THE MARYLAND FILM FESTIVAL
By Mike White
The Maryland Film Festival is still in its infancy. Perhaps it's this freshness that lends an air of vigor to the fest but, moreover, I'd like to think that it's the spirited folks of Baltimore that make attending the MDFF such a pleasure. There's no "big wig" attitude from anyone involved with the fest from the ticket-takers on up the ladder to Festival Director, Jed Dietz.
In what could be considered "the biggest little film festival on the East Coast," MDFF 3 ran for four balmy nights and three smoldering days of late April 2001. Luckily, the majority of the festival events took place at the historic (and air-conditioned) Charles Theater. This made for a convenient time going from one screening to another, instead of having to find someone to cart my ass all over town.
Initially, I was fearful of the films I would find at MDFF, as the opening night was marred by the premiere of INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME. I like my documentaries plain or experimental, as long as they're well done. Lynne Sachs' documentary was a half-baked affair that relied on its "experimentalism" as an excuse for an amateurish visual "style" which overshadowed the wealth of substance that her subject had to offer.
The film takes a cursory look at Maryland's Catonsville Nine, the interfaith war protesters who broke into a civil service bureau in 1967 and burned the records of hundreds of young men who were doomed to serve in Vietnam. When the film was over, I had far more questions than answers. While I don't expect a documentarian to take my hand and lead me along a purely linear progression of thought and action, I expect more from a documentary than a few "talking heads" and some nauseating hand-held shots of azaleas. (For a better look at this subject matter, check out Gordon Davidson's TRIAL OF THE CATONSVILLE NINE, which was based on Daniel Berrigan play of the same name.)
The highlight of the evening came when the remaining members of the Nine, the news reporter first on the scene, and the attorney who prosecuted their case came up for a rousing Q&A (Quips and Allegations) session after the film.
INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME notwithstanding, the remainder of the festival was a hoot.
Instead of an open call for entries, the MDFF is an "invitation only" affair wherein local celebrities such as filmmaker John Waters, the mayor of Baltimore, the coach of the local football team, film critics for the city's newspapers, and assorted other folks as diverse as singer-songwriter Will Oldham and NPR announcer Scott Simon, pick the films they wish to present. MDFF staffers choose additional films. The result is a highly mixed bag of recent festival hits, classic films, and oddball rarities lighting up the silver screen.
Personally, the strangest choice of a film was courtesy of Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow, who, along with film editor Paul Seydor, foamed at the mouth over Ron Shelton's COBB. Having missed COBB the first time around (Ty Cobb is still a maligned figure to many Detroiters, as Robert Wuhl is to many more), I decided to take a few hours and watch this "terrific failure." Broken into roughly three major sections, COBB plays like CHARLES FOSTER KANE TAKES A ROAD TRIP WITH AN ANNOYING JOURNALIST. The movie meanders as if it were being written on the fly, with flashbacks being tossed about willy-nilly. COBB makes Ron Shelton's love of sports and lack of cinematic subtlety painfully obvious, making COBB, the film, as unlikable as Cobb, the man.
Yet, you wouldn't think there was anything lacking based on the post-film discussion. According to Sradow and Seymore, COBB was robbed of Oscar and critical nods due to everything from "a glut of Oscar-caliber films" to the O.J. Simpson trial. The facts that folks didn't care to see an overly-long film about a cranky lout didn't enter into it. Despite a few years and yards of praise from Sragow and Seydor, COBB still managed to miss the mark.
Kirby Dick's CHAIN CAMERA could have gone terribly awry but managed to stay on track. Taking its cue from the "voyeur documentaries" that have glutted television, CHAIN CAMERA is the result of thousands of hours of video footage shot by high-schoolers from Los Angeles' James Madison High. Each student was given a camcorder for a week and asked to document their lives. Of the over four thousand students, CHAIN CAMERA features roughly fifteen subjects. While there are one or two "throw away" segments and four highly unnecessary title cards (they were so distracting that they managed to detract from the film overall), CHAIN CAMERA is a poignant look at high school life today. More than two-dimensional John Hughes caricatures, the honesty of these youngsters comes through vibrantly via the muddy video footage.
Two other terrific documentaries focused their energies on single personalities. Both dealt with subjects about whom I only had passing knowledge, Jose Mojica Marins and Cynthia Plaster Caster.
At 103-minutes, Jessica Villines' PLASTER CASTER could use a bit of trimming but it's still a riveting portrait of one of rock music's most interesting "peripheral players." As a young woman, Cynthia could have been considered a typical "groupie," trying her best to meet and bed some of rock & roll's luminaries. However, it wasn't until she received a fateful art class project that she found her real niche; casting the genitalia of her favorite (male) rockers. PLASTER CASTER follows several narrative threads while delving into Cynthia's rousing past. Villines makes her audience privy to a few of Cynthia's castings, from approach to the final product. Meanwhile, we see every gritty detail as Cynthia prepares for the first public exhibition of her "sweet babies" (the term she gives to her plaster penises).
Better known to the world as "Coffin Joe," Marins is a national treasure of Brazil where he has made thirty-six feature films. Andre Fbarcinski and Ivan Finotti's COFFIN JOE: THE STRANGE WORLD OF JOSE MOJICA MARINS showcases Coffin Joe, the man and the filmmaker. The film gives proper respect to its subject-displaying his talents and popularity-while never taking itself too seriously. I found myself both intrigued and amused by this tight hour-long documentary.
I also bemoaned that I couldn't attend the screening of Marins' THIS NIGHT I'LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE when it was shown with TWO THOUSAND MANIACS at Baltimore's Bengie's Drive-In Theater. Luckily, COFFIN JOE's editor, Andre Finnoti (brother of the documentary's director) was able to see the film with a terrific crowd on the immense screen under the starry night. Oddly, though Coffin Joe (or "Mojica" as he's commonly referred to) is widely known as a television and comic book personality, Brazilians have little to no access to Mojica's older works.
Also showing at Bengie's was TWO THOUSAND MANIACS, the personal favorite film of its director, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Known as "The Godfather of Gore," Lewis carved a distinct niche for himself as the master of the "gore film." Filled with copious crimson and voluminous viscera, Lewis' gory features struck a chord with audiences (and film censors) around the country. A legendary figure in the annals of American Cinema, H.G. Lewis is remarkable for his oeuvre and, moreover, for his terrific personality.
After dealing with a particularly bitchy filmmaker while working on CdC #13 (a story I'll save for a future CdC), Lewis' lack of ego and self-effacing humor were even more appreciated. Not to gush, but I don't think I'll ever be able to say enough nice things about Lewis. I'll readily admit that I've only seen a handful of his films (with JIMMY THE BOY WONDER being my favorite) but as a person and "personality," Lewis was wonderfully affable.
I suppose that one reason I'm going on so much about how nice it was to interact with Lewis is due to his role on the MDFF's "Panel of Blood." I moderated this discussion of gore/horror films and Lewis made my freshman experience a breeze. While he could have easily dominated the discussion with his wonderful recollections of his work, Lewis helped put the other panel members at ease.
While Brian Horowitz of Trash Palace has worked with another horror maestro, Jess Franco, he spent his time on the panel playing the role of the "voice of the fanboys." Horowitz added a good deal of perspective to the discussion, as he was highly familiar with the works of both Coffin Joe and H.G. Lewis. To be honest, he was much more qualified to host such a panel than I was! Horowitz knew when to gush and when to gush blood-palming a fake eye and spurting his homemade blood across the first few rows of the audience (and all over Lewis' slacks-the Godfather of Gore wasn't pleased).
Unfortunately, neither COFFIN JOE nor THIS NIGHT I'LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE had yet shown at the MDFF so Andre Finotti wasn't barraged with questions but both Horowitz and Lewis were more than willing to "share the spotlight" with the cordial Brazilian. Altogether I'd say that the panel was a success (at least from where I sat) and the double feature of Lewis' and Coffin Joe's films were a hit later that night.
It wasn't that I couldn't get a ride to Bengie's, rather, I wanted to catch the midnight screening of THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT. Directed by Corey McAbee of the rock/performance/art/film group The Billy Nayer Show (KETCHUP & MUSTARD MAN), THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT is a cross-pollinated pastiche that plays as a musical-western-comedy-scifi-road movie. Shot in beatific black and white, THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT pits McAbee as rakish pilot Samuel Curtis, against the evil Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto) as he travels the solar system from Jupiter to Venus and points in-between.
Chocked full of catchy tunes and quirky characters, THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT is the most original movie I've seen in years. So compelling, I saw it again less than twelve hours later and would watch it again right now if I had the chance. Of all the films I've seen this year, I'd recommend THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT without hesitation. For locations where THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT is screening, visit http://www.americanastronaut.com and, pssst, listen to the theme song here.
The only other MDFF film that I'd so readily recommend was Timothy Carey's THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER (highlighted in CdC #12). Seeing Carey's feature film on the big screen from a pristine print (nothing but the best for MDFF audiences) was a truly awesome experience. While the film's flaws were magnified tenfold in this venue, its brilliance and fun were equally larger-than-life. The screening almost felt like it was made-to-order just for me but, luckily, it played to a packed house.
Another highlight of the fest included Baltimore's favorite son, John Waters, hosting Jerome Boivin's killer canine film, BAXTER. To be honest, I think that Waters could choose to show MEET JOE BLACK and fill the largest theater at The Charles with ease. Luckily, Waters' choice was as fun as his public persona. BAXTER was a movie that I had thought about renting several times but never took the time to see. I'm actually glad that I waited and had the opportunity to see it with such a responsive audience.
On the run and up and at 'em from sunrise to well into the wee hours, the MDFF wasn't the most relaxing festival I've attended but it was definitely a fun time. One of these days I'm going to visit Baltimore when there's no film festival going on so I can actually find the time to hang our with my pals there. But, knowing us, we'll probably rent a bunch of movies and have our own private festival.