10–18 November 2006
The Torino Film Festival is quite comfortable with being the No. 2 among Italy’s main events in cinema: it has just about all the respect granted Venice but few of the Biennale’s problems with premieres and stars – and no, looking at offerings like the opening night delight, Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary feat of dialectics and humility, Flags of Our Fathers (2006), or that piece of eye-candy for historignorati and intellectually-challenged blabberati, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), the upstart from Rome posed no problems, probably, and considering co-directoress Giulia D’Agnollo Vallan’s legendary connections inside Lalaland one wonders whether it ever could. D’Agnollo Vallan and Roberto Turigliatto! They are a great double to head a festival, two sides of a coin, both envisioning cinema as a playfully pluralistic plenty, popular, politically progressive, pensive, pranksterish, unafraid of contradictions – no one who hosted retrospectives of Paolo Gobetti and John Milius is – a people’s art that is all about that which Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub share with Joe Sarno.
Torino’s traditional strength lies in its retrospective section, which takes up at least half of the festival. Certainly more than that if one chooses to ignore the three Italian competitions, sections foreigners rarely make contact with, wisely enough (well, and then there’s the language barrier), despite the occasional gem they therefore miss, more often than not courtesy of Gianluca & Massimiliano de Serio – the best thing that happened to Italian cinema since Vincenzo Marra – whose new work, Rew e Shade (2006) is again pretty nice, if one knows Italian, otherwise… But there’s always a new piece by Mauro Santini, another Torino-darling, a video–poet whose work is more about a certain fluency of images, quicksilver stopped dead in its tracks, that final tremor rippling the surface, and less about words even if they’re haemorrhaged all over the soundscape.
But back to the retrospectives: five auteurs were celebrated at this edition with programs that, size-wise, ranged from a heartfelt bow – a four film tribute to Joe Sarno, the thinking man’s erotoman – to pretty much complete, by-the-book retrospectives of Robert Aldrich, the toughest left-winger ever to play the Hollywood game (all feature films; only one TV-show); Joaquín Jordà, one of those geniuses most folks, sadly enough, discovered only when it was too late and Jordà dead (all films save for two Italian [!] interventionist shorts and a film-happening which happened only once anyway; but with quite a lot of context-films); and Piero Bargellini, an enigmatic figure of Italy’s ‘60s underground (everything surviving) – to, finally, an anal retentive exercise in exegesis beyond the call of duty, a cinephile debauchery deluxe: the more-than-complete Claude Chabrol part two (even featuring TV works by the maestro’s son, and some such… there IS something hilarious, above all necessary and moving to that!) – all five presented in the best way possible for the festival, which didn’t always mean much print-wise, the Bargellini program, for example, was mainly on video for fear of the 8 mm originals’ well-being (which was a bit depressing but nothing to be surprised about), while the state of all print-things Aldrich was fittingly perverse as there were splendid prints of films one wouldn’t expect this of and vice versa.
Which, in toto, all the glory, all the defeats (several Chabrols only on video: so much for French film culture), made the festival a perfect reflection of the transient nature of nowadays’ film culture (was it ever other than transient?). But let’s be clear about one thing: if there isn’t a perfect print of a film in Torino, chances are very, very slim that there is one at all (Bargellini a case in point). That said, as this year’s travels showed, the existence of a print doesn’t mean that it will be screened, video is getting ever more acceptable even for a somewhat more serious film archive who, instead of not showing a film at all, have started to circulate digibetas, usually of works not deemed to be of prime film cultural importance (either that, or the institution wanting to show the film is not considered good or nice enough for a print: some places only get the digibeta, others get the print… folks, it’s ugly out there).
And while we’re shooting the nasty shit: among the saddest offenders against the law of the print, experience says, are the archives of the Workers’ Movement. They seem to have put everything on video and thrown the originals away, that way wasting unbelievable amounts of historical documents and AV records. Lenin might have approved, but even Lenin could be wrong – I mean, seriously: would’ve Ulyanov really enjoyed Joaquín Jordà & Gianni Toti’s extremely clever while so simple centenary-tribute Lenin Vivo (1970) the way it was shown in Torino, from tape, with an “A” – Arbeiter? Archive? Adalante? Avalanche? Agnostic? – stamped into one corner of the image, constantly?) All of which adds up to one important truth, for the moment: if you don’t go for a complete retrospective, only show the best prints of the best films (add: cancel a program when the print-situation looks bleak).
Which is what they did in the case of Joe Sarno, making this small program one of the treats of the festival: four excellent films in four exquisite prints – Joe Sarno, looking great at 85, hopefully was a happy man. Easily the finest of the four was Abigail Lesley is Back in Town (1974) starring Sarno’s ‘70s muse Rebecca Brooke alongside porn-axiom Jamie Gillis in a non-hard part. The story is, as Sarno-wont, character-choked if not exactly driven: Abigail Lesley, having left a small New England harbour town after getting caught in the act with her best friend’s hubby, comes first back, then time and again with said hubby, then with yet another guy – but: the more characters come on the stage and the longer the film goes on – in that Sarno-antitempo of one scene after the other, all scenes major, and equal, and beautiful – the more women get involved, with each other, while the men are lost sight of, so that, in the end, Abigail’s house becomes the site of deeply moving lesbian orgies where all these women who grew up together, childhood friends, essentially, relive, remember their youth, their dreams, thereby come to terms with their lives so far, some even up with a vision of all that is left for them. Which sounds, admittedly, peculiar more than particular but makes perfect sense in Sarno’s landscape of psychosis and desire, his focused, frill-less direction, the actors spurting out their lines as if they belonged to someone else but performing often so subtle with each other’s bodies, bathed here in a calming cool light. It’s the outdoors, the sense of a constant breeze, that gives Abigail Lesley is Back in Town – similar to the vision-wise bleaker Jag en oskuld (1968) – that cutting edge of tenderness; the two earlier, more huit clos-like works shown in Torino, The Sex Cycle and The Bed and How to Make it! (both 1966) have a much nastier feel to them, not only because of their vengeful tales of lusty betrayal and lustful punishment but also because of the nakedness of their settings, plus that crass, more interrogation room-appropriate lighting, all hammering home that New York’s suburbia is a spiritual no man’s land, where the good folks will have your ass, literally, and be sure they’ll see to it that it ain’t fun.
Cue to Robert Aldrich, feted in Torino as a forgotten, now re-discovered, re-appraised auteur, master maverick. Just how forgotten is a director when his works are scavenged these days by the industry, with two remakes of The Longest Yard (1974), one worse than the other, and an even worse new version of The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)?
The trouble with Aldrich always was the lack of consensus about his oeuvre. The only film everybody seems willing to agree on for now a semi-century-plus is Kiss Me Deadly (1955); then, there are his probably most popular works, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), the Aldrichs, also, that come closest to being classics, meaning works that don’t change, that stay the same whenever one watches them, closed aesthetic systems transcending times (something to distrust: Aldrich would be the first to agree on that); then, there’s the case of Ulzana’s Raid (1972), undisputed yet never really claimed, more or less like …All the Marbles (1981); and then…
Well, then the discussions get going for real, and heated. While by now a consensus seems to have formed about Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) as Aldrich’s second oeuvre-defining masterpiece, several that film history was always fond of, above all The Big Knife (1955) and Attack! (1956), are starting to lose footing, while again others which are often vilified look better with every passing year, especially Aldrich’s works from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his triple of masterpieces supermaudits-and-then-some, The Legend of Lylah Clair, The Killing of Sister George (both 1968), and The Grissom Gang (1971), all essays on perversion – in every which shade and form – as society’s true état d’âme, then his Dirty Dozen for the Advanced, Too Late the Hero (1969), and finally The Emperor of the North Pole (1973), one of the purest action movies ever.
But in the end, still, there’s only one film, Kiss Me Deadly, and no reputation rests on one film alone. And looking at the way film culture develops these days, hopscotching between populism and elitism, fandom and academia, where everything and nothing really goes, Robert Aldrich shall remain a forgotten auteur.
Besides and above all, people don’t want to be reminded of all those things Aldrich so deftly rubs into ones face. Just remember The Grissom Gang: how the demented kidnapper and his far from innocent, actually a bit depraved victim – abused children both – find a certain measure of calm in a travesty of a Normal Life, some carpenter’s gothic-version of elegance and splendour. Aldrich must have been joking when he wondered why all those youngsters and hipsters who went to see Arthur Penn’s dance of death of the Beautyful Rebels, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), shied away from The Grissom Gang! Or take The Killing of Sister George (1968): a picture of human relationships as essentially sadomasochistic, a power game, with all people created the same yet unequal, the balance changing in sometimes unpredictable ways; the moment when Sister George mentions to her rival that Childie, despite her looks, is already over 30 is, in this context of make-belief, performance, dominance and submission, at least as terrifying – look at the sudden impenetrability of Susannah York’s face! – as George’s final mad moooooooohing on the empty stage. Or just take the essence of The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968): the film industry is glorified, mass-produced necrophilia. Aldrich is the Renoir of the unconsoled and the angry: of those who can find the enigma of existence in the glances of the soldier they hang at the beginning of The Dirty Dozen, a young man who is frightened but above all confused because he honestly doesn’t understand why these people are doing this to him. Yeah, well, they all have their reasons.
But for once I wanted to write a bit more about Torino’s more recent offerings than the retrospectives – although little else had the urgency of Aldrich’s films – particularly as the international competition seemed more promising than usual, and delivered way okay, even if in the end Albert Serra’s Honor de cavallería (Honor of the Knights, 2006) and thereby, once again, common high modernism won – therefore, nothing on the genius of Joaquín Jordà here and now, another time, even another place perhaps, and nothing, either, on Piero Bargellini whose work needs some more in-depth studying in, say, mid-March, so, more on him maybe by mid-’07… The competition. Which, essentially, was formally more daring than usual, reflecting, for once, the whole width of aesthetic options the festival’s interested in.
Sure, there was the kind of fare to be expected in the competition of a festival like Torino i.e. Moderate Modernism du jour, with lots or only some political attitude but masses of refined spaces-gazes-time passing poetry, like: the most classical work on offer, Zhanabek Zhetyruov’s most pleasant Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika (Notes by a Trackman, 2006), a small, morally valuable story; mellow pace; decently straight cuts; beautiful monochrome images, the first medium-length narrative feature by the only railway man amongst Kazakh filmmakers; or, likely likeable stuff like Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s Bled Number One (2005), or Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006), both perfectly okay films, just what gives?; or: the already-mentioned Catalan Quixote reconceived along the aesthetic lines of Robert Bresson and Ermanno Olmi, the way Serra understood them, also mighty okay, again what gives?
Along these, D’Agnollo Vallan and Turigliatto started a motley crew of strangely unique hybrids, genre-benders and -crossers, none perfect, some wilfully so, some not, but all far more fascinating than the above-enumerated safe bets, works like: Mauro Santini’s Flor da Baixa (2006), not to be mistaken with his same-named ’04-short which, together with several other short- and medium-length tapes from the last two years, the raw material shot for them, served as the basis for, was remixed into a travelogue of a journey maybe never made but obviously imagined, food for pontifications for those into ordinary postmodernism; or Uruphong Raksasad’s astonishing Reanglao jak meangnue (Stories from the North, 2005), a sometimes nutty, sometimes tender collection of shorts telling – sometimes tall, mostly tiny – tales and stories about time standing still in the Thai north, with Grannies getting grumpy about not dying and a musician seemingly leaving the presence to check out spaces different; or, maybe dazzling, maybe irritating, Xia Peng’s Buyi zhi lee (Pleasures of Ordinary, 2006), a series of documentary observations edited together in such a way, snappy, snazzy, sensual that nobody really could say what the video was all about but everybody had the impression that he’d seen something amazing… They’re a mighty disparate bunch, Santini, Raksasad and Xia, but there’s one thing they have in common: their works all blur everywhich boundary between fiction and documentary, with some cool avant garde moves thrown in for good measure, but while doing so they all stayed decidedly on the documentary side of their images’ self. Which is, essentially, the opposite of that which Serra or Zhetyruov do.
The greatest work of the competition, then, was the only film that found the finest balance between those poles, who knew that, in the end, it’s all about telling the truth of and with that which is right there, the world: Brillante Mendoza’s Manoro (The Teacher, 2006). After Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), released earlier this year, one thought that Mendoza would go arthouse ordinary, certainly in a superior fashion for Kaleldo is a fine, perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking, sensitive and alert, but after his extraordinary debut Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), a work of earthen spirituality, light and translucent in its form, knowing and of the flesh in its essence, this seemed, well, a bit of a let-down, even a waste. And now this: Rossellini redux and raw, nothing less, finally a film that’s worth being called civilising. The titling teacher is a teenage Aeto girl, thirteen or something, who’d learned to read and write – in contrast to most middle-aged and elderly people of her village whom she’s teaching. In two days, presidential elections are held, with the girl trying to teach everybody the necessary essentials so that they can cast their vote and thereby participate in the democratic process. It’s not easy, especially when her father’s more interested in meeting with some Koreans over a job which would prevent him from going to the ballot, and her grandfather having gone boar hunting in the mountains and giving a flying fuck about it all, whatever good came from the city, the mestizos?… Manoro’s main part consists of the girl’s and her dad’s march up the mountain into the forests looking for grandpa, with the girl stopping once in a while to remind people of their lessons, and father and daughter discussing representative politics. All this done as a re-enactment by the people themselves, folks playing their own life, history for real, shot with the most basic-looking, cine-semantically simplest means by Mendoza, solely the necessary, essence pure and simple – it’s something of a shock when in the end the credits show that the film, despite being a university-project, was a full-fledged production with lots of everything, as it looks and feels like some three-maestro-craftsmen-stunt pulled off over a weekend. It’s the lack of any polish plus Mendoza’s unpretentious sense of precision, timing, even metrum that makes Manoro so great: everything fits, feels just, thereby re-enforces the story’s sense of political urgency – this is, very much and very insistently, a film about a very basic need, about people learning to read and write to participate in politics.
By chance, the other masterpiece among the festival’s new films, Andrea Tonacci’s Serras da Desordem (2006), also tells a true story about an Indio, the Guaja Carapiru in this case, re-enacting his own life, odyssey towards contact with what’s considered civilisation – but that’s where the similarities end. Tonacci’s work, his first feature film in decades, plays more like a philosophical fable, a tale of civilisation, its workings, told from the point of view of the centre of an evolutionary spiral, where ethnographic recording and shamanistic incantation become one cine-synchretistic whole.
Which, maybe, makes Serras da Desordem the perfect metaphor for Torino – or would Manoro be the better, more suitable one? – best, probably, are both together, for all that which happens at such contacts, the energy that flows, moves, people’s minds, maybe.