One of the simultaneous joys and embarrassments of attending festivals that include retrospective or revival sections is the haltingly thrilling sensation of discovering a film or personage that, for some, may not be a discovery at all—that for you, may just be your own humbling ignorance. Here at Locarno, I’ve already found my favorite film, though it may be one others already know about: Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler’s Leuchtturm des Chaos (Pharos of Chaos), a happenstance documentary made in 1983 when Bühler tried to find Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden to get permission to adapt one of his books. (This adaptation, Der Havarist, is also screening in Locarno.) The film is essentially a two-hour interview with the great actor, who, at the age of 67, is still a physical giant and gorgeous, speaking with booming voice and staccato enunciation; though at this point in life, he is sodden with alcohol and has retreated to his clutterbox houseboat moored in a quay in France. With wooly, unkempt hair and a beard somewhere between an Amish man and a Boudu-like tramp, Hayden looks at once virile and in near-collapse. He punctuates nearly every remark with strangely rhetorical questioning grunts, as if talking to himself, while he reads excerpts of his two novels, venerates Stevenson, decries Capital, and pontificates with genuine insight and captivating charisma.
Interviewed by the small West German film crew over five days, the talks are less full of exposition or explication and more like conversational rambling, rants and anecdotes—but all told boldly, confidently, and with frequent, captivating beauty. Familiar with this wonderful actor from Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, Kubrick’s The Killing and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and, later, Altman’s The Long Goodbye, unbeknownst to me he had an even more extraordinary life off-screen: Hayden worked at sea as captain of his own ship by 21, parachuted into Yugoslavia during the Second World War to fight the fascists with Tito’s forces, named names at the HUAC hearings, abandoned Hollywood after the 1950s, and wrote two books, Wanderer and Voyage. Wracked with guilt from his HUAC betrayal (it was “like the rape of a friend...no, it’s the rape of integrity,” he says, nervously dragging on an unlit cigarette), the actor frequently abandoned himself to drink, even describing this simple interview film as “a record of exactly what alcoholism is” and later observing of his life that “this is a form of suicide—hmm?—surely.” You feel every bit of this stratified history in this unique encounter with Hayden, who may not say much specifically about his life story (the gaps are briefly filled in by the film’s voice over), but whose forceful vigor, erudite sensibility, and booze-and-hashish supplemented conversation is as enthralling as it is tragic. As unsparing in his politics as he is arrogant of opinion, as self-destructive as he is self-aware, the film finds the man at once at the peak of his power and the depths of his isolated despair.
Things were, of course, quite a bit cheerier over in the Leo McCarey retrospective, where Hayden’s incredibly productive 1950s, and McCarey’s increasingly strange features made in that decade, seemed a long way off. (Incidentally, McCarey was also a friendly witness for the HUAC hearings.) The focus, instead, was a shorts program devoted to a comedy star not nearly as well remembered as the director's other collaborators like Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. Max Davidson, a middle-aged vaudeville performer specializing in Jewish characters, seems little remembered these days outside of history books. But watching such flavorful comedy shorts as Jewish Prudence and Why Girls Say No (both 1927, again note the great titles) was a delightful reminder of an era of Hollywood that did not balk at catering to, and showcasing the ethnic humor of, specific immigrant populations. Later homogenized and smoothed out by the industry in the mid-1930s, such films as these revel in cultural specificity—including, of course, broad stereotyping—that made the cinema screen a place where many could find people from their countries and cultures, adapting (or not) to America. The mildly New York Jewish flavor of these Davidson shorts, despite undoubtedly being shot in Los Angeles, were charming and droll, if never quiet as ingenious as some of the other McCarey shorts shown with different stars, probably because Davidson is less a gag comedian and humorous more for his exaggerated caricature of a quintessential tenement “Papa”—oy vey! After watching these, another audience member and I reminisced on that brief period of the Talkies when sound cinema was used such that you could hear all the different ways people in America talked—including Yiddish, and including, if you’re lucky enough to have see Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! (1932), James Cagney speaking Yiddish!
For American cultural specificity nowadays, one may be best served looking for the sporadic outcropping of regional independent cinema rather than movies too-often set in gentrified areas of New York. (For the true and still-resilient melting pot, watch Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, In Jackson Heights.) A surprisingly example of such regionalism is Diane, the fictional feature debut by Kent Jones, the critic and New York Film Festival Director, which is playing in Locarno’s international competition. Jones has set his film in upstate New York rather than the city, which lends this modest, sorrowful drama welcome distinct qualities ranging from the winter-smeared vinyl siding of the houses and generic family dining establishments only half a rung fancier than a diner, to a good scattering of old Polish families and accents that are gathered from several compass points around the American Northeast. Though told with little mystery beyond what it says upfront, with its cast of characters who are mostly middle-aged or elderly women, a story of small-scale but hard-felt grief and guilt, and small flourishes of unexpected subjectivity, Diane is a refreshingly untrendy picture to encounter at a festival often beholden to the latest thing in art cinema.