A Skin So Soft
It's 95 degrees in the shade here in the Swiss city of Locarno, where, nestled between lake and mountain, the 70th edition of the Locarno Festival is beckoning with the promise of several international competitions, a retrospective of B-Hollywood auteur Jacques Tourneur, screenings in the open-air, 8,000-person capacity Piazza Grande, special prizes for Jean-Marie Straub and Todd Haynes, and that quintessential lure of the cinematic experience: air-conditioned theatres.
With so much to choose from there is no correct schedule or pathway through such a bounty; one can't see everything, and the delight of discovery must mingle with the pang of missing something unexpected—or, more likely, a movie impossible to fit into a day’s schedule already jammed with five to seven different screenings.
Already the films have run together in my mind, the effect most definitely of the withering heat at once baking and steaming the hillside city, but also the inevitable result of binge-watching movies: a true and hardly impossible treat that pre-dates streaming habits, and one I heartily endorse if you are lucky enough to have a local film festival within reach.
Instead of focusing on films, this year at Locarno I'll try and pinpoint a specific shot, moment or scene that grabbed me and has lingered past and beyond the next movie seen, whose characters, story and images have already begun to overwrite those that came just before. The freshness (or age, as the case may be) of the films sadly necessitates using images for our coverage related to the movies discussed, but not the moments highlighted.
A man twists and contorts himself to fire his tommy gun from the front seat of a prop plane, strafing an escaping yacht in Jacques Tourneur’s Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939). The action scenes of the first (of only two) of MGM’s detective programmers starring Walter Pidgeon as a blasé, blowhard private dick go a long way to set thrilling standards of danger and energy in a prescient pre-war mystery of aviation espionage and sabotage. The opening foiled aircraft desert hijacking is already that Christopher Nolan-style of concept, grandeur and stark visuals, but the boat-gunning climax, created through great, swooning back projection and Carter’s nearly absurd violent technique (he unknowingly and uncaringly almost blasts his love interest, kidnapped on the yacht), lends great character to an otherwise unpromising crime series.
Two gloriously muscled bodybuilders eye each other with distrust, envy and contempt at the gym in Denis Côte’s A Soft the Skin. Premiering in the international competition, this documentary essay of male skin stretched to its max over bodies of outrageous bulk discreetly steps around the personal motivations of its hulking men in favor of glimpses of their somewhat introverted, secretive auras, as if what brought them each this this point of extreme strength and absurd body mass was of deeply private concern. Which is why this gem of a scene—clearly manufactured by the director—of two of these taciturn Hercules edgily eying each other work out, brothers in this strange passion yet rivals in comparison, is by turns amusing and frightening. Adding to this off-kilter tone is a music track that seems to have unusual percussion—until it's revealed one of the particular repeating notes is the rhythmic sounds of a weight machine.
A gang leader huddled among anonymous criminals on a prison boat as “the Rock,” Alcatraz Island, looms closer and closer in the windows behind them. This moment will directly contradict the title of Jacques Tourneur's They All Come Out (1939), a swift, short and moralist bank robber picture swaddled between bookends proselytizing the recuperative powers of the American federal prison system. Maybe for young vagabond turned getaway driver Joe (Tom Neal, looking every bit like Kurt Russell), but not for gang leader Reno (a suavely cynical Bernard Nedell). Tourneur's camera movements often have an uncanny, lyrical quality removed from the normal passage of time, and the movement of the boat towards Reno's forever-fate is a brief but foreboding journey to what can only be called hell. Later and behind bars, guns are heard. "An escape attempt?" Reno asks hopefully. "No," another of the doomed answers, "target practice."