The Locarno International Film Festival
by Richard Porton

José Luis Guerin’s L’accademia delle Muse

Guided by the choices of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and head programmer Mark Peranson, Locarno’s competition slate increasingly premieres titles that will receive attention on the festival circuit as the year progresses. Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos, Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, and Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, the winner of the Golden Leopard, all debuted at Locarno before going on to receive acclaim at the Toronto and New York festivals. As usual, a tempting array of new films was supplemented by several spectacular retrospectives. The main event was of course the comprehensive, near-complete Sam Peckinpah retrospective. But, for the dedicated cinephiles who flock to Locarno, the retrospective devoted to the relatively neglected Soviet director Marlen Khutsiev was even more revelatory—as were certain one-off revival screenings such as Marc O’s Les Idoles, screened as part of Locarno’s tribute to Bulle Ogier.

Two of the most notable films at Locarno—José Luis Guerin’s L’accademia delle Muse and Travis Wilkerson’s Machine Gun or Typewriter?—were, however, screened as part of a somewhat neglected sidebar entitled “Signs of Life.” Billed as a “pedagogical experience,” Guerin’s faux documentary wittily explores the delicate subject of erotic tension between randy professors and ambivalent students. The film’s opening sequence resembles a perverse version of Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley. Raffaele Pinto, an actual professor of philology at the University of Barcelona, is conducting a seminar on the legacy of the muse in literature. His erudite ramblings on Dante and Machiavelli elicit some pointedly critical reactions from his lively female students. Annoyed with what they consider Pinto’s conception of seduction as tantamount to male condescension, they cannot stomach a vision of the muse as a passive catalyst for creativity. What seem like off-the-cuff interchanges eventually appear more suspect as the film is revealed as an obvious fabrication, especially when professor Pinto’s adulterous interludes begin to rub his wife the wrong way. As much of an ethnographic film as a playful hybrid (there’s a lovely, if meandering excursus involving the recording of shepherd’s songs in Sardinia), Guerin demonstrates how the pseudospontaneity of feigned documentary can evolve organically into restrained melodrama.

Travis Wilkerson's Machine Gun or Typewriter?

Wilkerson’s Machine Gun or Typewriter?, distinguished by gleeful genre bending, is heavily suffused with self-irony. Known for earnest leftist films such as An Injury to One and his tribute to Santiago Alvarez, Accelerated Underdevelopment, Wilkerson infuses his usual political concerns with a hard-boiled narration that seems as indebted to Mike Davis’s City of Quartz as it is to the hard-boiled novels of Raymond Chandler. Alvarez was famous for his boast: “Give me two photographs, a moviola, and some music, and I’ll make you a film.” Wilkerson’s film demonstrates a similar economy of means—a lonely DJ dwarfed by a microphone, some miscellaneous graphics, (most importantly, maps) and stock footage provide the film with a surprisingly versatile repertoire of images.

The film’s hybrid sensibility synthesizes Wilkerson’s preoccupations, especially antiauthoritarian left politics, with an over-the-top, doomed romanticism that occasionally seems to verge on self-parody but might be best characterized as an appropriately pessimistic response to what Brecht termed “dark times.” A norish narrative, generated by Mayakovsky’s last poem, “Past One O’Clock” (sometimes colloquially referred to as a piece of “break-up” verse) and his infatuation with Lily Brik, haunts the film’s narrator. Broadcasting from a pirate radio station, Wilkerson’s ranting surrogate chronicles his own beloved’s disappearance during the height of the Occupy movement. There’s also a curious symmetry between the protagonist’s emotional devastation and the transgressions he inveighs against—particularly the scandalous neglect of Lamed Shapiro, the Jewish-Ukrainian writer who made LA his last abode. A visit to Mount Zion Cemetery in Los Angeles, where Shapiro is buried in a pauper’s grave, is one of Machine Gun or Typewriter?’s most memorable digressions. Wilkerson’s melancholy excavation of the past succeeds because it’s often leavened by mordant wit.

Igor Drljaca's The Waiting Room

Igor Drljaca’s The Waiting Room, while a full-fledged work of fiction, was another Locarno entry in which the convergence of performance and historical trauma proved crucial. An intricate hall of mirrors, the film opens with an émigré actor, Jasmin (Jasmin Geljo), reluctantly filming a sequence with the aid of a green screen that uncomfortably—and to his mind inaccurately—reflects his own painful past during the war in Bosnia. Floundering in Toronto, Jasmin yearns to return to Sarajevo. But, despite fraught visits with his family in the old country, Jasmin remains stuck in a feedback loop in which his unsatisfying acting gigs, where he’s usually cast in one-dimensional roles, reinforce his alienation as a political exile in Canada. In a review in Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman compared The Waiting Room’s meditative tone with Atom Egoyan’s “early, (intentionally) funny” films. Drljaca indeed finds a sort of rueful comedy, personified by Skype conversations and dreary layovers in antiseptic airport hotels, in Jasmin’s slough of despond. Jasmin, a prototypical sad sack, must endure the prospect that his young son, an aspiring actor who is blissfully unaware of the historical conflicts that plague his father, appears headed towards a much more promising, or at least more lucrative, career in show business.

But for those with an aversion to the shock of the new, the Peckinpah retrospective offered many opportunities for festivalgoers to reacquaint themselves with the meat-and-potatoes virtues of classical filmmaking. The bare bones aesthetic of Peckinpah’s television work was particularly fascinating. Working with Poverty Row production values, the episodes of The Westerner featured in the retrospective were intriguingly minimalist variations on timeworn Western motifs. Brian Keith, the series’ star, functioned as Peckinpah’s equivalent of John Wayne, a stoic hero meant to embody a dying social code. An episode titled “Jeff,” that revolves around the efforts of Keith’s Dave Blassingame to make a final connection with an old paramour, now employed as a cynical prostitute, is something of a minor classic. All of The Westerner episodes, even when some strained humor is attempted, are curiously and rather satisfyingly downbeat. And because Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (shown at Locarno in a pristine 35mm print) suffers from the clumsy intervention of an imperious producer, the television work looks uncompromisingly grim by comparison.

Of course, some of the most entertaining moments at Locarno are often generated by the antics of the stars and directors, frequently past their prime, that the festival chooses to honor. For sheer unhinged zaniness, few events could compete with the two-hour discussion that Michael Cimino, winner of the Pardo d’onore, conducted with the public and press at the open-air Spazio Forum. Looking like an elderly teenager—no doubt the result of expensive plastic surgery—Cimino, known for The Deer Hunter, as well as the notorious flop Heaven’s Gate (which has developed a cult reputation in recent years) lashed out at many of his questioners, raged against Hollywood and journalists, and became tearful while discussing Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It was a performance that exhausted the audience as much as it must have wearied the director and, even if the afternoon was more of a train wreck than a triumph, it was emblematic of Locarno’s attempts to honor the cinematic past while tantalizing its guests with glimpses of cinema’s future.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor.

For more information on the Locarno Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1