First day in Turin
I'll try to avoid talking about the common maladies one has at a film festival— that is, insomnia (bed is such a waste of time when there are drinks and conversations to be had on the day's films!), sleepiness (see previous), malnutrition (stuffing one's face at the hotel breakfast certainly doesn't suffice for the entire day), dehydration (one word: booze), and the many anxieties about getting to films on time and such. A plentitude of these "difficulties"will naturally appear in the off-space of this blog, and perhaps in between the lines when I start to turn in cranky reviews of otherwise pretty decent films.
And now, into worthier digressions…
My first images of the Piedmont region, glimpsed from the plane window, were the Alps' peaks cutting throughthe settling clouds. When I got to Turin, I wandered for a while trying to get a better look at the surrounding nature. By the time I found what seemed to be *the* view – facing a portion of the city that rests on a mountain and which reminded me of Barcelona's Montjuic neighborhood – it dawned on me that the press office would be closing and I wouldn't be able to get my badge. I made it just in time, but when I got there I was told that my credentials were waiting for me at the hotel. The festival kindly offered a temporary solution, furnishing me with an invitation for whichever film I wished to see that night. Running into festival co-director Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan, who assembled this year's complete Robert Aldrich retrospective, it became clear that the program to catch was Emperor of the North (Pole)*. A great print, Giulia advertised, and Keith Carradine and Ernest Borgnine would be there!
It was no surprise to see Olaf "The Shadow" near the front of the line. Olaf's last appearance on this blog was in late January. He continues to elude my camera (here he hides behind a tote bag for the Isola filmfestival in Slovenia):
McMahonist that he is, Olaf sat in front – refusing "to miss a single grain". Borgnine was in the crowd, unmistakable. Introducing the film, he and Carridine spoke elegantly in Italian, Carradine noting (and I'm translating roughly here), "When I made this film I was a young man. He [pointing to Borgnine] not so much." Borgnine, 89, kept saying "Grazie per tutti" ("thank you for everything"), a warmness projecting from his big gap-toothed smile. The audience applauded and applauded – in fact, I've never seen an audience applaud so much (even at individual credits in the film's opening).
In the film, Borgnine transforms his trademark smile into a psychopathic grin: playing Shack, a railway conductor on an Oregon line dubbed "Emperor of the North Pole", he's a harrowing villain. The only man to match him is Lee Marvin's Number 1, a veteran hobo whose last ambition in life is to jump the Emperor undetected. Shack is introduced hurling a hammer at a hobo trespasser, provoking the hobo's gruesome dismemberment under the train wheels. Indeed, Shack manages to turn a variety of ordinary objects into deathly torture devices: chains, wood planks, cargo pins are employed memorably to expel drifters. Number 1 and Cigaret (Carradine), an apprentice rail jumper, mostly deflect Shack – who clearly enjoys taking his no hobo policy to homicidal heights – with their ow ntricks, the result of years of experience on the rails (the film takes place at the apex of the Great Depression).
A viable parallel to Aldrich's filmmaking – Emperor especially – is the Chinese martial arts film. In both, characters function within a world of strict macho codes. Their often violent and disruptive acts are carried out with formal grace and precision that relate to a fabricated morality, which makes the films fun to watch because the audience doesn't feel implicated in the bloodlust of the characters. Aldrich and the great D.P. Joseph Biroc are endlessly inventive in exploring the compositional and rhythmic possibilities of the action – one scene in particular, set entirely in a thick fog, is a triumph of atmospheric lighting and might be closer to something like the avant-garde Le Tempestaire by Jean Epstein than any Hollywood film of the period.
Emperor of the North is an action film in the truest sense, when such a thing was still delightfully uncompromised (the only recent Hollywood film that even comes close to Aldrich's mastery in its mano-a-mano action is Friedkin's The Hunted). Emperorof the North is also a film about trains, which takes us back to Lumière, Bitzer, Medvedkin, etc. At a crowded pub afterwards, meeting up with three colleagues from Slovenia, Nika, Nil, and Maya, we assigned metaphors to trains in cinema, such as the impression of the film strip speeding through light… A layman eavesdropper would likely role their eyes at such poetic critical discourse. But it's endearing, especially among a group of seasoned critics, to see such simple passion. Here's where we all share something essential about the history of cinema.
* The film's title, onscreen, appears as Emperor of the North, though the film is apparently more widely known under Aldrich's original title, Emperor of the North Pole.