Four films by Truffaut, one each by Kubrick, Kazan, Mackendrick, Donen, Lumet, Aldrich, Spielberg, Henry King, John Huston, Hawks, Hitchcock, Tourneur, William A. Wellman, John Ford, Brooks, Mel (two films), and Richard (one), Michael Mann, and two by David Lynch. Classic Arabic movies, Pakistani movies, Romances & Musicals, Indonesian and Vietnamese films, films in Tagalog, Sinhala, Bengali, Mandarin and Cantonese, and six contemplative long take studies ranging in length from ten minutes to an hour. No, this is not the line-up for the Locarno Film Festival; it is but a taste of what was offered on demand on the video screen on my flight from New York to the small Swiss town's nearest large international airport, in Milan. Seeing as I was en route to a festival with several 35mm retrospectives, a competition section of adventurous fare anticipated and unknown, and scads of other program strands I've yet to fully understand, I opted to watch Brad Bird's Tomorrowland instead.
Bird's bizarre attempt at a theme park blockbuster may have fizzled at the box office, but it sure is a strange creature (for more, read Duncan Gray's even-handed exploration). It posits a land away from the rapidly degrading potential of our world, a land populated solely by the inspired and genius, creating magnificent achievements to gift to those who remain in the land. Is this the troubled vision of an ideal film festival? As our plane arced over the French alps, and later as a festival shuttle wove around Swiss lakes and plunged through uneasily long, winding tunnels to finally find Locarno, I couldn't help but think of a Disneyland ride that purports to transport you through space but in fact takes you into the imagination.
I have no doubt this festival I've always wanted to attend, in a town I've never been, to in a country I had yet to visit, each and all have their own secrets to impart...but who am I kidding? I nearly leapt off the bus and into the closest cinema.
First taste: the international competition. There are plenty of known quantities coming up here—films by Hong Sang-soo, Chantal Akerman, Andrej Zulawski, and Athena Rachel Tsangari, to name my most dreamed for—but I began with a debut, Josh Mond's James White. Mond belongs to a kind of micro-collective of American indie producers and filmmakers grouped under the Borderline Films banner, including Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer), Alastair Banks Griffin (Two Gates of Sleep), and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), who don't make movies that I particularly care for, preferring slickly provocative styles matched with thin, too schematic psychological drama. James White is a slumped shoulders portrait of a New York loser (played by Scott Mescudi, better known as musician Kid Cudi) whose main redeeming quality is the near absolute compassion for and dedication to his cancer-ridden widowed mother (Cynthia Nixon). It carries with it a kind of grungy, New York apathy particular to wayward millennials in the city reminiscent of the Safdies' Heaven Knows What, which likewise finds the kind of degradation of "old New York" not in the city's topography or society but a degradation of the soul and spirit of some of the its inhabitants. Mescudi, the film's unassuming strength, nails this with his lackadaisically yet perfectly greased hair, maintained slacker facial fuzz, unwashed hoody and a phlegmatic delivery as if his whole aspect is mid-hangover. Yet to watch any ten minutes of this film is to see the whole picture, this young man's depths of sorrow and, with the expected drinking, brawling, fucking and so on, rampant degradation.
It doesn't help the camera is a half a step too close to everything, seemingly to nail some sense of claustrophobic, subjective myopia but in fact failing to characterize the spaces any of its characters live in, interact with, or move through. In a key scene of a perhaps fuck-buddy, perhaps-girlfriend leaving Scott to care for his mother, she kisses him and then, in what could be a beautiful, telling gesture, right before leaving bumps her head against his chest; except, the angle of the shot and the camera's proximity to the actors in the scene barely make this movement legible, and strip the act of import, robbing the female character of a meaningful moment and our lone loser with any kind of consolidation. The whole thing feels like an edgy-indie attempt on James Gray, mashing up the arrested development of Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers with the dying mother of The Yards, but all without Gray's restraint and precise placing of his distraught New Yorkers in an ethnic, familial and neighborhood milieu. Instead, Mond expectedly foregrounds immediacy and proximity as shortcuts to inquiry and intimacy, and never really moves either beyond the introductory stage with his excellent cast of actors, all deservedly given great, tellingly rich moments. Yet what was left with me was without a doubt a taste of New York I've seen and felt before, a tenor that the film may lack in tactile texture but conjures in sensibility.
I ran from the competition across the Piazza Grande, already thick with 8000 seats in leopard colors for the large scale plein air screenings during the festival— opening tonight with Jonathan Demme, Diablo Cody and Meryl Streep's Ricki and the Flash—to catch the first thing I could in the festival's retrospective dedicated to controversial American trendsetter Sam Peckinpah. The largest of several tributes and retrospectives at this festival whose international identity is now firmly associated with a dedication to film history extensively experienced on celluloid, the series includes many welcome non-famous works by the director, like dozens of episodes of TV Peckinpah directed in the late 50s, as well as such oddball selections as what I was dashing to now, Don Siegel's beloved 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose Sam claim to fame is merely a passing cameo. Such stretched reasoning hardly impacted my desire to see it. Any excuse to watch Walter Wanger's Superscope production on film is a good one.
In fact, as the festival experience is wont to do, I felt echoes between Siegel's mounting hysteria and Wond's fatalist despondency in contemporary New York. They shared a complicity in something ambient and inescapable, except that Siegel's horrifying vision starts personal and expands to society and, in the movie's most famous scene, implicates and expands out into the audience: the threat, the terror is among us! James White, in a manner in keeping with the general scope of American independent films, keeps its portrait, its world particular to the individual: a character study, a slice of life, a personal struggle of redemption, an exception rather than the gross danger of a rule. This of course allows for the kind of psychological and melodramatic detail that Siegel's B-production can't hope to match, even if it wanted to. But it also means that once the lights in the cinema come back on, it's not just the movie that is over but its impact and implication as well. Over half a century old, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its grim stiffness, its small town modesty, the clash of the banal and the absurd, has not lost one frame of its ability to chill. Despite the seeming irrelevance of the generic Communist allegory driving it forward, its fear is still palpable, its swallowed panic infectious, and its America far in period but not in mindset of ours today.