During a Locarno Critics’ Academy workshop, the Locarno Film Festival’s festival director, Carlos Chatrian, gifted us with some insight into the festival’s approach to programming. “Film is always in the present,” he said. “To understand what is new, it is necessary to know what has come in the past. Although each year there are many new films to choose from, there will always be even more to select from film history.” Taking a quick look at the program of the 67th edition, it’s clear he stayed true to his words. Alongside honoring the works of Victor Erice, Agnes Varda and Lee Han-hsiang, this year Locarno held a major retrospective on the Italian studio Titanus that covered over sixty years of Italian genre film. While most festivals seek out the world premieres, Locarno also allows itself ample time to hunt for forgotten treasures.
What encapsulates Locarno’s approach to programming are the film essays shown in a strand of films presented in the “Histoire(s) du cinéma” section that appropriate moments from the cinema of the past to create new forms of cinematic image-making. In the age of digital accessibility of films and editing software, there has been a proliferation of works that bring the cinematic past back into the present. Although strongly related to films that use archival found footage, what sets these film essays apart is the way in which they draw on narrative cinema, offering an approach steeped in cinephilia where cinema refers to cinema.
Although not necessarily mutually exclusive, these film essays can be loosely categorized into two types — the historical and the conceptual. The historical film essay – encompassing personal, societal and cinematic histories — incorporates scenes of films from which a retelling of a story is pulled together. Often with voiceovers or intertitles, such films would include Mark Cousins’ recent odyssey into cinematic history, “The Story of Film” or Victor Erice’s “The Red Death,” that, screened as part of his retrospective, describes his first trip to the cinema to see a Sherlock Holmes adaptation “The Scarlet Claw” as a child. More experimental in its approach, the conceptual” film essay draws on recurring themes or visual moments that are used as a springboard upon which a work is developed. Often textural and material in their approach, such films would include works by Christian Marclay, Peter Tscherkassky, Martin Arnold, Ichrio Sueoka and Luther Price that discover poetry in the reordering or destruction of pre-made images. The Locarno Film Festival set its finger on both pulses through a selection that drew on both historical and conceptual film essays.
Three films in the program represented recent currents in the historical film essay: Thom Andersen’s “The Tony Longo Trilogy”; Peter von Bagh’s “Socialism”; and Soon-mi Yoo’s “Songs from the North.” With less focus on the city of Los Angeles than in Andersen’s previous “Get Out of the Car” and “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” “The Tony Long Trilogy” sees the director shift his attention on one actor, Tony Longo, whom would be an unknown face to most despite being introduced as the axiom of American cinema in the opening credits. Selecting scenes from ’90s action films “The Takeover,” “Living in Peril,” and one of the rare comedic moment from David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.,” Andersen simply lays out a trilogy of laughter showcasing Longo at his best — beating and getting beaten as the quiet giant of cinema.
Another master film essayist, Peter von Bagh, presented his new film “Socialism” that tells the sprawling narrative on the development of the political ideology with key events portrayed through a tapestry of media — from paintings, words to cinema. Unusually widening his scope beyond his homeland Finland (although admittedly staying mostly close to Europe), von Bagh shows balance not only in the network of references he presents but also in his political stance that shows both the beauty of the 20th century dream and the atrocities committed in its name. Unspooling footage from films by the Lumière brothers, Chaplin, the Soviet filmmakers and the Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, the film dwells on the powerful function of the image to document and call for arms yet ultimately, with some lament, shows its strength diffused into logos such as in the case for the poster boy of socialism, Che Guevara, whose face still litters the walls of student houses worldwide.
The role of the image is also contemplated in “Songs from the North,” a film essay on North Korea where all images, regardless of media, are constructed and controlled. Among the officially sanctioned footage from which the film draws on includes documentation of patriotic plays performed by children as well as North Korean propaganda films, such as “Sea of Blood,” “Trees of Life,” and “The Country I Saw,” that call for reunification and retell the myths of the country’s great leaders. U.S.-based South Korean filmmaker Soon-mi Yoo sources the films from degraded VHS-rips that ebbs its seduction and destabilizes its impact. Rather than through such images, Yoo finds humanity in the people of North Korea she encounters with her own camera, the images of which sharply contrast with those endorsed by the state. The film, awarded the Opera primi (best first film) prize at Locarno, was compared to the works of Chris Marker yet ultimately lacks his sophistication in the editing, although sharing a certain poignancy.
While the historical film essays contemplate the content of the films from which they extract, the conceptual film essays extricate visual moments from film history and convert them into notes from which rhythms and rhymes are constructed. This strand of film essays was also represented in Locarno’s line-up, which included “Remains,” “Locked in a Whirlwind,” and “Goodbye to Language.” The short film “Remains” showed the results of Pierre Léon’s research into the filmography of Fritz Lang from which he extracted the scenes involving close-ups of hands. The chorus of gestures that inhabits the screen — including writing, pressing, buttoning and simply touching — alludes to personalities of the characters to which Lang was continuously drawn whom mostly involving criminals who are up to no good. Although the soundtrack’s elongated drones make an allusion to grander notions, the film’s revelation of human nature feels diminutive as we’re reminded of the hands in the comparatively epoch-making Pickpocket by Robert Bresson, in the particular scene of note where hands almost dance as they steal wallets at a train station.
Following “Remains” in the same program, Fabrice Aragno’s short film “Locked in a Whirlwind” similarly focused on a single visual motif but from a wider scope encompassing film history in its entirety. The cinematographer of recent films by Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno draws on joyous moments in the history of film that involve hats. Bringing even less insight to hats than Léon did for hands, Aragno’s montage of film moments references the most obvious classics of film history – Ozu, Chaplin, Kubrick, Truffaut and his mentor-collaborator Godard – and the film has less commitment to visual poetry than what we find in most adverts. Although “Locked in a Whirlwind” attempts to display some level of playful observation with interplays of images and overlapping sounds, such experiments are left as an unfinished exercise. In the age after Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film “The Clock,” the film feels woefully under-researched and in desperate need of conceptual rigor.
And yet Aragno delivers as a cinematographer for Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language.” Among its complex network of visual signifiers, we find the history of the cinema to which Godard has made reference since his debut feature “Breathless”and, more recently, in his monumental “Historie(s) du cinéma.” Rather than interweaving a seamless montage, Godard made the quoted status of the references explicit in “Historie(s) du cinéma” by choosing low-quality VHS reproductions of the titles he remarks upon. Similarly, the cinematic references are once again contained in citation marks as they are shown on flat-screen TV monitors in the background. Inhabiting a different plane to the characters, the 3-D presentation draws out the fuzzy textures of the image to the foreground as it contrasts with the sharp image of the rest of the scene. Delving into film history, Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” uniquely bridges historical and conceptual strands of film essays as it dwells on the difficulty of communication in a world where everything has already been said or shown. Nevertheless, Godard proves it is the ways in which we engage with this situation where new insights into film language can be reached by drawing from the history of cinema.