Let's call this the Greatest Working American Directors portion of our program. And remember I still haven't seen Silence.

I have no idea why Hail, Caesar! was dismissed as a minor Coen farce. It's absolutely hilarious and flat out reeks with perfectly calibrated comic performances. I'll spotlight one that hasn't gotten much press: Robert Picardo's scene-stealing cameo of the year as a pragmatic rabbi. I'd rate Knight of Cups even higher if not for the fact that tarot cards make for such a silly organizing conceit – but I pretty much loved everything else about it. I remain a proud member of the Malick cult. Ditto the Kelly Reichardt cult. Certain Women isn't quite on par with Wendy and Lucy or Meek's Cutoff, but it's still one of the year's best and let's just please give every supporting award to Lily Gladstone right now. Everyone I know knows I'm in the Jim Jarmusch cult too. Right now, I think of Paterson as mid-range JJ, but I've already upgraded it on a second viewing. Check in with me in a year and I'll probably be calling it a masterpiece. I'm sure we can use a tribute to relevance of poetry any year – it just feels like we need one even more right now.


This New Zealand outback fairly tale balances bitter and sweet to great comic effect, and I'll push the youth movement again with a shout-out for Julian Dennison as the beleaguered but resilient young protagonist. The Ricky Baker Happy Birthday Song is the greatest original film composition of the 21st century. I haven't seen Waititi's much-praised What We Do In the Shadows, but now I need to, and I have great hope for his upcoming stab at the sputtering Thor franchise.

MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins)

Easily the best of this year's likely awards contenders, this coming-of-age story is two-thirds great. My slight disappointment with the final third keeps from embracing it with full enthusiasm, but maybe Jenkins “mistake” is setting the bar so high from the get go. It's a damn good movie, and I like Jenkins' earlier Medicine for Melancholy just as much.


I'm not sure what to make of Bi Gan's debut feature about a doctor who goes looking for his missing nephew, a plot summary which provides precisely no insight into the film. After just one viewing, it feels like a mashup of Andrei Tarkovsky and Tsai Ming-liang, but I've learned by now that viewing debut features in terms of other filmmakers' work is a lazy way of (mis)categorizing movies. Bi Gan's movie is bursting at the seams with the ambitions and influences many filmmakers are eager to stuff into their debuts. They might not all fit together, but the result is often mesmerizing.

NO HOME MOVIE (Chantal Akerman)

The only reason Chantal Akerman's final film wasn't my top pick this year is that I made it my top pick last year. I probably should have done it again.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Chimes at Midnight

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 30, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

“This horse-back breaker, this hill of flesh... that swollen parcel of dropsies... How long is it, Jack, since thou hast seen thy own knee?” If Shakespeare's rotund rogue, Sir John Falstaff, wasn't the role Orson Welles was born to play, it was certainly one he had grown into by the time he realized a life-long dream with the release of “Chimes at Midnight” (1966).

Welles's affinity for the character extended far beyond a mutual appetite for an eight-course feast and a tankard of sack (the medieval term for Paul Masson chablis, I believe). From the time he was a teenager at the prestigious Todd School, Welles dreamed of making Shakespeare's corpulent comic relief the protagonist of his own play, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in the bloviating buffoon. Welles was no buffoon, but he gleefully spun lies for a living, relying on his acrobatic story-telling skills off-screen as well as on-screen after early commercial success gave way to a peripatetic existence in which he constantly struggled to scrape up the necessary funds to pursue his various projects. The Spanish producers who finally greenlit “Chimes At Midnight” may have actually been paying primarily for a promised adaptation of “Treasure Island,” but Welles was never one to worry much about technicalities. In the end, it's all true.

Considering how long Welles developed the project in various forms – he staged a version with the Mercury Theatre in the '30s and then another play in 1960 in Dublin and Belfast – it's no surprise that the film would turn out to be a deeply personal one for the great director. However, it is a testament to his unique gifts that he could stitch together multiple Shakespeare plays – a few Henrys and a Richard primarily – and, using only the Bard's words, craft such an intimately autobiographical story.

Welles merges so completely with Falstaff that it's almost impossible not to view both of them as equally present in each scene. Welles envisioned Shakespeare's signature scoundrel as a mischievous rogue with a heart as big as his waist: he lies only to please his listeners, loves everyone he swindles, and only wants everyone to enjoy the pleasures of daily life as vigorously as he does. Hollywood's legendary boy wonder had been playing the role of the charismatic bon vivant in interviews for years, thoroughly charming everyone fortunate enough to share his orbit.

Cutting and pasting from multiple plays could have produced a shapeless, indulgent mess, but Welles realized the spine of his story was the close relationship, a virtual love story, between the aging Falstaff and the young, wayward Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). Falstaff serves as the unreliable but loving mentor whose morally lax tutelage prepares the lazy prince, by roundabout routes, to become the worthy successor to Henry IV (an outrageously great Sir John Gielgud). Their carefree adventures forge a genuinely funny and intimate bond between the two, Falstaff being the emotionally available father figure to Hal that the distant king can never be, and sets up one of the finest scenes in any Welles and/or Shakespeare play, the prince's renunciation of his disreputable old friend upon being crowned the new king. Savor Welles's quiet reaction, processing his mule-kick-to-the-face public humiliation alongside the burgeoning pride of witnessing his young charge now all grown up – a master class in multi-layered acting.

Shooting in high-contrast black-and-white, cinematographer Edmond Richard makes magnificent use of the massive interior castle spaces, with beams of dusty light from windows high above stabbing through vast, gloomy chambers, both low and high angle shots constantly highlighting the vast scale. Watch those buttresses fly! Exterior shots in barren woods are studies in stark, efficient beauty. It's all so elegantly staged, it's hard to believe the film was shot on such a modest budget, a budget that somehow found room for the likes of Jeanne Moreau (who pronounces "whoreson" to rhyme with "Orson") and Margaret Rutherford along with Gielgud.

A brilliant lead performance, a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, impressive settings, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography only form half the story, the rest being the result of some of the most innovative editing cinema has ever been blessed with. Welles spins his characters in constant motion, and jumps aggressively from close-ups to very distant shots, giant jowly faces turning into tiny figures in the distant background, enabling him to transform even cramped sets into dynamic locations and simple conversations into kinetic spectacles. The grandest spectacle of all, however, is the unparalleled Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Welles employs the magic of his Moviola to send a modest number of extras careening into each other with elemental fury, clipping out frames to speed up the frenzied action. And in the most inspired touch of all, he intermittently cuts from the heart of the fray to the indelible image of Falstaff in full plate armor, a pot-belly stove with tiny arms and legs trying to wobble away from any real danger while staying close enough to take credit for the accomplishments of others.

For all of its considerable technical accomplishments, the heart and soul of “Chimes At Midnight” is Welles's endearing, heartfelt performance, his Falstaff always with a twinkle in the eye, laughing and roaring his way to an industrial-sized casket – alas, Merrie Olde England is No Country For Fat Men. It's the finest role of his career and perhaps of anyone's career. I'm inclined to think that the two greatest characters in film history (at least the part of it with which I'm familiar) are Delphine Seyrig's Jeanne Dielman and Welles's Falstaff. In a medium of light and shadow, structured around absences, they're the most tangible presences ever produced. 

Pardon me if I cry a little. It's been a rough year, and I want to appreciate one of its little miracles.

Like most people I had only previously seen “Chimes At Midnight” under miserable conditions; for me, a badly worn VHS with a faded image and warbly, out-of-synch sound. I sometimes wondered if “Chimes” was really as great as I remembered, or if I had filled in the blanks in a spotty version with the masterpiece of my imagination. With this high-def restoration from Criterion, sourced from a 2009 restoration at the Filmoteca Espanola, I now know that I was actually underrating it.

Fans would have settled for even a modest improvement; instead this half-lost film finds itself looking and sounding like brand new. OK, maybe not quite, but far closer than most of us ever dared to dream of. Image detail is sharp throughout with minimal evidence of excessive boosting in the restoration process. You get to appreciate every nook and cranny of Welles's jowly face and the black-and-white contrast is also sharp throughout. I'm sure someone somewhere is arguing about how “authentic” the restoration is – all I can say is it looks fabulous.

The soundtrack has been the biggest problem in previously available versions of the film, many featuring a reel or two that were out of-sync. The linear PCM mono mix from Criterion appears to correct any previous problems, with no audible distortion in either dialogue, effects, or the music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. Welles recorded all of the dialogue in post-production, and he never cared too much about matching lip movements with sound, but it's hardly a flaw here – who would want that magnificent rumbling baritone of Welles to be anything but its most resonant? Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has loaded up a hefty helping of new extras.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by James Naremore, one of my favorite film writers. Naremore, author of “The Magic World of Orson Welles,” provides a great deal of detail regarding Welles's production methods, especially how he culled multiple Shakespeare plays into a single text.

The disc includes several interviews. First up is actor Keith Baxter (29 min.) who discusses how an early encounter with Welles shaped his career. He and Welles became very close during the making of the film, and Baxter remained friends with other members of the Welles family after Orson's death.

Second is an interview with the director's daughter, Beatrice Welles (14 min.) who played a page in “Chimes” when she was about eight – she notes wryly that her father never paid her for the role.

Simon Callow (31 min.), author of multiple books on Welles, traces the origins of the Falstaff project throughout Welles's life, and emphasizes just how happy the director was while making the film, something not always true as he was forced to abandon so many projects later in his career. He also talks about the film's troubled theatrical release and its shabby treatment over the decades.

The final new interview is with author Joseph McBride (26 min.) who can be forgiven for bragging about an early meeting with Welles in which the great man himself described McBride as his favorite film critic, the only one who really understood what he was doing. Sure, it's possible Welles said that to everyone, but I'd still be living on that compliment too.

The disc also includes a Sep 11, 1965 appearance by Welles on the Merv Griffin show (11 min.) Welles wasn't on set with Griffin, but is featured in a short filmed interview conducted with Welles sitting at his moviola, still editing “Chimes.” Frustratingly, the interviewer harps on old, well-worn topics like the “War of the World” broadcast and the early success of “Citizen Kane.” But Welles is so magnetic, it's still riveting viewing.

Finally, we get a Theatrical Trailer.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by film scholar Michael Anderegg.

Final Thoughts:
Do I have to pick a favorite Welles film? No? I'm going to pick anyway, and my choices is “Chimes at Midnight.” And if it's the best of Orson Welles, then, basic logic would tell you it's one of the best films ever made. This definitive Criterion release may well have been the biggest film event of 2016.