I am leaving the Locarno Film Festival with two final movies in my heart, wonderful, punched-around old films that felt sunshine fresh. Sam Peckinpah's effortless, laconic rodeo family drama, Junior Bonner (1971), and Don Siegel's brash, one-of-a-kind comedy of Reno luck and murder, Jinxed! (1981), embodied for me the relaxed ease of this festival that allows its attendees to avoid the bullshit of the red carpet, of the film industry, of the all-pervasive hype machine, and embrace the too often unseen, unsung corners of cinema: the madcap, the modest, the experimental, the cracked-and-scratched old and the still-wet young.
Floating in the placid center of Lake Maggiore or lifted high by funicular, gondola and ski lift to the top of Locarno's highest point, the over-lapped peaks of Swiss mountains completely ensconce this festival with nuzzling immensity, but also give the sense of an unusual isolation and remoteness to such a culturally essential event. This makes for a cozy experience, intimately scaled, friendly and avid in its love for cinema, but one that could be criticized that this geographic character is in keeping with an elitist festival, whether that means for the moneyed (especially considering the cost of attending) or the intellectual. Yet here is where one can take the pulse of cinema's today and tomorrow and where one feels a clear and strong sensibility behind its curation—a word and idea now very much promiscuously degraded.
Locarno in 2015 continued its dedication to smaller, edgier films far less perfect than the grand masterpieces sought by Cannes, instead lassoing the energy of emergence, whether that meant stellar debuts (Thithi, 88:88), the subtle development of beloved artists (Cosmos, Right Now, Wrong Then), or those films and filmmakers working a steadfast tact (Deux Rémi, deux, Happy Hour) rarely exposed to international audiences and whose dignity and intelligence might get lost in the mammoth selections of a Rotterdam, Berlin or Toronto. And if many of the more ambitious films I caught offered great beauty but never quite fulfilled their initial promise—I'm thinking specifically of Pietro Marcello's quasi-documentary Bella e perduta and Ben Rivers' quasi-fiction The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, soulmates in celluloid spirit—I am encouraged that Locarno was moved to put such films in positions of prominence in their festival. Yet positioning was a bit unbalanced this year, as the vivid, worthy quality of several films outside the competition confused the motives of the festival's most prominent section.
Equally important, as no doubt one might be able to tell from my coverage, Locarno's historic dedication to 35mm screenings and extensive retrospective sections ensured that the 12 days of the festival is a dynamic dialogue between cinema's past and present. Large scale festivals, including Cannes, whose acknowledgement that there were films made before tonight's paparazzi-laden carpet walk is restricted to whatever 4K scan of whatever canonical classics happened to be in the queue this year, are increasingly underscoring their embarrassing ignorance as both curatorial institutions and as the creators of cinematic public experiences. It is clear that festivals like Locarno, New York, the Viennale, Rotterdam and Berlin see the intelligent organization and presentation of cinema's past as crucial to the power of premiering new work.
While it's impossible to argue that bringing to the big screen the sweat-stained, tender misery of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia would ever be a mistake, that the centerpiece retrospective at Locarno this year was dedicated to its director, Sam Peckinpah, a filmmaker not exactly needing discovery or re-evaluation, is certainly somewhat problematic once we acknowledge the importance of staging such an event in the first place. After several recent, revelatory years of focusing on Hollywood studio auteurs (Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger, George Cukor), in 2014 the festival took an inspired and by all accounts brilliant sharp turn to focus on decade-spanning Italian production company Titanus. This year, disappointingly, they return to a single director and to an American; yet if one were lucky enough to attend Locarno through these recent years, the larger narrative of classical filmmakers segueing into a maverick revisionist like Peckinpah through the grab bag transition or pivot point of Titanus-era productions may be a rich way of viewing the festival's larger contemporary project. (Unfortunately, there wasn't enough genre or hyper-masculine cinema in the new films at Locarno this year to create an evocative dialectic between Peckinpah's grimy men's world and that of the festival's new films.) The eclecticism promised by Locarno's many awards and tributes given to other actors and filmmakers—my profound discovery of Russian director Marlen Khutsiev being the utmost important event here for me, but there were also rewarding homages to Heaven's Gate auteur Michael Cimino, Queen of the Sun Bulle Ogier, production company Office Kitano, and Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio—crucially lent some small, tactical variation to Locarno's look at film history this year.
To survey film's triple-exposed existence—past, present, future—all at the same time is an ambition worthy of celebration even when by dint of its admirable scope is nearly impossible to consistently fulfill. The general verdict on the ground this year seemed to be that Locarno showed no truly great new film, though that word of mouth, if I may be so bold to make another generalization, also underscored just how interesting and, shall we say, solid most of the selection was. My first Locarno experience did not bring some small equivalent of the two lone, incredible films in Cannes this year, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin—two Locarno films in spirit, surely—but it offered a more powerful experience by focusing on the audience's immersion in the many tendrils of film today, gathering a varied audience of fans, the press, tourists, curators, locals and filmmakers. It asked how Peckinpah feels to us today, what an experimental Canadian filmmaker can do with a group of friends, Badiou and a Red camera, if Hong Sang-soo can remake his own work differently, if Andrej Zulawski's still got it (he sure does), who Marlen Khutsiev is, and many more questions besides. It also challenged the rest of the world's film culture to see if and how these questions, these films, these experiences and their values can escape the Swiss mountains. With most of the festival's strongest films picking up major awards, with Peckinpah revolting and entrancing crowds by equal measure, with each Khutsiev screening gaining in audience members through the very end, with 88:88 prompting the most fevered, crazy Q&A I've ever witnessed—with this spirit Locarno seemed to charge all its attendees with an energy that has the power to project itself beyond those mountaintops.