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Locarno 2018. First Features and Good Samaritans

At the Locarno Festival, feature debuts by Tarik Aktaş and photographer Richard Billingham, and a Leo McCarey film starring Gary Cooper.
Ray & Liz
Dead Horse Nebula, the first feature of Turkish director Tarik Aktaş, is the kind of film of extremely modest means one finds at a film festival—but it is also proof that such films are precisely why one seeks such films. It opens with a mystery and a dilemma: a dead horse has been found in a field by Hay, a young boy, who calls his elders, who call the owner, who calls the police—all to deal with this bloated carcass. This turns out to be a prologue of a tale that just as evenly balances the unknown and the practical. In the next scene we find a young man (Baris Bilgi) whom we eventually gather is Hay grown up, for Aktaşs’s film moves from scene to scene with gently elusive ellipses. The narrative picks and chooses anecdotes that are once evocative but hardly definitive: the drowning of someone on the beach while Hay’s friend swims nonchalantly, an animal slaughter gone wrong when the blood that flows turns out to be Hay’s own—for his knife slipped—and an excursion to the woods to find and cut down one single tree. What the gist of this is I must be honest that I am still uncertain, but it is immediately apparent that the director has a particular sensibility, a suppleness of style and tone with which to tell incidents that feel tinged with allegory and moral depth, if only Hay, like us, could discern the big picture. An unexpected but welcome finale of animist phantasmagoria, followed by end credits of hard rock, cement this filmmaker as one to watch for in the future.
Another debut at Locarno is one by an artist who’s taken an unusual amount of time to find himself directing actors, but is no stranger to making images. British photographer Richard Billingham, best known for his intimate, comically grotesque, and elaborately textured work in the early 1990s documenting his parents—the desperately alcoholic Ray and the overweight Liz—in their Birmingham council flat, has made the unusual decision to make a fictional feature about his parents and his and his brother Jason’s childhood. In other words, Ray & Liz is a fictional adaptation not just of Billingham’s life, but also of his photographs of his life—photos that are well-known and are now transformed by actors and sets and motion. This unusual origin lends the kitchen sinkism of Ray & Liz an extra jolt of the uncanny, in a film about people, their homes and home-life that already exists on a thin edge between misery and absurdity. Bookended by dreamy, besotted scenes of a prematurely old and completely piss-drunk Ray now alone in a tiny flat, the story takes the form of two long episodes: One of Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) leaving Jason as a toddler at their Birmingham home in the hands of Liz’s draft brother Lol (a wonderful Tony Way), who gets suckered with comic ease into drinking himself sick by a local ruffian; and the next a jump in time to the family being downsized into a small, shabbier flat, Ray deeper in the drink, Liz more careless, and Jason, now a chubby and disconsolate young boy, wandering around unto himself until neighbors and social services take notice.
Despite the title referring to Billingham’s parents, they aren’t precisely the subject of this very intriguing film, which is told in a part-humorous, part-tragic tone and is immaculately dressed and shot to be at the height of the overlap between bric-a-brac slovenliness and the textural splendor of clashing wallpapers, carpeting, paisley dresses, and rooms that haven’t been scrubbed in ages. Billingham seems more after the evocation of an environment engendered by his parents’ seemingly lackadaisical negligence rather than semi-fictional portraiture of his childhood (his character appears mostly in the sidelines in both sections). This is layered subtly with the knowledge that we are watching a re-creation, and one which seems very, very meticulous. I am now very curious indeed to see the documentary Billingham made while his parents were alive, Fishtank (1998), to try to understand more the impetus to return in this subject in a nearly arch way, to nail so many well-known, well-seen details in a false setting, and for his family “story” finally to be told with the control of fiction, yet focused on such minor anecdotes. The Ray and Liz of the title, and so known from the director’s photos, seem less proper characters and more like fields of perverse influence, aloof gods of indolence who tinge and taint not just the environment, but the lives of those around them. One of the stranger films to premiere at the festival—at once exactly what one expects from a certain genre of British film, yet undeniably attractive and with a profound and ungraspable odd-streak running through it—Ray & Liz is one of the few new films here I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
Another truly bizarre film could be found in the Leo McCarey retrospective: 1948’s Good Sam, starring Gary Cooper as a man who’ll do anything and give anything to help anyone, much to the detriment of the health of his marriage to Ann Sheridan. This Christian allegory—which follows the runaway success of McCarey’s two priest-themed films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—features Cooper in a remarkably discreet and minimalist acting mode as the samaritan, but boldly and even perversely collides this pedantic moral storyline with the emotional and psychological impact such an attitude has on family life and, even more importantly, love life. For Good Sam is another of McCarey’s great comedies of getting laid, with a lot of misdirection applied to keep Sheridan—a terrifically smart actress who gives this naggy role a sharp intellect and bold sexiness—out of the same bed as her husband. He’s distracted not just by helping others but by the money woes that come with such Christian behavior in post-war American suburbia; and as such, Sheridan’s character remarkably resembles those often played by Hideko Takamine in Mikio Naruse’s great 1950s dramas of economic anxiety in the Japanese home. Since Cooper’s attitude towards the world is so obviously right, but Sheridan’s is so obviously human, she becomes the true star of the film, having to navigate with considerable difficulty the humor, frustration, ill-will, and momentary swooning love that ping-pongs all around McCarey’s sublimely tricky and often downright uncomfortable comedy. Or is it a tragedy? Either way, it’s precariously romantic, dealing as it does with love after marriage and kids, the fight over ideals and practicality, and the hope that everyone in the house, in the whole world, will go to sleep so mom and dad can go to bed and turn out the lights.

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