Let the Corpses Tan
This year at the Locarno Festival
I am looking for specific images, moments, techniques, qualities or scenes from films across the 70th edition's selection that grabbed me and have lingered past and beyond the next movie seen, whose characters, story and images have already begun to overwrite those that came just before.
A camera pans across a beachfront—simple enough, yet as it moves the expanding tumult of water seems to unspool unendingly, stretching and smearing and even more: it wraps around the screen, a sensorium beyond Cinerama and cyclorama akin to Ernie Gehr’s vertiginous coastal flyover-film, Glider (2001). And then another plane is added, a cascade of water from top to bottom, brewing a three dimensional cinematic hurricane in homage to—and in magical reconstruction of—the terrific storm that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900. Stereoscopic images of the storm’s aftermath is but one inspiration for Blake Williams’ 3D feature debut Prototype (Out of Competition), an audacious multi-part work of personal historiography that, like Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, is made partly of true esoterica and partly invents an alternate past of retro-futurist technology and dreamed digressions. The tour de force re-imagining of the storm—which is later doubled in the climax as a black and white, abstract early television transmission into the distorted ether—is but one chapter of this overwhelming and startlingly unusual historical re-invention.
A young black woman’s dress ripped and stripped to shreds in the gusty vortex of a machine gun’s rat-a-tat whirlwind. This comes near the halfway point of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan (Piazza Grande), a giddy, inspired and unrelenting adaption of the great French crime author Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1971 debut novel, co-written with Jean-Pierre Bastid. Nearly without story—a criminal gang steals gold bullion and holes up in disheveled Corsican lair run by a “madwoman” and also housing the gang’s lawyer and washed up novelist—the plot is mostly a choreography of gun battles with two motorcycle cops, the ensuing tactical maneuvers around the isolated hilltop compound, psychedelic flourishes and an uncountable amount of sensual close-ups of weapons, eyes, leather and gold. The sumptuously fussy attention to detail—the pure, uncut grist of Italian crime films and Spaghetti Westerns given ecstatic love and musical choreography—transcends fetishism.
A bandit encampment in Jacques Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow (1950). In a mostly undistinctive Robin Hood riff (with a grinning, joyfully opportunistically gymnastic Burt Lancaster as a 12th century Lombardi Robin), the forest outlaws hide in the studio-bound crumbled ruins of a Roman temple “of heathen gods,” as one puts it. At night framed by golden lanterns—this being a Warners’ Technicolor production—this false marble hideout is festooned in that eerie and tremulous isolated vulnerability that is one of the director's signatures. This mise en scène becomes even more subtle and powerful when the strange post-war context of the story reveals itself most fully: the nearby town suffering reprisals by the order of a “Hessen” foreign ruler who is trying to eliminate local Lombardi partisans. This is a camp of resistance.
A video of horses sent via WhatsApp to a construction worker’s phone in Kazik Radwanski’s Scaffold (Out of Competition). In this lovely and cleverly honed short on the labor and perspective of two Bosnian construction workers in Toronto, Radwanski crops out the faces and full bodies of his characters—both the older and younger worker, as well as the posh owners of the houses they work on—leaving gestures, habits and skills on display, as well as fragments of the views from atop the titular scaffold. This WhatsApp video comes as an unexpected, miniature missive from their homeland during a workday, a touch of elusive poetry on a strictly material job. Later, one of the workers accidentally knocks his phone from the heights.