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A rediscovered treasure of 1990s DIY filmmaking, Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso embeds an incisive look at racial injustice within a lovingly handmade buddy movie/murder mystery/romance. Alarmed by the rate at which the young Black men around her are dying, brash Oakland art student Pica (Toby Smith) attempts to preserve their existence in Polaroid snapshots, along the way forging a friendship with a woman in an abusive relationship (April Barnett) and experiencing love, heartbreak, and the everyday threat of violence. Capturing the vibrant community spirit of Oakland in the nineties, Smith crafts both a rare cinematic celebration of Black female creativity and a moving elegy for a generation of lost African American men.

Picture 9/10

Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Criterion and Janus Films.

Prior to this release, the film was near-impossible to find, having only made the rounds at film festivals or rare screenings. I’m not even aware of any bootlegs or independently distributed videos. Despite that and Smith distancing herself from the film later (at least, that’s what I gathered from her interview found in the supplements), the 16mm original camera negatives still survive and were the basis for this new restoration, which looks remarkable. As expected, the film is grainy, though it’s a very fine grain, never chunky. Criterion has thankfully done a solid job encoding it as well, to where it retains a sharp texture and never comes off as noisy or blocky onscreen.

Finer details also look remarkable despite the 16mm source, and the image remains sharp and crisp throughout where the photography and lighting allow it. The film was about as indie and do-it-yourself as you can get, yet that rarely shows through in the presentation, which remains clean and stable throughout. Some nighttime sequences can get a bit muddy, and shadow detail can be limited. Still, this all appears to be inherent to the photography. Black levels look fantastic otherwise, and colors have a vibrant pop; those blue skies look especially good.

Film damage is not an issue, with the source materials appearing to have been kept in good shape through the years while the restoration work leaves nothing of note behind. Considering the film has been more-or-less lost through the decades, the end presentation looks astonishing.

Audio 7/10

Criterion includes the film’s original monaural soundtrack in lossless single-channel PCM. The indie roots can be a little more prominent here, with music and some background effects sounding flat in places. Still, the dialogue is sharp and clean with adequate range and fidelity, while the soundtrack also shows no apparent signs of damage.

Extras 7/10

Sadly, the film doesn’t receive a stacked edition. Still, Criterion at least makes the release a showcase for the filmmaker’s work, similar to what they have done recently with titles like This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection and Faya dayi. Included here are six short films: Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron (1992, 6 minutes), Songs for Earth & Folk (2013, 11 minutes), Lessons in Semaphore (2016, 4 minutes), Egungun (Ancestors Can’t Find Me) (2017, 5 minutes), Remote Viewing (2011, 15 minutes), and Suffolk (2021, 8 minutes), the latter being a music video that musician Jeff Parker commissioned. All six are experimental, with Smith explaining in a 12-minute introduction to the shorts that all but Chronicles (a student film) were products specific to the sight where they were filmed or whatever materials were available. Smith highlights this particular point through Egungun, which features a person dancing around on a beach with an elaborate costume made from shells and such (as a note, this short features the option to be played on a continuous loop). Some appear to capture moments, like how Lessons in Semaphore features choreographer taisha paggett dancing with Semaphore flags. In contrast, others have more overt messages, like Remote Viewing symbolically reenacting how pieces of the black community are destroyed or buried, the film being (I’m guessing) a reaction to gentrification. In this case, a schoolhouse is literally buried (how this is accomplished makes the film the more ambitious of the six).

Admittedly, I didn’t get all of them, but Criterion’s notes and Smith’s comments around each film help shed light on them (knowing the backstory for Chronicles ends up helping a lot). What I learned, though, is that despite not being all that technically minded, Smith is fascinated by what different tools can produce, from Super 8 and 16mm to high-def digital and 4K. She comments on the looks of the films presented here, explaining what she likes about them. On this point, it’s worth mentioning that the movies are in decent shape and look decent. That said, most of them appear to come from standard-definition sources, even if they were shot on film (Suffolk and Remote Viewing appear to be the only ones filmed digitally, the former with a RED camera). Because of that, there are some artifacts present.

Smith then talks a little more about her work and Drylongso in a new interview between her and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, whom I must assume played a part in getting the film out there since Smith suggests that she pretty much walked away from the film following its initial screenings, unhappy with what some audiences were focusing on. He’s enamored by it and talks about its qualities and the aspects that stood out to him, Smith answering his question along the way. She also talks about the production and filming of it, how the film reflects what she and other black women were and are feeling, and shares the inspirations behind it, including the serial killer subplot. There is also talk about the technical aspects of it (including the film’s sound design), what the title means (also explained in the included trailer for the new restoration), and why the film ultimately got lost in the wave of indie films coming out at the time (we’ll say it didn’t meet certain “expectations”).

It’s an enlightening 25-minute conversation, though I was a little disappointed they didn’t get more into the film’s “release” (it was shown at festivals but never picked up) and how it seems to have been able to find audiences, no matter how small, through the years. An included essay by Yasmina Price gets a little into this, contextualizing it to the period when there was a boom in independent and Black cinema. However, these films could be shoehorned into the category of “hood” films, which Drylongso didn’t fall into. Price’s lengthy essay (presented on the opposite side of a poster fold-out that features the new artwork on the front) also looks at the film's representations of friendship, gender, and identity. It’s a good read, but I do wish it could have been an interview or video essay on the disc.

It can feel a little slim, but the features and collection of shorts do a decent job of shedding light on the film and Smith’s work as a whole.


A good, if not great special edition for the film that sheds some much-deserved light on it thanks primarily to a spectacular new presentation.

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Directed by: Cauleen Smith
Year: 1998
Time: 81 min.
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1190
Licensor: Cauleen Smith
Release Date: August 29 2023
MSRP: $39.95
1 Disc | BD-50
1.33:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 New conversation between Cauleen Smith and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie   Short films by Smith, including Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron, Songs for Earth & Folk, Lessons in Semaphore, Egungun (Ancestor Can’t Find Me), Remote Viewing, and Suffolk, with a new introduction by Cauleen Smith   Trailer   An essay by film scholar Yasmina Price