The following essay was produced as part of the 2019 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival.
“Locarno … has become respectable, too,” Locarno’s incoming Artistic Director Lili Hinstin wrote in the press release that accompanied the festival’s program announcement last July. She borrowed the quotation from the People’s Pervert (and the recipient of the festival’s most recent lifetime achievement award, the Leopard of Honour) John Waters, who has long shared the very sentiment with regards to his own work.
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As Hinstin explained, the decades-old festival is not just respectable now, it’s also respected and “that respect was gained by being one of the major world festival that takes the bigger risks. The one that shakes things up, brings surprises, ruffles feathers, asks questions.” The 72nd edition of the festival presented many challenges for Hinstin and her mission to keep such an ethos going, from how to fill the 8,000-seater Piazza Grande stage to how to escape a clichéd “Locarno film” tag.
And, as she wrote in the release, how best to engage a mainstream public in auteurism. Look no further than her inspired programming choices, which bridge the gap between big risks and big appeal.
Playing in the Crazy Midnight section on the Piazza Grande screen, a screen so large and impressive it literally appears on Swiss currency, were two films that create their own friction between the mainstream and the auteur, just like the festival itself: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Waters’ own “Cecil B. Demented.” Presenting these films on Europe’s largest screen and giving them the capacity for the festival’s largest audience (“Hollywood” sold out days in advance) was a defiant refusal to admit that arthouse cinema is in its twilight years or that there isn’t still a strong demand for more of it.
An avid film buff, Tarantino has turned his cinephilia into an outright mixtape mashup. Nostalgia: it’s delicate, but potent. Is the supreme self-awareness of “Hollywood” a sign perhaps that the auteur does not retain total control? Has he made the most Tarantino-esque film or, paying homage to the entire history of Hollywood before him, the least?
In Waters’ own Baltimore-set romp “Cecil B. Demented,” a crew of horny satanists, crackhead renegades, and Otto Preminger die-hards wanted for murder terrorize mainstream studios having captured diva Honey Witlock. Ultimate auteur director Cecil B. Demented (based on Cecil B. DeMille, of course), seeks to create an ultimate reality: “I have a vision and someone might have to die!!!” A send-up of high-brow totalitarianism, its lavish gimmickry demands we laugh. Or else. Is the film an ode to the freedom (and tyranny) of underground filmmakers, that which is no longer on offer to someone so “respectable”?
Playing on the first day of the festival to the accompaniment of the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana was Waters’ Carte Blanche choice: King Vidor’s “Show People” (1928). Producer Marion Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a young woman from Georgia who alights to Hollywood looking for stardom (Pepper is largely believed to be based on Gloria Swanson). When Peggy arrives, she first signs on with a troupe of clowns led by Billy Boone (William Haines), who “set about the daily grind of getting laughs.” Think custard pies, banana skins, and pantomime horses.
Again, the feature takes a biographical turn, as Davies, after a career of undignified slapstick comedy roles would eventually turn to dramatic performances. Although she had a stutter, she had big eyes and platinum blonde hair, which were important for silent pictures. In her memoirs, she wrote: “I couldn’t act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn’t talk either.” (William Randolf Hearst even tried to get “Show People” cancelled, believing slapstick comedy detrimental to her health.)
Elsewhere in this year’s mainstream-appealing-plus-auterism-leaning program: the integration of new and old in the Black Light Retrospectivva. Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.’s open, historiographical approach — contemporary issues seen through largely neglected, non-canonical black cinema — lent itself to all sorts of dialogues. Another film also entangled in its own meta-fiction was William Greaves’ “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” introduced by de Cuir as a “total auteur film, if it is a film.”
Greaves wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the feature, which combines elements of traditional Hollywood, cinéma vérité, and improvisatory documentary only in order to deconstruct them. Just like “Hollywood,” it’s a chaotic, conflicted smorgasbord of different styles and genres in which the director is ultimately upstaged by his own cast and crew.
At the service of mainstream audiences, Lili Hinstin, John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, Marion Davies, and William Greaves refuse to take themselves too seriously, reminding us of the need for a taste in bad taste; of enjoyment above and beyond judgement. So was this edition of Locarno respectable? Hinstin’s own selection, so wide-ranging that it offered both defiant auteur and anti-auteur selections, answers the question for us.