My second day in Locarno I've shamefacedly dedicated to what some of the critics here call "the old movies." To be honest, while I am very much thrilled to be one of the first people to see new films by my favorite filmmakers as well as be surprised ones by those I don't know, almost every one of these films, most shot digitally and certainly projected digitally here in Locarno, I will be able to catch again somehow, whether in the "digital library" at the festival itself, through a link from a filmmaker/producer/publicist/friend, or at the next festival stop they make. The 35mm films in Locarno are obviously therefore a much more rarified commodity and experience, something David Bordwell testified to in his report from the nearly all film (and certainly all "old movies") festival in Bologna in June: namely, the increasing popularity of festivals which cater to these now-unique celluloid experiences, rather than festivals who solely focus on premiering films in theatrical experiences that mimic digital viewing one can adequately replicate at home, on an airplane, on your computer, and so on.
This doesn't just include revisiting familiar faces and films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; one always hopes that of film history's million and one films you haven't seen, there are still countless special artists and movies that the right circumstances (available materials, subtitles in your language, smart curators, adventurous venues) will arrange themselves so that you may discover. Peckinpah, okay sure, I know him well (albeit from my teenage years), have seen many, and essentially look forward to seeing a bunch in a row to form a better understanding of the director's art (as well as see movies on film I grew up watching cropped on warbly VHS). But Georgian director Marlen Khutsiev is another story.
I had never heard of him 12 hours ago. But then there was the eager insisting of my friend, critic (and Notebook contributor) and curator (and, in Locarno, roommate), Boris Nelepo, that this question mark in the festival program was essential, so much so that I must jettison nearly my entire second day in Locarno, where I am most vulnerable to the head-bobbing, groggy-eyed struggles of jet lag, to see not one but two 3+ hour films by this director, one from the 1960s and one the early 90s. And I did so; and I admit it: Boris is right, damned be my ignorance—Khutsiev is essential.
The six film retrospective here began with his last completed work, 1992's Inifinitas, a bizarre choice considering the film's 206 minute wanderings of a middle-aged man through his life and memories is even to this uninformed viewer clearly autobiographical, and, after next viewing Khutsiev's 1965 masterpiece variably known as Fortress II'ich and I Am Twenty, it is clear that Infinitas is also a continuation or sequel to that semi-autobiographical film, picking up his 20-year old self and throwing it into the passive body of a bearish, middle-aged schlump. So why show it first? Perhaps it was a Proustian gesture.
At once clearheaded and elusive, Infinitas reminded me variously of that author, of Terrence Malick, Tarkovsky's Mirror (a use of Bach calls back directly to Solaris), Vítor Gonçalves' The Invisible Life, and, as Boris himself connects in an article for the Notebook, Manoel de Oliveira's old/new film from this year, Visit, or Memories and Confessions, yet more modest and less mysterious than any of those. The film opens with the camera moving away from an open window and billowing curtain and from there maintains a kind of free-flowing space of dreams, memories and histories unfolding before us and its “guide,” the sparely defined protagonist. Loose or handheld camerawork evoke not naturalism but the fluidity of time folding and merging and morphing. In a characteristic scene of our dignified but nearly somnolent male protagonist's passivity before this unfurling, in the film's brilliant opening scenes he takes endless phone call after phone call as in some kind of domestic nightmare comedy, and inadvertently agrees to sell all his flat's possessions, stripping him of his home and leading him free-wandering across landscapes and towns meeting what seem to be a mixture of people from his past (including, I think, a version of himself) and, simply, people...from the past.
It's a languid reverie, often dappled with extraordinary lighting, particularly of Russian streets, and while for me too many of this wanderer's meetings were vague—who is this person and why is he or she important to him or to us?—the gentleness and extent of the reflection is touching and personal. The final hour delivers if not more context or payoff than certainly more resplendence, journeying past our hero's history into the turn of the century, first a late 19th century bourgeois parlor party, and later a Czarist military send-off, gorgeous and rich scenes that expand the implication of the journey our nearly silent guide is taking beyond his own person.
This reflective immersion gained a powerful retrospective aura after seeing I Am Twenty, a revelation of such a magnitude that I expect it won't be upset here at Locarno. How to describe this epic of youth? Compared to the languorous, simple conception of Infinitas, this 1965 film—begun in 1959 and encountering such censorship that a drastically cut 90 minute version was released at the time—has such a level of dramatic, social, political and historical density, married to a bravura style combining the French New Wave with 1950s Hollywood social melodramas like those by Kazan, that what begins as an experience of overwhelming energy aggregates into an exhilarated but depleted, introspective exhaustion.
It opens with a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed blonde youth returning from a peaceful stint of military duty, crashing on his mother's couch, and re-uniting with his childhood friends, each of whom has moved on in their lives with work and family. This opening hour is a giddy roundelay running from apartment to apartment, across and through Moscow city streets, part city symphony, part gleeful portrait of a more free, youthful post-war generation. Channeling the party-hopping energy of everything from Jacques Becker's woefully under-known Rendezvous in July to Fellini's equally antic La dolce vita, this section is suffuse with the sense that the world is theirs, the male youth of Soviet Russia. (The women are not the protagonists here, but each are given their own weight and agency, whether the boy's mother, widowed like so many during the Second World War, the unhappy wife of one of his friends lent unexpected and touching recognition by the filmmaker, or the self-possession of the girl the youth courts over many months.) One feels the power of velocities and orbits, different lives each with potential, meeting and flung out again only to be drawn together once more.
The seasons change and the boys don't change so much as realize they are in fact neither 15 any more nor 30 quite yet, and the second part of the film turns the skipping energy of the first on its head, taking an increasingly darkened, more pensive stroll through the questions existential and generational these boys, and particularly the blonde hero, start to ask themselves. The story's expected trajectories—of jobs, of love, of happiness in the city—somehow, subtly, get waylaid and complicated by practical concerns of living, by nuances of generational circumstance (a new phase in Soviet history and a generation being raised without their war-lost fathers), and by deeper, more unverbalized questions. Integrated documentary sequences of a May Day rally—during which an incredible chasing courtship is staged—and a kind of Soviet poetry slam—an externalization of the convulsive self-questioning that seems to beset these twenty-somethings—take the film's vérité flourishes to a stunning level of audacity. But it is equally the myriad of scenes shot on trams, shot walking through Moscow's parks, sauntering to jobs or running to a dance that ensure the beautifully staged dramas and parties inside these youths' apartments cannot be separated from real lives teeming on the streets.
This merging of the outside and the inside culminates in the film's most stunning and moving scene, where the young man dreams of asking his dead father, his father of the heroic war generation, for advice on how to live. Yet the boy is already older than his father when he was killed, and after the war everything seems possible—but also in doubt. While the movie belongs to its wayward blonde beauty, the two other friends get enough scenes alone that this 197 minute film suggests an even longer story, a portrait of a generation that could be more expansive, could keep expanding, much in the way Infinitas refuses at its end to keep its questions restricted to its hero. Somehow, a film this full has the openness to suggest even more: it cracks history open wide and allows us to see so much inside and still ask questions.
Having already spent over 6 hours in the retrospective sections, I decided like a proper scriptgirl I must keep exact continuity, so: off to Peckinpah! No cameo film this one, but rather if not a full blooded or throttled picture by Sam, then a beautiful, repulsive lark, the irrepressible and irresistible The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). What a pleasure, to begin this retrospective not with The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs but rather with a Peckinpah comedy, with all the cynicism, grit, boozing, and grossness, and coming complete with a great deal of soul.
And what a marginal, incidental film! Jason Robards as a Western hero? His vagabond foulmouth creating an absurd water-selling business and ramshackle fiefdom midway between towns named “Gila” and “Deaddog,” this is the next myth concocted by Peckinpah after The Wild Bunch? Yes, indeed. And a loving myth it is at that: Like a film by Shohei Imamura, Cable Hogue is entirely dedicated to the lower class and the low lives. They are the standard in the film, the normal of the world; a lone banker, stage owner and revival preacher each seem nearly alien contrasted to Hogue's miscreant, the whore he loves, their friendly fake parson and notable letch, and Hogue's two dumbass comrades, now enemies, who leave him to die of thirst in the desert during the film's tremendous, pathetic opening sequence. These are this film's good society, and among them Cable Hogue's plain-faced directness, gruff simplicity, and general open-mindedness—not to mention his ability to accompany his lover in a folk song during an outdoor sponge bath!—mark him as godly and indeed fit for a comic-cartoon-like ballad. Projected big big big up on the screen of the immense, sloping Cinema Ex Rex in Locarno, it seemed this unlikely and otherwise unheralded hero was certainly getting his due.