Looking for Langston Review

Lovingly packaged for its DVD release, Looking for Langston’s disc sits alongside a 46-page booklet within its slipcase. As well as the expected biographies and credits, these pages hold a collection of interviews and essays. Some involve writer/director Isaac Julien himself, the rest are by a roster of writers, critics and academics who read as a who’s who of black thinkers: Armond White, Kobena Mercer, bell hooks and others. Only Paul Gilroy and Ruby B. Rich are notable in their absence, but then both are thanked during the film’s closing credits and as such their presence felt. Given this fine collection of thinkers, it becomes something of a daunting task to even consider producing a piece which can match their erudite discussions of black history and racial/sexual politics; indeed, those wishing to read such works can purchase the disc themselves. With this in mind, the following review will instead concentrate on the fundamental qualities of Looking for Langston and consider how it achieves its power through cinematic/stylistic means.

First and foremost Julien’s film is not a mainstream one. It exists within a number of cinematic ghettos which will no doubt deter the casual viewer. Looking for Langston is not only a short film, but a short black and white film, a short avant-garde film, a short gay film and a short black British film. These combinations may appease a wider audience than had focussed on simply one of these elements (the queer cinema connoisseur as well as those drawn to the experimental, say), but then such a melange also ups the challenge. Moreover, its “narrative” focus is never clean cut: the film is both documentary and fantasy; “a meditation of Langston Hughes” (as the opening title puts it) and the Aids crisis circa 1989; a paean to gay sexual desire and gay filmmakers. And this is without mentioning all of the other permutations and connotations brought up by the various essays and articles included in the attendant booklet and published elsewhere. Indeed, the prospect of simply viewing Looking for Langston can be an off-putting one, let alone reviewing it.

Despite having never been behind the camera on such an ambitious project, Julien manages to pull off the challenge with a remarkable deftness. Upon viewing the film it is the sheer beauty of the imagery which proves most immediately enticing. Although lumbered with a low budget (it was commissioned by Channel 4 as one of the series of gay and lesbian works) the black and photography is quite remarkable and has a luminescence which blends in seamlessly with the archive footage. Indeed, Looking for Langston works so well because Julien is able to combine his various concerns into one cohesive whole, both visually and aurally. On screen we are offered a construct of material ranging from the films of Oscar Micheaux and footage of Hughes throughout his life to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and, of course, Julien’s own filmed pieces. And even these latter pieces cross time and genre: we get a Harlem nightclub from the 1920s which morphs into a London nightspot from the late eighties; plus various dream sequences which range from the fantastic to the theatrical and pay homage to filmmakers from Jean Cocteau to Jean Genet. Over these images we also get a patchwork soundtrack consisting of the words of Hughes himself, James Baldwin and contemporary poet Essex Hemphill, the narration of Stuart Hall and the music which covers early house, ‘Freakish Man’ (an early gay blues recording) and Blackberri’s eighties compositions.

In isolation both the sound and images make for a judiciously timed construct, but in combination this becomes even more pronounced. The juxtapositions – and therefore the correlations - between the past and the present day (though, of course, 1989 now seems a long time ago, not that Looking for Langston is dated as such, rather of its time) blend with a subtlety which means that it never feels as though Julien is striving to make a point. Indeed, by not fully engaging with the film it is possible for entire layers to pass you by, though this is by no means a criticism. Rather, it demonstrates just how perfectly constructed it is. If, for example, you wish to view the film simply as a documentary then it can operate on this level from start to finish. On the other hand it can also work as a 44-minute reclamation of an aspect of black history, a meditation on Aids or just pure fantasy. During some of the essays which accompany the disc it is noted how certain groups of people take away certain things from the film and fail to notice others. In some cases, this is deemed to a failure of these audiences’ parts, yet to my mind it only serves to demonstrate Looking for Langston’s great strength. After all, as long as you’re not coming away with disappointment can there really be a problem? Indeed, such is the richness of the film, it is likely that the number of levels will only provoke yet another repeat viewing.

The Disc

Looking for Langston is treated to a fine presentation on disc. The sumptuous black and white is duly recreated with no discernible technical faults. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is adhered to whilst any signs of grain, damage and the like are either wholly intentional or inherent in the condition of the archive material. Equally impressive is the DD2.0 sound mix which ably copes with the layered soundtrack and combination of both song and dialogue.

Given that Looking for Langston is only a 44-minute effort and retailing at an RRP of £19.99, it is pleasing to see that the BFI have issued it with a number of worthwhile extras. As well as the superb booklet (which should occupy far more of your time than just 44 minutes) we also find a commentary, a previously unseen short film from Julien, a radio programme and three photo galleries. The commentary is the major piece here and brings together Julien with director of photography Nina Kellgren. Given such company, there chat stick mostly to a technical overview of the film and how the various results were achieved (far more difficult that you’d imagine, in fact), but then accounts of Looking for Langston’s production are rare and so any information is likely to be duly lapped up. Moreover, the pair use their allotted time well (they speak over a reconfigured version of the film which replays certain sequences, ditches the end credits and inserts some stills – though when viewing the film sans commentary, of course, we see it in correct form) resulting in an exhaustive listen.

Both the short film and radio programme centre around Essex Hemphill who provided his voice and poetry to Looking for Langston and died of Aids related illness in 2003. The former, entitled Essex Hemphill : Portrait in Blue, is a brief, impressionist account of his recording of Langston’s voice-over, whilst First and Last Voices, the radio programme, sees him recite and discuss his work alongside fellow poet Larry Duckette over the course of 30 minutes. As for the galleries all three are in black and white (of course) and concentrate on, respectively, production stills, the film’s salt marsh sequence and various behind the scenes photos.

All extras, where applicable, comes with optional English HOH subtitles.

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