The 2013 Locarno Film Festival
By Richard Porton

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana, the latest film produced by the Sensory Ethnography Lab

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana, the latest film produced by the Sensory Ethnography Lab

Consistency appeared to be the watchword at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. When Olivier Père abruptly left Locarno to become the head of ARTE in 2012, commentators were unsure if Carlo Chatrian, the newly appointed director, would alter the winning formula Père devised to keep the festival at the center of media attention. Père encouraged a successful meld of populist fare on the Piazza Grande’s alfresco cinema and adventurous art cinema in the International Competition and several sidebars. Chatrian evidently decided against tinkering with the festival’s inspired eclecticism; Locarno remains a festival where the good-natured vulgarity of We’re the Millers can rub shoulders with rarefied puzzle films by Albert Serra and experimental documentaries from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, the most recent film produced by the Sensory Ethnography Lab, confirmed the increasingly minimalist predilections of this “experimental laboratory” whose films are more likely to be referred to as “projects” than documentaries. While several of the SEL’s better-known projects, particularlySweetgrass and Leviathan, mingled avant-garde strategies with tantalizingly implied narratives, Manakamana is bereft of any residual narrative accoutrements and poses a considerably larger challenge to viewers. Something of an implicit parody of conventional ethnographic documentaries, Spray and Velez’s film features pairs of successive worshippers as they either ascend or descend a mountain towards a temple in Nepal while seated in a chairlift. Shot from a fixed position, these couples, united by devotion to the Hindu goddess Bhagwati, are frequently either silent or engage in banal chatter. Whereas a conventional ethnographic documentary would focus on the pilgrims’ ultimate goal and explore their rituals and the inspiration for their trek up a remote mountain, these details, perhaps because they might appear overly Orientalist or exoticized, are conspicuously absent. The film also refuses to indulge us with a traditional schism between tradition and modernity; the necessity of reaching an ancient site with a conveyance made possible by hard-nosed technology is neither celebrated nor critiqued. Spray and Velez eschew moralism and young people toying with iPhones are treated with the same respect as elderly travelers.

Even though festivals are obliged to showcase new films, seasoned festivalgoers soon realize that the lure of the old is occasionally preferable to the shock, or at times disappointment, of the new. Locarno’s one-time screening of a restored version of Filipino director Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (2001) is a case in point. One of the least-seen major films of the twenty-first century, Diaz’s five-hour intimate epic can easily be viewed as a companion piece to North, the End of History, his latest dissection of his country’s political and moral quagmiresBoth films intersperse Dostoevskian intensity with narratives that interrogate the lost promise of revolutionary ideals in the Philippines.

Lav Diaz's 5-hour-long Batang West Side (2001) is one of the least-seen major films of the twenty-first century

Lav Diaz's 5-hour-long Batang West Side (2001) is one of the least-seen major films of the twenty-first century

Batang West Side is certainly the most notable film to ever take place in Jersey City—although, at the moment, it’s difficult to recall any other films set in that increasingly gentrified metropolis across the Hudson from Manhattan. An elegiac portrait of Filipinos adrift in America, Diaz’s film unfolds like an unusually languid melodrama—Rebel Without a Cause filtered through a subtly Brechtian sensibility. Diaz’s anguished protagonist, a dogged police detective named Juan Mijares (Joel Torre), is seemingly the film’s moral center. As the narrative progresses, however, his obsessive desire to solve the murder of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), a Filipino teenager undone by his association with unsavory gang members and their fondness for “shabu” (crystal meth), becomes linked to horrific details from his own shadowy past.

Within Diaz’s multilayered narrative edifice, “shabu” is not merely the catalyst for juvenile delinquency, a blight tarnishing the veneer of a so-called “model minority.” The murderous delirium unleashed by crystal meth becomes a nightmare vision of the alienation generated by years of exile and the illusory blandishments of the American Dream. In a key scene, some strung-out gang members link the cult of meth to the insurrectionary agenda of José Rizal and other seminal Filipino nationalists— a melancholy interlude, indeed, since meth’s toxic self-involvement is obviously incommensurate with the ideals Rizal promoted. In a brilliantly reflexive gesture, the film ends with an invocation of another lost generation of Filipino youth—student activists murdered by agents of the Marcos regime during the Seventies. The drab streets of Jersey City become the unlikely setting for contemplating a legacy of state repression and fractured national identity.

Locarno’s definitive George Cukor retrospective also functioned as an antidote to some of the more anemic new films on display. A number of stalwart cinephiles made the pleasantly dingy Ex-Rex, an old cinema off the Piazza Grande that has hosted Lubitsch, Minnelli, and Preminger retrospectives in recent years, their home away from home. Long underrated and patronized, Cukor is often damned with faint praise as a stylish director of literary adaptations with a skill for eliciting effective performances from the leading actresses of the studio era. It’s of course undeniable that Cukor’s roots were in the theater but, as Chris Fujiwara convincingly argues in the retrospective’s catalog, it’s simplistic to reduce his output to a one-dimensional caricature of canned theater. Refuting accusations that Cukor’s brand of cinema is hopelessly stage-bound, Fujiwara asserts that the man responsible for adaptations such as Born Yesterday and Gaslight deploys a theatricalized perspective in order to “turn things around, to show the theater from the point of view of the people on stage, to shoot into the lights…” and the quintessential Cukor scene can be characterized as one where “ the characters suddenly become…(conscious of themselves) as actors playing roles.”

A Life of Her Own (1950) was one of the highlights of the festival's George Cukor retrospective

A Life of Her Own (1950) was one of the highlights of the festival's George Cukor retrospective

A Life of Her Own (1950), a film dismissed by Cukor himself as well as all his biographers, was one of the Locarno retrospective’s major rediscoveries. (Filmmaker and critic Mark Rappaport has emerged as the film’s major champion and he eloquently zeroes in on its virtues in his contribution to the invaluable catalog.) Perhaps, at the time of its release, A Life received short shrift from critics expressly because it was not an adaptation of a crowd-pleasing play or a novel but a melodrama that appears to recycle conventions associated with “ the woman’s film’”—long a much-reviled genre among tonier critics. A Life, however, manages to transcend generic constrictions; Isabel Lennart’s more than serviceable script and Cukor’s masterly command of mise en scène elevates a rather pedestrian tale of a young woman who sheds her small-town naivete to become a jaded model in Manhattan into the realm of art. Lana Turner, who often seemed uncomfortably self-conscious while playing Hollywood glamour pusses, uses that very self-consciousness to her advantage in a role that requires her to examine the superficiality of the star-making machine that made her career possible. Nominally a story about a doomed extramarital affair, this low-key character study is as much about the porous boundaries between “real life” and performance as more critically enshrined Cukor films such as A Double Life and A Star is Born.

Abandoning the pleasure of the pristine 35mm prints of the Cukor retrospectives for other sections, especially the Piazza Grande offerings, occasionally proved perilous. Defter, and slightly more playful, than the usual revenge thriller, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, for example, is well-crafted, decently acted, and, in the final analysis, fairly pointless. Still, for viewers who relish well-administered genre kicks, Saulnier recycles clichés with great finesse. The film’s most visible on-screen asset is Macon Blair, whose performance as Dwight Evans is quietly virtuosic. With a sartorial style that shifts early on from homeless-vagrant duds to disheveled preppie, Dwight embarks on a bloody, vengeful journey that rivals the exploits of the most macho Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson heroes. Ruminative moments are few, although several scenes featuring Dwight’s confabs with his distraught sister (Amy Hargreaves) offer a brief respite from the mayhem. The film’s shtick, as arch as it is hollow, soon becomes tiresome. A scene in which Dwight performs surgery on himself to remove an arrow from his leg is apparently meant to summon up an ambience of comic Grand Guignol, but just comes off like a wan tribute to depictions of self-surgery in innumerable action movies. Despite the gruesome frivolity, there’s a glimmer of unpretentious social commentary during Dwight’s encounters with Ben (Devin Ratray), an old school friend who equips him with an assortment of firearms. According to Manny Farber, writing in 1976, “What’s really disgusting about Taxi Driver is not the multifaced loner but the endless propaganda about the magic of guns.” Blue Ruin demonstrates that, for better or worse, twenty-first century American gun fanatics are not always psychopathic loners—they just need an insatiable grudge in order to keep pressing the trigger.

Disappointing mainstream films aside, it would be a mistake to conclude that restorations and retrospectives were the only highlights at this year’s festival. Joaquim Pinto’s poignant essay film, What Now? Remind Me and Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s ingenious found-footage documentary, A Masque of Madness, exemplified Locarno’s admirable openness to the sort of provocative films that often become marginalized at conformist megafestivals. For festivalgoers weary of video projection and in need of a celluloid fix, it was nevertheless difficult to contest the appeal of Batang West Side and the eye-opening Cukor retrospective.

For more information on the Locarno International Film Festival, visit http://www.pardolive.ch/en/Info/Festival/Presentation/A-major-event#.UousH41-Msc

Richard Porton is a member of the Cineaste editorial board.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine