Back to Beginnings

Back to Beginnings

Cheick Oumar Sissoko, who lives and works in Mali, has looked around and noticed that his fellow filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa are few–“and due to our financial need (great with regard to our


Cheick Oumar Sissoko, who lives and works in Mali, has looked around and noticed that his fellow filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa are few–“and due to our financial need (great with regard to our savings, though meager in relation to the international film industry), it seems to me that our films are not allowed the luxury of anecdote.” Nothing less than “the deep-rooted realities of Africa” will do–realities that include civil war and genocide, as well as the occasional hope of reconciliation.

So he begins his new film with this dedication: “To all victims of fratricide–to all who make peace.”

Set within a parched landscape dominated by a flat, steep-sided mountain, Sissoko’s film is a tale of interrelated yet warring tribes: an encampment of nomadic herders, a troop of hunters and brigands, an agricultural community living within a town of rough stone walls. These people and their setting may seem primitive (to a contemporary African viewer, no less than to an American). And yet, as we quickly learn, the characters feel themselves to be anything but timeless. Certainties and restraints have crumbled; a younger generation, respecting no law, piles havoc upon mass murder, mass murder upon rape. The fiercest of the old leaders watches from a distance, waiting only for his chance at plunder and revenge. The wisest retreats to his tent, planning to mourn away what remains of his life.

Such is the Africa that Sissoko depicts in Genesis, his adaptation of the Jacob cycle in the first book of the Bible.

A work of deep conscience and imagination, of great visual beauty and human presences that are indelibly strong, Genesis proves to be a remarkably faithful adaptation, despite the relocation of the action to the southwest. Nor is it a violation of the text that Sissoko (aided by screenwriter Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux) takes liberties with the chronology. Like the ancient rabbis, who deliberately ignored “before” and “after” in their readings of the Bible, the filmmakers reorder events to make Jacob the thoroughly abject figure you see at the start of Genesis.

He is a hunted man, relentlessly pursued by his brother Esau (played by music star Salif Keita). Standing on a hill overlooking Jacob’s encampment, Esau narrows his eyes and howls an echoing denunciation of his brother for having long ago taken his birthright–stolen it, to Esau’s way of thinking. Now Esau and his men circle like predators, waiting for the prey to weaken.

Yet when we see Jacob (Sotigui Kouyaté), we find he is already helpless and alone. His favored wife, Rachel, has died. Her son Joseph, who was to be Jacob’s heir, is missing, supposedly torn to pieces by wild beasts. The real beasts, as Jacob knows only too well, are the sons of his other wife, the unloved Leah, who sits in bitterness outside his tent.

As if to complete the misery, a local prince rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dina (Fatoumata Diawara). Although the young man quickly repents and asks to marry Dina–who seems willing to accept this restitution–Jacob is unable to enforce the peace he negotiates. Ignoring their father’s wishes, Leah’s sons go off and murder every man in the prince’s town, down to the howling infants, so that only the chief is left–old Hamor (Balla Moussa Keita), Jacob’s distant cousin. He lives to bear witness to Jacob’s uselessness, while Dina, driven mad, hangs by Hamor’s side, laughing and mocking.

All this, and more that’s equally desperate, you may find in the Bible itself. What you won’t find is the stampede through the corn, as Leah’s sons drive their cattle through crops on the way toward the massacre. In the Bible, you won’t find shadows stretching onward in late afternoon, as the killing draws to its close; you won’t see how characters scoop handfuls of dust onto their faces, to demonstrate their grief. Some of Sissoko’s inventions seem to spring directly from African storytelling: for example, an episode of burlesque playacting, which later calls to account one of Leah’s miscreant sons. Other devices are purely cinematic, such as the color-coding of the costumes. The mournful Jacob dresses in blue and keeps his head wrapped in a turban; Hamor is in white, topped by a tasseled hat that is surely meant to evoke a limp penis; Esau, who rages beneath a broad, arrowlike cap, wears the color of baked clay and dried blood.

And then there is the flight of brilliance with which Sissoko brings the film to its climax. With Esau closing in and redemption apparently out of his grasp, Jacob passes the night wrestling with God, or an angel, or (as the Bible says) “a man.” Rather than show the face of any of the above, Sissoko has a swarm of small boys scurry out of the brush, to surround Jacob with an accusing chorus. The effect is stunning–not least because, in a single gesture, it moves Genesis from the primitivism of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew to the high modernism of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

For those who have seen his 1995 feature Guimba (another film that uses a long-ago setting and bigger-than-life characters for sophisticated, contemporary purposes), Genesis will confirm that Cheick Oumar Sissoko is a very rare artist–and not only because he’s from Mali. After being featured in New York City in the 7th African Diaspora Film Festival, the picture is now having a brief theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives. Hurry down.

If anecdote is a luxury, as Sissoko says, then Woody Allen flaunts his riches in Sweet and Lowdown. Here, as in Broadway Danny Rose, Allen calls a variety of witnesses onto the screen to tell stories of a legendary showbiz figure. Most of the stories go nowhere; several are contradictory. But then, we have to expect to meander when we’re dealing with a great thirties jazzman such as Emmet Ray. As Allen himself puts it, Ray was not only a beautiful musician but also remarkably funny, “or, or, pathetic.” This makes him hard to pin down, as does the fact that he didn’t exist.

He’s also a new character, which is something Allen has been needing for a while. In place of the too-well-known nebbish artist, we now have a sharp-dressing, gun-toting sneak thief and pimp. He’s the cad that Woody Allen’s other alter egos have aspired to be: Sean Penn, in a crisp white suit.

Penn has let his hair grow long and wavy for the role and has given himself a twirled mustache. He’s taken on the period glamour of a Ronald Colman, but he carries himself like Oliver Hardy. You see something fastidious and fragile in his swagger–which is how self-doubt might come to the surface in a man who has no inner life.

Amid the Depression-era roadhouses and dance halls (which are given a soft, pastel glow by cinematographer Zhao Fei), Emmet Ray is a self-proclaimed king, “the greatest guitar player in the world.” Trailing behind this boast comes a supplemental murmur, “Except for this Gypsy in France.” This is as close as Emmet Ray comes to self-knowledge, or wants to come: He recognizes in Django Reinhardt’s playing a soulfulness that his own music lacks. For most of the movie, this Django-envy serves as a running gag, which Penn performs with absolute aplomb, as if trying to shake loose a piece of paper glued to his heel. Only at the end, when the anecdote meanders toward its brief purpose, does something resembling thought pass across Ray’s forehead. The thought is of Hattie (Samantha Morton), the young woman who gave Ray everything he wanted, from mute adoration to ready sex and back again. Why did he dump her? He doesn’t know, and I don’t, either. I only know that such things do happen, and that Morton somehow stands up against Penn while giving a wholly wordless performance. She’s a mimelike waif, whose resemblance to Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria probably isn’t a coincidence. Allen has made no secret of his admiration for Fellini. Perhaps Sweet and Lowdown might be described as his own version of Nights of Cabiria, focused not on the prostitute but on the first man who robs and abandons her.

Does that make Sweet and Lowdown a perverse project? The answer depends on what you see on the man’s face. Penn, who has his own bad-boy image to maintain, is nothing less than astonishing as Emmet Ray. In an actorly tour de force, he matches the character’s flamboyance to the point of actually fingering Ray’s solos (played on the soundtrack by Howard Alden). But after all that ostentation, the high point of his performance is a single, quiet close-up, held while Ray plays an old tune and thinks of Hattie.

It’s a privileged moment, for Allen no less than for the audience. If you permit yourself the luxury of anecdotes, then Sweet and Lowdown is a privilege to enjoy.

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Book Note: These are bad days for artists who are troublemakers–I mean troublemakers in their art, rather than in roadhouses. To cite one example: the current campaign to remake Norman Rockwell into a man of sorrows, whose work, long insulted by elitists, can now be vindicated. To cite another: a recent article in the New York Times by novelist Scott Turow, who from his perch high on the bestseller lists looks down upon James Joyce. Ulysses can’t possibly be as good as Presumed Innocent, Turow thinks. Ulysses is difficult; Ulysses is not popular.

So where does that leave Jean-Luc Godard? In the hands, I’m glad to say, of David Sterritt, whose book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible has just been published by Cambridge University Press. A volume in the Cambridge Film Classics paperback series, Sterritt’s book provides just the guidance that a curious but less-than-full-time filmgoer will need in approaching this difficult, unpopular and absolutely essential body of work. With becoming modesty, Sterritt holds back from making his writing imitate Godard’s formal innovations. Nor does he follow Godard (or Joyce) in scattering unexplained allusions throughout the text. He simply applies a clearheaded prose to a subject he’s thoroughly mastered. The reader, encouraged, may venture forth with confidence, to let trouble spring (as it should) from every corner of the films.

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