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Locarno 2018. Patterns and Atmosphere

At Locarno, Dominga Sotomayor’s atmospheric competitor, and Jodie Mack and Argentine actress María Alché both make their feature debuts.
The Grand Bizarre
While I’ve been reveling in many of the old films presented at the Locarno Festival, so far the new ones mainly seem to think making movies is merely the choice of film references and personal re-interpretation of favorite tropes. This approach nearly sidesteps two of the most essential qualities of the cinema: a hunger or need to film something, to reveal something to the audience that one is excited about, eager and driven to communicate; and an acute perspective on the world, a strong stance taken, one which places something at stake in the making and watching of a picture, rather than the respectful regurgitation of techniques and themes.
Thankfully, the festival also has Jodie Mack, an exuberant sprite of cinema whose frame-by-frame animations of object patterns like wallpaper catalogs or lacework into giddy, materialist flicker films are some of the most delightful of short filmmaking. She has brought to Locarno her first feature, The Grand Bizarre, a film generous and joyous, restorative, inquisitive and unexpectedly danceable. Its form is, in part, similar to many of her short films—rhythmic jittering and flashing textures of manifold fabrics are filmed flatly, top down, and animated together in a magical mixture giving the simultaneous sense of mathematical order and organic spontaneity. Inspired by a combination of Mack’s interests and travels as a filmmaker, the subjects are textiles—fabrics, rugs, patterns—from different parts of the world (Mexico, Morocco and Turkey are spied), as well as maps and various alphabets. The other part of the film, reminiscent of another of Mack’s longer works, Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013), takes the camera away from the animation stand and photographs the world, shooting on boats, planes, cars and trains, city streets, balconies, beaches and stores by placing and then animating—in a more subdued but kaleidoscopic stop-motion—endless silks, mats, blankets, swatches, handkerchiefs, and other bedazzling textiles implanted, as it were, in the landscape, seen in mirrors, dancing at once within and apart from things. Patterns are everywhere, fabrics are of the world and the world made of fabric: In some instances, Mack even finds the place she visits offering its own warp and weft, flocks of birds or patterned cargo containers mirroring the intense geometry of a weave. As much a musical as Dusty Stacks, whose soundtrack was a remake of Dark Side of the Moon, The Grand Bizarre moves things along and separates its sections with Mack’s bespoke compositions—at once infectious and slightly parodic—that riff off of contemporary pop beat-making and give the film an infectious enthusiasm.
One could watch (and listen to) all this in the simple, gay pleasure of the playful and colorful abstract delights, but The Grand Bizarre’s flatness speaks volumes. It uses a world tour as a conduit to document and trace the beauty and language of textiles, their design, creation (by hand and by machine), sale, international movement, and cross-cultural infiltration. It sees, plays with, and integrates languages as similar traveling currency, complex articulations of base materials arranged to create and exchange meaning, and that meaning (and the base materials) changing in its meeting with other letters, words, and places. The direct analogy is made with the fabrics, and then with the 16mm film itself, all forms of communication at once aesthetic and transactional, and each with bountiful possibilities. Like many of Mack’s seemingly straight-forward short films, this feature has layers of depth literally woven into its surface.
A bit too on the surface was the feature debut of María Alché, who is known for playing the eponymous role in Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl (2004) and has made a drama of familial claustrophobia not far removed from the atmosphere of Martel’s films or Marcelo Martinessi's The Heiresses, which premiered in Berlin. The subject is a middle-aged mother (Mercedes Morán) somewhat caught between the whirligig entrances-and-exits of her teenaged children in her Buenos Aires flat, her suppressed grief over the recent death of her sister and the need to clear her apartment of family history, and softly hallucinogenic ghosts and memories of other family members long gone. As shot by cinematographer Hélène Louvart (who is having quite a year, also beautifully photographing Happy as Lazzaro and Petra), Immersed Family is of redolent atmosphere above all, lit with a warmth surrounding Morán bordering on smothering, approaching even the crepuscular. Handsomely staged and with actors integrated fully and believably into the history of the story—a special kind of intangible chemistry that can not be said for nearly every other new film I’ve encountered at the festival—nevertheless the film's highly subjective approach seems out of character with this strong woman, who may be unhappy on the inside and a bit adrift outside, but also seems far too together, too rational and smart to float within such indeterminacy. 
Similar praise and qualifications can be found in Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young, a deceptively chill film which is so bathed in the hot, dusty haze of summer vacation, of sprawling countryside family reunions and getaways outside the pressures of the city, that the film’s political context may nearly be missed. Vacation it may seem to the kids—cousins and friends, ages ranging but centered on the teenaged beauty Sofía (Demian Hernández)—but for the adults, seemingly all artists or artisans, the gathering in ramshackle cabins outside Santiago is a kind of commune or (self?) imposed exile, or both—for this story very discreetly takes place during the years of dictatorship and disappearances. There is something at once clever and disappointing in giving us the perspective of the children, keeping this context on the edge of the frame, murmured off-hand and caught in snatches. The film’s movement seems to focus primarily on Sofía’s pleasantly evoked but rather expected passage from adolescent to young adult in sensibility, sexuality, and awareness. The mild emphasis of this intentionally lackadaisical story lands, then, on the archetype rather than the specificity in which she exists, a specificity that Sotomayor is exceedingly good in conjuring but not quiet as strong in narrating. The direction of the youths is fantastic, as are the orchestrations of large groups—hanging out, parties, meals, swimming, other activities—which always feel dynamic, yet unfussy and just right. This calculated looseness inevitably conflicts with the desire for a denouement, which lasts too long and is laden with the symbolic, but then again, perhaps cinema, like the summer, has greater demands than just atmosphere alone.

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