James Franco and Travis Mathews, Interior. Leather Bar., 2013, HD video, color, sound, 60 minutes.
ON PAPER, the premise of Interior. Leather Bar. is irresistible: Two directors collaborate to reimagine the forty minutes of footage that William Friedkin claimed to have cut from 1980’s Cruising—whose infamous scenes set in s/m pleasure domes still rank as the most explicit depictions of homo lust in a big-studio movie—to avoid an X rating.
But doubts about the execution of this promising-sounding project set in immediately, as we observe the filmmakers—James Franco and Travis Mathews—vaguely discussing their interest in revisiting this scandalous gay landmark thirty-plus years later. Graduate-degree collector Franco haltingly summarizes the argument against gay marriage laid out in The Trouble with Normal (1999) by the queer-studies pioneer Michael Warner, the actor-writer-director’s professor at Yale; Mathews rehashes standard lines about the dangers of “assimilation into straight culture.” After this uninspired colloquy, an actor named Val Lauren, who is to play a character based on Al Pacino’s undercover cop in Friedkin’s film, enters the room to announce: “Personally, I don’t like this project. But I support [Franco’s] mission.”
What follows is an hour’s worth of more of the same: muddled, half-thought-out inquiries into male sexuality and Franco worship. Interior. Leather Bar. becomes less a re-creation of Friedkin’s “lost” footage than a haphazard making-of document (some, if not all, of which is scripted), a meta conceit with increasingly diminishing returns. Heterosexual and married, Lauren, a longtime friend of Franco’s—he plays the title character in Sal, Franco’s 2011 film about the final hours of actor Sal Mineo—asks other performers milling around on set, at least one of whom says he has never heard of Cruising, “Are you comfortable with physical contact with dudes?” Whether this is a genuine, unscripted query as opposed to a line of dialogue is soon beside the point, for Interior. Leather Bar. advances nothing but false dichotomies—and Franco’s own inflated sense of his role as provocateur.
“I think he’s an artist who’s really interested in the range of human creativity,” one auditioner says of the celebrity co-director. With all the fratty charm we’ve come to expect from anyone wearing a backward baseball hat and wielding a camcorder, Franco has a chat with Lauren after the two have been caught looking aghast while a scene unfolds involving boot worship, paddling, and orgiastic moaning—all of which we hear but never see. (Though erect cocks, blow jobs, and deep kissing are shown intermittently throughout.) “Sex should be a storytelling tool but everyone is so fuckin’ scared of it,” Franco, now assuming the more enlightened position, scolds his friend, who later blurts, “I don’t know what’s going on here!” Franco admits he doesn’t, either, though he is certain of the perverse “power” of this project, the result of his “just being here and in a Disney movie.” (The actor had recently finished filming Oz the Great and Powerful.)
Perhaps a more charitable way to look at Interior. Leather Bar. is not as an utter failure to grapple with Cruising’s complicated history and reception, both then and now, but as a descendant of William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968). In this heady, truth-tweaking film-within-a-film-within-a-film, Greaves, after he’s asked by a permit-requesting cop in Central Park what he’s shooting, can only offer, “It’s a feature-length we-don’t-know.” But there the similarities end: Greaves’s crew, instructed to film the filming, is on the verge of mutiny. These are the harshest words Lauren has for Franco: “He’s got a purpose to it, even if that’s to quench his own curiosity.”
Interior. Leather Bar. screens September 7 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of NewFest, which runs September 6 through 11.
A GOOD MANY PATRONS rely on the Toronto International Film Festival to provide views of places they may never otherwise see for lack of funds, ambition, or courage. But of all these vicarious journeys set to begin when the festival launches its thirty-eighth edition on September 5, none may be as unusual or as immersive as the one presented by the latest creation from Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, which makes its North American premiere this week alongside many other marvels in TIFF’s Wavelengths program.
A multidisciplinary initiative at Harvard University under the direction of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the SEL has fostered a decidedly experiential take on ethnographic documentary forms, and the fusion of nonfiction filmmaking and avant-garde tactics makes the lab’s products ideal fodder for Wavelengths, TIFF’s experimental purlieu. Indeed, Manakamana—co-directed by Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray—is as much a standout in this year’s Wavelengths as the previous SEL effort, Leviathan, was in last year’s slate. But whereas Leviathan, a study of life (human and otherwise) on a fishing vessel off the coast of New England, induced more than a few cases of motion sickness, Manakamana offers a more serene viewing experience. Filmed on 16 mm, it comprises eleven fixed-camera shots of various passengers on a newly built cable car that ascends to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. Your company on this succession of rides ranges from devout pilgrims to garrulous young metal musicians to several goats. All prove to be as worthy of scrutiny as the gorgeous mountain scenery that’s visible over their heads and shoulders.
Nearly as remarkable if more enigmatic is the journey in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, another 16-mm effort and the first collaboration between two young Wavelengths habitués. The handiwork of Ben Rivers, director of Two Years at Sea (2011), and the Chicago-based Ben Russell, this typically cryptic but often astonishing not-quite-feature follows an unnamed figure (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe) through a desolate landscape in northern Finland, a rather more social commune in Estonia, and a grotty music club in Norway. The duo’s key concerns about performance, identity, and interpersonal dynamics are most prominently foregrounded in the delightful vignettes starring the commune’s frequently nude members. The young musicians in Manakamana might be most impressed with the transcendent finale, which situates Lowe amid a supergroup of avant-metal heavyweights like Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.
Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes.
The Paris-based actor-turned-director Mati Diop also returns to Wavelengths with A Thousand Suns, a wry and poignant film that traces another kind of journey, one that ventures between eras rather than places. Diop’s subject is Magaye Niang, star of the seminal Senegalese film Touki-Bouki (1972). When the now-elderly actor attends an outdoor screening of that film in Dakar, a flood of memories prompts an increasingly surreal and incongruously snowy reverie.
Set in an ordinary German apartment that becomes a universe unto itself, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat develops its own means of bending perceptions of time and space. The title offers a clue as to why the actions of this apartment’s residents can seem disjointed or contradictory: This may very well be how the daily rituals of humans seem from a feline perspective. Zürcher’s ingenious debut feature suggests what Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) might’ve been like if Jacques Tati had got around to making it first.
While the hermetic oddness of Zürcher’s film might prove a challenge for the rest of the international festival circuit, it seems entirely par for the course in Wavelengths. Along with five programs of shorts and new medium-length works by Jean-Marie Straub, Miguel Gomes, and João Pedro Rodrigues, the lineup also includes North American premieres for two of Venice’s most adventurous competition entries: Stray Dogs, by Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, and The Police Officer’s Wife, the first feature in thirteen years by Into Great Silence director Philip Gröning.
The most divisive entry among the features may very well be the program’s most cantankerous. An anarchic odyssey patterned in large part after Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película combines musings on the end of cinema as a celluloid-based medium with the fictional tale of a blowhard American director (played by bona-fide filmmaker Alex Ross Perry), who comes to Mexico to see if the Mayans were right about the end of time. Though this exercise in cinematic self-immolation could puzzle viewers who don’t already write for Peranson at his magazine Cinema Scope (myself included), the film compensates for its more wayward impulses with its caustic sense of humor and abundance of rapturous imagery.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5–15.
Nicolas Philibert, La Maison de la Radio, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Alain Bedout.
LOCATED ALONG THE SEINE in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement, the massive, circular building of the title of Nicolas Philibert’s often frustrating documentary La Maison de la Radio houses his subject, Radio France, a public broadcaster that encompasses seven national networks. The overwhelming array of programs—ranging from newsmagazines to quiz shows to interviews with a sexagenarian Moroccan slam poet to air time devoted to live, in-studio Gallic hip-hop performances—available to listeners is glibly conveyed in Philibert’s film, with more time spent on the assembling of soft rather than hard news, on workplace jokes instead of journalistic craft. Imagine a documentary on NPR more besotted with the inanities of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! than with, say, Nina Totenberg’s Supreme Court analyses.
Shot primarily from January to July 2011 but structured as if unfolding over one twenty-four-hour period, La Maison de la Radio promisingly begins with a cantankerous editor upbraiding a tyro reporter over his story on Syria. “No one hears quotation marks on the radio,” she reminds her chagrined employee; their exchange provides insight into the particular challenges of transmitting complex information via a solely auditory medium. When Philibert focuses his attention on news-gathering and script preparation, later seen as blind journalist Laetitia Bernard taps furiously at her Braille keyboard before going on the air, La Maison plays as a thoughtful, curious chronicle of dedicated professionals. But these engaging segments are dwarfed by desultory scenes of rehearsals by the Choir of Radio France, a contestant on Le Jeu de 1000 Euros racking his brain to answer a trivia question, and two goofballs interviewing the physical comedian Jos Houben.
Philibert’s misguided, darting attention in La Maison de la Radio is particularly curious given the deep focus of two of his best-known documentaries, To Be and to Have (2002), a country-school portrait, and Nénette (2010), about the star-attraction orangutan at the zoo in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. The long, observational takes in both yield ample rewards: The conjugation of auxiliary verbs is elevated from the mundane to the majestic in the former, and seventy minutes of almost nothing but a russet-haired simian watching those who gawk at her becomes an intriguing exercise in voyeurism in the latter. La Maison de la Radio fares even worse when compared with two other recent, immersive documentaries by Frederick Wiseman on Parisian institutions: La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Crazy Horse (2011), about the French capital’s classy nudie cabaret. In their work, both Philibert and Wiseman dispense with the usual nonfiction-filmmaking signposts, such as narration, identifying intertitles, and talking-head interviews. But in his latest project, Philibert appears no longer concerned with demanding viewers’ close attention.
Watching La Maison de la Radio is akin to distractedly punching the “search” button on a car stereo, impatiently flitting past the FM stations. Perhaps if Philibert had given his film a running time typical of a Wiseman production (three hours maybe, rather than 103 minutes) or narrowed his focus (Evelyne Adam, the host of a call-in request show, warrants her own cine-profile), this documentary wouldn’t seem so insignificant. Radio is often acclaimed as the most intimate of media; here, it seems the most superficial.
La Maison de la Radio plays at |Film Forum in New York September 4 through 17.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes.
THINK OF EARLY FASSBINDER: ECLIPSE SERIES 39—the Criterion Collection DVD set of five of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first eleven feature-length films, made whirlwind-fashion between 1969 and 1970—as a portable cross between an art installation and a German delicatessen. The lean, piquant cold cuts of his 1969 debut Love Is Colder Than Death are like a black-and-white platter of blood sausage, gorgeously splayed out in razor-sharp slices. Katzelmacher (1969) is spotty weisswurst, marinated in bile; Gods of the Plague (1969) is raw gangland ham on rye; The American Soldier, pulpy headcheese slathered in nouvelle French dressing. And for the piece de resistance, Beware of a Holy Whore (1970): a big lip-smacking, full-color film-about-a-film club sandwich of the bad, the beautiful, and the borderline psychotic.
Three of these are variations on a genre: Love Is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier are a vaguely interconnected trilogy of homages to the Hollywood tough-guy films of the Sam Fuller-Raoul Walsh kind. (Recurring characters include a “Magdalena Fuller” and “Franz Walsch,” the latter played by Fassbinder in two of the three pictures.) They bring this type of what Manny Farber first championed (circa 1957) as “underground film” together with the Godard-Warhol-Straub mode (that Farber championed as well). Love Is Colder Than Death luxuriates in the head-on geometry of amazing precisionist compositions, accompanied by hypnotic blasts of incongruous music, like an anti-fashion layout for a nihilist Vogue: Fassbinder’s pudgy, poxy leather-jacketed pimp Franz, Ulli Lommel parading like a kid dressed up as Alain Delon’s dapper Le Samourai for Halloween, an equally baby-faced Hanna Schygulla immediately grabbing the audience by casually removing her stockings. These three are always posing, playing at Bonnie-und-Clyde charades (“I’m looking for round glasses like the cop in Psycho had”), moving in synchronized patterns and rivetingly silhouetted against whitewashed walls.
Before Schygulla, no one in movies ever balanced life-grinding routine and poeticized glamour quite so easily—the embodiment of double (and redoubled) life, she would deservedly become the emblem for Fassbinder’s mash-ups of unsparing reality and acute artifice. In Katzelmacher, the one detour into socially-conscious didacticism in our program, she deftly disappears into the ensemble, playing the least rotten of a pack of craven, good-for-nothing bourgeois friends who socialize, gossip, abuse each other out of boredom but band together to kick the crap out of a poor immigrant who moves onto their turf. This production is the most blatant carryover from Fassbinder’s theater work, everything as pointedly unambiguous as a sitcom devised by a juvenile-delinquent Brecht. Fassbinder plays the foreign man—Yorgo the Greek—as a childlike Forrest Gimp, exacerbating the sense of the film as a one-act sketch that’s been padded out by forty-five or so minutes of redundant if heartfelt malice. The moral being: Life is like a box of Fassbinder films, so you never know what you’ll get—a poisoned bon-bon or a solid smack in the teeth with a rusty monkeywrench.
Gods of the Plague loosely recapitulates his first movie, with some of the same characters (this time Harry Baer plays Franz, with a glassy eye toward the Warhol limp-stud paradigm) and similar plotting, as a way of conducting some fresh experiments, working out new spatial and emotional compositions. With Schygulla doing her first Dietrich turn at “Club Lola Montez,” while being framed backstage in a dirty mirror that lends a distinct Robert Frank–ness to the lowlife vantage point, the movie has all the infectiously bleak cunning of a romantic-triangle opera filtered through the Rolling Stones at their most downbeat and strung-out. Alienation never felt so valiantly bittersweet as when a wounded robber’s Odd Man Out stagger down a deserted boulevard by night segues into an a cappella rendition of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” staged in yet another mirror. Fassbinder reconnoiters the tension between distance and rapture like a private eye photographing a cheating spouse: businesslike, cynical, mesmerized.
With a dame indolently painting her toenails in the foreground of a poker game among crooked cops (using a deck of pornographic cards to up the seediness quotient), The American Soldier’s opening couldn’t be brusquer if a manhole cover were lifted up and the camera dove in. Inside of ten minutes, the title character (Karl Scheydt) has taken a hapless hooker on a night drive through Alphaville and dumped her like a sack of dirty laundry in Kiss Me Deadly territory, laughing maniacally as he shoots her with blanks. (I think there’s a mocking Mike Hammer/Lemmy Caution metaphor—or several—floating around in this movie-movie fishtank.) He’s trying to get ahold of his old buddy: “Walsch—‘W’ as in war, ‘A’ as in Alamo, ‘L’ as in Lenin, ‘S’ as in science fiction, ‘C’ as in crime, ‘H’ as in hell.” When he tracks Franz down, they have an equally droll post-hardboiled conversation:
“How was it in Vietnam?”
“Oh, yeah? Nothing happened here.”
“Nothing ever happens in Germany.”
This film is a prime example of how Fassbinder learned organization from Godard and vertical integration from Warhol’s Factory: combining prefabricated and/or abstracted elements with unprocessed, randomized ones. But even at eighty minutes, it feels like Fassbinder tires of the procedural repaint-by-numbers course en route, that he’s made his point and completed his studies in positioning figures in phone booths or alongside jukeboxes or putting pinball machines in parlors. The climactic shootout drags out the cliché of the slow-motion death scene in a manner so ludicrously clumsy it means to purge the macho convention once and for all—a ballet of dry heaves.
If Love Is Colder Than Death is Fassbinder’s most underrated film—at once too gnomic and too precociously ruthless—then Beware of a Holy Whore is where Fassbinder incontrovertibly graduates from being a dazzling student of filmmaking to working on a level commensurate with the high masters. Shot for shot, scene for magnificently mortifying scene, this goes proudly toe-to-toe with the insider-straits of Wilder, Minnelli, and Godard; it also makes Johnny-come-latelys like Day for Night, Nashville, or Boogie Nights look like postcards from the edgeless. Could anyone ever order a “cuba libre” again after seeing this? A sardonic monster movie—well, a primer on how filmmaking can serve as permission slip for otherwise semi-decent, halfway sane people to behave as monsters, tyrants, frauds, cheaters, and infantile aggressors/victims—Beware packs a layered wallop of scorn, moral squalor, delicious absurdity, and flickering humanity. Playing the Fassbinder-ish director, Lou Castel’s Jeff is a wonderfully appalling self-projection, both as wish-fulfillment (a blond Adonis, he looks like he should be starring opposite Sandra Dee in a 1950s romance) and worst-nightmare-scenario (he acts like a bitter Caligula who fears he’s about to lose his throne and be forced to turn tricks on the street). It is a grand, sweeping indictment of the pettiness and rancor that can fester inside “art,” and yet it has one of the most perversely transcendental moments the movies have ever supplied. Schygulla dances slowly, this time à la Marilyn Monroe, to Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” while chaos reigns around her. Fassbinder wrapped up his first creative period with a suitable bang. This was no end-of-cinema lamentation, but a beguiling epitaph scrawled in ruby red lipstick on the medium’s grave: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Early Fassbinder: Eclipse Series 39 is now available from the Criterion Collection.
THE NIMBLEST COMEDY about Nazis ever made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) brazenly opens with Hitler himself, window-shopping in Warsaw in August 1939, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland, the assault that marked the beginning of World War II. It’s not the real führer, of course, but an actor dressed as him—though not just in Lubitsch’s movie but in a play within the film, a conceit viewers don’t realize until this Hitler deadpans, after he’s been ecstatically saluted, “Heil myself.”
To Be or Not to Be’s intricate screenplay, cowritten by Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch, is densely filled with deceit, disguises, and double entendres; this fizzy production takes quite seriously the dictator who “devour[s] whole countries” while at the same time diminishing the German leader as “the man with the little mustache.” Those who fight to vanquish Hitler’s forces are members of a Polish theatrical troupe led by the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), both equally solipsistic and patriotic. How these stage stars—a Slavic Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne—and their company aid the Polish resistance movement is too elaborate and ingenious to summarize here. But crucially, this noble mission is set in motion by Maria’s and Joseph’s foibles: her vanity, which is further stoked by the dressing-room attentions of an infatuated bomber pilot (Robert Stack), and her spouse’s all-consuming jealousy.
Supple yet sober screwball, Lubitsch’s film can still astound with its darkly comic dialogue. “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt, eh?” Joseph, incognito as a Gestapo colonel, chuckles to the Nazi spy who has just tried to flatter his superior by relaying the nickname bestowed on him by his SS admirers in London. (This is twenty-six years before the infamous “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers; significantly, Mel Brooks, the writer-director of that 1968 farce, and his wife Anne Bancroft would star in a 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be.) Few critics, however, appreciated the humor in Lubitsch’s film, released in this country three months after the US entered the war; the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther sniffed, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”
To Be or Not to Be’s original reception may have also been darkened by a tragic loss among the cast: Lombard, one of the era’s most beloved actresses, died, at age thirty-three, in a plane crash while flying back from a war-bond rally less than two months before the movie’s premiere. In her only collaboration with Lubitsch, Lombard tones down considerably the exhilarating chaos she brought to the screwball classics Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). As a soignée diva, she is the luminous center of To Be or Not to Be, yet her flawless timing and delivery here still recall the incomparable loopiness dominant earlier in her career. No other performer could make the simplest term of farewell—Bye!—sound so fey, so alluring, elevating a lone syllable to a mini symphony.
To Be or Not to Be is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Joaquim Pinto, E agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me), 2013, digital video, color, sound, 164 minutes.
NOW IN ITS SIXTY-SIXTH YEAR, the Locarno Film Festival remains a cineast’s festival devoted to discovery. Each August, the southern Swiss town, situated ten miles from Italy (an oasis with palm trees and views of the Alps), dresses up in the ubiquitous yellow leopard print (as per Locarno’s mascot) to play host to one of Europe’s oldest festivals. Locarno benefits from a serendipitous combination of Swiss organization and Mediterranean charm, and as such it offers an antidote to Venice’s glitzy industry influence, retaining an enjoyably easygoing atmosphere while also championing cinema as art.
This “frontier” festival, as it’s been dubbed, has always adopted an expansive curatorial stance. To put it bluntly, Locarno exists to showcase films that are “difficult, complicated, or ignored by other festivals,” according to Italian critic Carlo Chatrian, the festival’s new artistic director, who also asserted the importance of celebrating cinematic “histories” rather than cinematic milestones. This year’s edition included a complete retrospective of George Cukor, whose sophisticated 1950 melodrama A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and historically dismissed as one of his worst pictures, turned out to be one of the festival’s purest delights.
Chatrian envisions borders as lines that connect rather than divide. And indeed many of the old divisions are made irrelevant in Locarno’s two main sections, the International Competition and the Filmmakers of the Present (for emerging directors), both of which make no categorical distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, narrative and experimental. This year’s Competition included twenty features and eighteen world premieres, with new work by auteurs Hong Sang-soo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Corneliu Porumboiu, Albert Serra, Joaquim Pinto, and Joanna Hogg. Concessions to local taste do exist, however, and can be found nightly in the Piazza Grande, the eight-thousand-seat outdoor cinema, where you can catch middlebrow fare or the action vehicle Two Guns—an admittedly perverse choice for the festival’s opening night.
The connective tissue among films this year, including the festival’s winners, was an intense focus on the corporeal. The Competition jury, presided over by Filipino director Lav Diaz, awarded the festival’s top prize to Catalan director Albert Serra’s unapologetically idiosyncratic costume drama Història de la meva morte, and bestowed the Special Jury Prize on Joaquim Pinto’s profoundly intimate documentary E agora? Lembra-me. Serra’s dryly comic film—which he described in a press conference as “unfuckable”—follows Casanova’s (and, by extension, the Enlightenment’s) last days as the debased lover wanders northern Europe and encounters the dark, romantic forces of Dracula. Featuring protracted scenes of arousal, defilement, and neck biting, as well as an extended dismemberment of a cow, Serra’s ponderous ode to excess somehow manages to beguile with its lugubrious tone and painterly digital video compositions. On the other hand, Pinto’s triumphant return to filmmaking is a stream-of-consciousness diary film consumed with the maladies and vicissitudes endured by the human body in the twenty-first century. Shot on multiple formats, it documents Pinto’s yearlong experimental treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C. Much of the film focuses on his relationship with husband Nuno and their life together in remote Azores, and it features a sex scene as tender as it is graphic. João Pedro Rodrigues’s medium length O corpo de Afonso, a highlight of the noncompetition films, consists of the director auditioning naked men—many of whom are unemployed—for the role of Portugal’s first king, in a film in which the metaphorical body comes to include all of that country’s citizens.
Stomach pains, real and imagined, dog Paul, the film-director protagonist of Corneliu Porumboiu’s wry competition entry When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, which contemplates both the end of celluloid as well as the limits of the body. (The film is composed of eighteen shots, the longest of which runs eleven minutes.) “When you’re filming, you put what interests you in the center, not at the margin,” a doctor tells Paul as they stare at video images of his endoscopy. The director shrugs and walks away—a reaction many had to Porumboiu’s film. However, its careful architecture and one particular dinner scene involving Chinese food left me more than satisfied. Architecture, in the form of a peculiar modernist townhouse, plays a central character in British director Joanna Hogg’s excellent Exhibition, a cerebral, ambiguous film that stars Liam Gillick and musician Viv Albertine (of the Slits) as H and D, a bourgeois middle-aged artist couple looking to sell. Hogg’s film, which deftly trades art-world satire for a much more mysterious exploration of marriage and creativity, is greatly aided by Albertine’s fully embodied performance artist, a possible “objectiphile” disposed to erotic encounters with furniture and merging her body with parts of the house, which she almost never leaves.
On the other side of the world, pilgrims traveling to a sacred Nepalese temple are transported high above the jungle via cable car in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s mesmerizing Manakamana, which was rightly awarded the top prize in the Filmmakers of the Present section. (The eclectic jury was led by Hartmut Bitomsky and included Canadian musician Peaches, who treated festivalgoers to a performance in the Piazza.) Spray and Velez’s structuralist ethnographic film, produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a kind of anti-Leviathan, in which the viewer is constantly aware of their position in time and space: The camera never leaves the cable car, and the length of each shot corresponds both to one leg of the journey and to the length of a roll of 16-mm film. Passengers, who face the camera and are framed by the landscape moving behind them (a nod to rear projection), range from a pair of elderly Nepalese women enjoying ice cream to, shockingly, a quartet of bleating goats—all of whom appear as if by magic each time the cable car enters and leaves the terminal. Another journey film in this section is Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s The Unity of All Things 物之合, an ambitious experimental narrative involving particle physics that was shot in sites as far-flung as Jiuzhai Valley in China and the Sonoran desert, near the US-Mexico border. The film takes on nothing less than the instability of everything, from gender to the nuclear family to the cinematic image itself. Its utopian concerns were echoed in Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a tripartite feature exploring variations on collective and solitary experience shot in Estonia, Finland, and Norway that screened in a section entitled “Signs of Life,” named after the Werner Herzog film.
Herzog, who was in town to receive the festival’s top honor, gave a surprisingly pragmatic master class in which he voiced support for shooting features on cell phones. His latest “film,” From One Second to the Next, a texting and driving PSA for AT&T released online to over 1.7 million views, was a late addition to the festival and played alongside Fitzcarraldo in an example of Locarno’s lateral appreciation of cinema.
The 66th Festival del film Locarno ran August 7–17, 2013.