The Wandering Soap Opera
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.
The camera’s brief tracking movements in Jacques Tourneur's Appointment in Honduras (1953). This filmmaker, to whom Locarno is devoting an extensive retrospective, is not a formalist like some of his more acclaimed contemporaries like John Ford, Otto Preminger, or Hitchcock, whose overt and idiosyncratic use of the camera makes far more obvious each director’s perspective on their stories. But that doesn't mean Tourneur didn't have formal flourishes, and none are so lyrically charged as the subtle and surprising times in his films when there’s a cut and suddenly the camera is floating—just for a moment—across the set, or softly, suddenly towards or away from a person. When Antonioni moves his camera it is an event; for Tourneur, it is an enigmatic brush stroke. He takes this painting to its furthest extreme in this Central American adventure film in which a taciturn and unforgiving Glenn Ford whisks a group of Guatemalan escaped convicts and a posh married couple off their boat journey and plunges them into the jungle. Through a mix of studio-bound fake foliage and outdoor shooting, Tourneur creates a never-ending environment of wilderness and ambient danger. The story grows to resemble not a plot, but a forceful and senseless progression onward through undifferentiated jungle. The camera’s movements join and accentuate this strange existential compulsion, as Glenn Ford’s reasons for the risky journey are stated yet cryptic: the track of the camera suggests the unpierceable mystery of nature and the push and pull desires to flee from the mystery or go forever deeper.
An unblinking confrontation with dying in Wang Bing’s documentary Mrs. Fang (International Competition). Despite now having made many conventional length documentaries (Three Sisters, Ta'ang), this Chinese director is best reputed for his expansive works—the 9-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks—which is why Mrs. Fang's modestly scaled, minutely attentive and intimate focus on the last living days of this grandmother on her deathbed has unusual force. Her face, framed in immense close-ups, mouth agape, skin drawn, barely breathing but eyes still shining, are given sustained and merciful attention by the filmmaker. He photographs his friend dying to honor her final hours and find the life that still can be glimpsed despite a body immobilized and a voice robbed from her. The film’s other, spare parts—tableaux of family and neighbors surrounding the matriarch’s bed, waiting, weeping, wondering, and the men’s excursions nearby to fish with electric poles—provide a surrounding that is bare and raw, stripped out of the world to focus only on the grief of the dying and enduring eerie, sad search for sustenance. When Wang returns to the woman’s face, it replaces the landscape, village and people who have left her to die among the few who care.
A mysterious appearance from the past: a new film by Raúl Ruiz. Yes, believe me if not your own eyes, Ruiz lives again—his new film is in Locarno’s competition. Shot over six days in 1990 as part of a workshop for actors and technicians in his native Chile, The Wandering Soap Opera has only recently been restored and finished by Ruiz’s wife and editor, Valeria Sarmiento, who is a director herself. As is fitting for such a fantastic appearance, the film is not a film: it television; or, that is, a film possessed by the spirits of Chilean telenovelas; or maybe a soap opera seance led by Ruiz. Each of the six days is a different show—maybe; or maybe the movie is about Chileans watching soap operas themselves; or, more likely even, Ruiz with remarkable prescience conflates life in Chile in the early 90s with a televisual world—kindred spirit to Mark Frost and David Lynch’s contemporaneous Twin Peaks, which has also returned now from 1990. In the funny and perverse Wandering Soap Opera, the arch conventions of TV have seeped into the real world and vice versa until everyone not only is a star in his or her own strange show, but is aware of and watches the shows others star in. Most (all?) of the film’s specific play with and parody of Latin American soaps was lost on me, but what came across wonderfully was the thrilling unity of adoration for popular pulp and dismay at a reality warping before the power of televised melodrama.
The delicate cadence of appearance and exits, movement and stillness in two short Japanese travelogues by Jean-Claude Rousseau playing out of competition. Arrière-saison (“Late Season”) observes park goers on a cloudy autumn day, breaking for lunch, ambling down the gravel paths, and reclining on benches. Many are drawn to the park’s bridges, and more still pause to take photographs of each other amid the urban foliage. The subject of each shot at once seems obvious and mysterious, a sense building throughout as Rousseau moves around the park, returning to favorite places and finding new sights—as if he lived in Kyoto and this was his own local garden reprieve. Si loin, si proche (“So far, so close”) is more simple but therefore direct in its pleasure, filmed as a respite in a hilltop inn over Kyoto. Our view is that of the inn: a viewing room and balcony itself offering a distant view of hills and the city. We see the view, but before it we see the figures and silhouettes of other guests who seat themselves at different distances from the retired camera, impressed by the view into awe, meditation, comment and, of course, photography. Rousseau shows little else than this shadow play of visitor and vista, but importantly films a room in which is projected the trailer for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. The screen the movie plays on is in the exact place Kyoto appears from the balcony. Rousseau enters the room and leaves, Setsuko Hara, who died in 2015, appears on the screen. The director returns to his hotel room and falls over in a cute little gag; he too is a visitor, like the figures in his frames.
The unexpected film from a director you know and love. As an American who knows and loves the old studio era of my country's cinema, Locarno’s retrospective devoted to the subtle poet of Hollywood’s 1940s and 50s, Jacques Tourneur, has been a tremendous pleasure, but hardly a surprise. Except, that is, for the film I caught at my last day at the festival, Easy Living. Neither a horror film nor noir, thriller nor western, this 1949 drama fits into no obvious category, but it most certainly is, as French critic Pierre Rissient pointed out in an introduction, the moment when the director, who has struggled for over a decade to secure decent budgets and make proper A-films, was no longer working to impress people, but rather was easily breathing cinema. This film is sublime and effortless, a drama of friendships, marriage, and professional pressure set in the world of American football and starring Victor Mature as a star quarterback who has just learned he has a weak heart. With genre trappings stripped away, we see Tourneur perhaps at his most pure: the drama of personal doubt and the wax and wane of assurance of who one is what one does as he or she goes through this world. We get a terrific portrait of a marriage—Mature and Lisabeth Scott, who plays an ambitious but talentless interior decorator—by turns ecstatic and troubled, a moving appearance by a cynical, sensitive Lucille Ball, who holds a flame for Mature, and a series of other relationships, in work, love and friendship, that layer Mature’s dilemma with great depth and nuance, and absolutely zero pretension or forcefulness. Easy Living is the epitome of this director’s profound ambiance of melancholia, but like another unrecognized Tourneur masterpiece, the beautiful, sweet-natured piece of Americana Stars in My Crown (1950), the humming poetry of the sorrow that lies at the frame’s edge, that will exceed the story we’re watching, is distinctly counter-balanced with an effusion of warmth and compassion.
Si loin, si proche