Spanish director José Luis Guerín is best known in the States for his pseudo-fictional love letter to women-watching In the City of Sylvia, but in fact is a prolific documentary filmmaker and has brought with him to Locarno the lovely and elegant pseudo-documentary L’Accademia delle Muse. Playful and clever as ever, Guerín has collaborated with Professor Raffaele Pinto and several actresses, perhaps students, to stage a false course in philology. The class, populated almost entirely by women, discusses the nature, influence and meaning of muses in poetry, and what starts as seemingly a documentary on this classroom, its teacher and a few select students, subtly evolves into a drama of words and unseen actions.
The issues at stake as discourse in the class—what desire means, if it has to be sexual, the difference between a woman and a muse, how a lover influences the beloved and vice versa—spill outside the school as the professor continues and encourages such discussion in his car, at home, in cafes, in a poetic-ethnographic research trip to visit singing Sardinian shepherd-poets, and, in a brilliant homage to Rossellini's Journey to Italy, to visit the hot springs and museums of Naples. The professor debates women in class, they debate him and each other outside it, and his wife takes him to task at home for his hypocrisy. Many of these non-scholastic conversations occur simply but beautifully behind the reflective windows of cars, cafes, patios, and mirrors, lending with a light touch a sense of the staged and the painterly to what otherwise look like quietly observed academic debates, small personal revelations, and minute dramas. Inevitably, I suppose, a proper plot has to develop enough to bring the picture to a conclusion, and I admit that the film's movement in this direction brought its conversations—which range from abstract to piercing—down to questions and confrontations that seem petty after all the high-flying context. Yet the ending felt just, the collaboration with the "actors" a spirited homage to Jean Rouch, and the result a very witty, exquisite, and inquisitive experience, one of the best at the festival.
Rouch, an experimental ethnographist-filmmaker who is too rarely discussed as one of the 20th century's greatest artists, had a profound impact on the French New Wave and particularly on Jacques Rivette. Carrying Rouch and muses in my mind after watching the Guerín movie, I encountered a real UFO in the festival's homage to the great actress and Rivette muse Bulle Ogier (of his L'amour fou, Out 1, Duelle, and Le Pont du Nord), a 1968 piece of pure esoterica, Les idoles. A rare feature film directed by experimental theatre director Marc'O, this barely describable kooky and campy pop culture pastiche told through theatre, music, costumery and more begins on stage as three actors present themselves as music idols (Ogier is one, another is the iconic Pierre Clémenti, best known for his role in Buñuel's Belle de jour) in truly mad outfits and singing sync sound to a live backing band. We are introduced to each "star," told they have been calculatedly constructed to be famous by their producers, and learn more of their backstories and cynical career moves through a splayed narrative that plays out partially on stage—with their lovers and producers taking part in the theatre in front of an audience that is encouraged to ask questions of the idols—but also in flashbacks or imagined sequences outside the theatre setting, also with singing.
The actual content of this, the drama and the music, is resolutely in the mode of pastiche, meaning it doesn't really stand on its own, even if its execution is both unexpectedly committed and well-intentioned. But what is most apparent above all is just how influential this movie was, how its intersection of the cinema scene (edited by Jean Eustache and assistant directed by André Téchiné) with theatre's cutting edge would go on to directly inspire Rivette, who would cast Ogier, here in her first film role, in L'amour fou (itself about the intersection of radical theatre and cinema). And also that it clearly inspired and is inspired by Alain Resnais, for whom this film's freedom to cut from stage to the real world, from one version of an event to another, to essentially speculate on how to imagine and re-imagine things reveals in Les idoles a soulmate in the director of Last Year at Marienbad. I can't say I didn't find a good amount of the film tedious while watching it—partially compounded by the fact I listened to a spoken English-language live translation of the dialog over headphones, no doubt fitting with this film's absurdist, wall-breaking modus operandi—but I also was shocked at just how much cinema I love clearly came directly from this motion picture I previously hadn't known.
I will now relate to you an observation taken from an acquaintance. We had just seen Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) together, and, exiting the cinema very moved, she asked me if I remembered a strange flashback in The Wild Bunch. Having just seen that film two days ago, I said I had and described it: wild bunch leader William Holden thinks back on the last time he was with his friend and fellow bad man, Robert Ryan, before Ryan was shot and jailed. Except, this isn't just Holden's flashback; while it starts with Holden thinking on the good old days, Peckinpah dissolving the image to the two men in a cathouse, we then return to Robert Ryan's face in the present, where he is now leading a gang of bounty-hunters set on killing Holden. The extraordinary thing about this scene is that Peckinpah dissolves again from Ryan's face to continue the flashback. We see Holden remembering the scene, the memory conjuring Ryan, and Ryan continuing the memory. In other words, these two men, separated in mind, body and geography, share a flashback, share a memory, a transmission of images and emotion. Has such a thing ever been done in cinema before? The gesture here, the bond suggested, becomes overpoweringly sensual, practically something out of the cinema of Frank Borzage.
But what led to this memory—our memory of The Wild Bunch—was how Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid places its whole story, that of Garret selling out to become a sheriff and killing his old outlaw partner and best friend the Kid in the 1881, between a single instant in 1909 when random killers gun Garret down. He is clip-clopping along in his buggy when they shoot at him, his body is hit, the credits roll over freeze frames of all this happening, and before he breathes his last breath, the central story starts. And it is the story of Garrett building up the will to murder his friend, a gesture he sees at the time as a kind of suicide, and indeed a gesture in the past that we see, by way of Peckinpah's merciless editing, as somehow, some way, causing his own death, his own murder, in the present. These kinds of evocative formal audacities go well beyond the reach of the slow motion bloodbaths the director is best known for pioneering.
That being said, not much of that daring could be found in 1975's The Killer Elite, which feels like the for-hire job it without a doubt is, described in the festival's introduction inaccurately but keeping in spirit with its eccentricities as a kung fu Western set in contemporary San Francisco. Despite this zippy combo, not to mention a cast including James Caan, Robert Duvall, and favorite character actors Burt Young and Bo Hopkins, you can feel the total disinterest on the part of the filmmaker. Paceless, without suspense, and baring only brief traces of empathy, featuring an awkwardly stiff Caan (sporting the same perennially smug, curling smile Mickey Rourke deployed in Year of the Dragon) and the oddity that Duvall's character disappears for most of the film, The Killer Elite takes on an unusual tone of weary disinterest in its own proceedings: danger that doesn't seem dangerous, experts who seem inept, passion that barely raises the pulse. The elite's leaders (and eventual villains)—a for-hire mercenary group that sometimes works with the CIA—sit with saggy flesh, flaccid eyes, and rumpled clothing plotting nefarious things for our elite to do, and their attitude seems that of the filmmakers, an exhausted resignation that lets play things out at arms' reach.
I've heard this is a favorite film of both Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinji Aoyama, which doesn't surprise me because Peckinpah replaces his characteristic technique of empathetic immersion into a grim world, however immoral and dirty, with spare long and medium shots devoid of detail but full of empty space, the kinds of horizontal spaces that Kurosawa and Aoyama tend to play with in their intellectual riffs on genre filmmaking. This is Peckinpah as if he were the local tawdry studio artisan, a Joseph H. Lewis B-film in 1975. The location shooting around the Bay Area is terrific, and while the racial politics and glancing cultural fascination with Japanese and Chinese martial arts feels embarrassing even compared to Year of the Dragon, there is a real respect for non-American cultural philosophy, and, even more, its healing power. The latter is shown in a dull yet surprisingly involved section in the film where Cann is recovering from gunshots first in a hospital, then in physical therapy, and finally with martial arts, a sequence of bodily recuperation as time-consuming, detailed, and respectful as John Ford's audacious sidetracking of The Wings of Eagles so that we may watch John Wayne's character recover from a broken neck.
Suffice to say, The Killer Elite is a paradoxical and unresolved film, never quite thrilling, never quite boring, certainly far from smart but also dedicated, as all of Peckinpah is, to the force, the fun, and the strength (moral and otherwise) of characters. Even if most of the film's scenes have already flitted from my mind, I'll never forget Burt Young's fidgeting with his hat and jacket not in naive anxiety but in nervous professionalism, Bo Hopkins' gleefully malicious ear-to-ear grin, and mercenary head honcho Gig Young's sublime, Bob Newhart-like deadpan indifference. At the end, Caan and Young are the last men standing, and, rather than each return to the women that we've seen clearly love them unconditionally, the two men slackly acquiesce to sailing away from their past, their homes—everything. And you can feel, too, a filmmaker glad this thing is over, unsure where he may be going next, and too drained to even make a proper decision about it.