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A work of consummate mastery, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Tilaï (1990) is a film so quietly assured that it only gradually dawned on me just how purposeful and intelligent Ouédraogo’s direction really is. Nearly every shot has its own arc, and although the film contains images of astonishing beauty, no shot is only beautiful as Ouédraogo’s staging and mobile framing are always in the service of the narrative, which has the starkness and simplicity of myth. In the opening sequence, Saga (Rasmané Ouédraogo) returns to his village after several years of wandering to discover that his father has taken his sweetheart, Nogma (Ina Cissé), as a second wife even though he had promised her to Saga. To make matters more complicated, Nogma is still in love with Saga, and when the community learns of their adulterous relationship, it falls to Saga’s brother, Kougri (Assane Ouédraogo), to carry out the death sentence against him. Despite some hints in the mise en scène that the story takes place after the arrival of the European colonizers (Saga, for instance, carries a rifle that ultimately leads to his downfall), we neither see nor hear of any white people and the characters, living in clay houses surrounded by vast expanses of nature, act according to ancient customs handed down from time immemorial, giving the film a timeless, mythic quality that is counterpointed by Abdullah Ibrahim’s anachronistic score, performed by a jazz trio, which suggests a detached, modern perspective on the characters. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes and dispensing entirely with the sort of superfluous technical wankery that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñaríttu have built their reputations on, Tilaï is so focused and economical that it makes you realize just how much unnecessary bullshit there is in most other films.

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Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Oshima Nagisa’s greatness as a director was “inseparable from his indifference to whether his films were likable [sic] or not,” and although it is too early for me to say, after just one viewing, whether or not The Sun’s Burial (Taiyo no hakaba, 1960) is a great film, it is doubtlessly one of his most radically unlikeable, systematically undermining any attempt the spectator might make to sympathize with its characters. An exceptionally mean and nihilistic yakuza story set against a backdrop of unrelieved squalor, this 87-minute feature has enough plot for a miniseries and, as in Oshima’s subsequent and equally estranging Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960), there are too many characters for the spectator to keep track of all of them on first viewing. Some of the more memorable rouges here, none of whom having any redeeming qualities whatsoever, are a teenage blood merchant who sidelines in prostitution (or perhaps it is the other way around) and who in one scene catches her father trying to peak up her dress while she sleeps, a demented right-wing agitator who believes the Soviets are planning to invade Japan in the next two years, and a lame pimp first seen choking a whore with his crutch because he does not want to pay for her to have an abortion while another prostitute sitting nearby pretends not to notice. The film is by turns funny and shocking but it is never very affecting; perhaps influenced by Bertolt Brecht, Oshima evidently wants us to take a detached view of these characters rather than getting emotionally involved, but to what end? Even granting the dubious premise that emotional engagement precludes critical thought, the film creates a world so unremittingly sordid that no cure seems possible. When the frenzied slum dwellers burn down their own decrepit shantytown at the end of the film, the fire does not purify anything or anyone; it just leaves a smouldering heap of ash and rubble.

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Given that the central nugget of Paul Schrader’s biographical legend—the one fact endlessly cited in reviews of his films as if it explained everything about the man and his work, for better or for worse—is that he had a strict Calvinist upbringing and did not see his first film until he was seventeen, it is all the more dispiriting that, as a writer-director, he seems incapable of functioning independently of his influences. Indeed, to judge by “First Reformed” (2017)—which recycles massive, undigested chunks of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de compagne (1951) (a solitary priest keeps a diary while dying of stomach cancer and drinking copiously), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) (with global warming substituted for nuclear war and Victoria Hill for Ingrid Thulin), and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), itself largely derived from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Dostoevsky by way of Bresson—one might guess that he learned everything he knows about spiritual angst from watching European art movies. As in the Bergman film, Schrader’s protagonist, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is the minister of a small church where one of the few remaining parishioners is a young man with a pregnant wife who is driven to despair by the spectre of an impending apocalypse and takes his own life; the twist is that here the young man is an environmental activist, and his death pushes Rev. Toller to become more outspoken about the moral outrage of man-made climate change and eventually to plot a terrorist act. This at least is an innovation on Winter Light, where the possibility of any type of political action is simply not on the table. But while the theme of environmental collapse and a clumsily executed levitation fantasy both suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, Schrader has not updated the Russian master’s reactionary sexual politics: The only roles for women he seems capable of imagining are as opportunities for carnal sin (Hill) or as madonnas promising renewal for the hero (Amanda Seyfried as the dead man’s widow). Also mildly innovative, if not particularly purposeful, is the film’s locked down camera style which largely eschews reframings, yielding compositions that are conspicuously decentred when they are not emphatically symmetrical. And despite its familiarity, the plot does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense, though ultimately Schrader winds up blowing it with an unsatisfying final scene—cribbed from Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), which Schrader wrote—that, in true Hollywood fashion, posits heterosexual romance as a solution to all the world’s problems.

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The theme of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is the threat to the homogeneous national identity posed by miscegenation on the one hand and loyalty to the Confederacy on the other—that is to say, by both the unchecked mixing of the races and the overzealous enforcement of a distinct racial hierarchy—though the film’s attitude towards both of these threats is anything but simplistic. Significantly, its two central characters both occupy a marginal position in relation to the dominant culture: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a former Confederate soldier who, rather than surrender to the Yankees, has become a bandit, while the adopted son of Ethan’s brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is one-eighth Cherokee. At the end of the film, however, it is Martin who is fully integrated into the white nuclear family through his marriage to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), but only after he murders his Comanche doppelgänger Scar (Henry Brandon)—who incidentally has blue eyes, indicating that he too is of mixed heritage. That Ethan then proceeds to scalp Scar (an event Martin does not witness) confirms that he is too savage to be rehabilitated, yet it is Ethan who ultimately “rescues” Debbie (Natalie Wood), spontaneously abandoning his plan of executing her for crossing the colour line—suggesting that the white settler society could not survive without men like Ethan, who are nevertheless incapable of living within it. And though the plot follows a familiar pattern of development, moving from unity to disturbance to the restoration of unity, in the final sequence, the tension between order (represented by the white, middle-class nuclear family) and chaos (racial hatred and racial mixing) has not been resolved but merely papered over. As the Jorgensens lead Debbie into her new home (her biological family having been massacred by Comanches at the beginning of the film), she looks up at them with a confused, somewhat frightened expression on her face, raising the question of whether she can ever be fully reintegrated into the settler society—and indeed, whether it would not have been better to leave her with the Comanches, with whom she lived from the ages of nine to fifteen (a possibility none of the characters ever consider and that most likely would not have occurred to the film’s original audience). In short, despite its obviously problematic representation of indigenous peoples, The Searchers remains one of the few genuinely Brechtian Hollywood films as it implies that white supremacy is neither natural nor inevitable but has to be upheld and could very easily disintegrate.

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Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (1975) takes a situation that might have been the inspiration for a comedy and then, as if out of sheer perversity, carefully sidesteps nearly every opportunity to exploit it for laughs, instead becoming increasingly enigmatic and disquieting as it proceeds. Based on Sembène’s own 1973 novel (which, after seeing the film, I very much want to read), it tells the story of a wealthy importer, El Hadji (Thierno Leye), whose life begins to unravel when he is cursed with impotence on the day of his third polygamous marriage. Frankly allegorical, the film makes few concessions to psychological realism. The characters are all generic types without much shading who behave according to their social position; El Hadji, for instance, takes a third wife not because he is in love or even because he is particularly lecherous but to signify wealth and status, and it is unclear what his new bride thinks about marrying a man old enough to be her father—or indeed if she thinks about it at all. Certainly the film does not attempt to make El Hadji at all sympathetic, but in the film’s final scenes, when the plot takes a turn towards the gothic, his punishment is so extreme that it is hard to take any pleasure in seeing him get his comeuppance. Nor, for that matter, are the other characters—with the sole exception of El Hadji’s university-educated daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who disapproves of polygamy and insists on speaking Wolof rather than French—much better. When the Dakar Chamber of Commerce excommunicates El Hadji for embezzlement, he points out that his accusers (who also take bribes from European businessmen) are just as corrupt as he is. Perhaps only a black African filmmaker could make such a scathing indictment of post-colonial Senegalese society.

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Given not only the example of such major directors as Sam Fuller and Ousmane Sembène who both started out as novelists, but also his involvement in Alain Resnais’ greatest film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), and the photographic prose style of such exciting early novels as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), it’s all the more puzzling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s own films should be so clumsy and unimaginative. At first glance, Trans-Europ-Express (1966), his second feature, seems to have a lot going for it: the presence of actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier, Willy Kurant’s documentary-like cinematography, the snatches of Verdi on the soundtrack (thrown in seemingly at random for a few seconds at a time), and a characteristically abstract and absurdist plot line in which, as in The Erasers (1953), the difference between the police and the criminals becomes increasingly meaningless. But beyond putting all of these things on the screen, Robbe-Grillet doesn’t have very many ideas as to what to do with them. The self-reflexive framing device—in which the director, his wife Catherine, and a male friend pass the time during a train ride from Brussels to Antwerp by making up a story about a trainee drug smuggler who dresses like a cop (Trintignant) and gets on the same train carrying a suitcase that doesn’t have any cocaine in it—provides a loose justification for frequently violating continuity, but stylistically Robbe-Grillet has so few tricks up his sleeve that the film’s attempts at playfulness—having the characters change position from one shot to the next, as if they had just teleported across the room; cutting away to close-ups of people looking into the camera that may or may not represent Trintignant’s subjective fantasies—quickly start to feel mechanical and the occasional stabs at humour don’t help. (I began to suspect the film was in trouble during the pre-credit sequence when Trintignant wears a funny beard, as if that in itself were sufficient to expose the absurdity of the genre conventions Robbe-Grillet is sending up.) It would be instructive to show this in film schools to aspiring avant-gardists—preferably alongside Godard’s Alphaville (1965)—in order to demonstrate the difference between replication and parody and between rule-breaking and creativity.

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Michelangelo Antonioni was forty-seven when L’avventura (1960) won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, establishing his international reputation, and had already been directing for over a decade—though in contrast with the slightly younger Ingmar Bergman, who had to make a lot of promising films before he could produce a good one, Antonioni was making films of exceptional quality virtually from the beginning of his career. His third feature, The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), strikes me as something less than a masterpiece but it’s a work of considerable interest nonetheless. More classical both in terms of its plotting and mise en scène than Antonioni’s better known ’60s films, it tells the story of a pretty young starlet (Lucia Bosé) whose controlling producer-husband (Andrea Checchi) objects to her playing the sort of steamy roles that made her famous in the first place and insists on casting her as Joan of Arc. Later, after bravely striking out on her own as a serious actress, the heroine finds that she doesn’t have any talent and ruefully returns to playing the sexpot. I can’t say that I cared very deeply about these characters, but as a satire of the Italian film industry the movie is frequently hilarious (you’d never guess from the way the characters talk that the heroic age of Italian neorealism had just come to a close), and Antonioni’s style is breathtaking. Working in extremely long takes with a mobile camera, Antonioni keeps his compositions balanced and centred so that the actors aren’t overwhelmed by their surroundings (despite Enzo Serafin’s deep focus cinematography), and in the crowd scenes, the director packs throngs of actors into congested, improbably frontal arrangements reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood—suggesting that, like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Antonioni had to master classical découpage before he could reject it.

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