December 10, 2006

Torino Dispatch.

Dennis Lim looks back on the highlights of last month's festival in Torino.

Torino Film Festival The sensation of abundance - a common one at the best film festivals - can be especially acute at Torino. A high-minded oasis of cinephilia that concluded a terrific 24th edition last month, the Torino Film Festival balances a rigorous program of new work with heroic, encyclopedic retrospectives. The honorees this year: Barcelona School pioneer Joaquín Jordá (who died at 70 last summer), Claude Chabrol (part two of a tribute that commenced at last year's festival), softcore auteur Joseph Sarno, and the perenially underrated Robert Aldrich (more on whom later).

An intriguingly motley jury - Lisandro Alonso, David Gordon Green and Ron Mann, among others - awarded top prize to Albert Serra's Honor de Cavalleria (which premiered at this year's Quinzaine and is screening at the current Spanish Cinema Now! series at Lincoln Center in New York).

Honor de Cavalleria

A worthy winner, Serra's first feature is an ascetic take on Cervantes's Don Quixote, drawing from the least eventful passages in the novel. A decrepit, dishevelled Quixote (Lluís Carbó), accompanied by his devoted servant, the stout, stoic Sancho (Lluís Serrat), shuffles about the Catalan countryside and off into the twilight - often literally (many scenes unfold in near darkness). There's a hint of contrarian mischief in the conception - a landscape movie shot on modest DV, a near-mute "adaptation" of the chattiest of lit classics - but the cumulative effect is austerely moving. Both playful and serious, it's a wholly original riff on Bressonian and Ozuesque notions of cine-purity, and very much a film that adheres to its own chivalric code.

The other jury favorite, Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake (which was lauded for direction and ensemble acting), could hardly be more different. Strained and busy, the movie is filled with enough unmotivated kookiness for an entire Sundance lineup. For a few brief moments, with its melancholic whimsy and cartoon metaphysics, Handshake takes on shades of a small-town Donnie Darko, but it mainly settles for the self-satisfied non sequitur absurdism that capsizes so many American indies.

Stories From the North A richer - not to mention more serene - strain of regionalism could be found in Stories From the North, Thai director Uruphong Raksasad's gentle elegy for a vanishing way of life. A series of scenic vignettes, all shot in and around the northern village of Lanna, the film harbors an obvious nostalgia for a simpler time, but it never exoticizes the hard agrarian life; the filmmaker's rapt, uncondescending eye keeps sentimentality at bay. The sepia-hued drama The Lineman's Diary likewise offered a peek into an unseen world. This simple, rustic tale of fathers and sons and the trans-Kazakhstan railway - stuck in time, though not quite in the same way as the land of Borat - won a Fipresci prize for director Zhanabek Zhetiruov (himself a former railway lineman).

Pleasures of Ordinary Divisive in the extreme, 23-year-old Chinese director Xia Peng's Pleasures of Ordinary was perhaps the most intriguing film in the competition. The titular riff on Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures may not be coincidental - the setting is a derelict town in Shanxi province (JZ turf, in other words). Xia's shapeless film meanders among assorted regular folk and hard-knock characters, evolving into something like an experimental, pseudo-documentary version of Jia's Xiao Wu. Shot on blotchy, blown-out video, it's a curious film, often unsightly but also keen-eyed. It exerts a hypnotic power, not least in the final half hour, when it latches onto the bitter laments of a hobbled war veteran and builds to a conclusion of surprising force and anger.

Last year, the big story at Torino was the world premiere of Joe Dante's agitprop thunderbolt Homecoming, part of the Masters of Horror series. This year brought a second batch of episodes (currently airing on Showtime). On paper, the most political was John Carpenter's Pro-Life, set in an abortion clinic and pitting rabid pro-lifers against the medical staff, with the added complication of a demon spawn. Its point of view can most charitably be called garbled.

The Screwfly Solution Again, it was Dante who turned in the best installment: The Screwfly Solution, based on the 1977 Raccoona Sheldon short story. Deftly entwining environmental and feminist horror, it follows the outbreak of a murderous rage epidemic among the male population, the result of an attempt to sterilize male screwflies. After a witty, resonant buildup, the hour-long film loses its bite and focus at the halfway mark and all but falls apart at the end. Incidentally, it's the second horror flick in as many years, after George Romero's Land of the Dead, to propose a northward evacuation to Canada.

The new films inevitably paled alongside the full Aldrich retro, a mammoth undertaking and a labor of love on the part of festival co-director Giulia D'agnolo Vallan. Confronted with this lineup, with its abundance of rarely revived titles still unavailable on DVD, it was impossible not to gorge. Not all the prints were pristine, but the altogether thrilling experience of watching so many Aldrich films in the space of a few days only reinforced the sense of his singularity. Born into New England old money, he spent much of his life in rebellion. He started out as an assistant (to Jean Renoir and Joseph Losey, among others) and rose through the studio ranks, all the while chafing against the system. He insisted on serving as producer on his films, and his lifelong ambition was to run his own studio (a dream briefly realized from the profits of 1967's The Dirty Dozen and destroyed a few years later by the commercial disaster of The Grissom Gang, his crazed Depression-era tale of a kidnapping turned Stockholm-syndrome romance). In a sense, Aldrich was an independent filmmaker before the notion really existed.

Robert Aldrich Catalog The sheer range of his filmography is impressive enough: war movies, Westerns, macho guyfests, hysterical women's melodramas. But even more startling was the febrile energy and the sheer depths of feeling he could pack into almost any scenario. He had a weakness for histrionics, but more often than not, he made crudeness a virtue. He was a masterful orchestrator of chaos, fully aware that nihilism and anarchy could be productive forces. It's fitting that the most iconic image in all of his films is the radioactive white light erupting out of the chest in the atomic noir Kiss Me Deadly (introduced in Torino by longtime fan Chabrol).

Aldrich's daughter Adell, who assisted on many of his later films, was in attendance and spoke openly of his contentious relationship with Hollywood. For Aldrich, it was always a given that the industry was corrupt and soul-destroying. Immediately after Kiss Me Deadly, he made his first Hollywood broadside, The Big Knife (1956), a robust adaptation of a Clifford Odets play and the rare occasion he was compelled to confine his volatile style to a single set. Jack Palance plays a tormented, alcoholic actor fending off mafioso-like studio execs. News of Palance's death broke just as the festival was getting under way, and his 50s collaborations with Aldrich functioned nicely as a mini-tribute. This big lug, with his anguished intensity and lunging physicality, was a perfect actor for the free-swinging Aldrich (who also directed him in the grimly anti-heroic war films Attack! and Ten Seconds to Hell).

Aldrich's nuttiest showbiz cautionary tale - probably his nuttiest film, period - was 1968's The Legend of Lylah Clare (shown in a faded pink print, apparently the only extant one). Peter Finch plays a Hollywood director who casts a young ingenue (Kim Novak), a lookalike of his late wife and muse, in a film about the dead woman. The presence of Novak in a dual role underscores the basic idea: Vertigo refracted through a cracked prism (acrophobia is further referenced in the jaw-dropping trapeze scene, the climax of both the film and the film-within-the-film). Aldrich's contempt for the industry is at full throttle here. The movie ends, astonishingly, with a dog food commercial and the image of a pack of ravenous canines chowing down.

He might well have outdone Lylah Clare with The Greatest Mother of 'Em All, a film he was trying to get off the ground in 1969. In a rare treat, Torino presented the bizarre, liberally sexed-up 20-minute promo reel that Aldrich made in an attempt to raise funds. Shot largely on spare, half-dressed sets, with pastoral interludes scored to Simon and Garfunkel, it leaves you in wonderment at the film that could have been. A sleazy director (Finch again) becomes romantically involved with a teenage girl, with the mother's approval; the inspiration was the relationship between Errol Flynn and his last girlfriend Beverly Aadland, who was 15 when they met.

Twilight's Last Gleaming The discovery of the festival - the film that packed as much political punch as last year's Homecoming - turned out to be by Aldrich, too. Picking up the theme of nuclear paranoia more than 20 years after Kiss Me Deadly, the unheralded Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977, shown in its full 146-minute version) is a nail-biting conspiracy thriller with a blistering and highly topical take on the reasons wars are fought. A disgruntled Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) takes over a nuclear missile silo and threatens to launch some rockets unless the president (Charles Durning) publicly reveals the truth behind the Vietnam war. Watching the film, which fits our political climate perhaps even better than it did the post-Watergate one, it's hard not to wish there was a director working in Hollywood today willing to take on the war crimes of the present administration.

Even Aldrich's ostensibly minor films have moments of profound pleasure: Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve's lovely romantic-fatalist duet in Hustle (1975), for instance, overshadows the film's perfunctory murder mystery. His final movie, ...All the Marbles (a/k/a California Dolls, 1981), starring Peter Falk as the manager of a female wrestling tag team, is hardly a landmark work. It's unfortunate, you'd think, that a major filmmaker should end his career with something so seemingly tawdry and trivial (there's an obligatory mudpit scene), but the finale is beyond rousing and wholly fitting: a crescendo of scrappy underdog triumph.

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Posted by dwhudson at December 10, 2006 1:52 PM