Sunday, May 09, 2010

2010 Maryland Film Festival Wrap-up

A Thifty Film Fan's Reflections

I had limited funds and time for this year's annual Maryland Film Festival, so I only saw three films on the 3-for-$20 Economy Plan deal. I hesitated buying tix for s few films because I couldn't decide which screening and which day to see them, and it cost me as they were sold out - the obvious ones to anticipate being sell-outs were the well-hyped local production Putty Hill by Matt Porterfield (Hamilton), the Oscar-winning documentary short Music by Prudence, Night Catches Us, Tiny Furniture (the first feature to be shot on the Canon 7D, a still camera that shoots high definition video - but not to worry, it was bought by IFC, so this film starring real-life artist Laurie Simmons should turn up on their cable channel), 12th and Delaware, Cyrus, Dogtooth (MFF even added a third screening), and the Nordic Black Metal music doc Until the Light Takes Us.

Right off the mark, lemme just file this hit-or-miss report card for the festival, in my view:

  • Parking was a breeze (and cheap) this year; the Penn Station parking lot offered all-day parking for $2. Of course, the surge of festival drivers meant that everybody approaching the parking ticket machine had to endure entreaties from the area's panhandlers..."Excuse me sir - " I cut 'em off before they can start their spiel with a brisk "I'm not giving you any money. Have a nice day!"

  • The 3-for-$20 film deal is great. In years past, you had to see all three films the same day, but it was expanded to transfer over multiple days, which is cool beans. My friend Bridget even managed to get last year's Man with a Movie Camera silent-with-Alloy Orchestra screening (nominally $15) counted as one of her three movies that day.

  • The three features I saw this year - Mars, 0s & 1s, and 12th & Delaware - were great (see details below).

  • Though he stepped down as Director of Programming, Skizz Cyzyk is still involved with the festival; besides continuing to serve and consult on the screening committee, he was on hand this year to introduce a number of films, as well as participate in the "Works In Progress" event - at which he screened trailers of upcoming projects he's working on. Skizz would never screen his own films while he was a MFF programmer, but now that he's a free agent artist, I hope we can look forward to seeing his work screened at many MFFs in the years to come.

  • Jed Dietz censored a viewer who was texting during the screening of 12 & Delaware with a curt "Please turn that off." Yes!

    "Turn it off!" - Phone Police in action

    What's wrong with electronic device people and their Blackberries, Droids, iPhones, et. al? Is it a new form of material addiction or OCD? Because people can't seem to function without playing with their "things" for 1/12 to 2 hours; if they were toddlers, Freud would say they were in their oral-genital phase. Just because your telecommunication device doesn't ring doesn't mean it's not distracting - not to mention downright rude - to others to see your illuminated device flash on and off throughout an otherwise lights-out viewing experience. I hope The Charles updates its MICA-created "Turn off your cell phone" trailers to include "electronic devices."

  • MFF is always wired to be Short Circuited. Skizz Cyzyk's advocacy of short films of every stripe - animated, narrative, documentary, experimental, avant-garde, funny, WTF-ish - has been part and parcel of the Maryland Film festival since day one and continues to be a praise-worthy signature of this festival after his departure. The thing I love about shorts programs? Unlike a feature film, if a film turns out to be a dud, another one comes along in 10 to 15 minutes (like a bus - or hookers on Pulaski Highway) and the odds are in your favor that it'll be better, or at least different. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Plus shorts are perfectly matched to today's Twittering/Text-Messaging attention spans.


Carping Diem

  • All-Access Passes are way too expensive. Even the advance "Friends of the Festival" price of $175 is still too steep. You'd have to take in about 18 films, or roughly 6 a day (12 hours a day? Get real - only a super-caffeinated Marc Sober has that kind of stamina/dedication) plus opening night to get your regular admission $10-a-film rate's worth.

  • $50 Opening Night. In a word: Outrageous.

    Plus the whole Opening Night Shorts idea...while I applaud shorts advocate Skizz Cyzyk for continuing to champion the shorts genre, furthering the spirit of his original MicroCineFest film festival, maybe it's time to go back to the grand opening feature film, a la when MFF screened Barry Levinson's Diner Guys in 1999...I mean, it's great that Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill was screened twice in the main Charles Theatre auditorium, but why not roll out the red carpet for the local hero by screening his new film opening night, as well? It puts a hometown stamp on the MFF as in years past (like 2000's King Gimp or Lynne Sachs' 2001 opener Investigation of a Flame - which may have been a dud, but still had local interest).

  • The Charles Theatre Sound System Sucks. This isn't the MFF's fault and it has happened many times over well before the festival, but it's been my recent experience (and numerous patrons have agreed with me) that the sound projection is too low or muffled in every Charles Theatre auditorium outside the big one, Charles 1. It's not too bad for foreign films, since they have subtitles, but for English language films in which dialogue is important, you really have to strain to hear what's going on, as the poor sound turns non-mumblecore films into instant mumblecore classics. Both Mars (Charles Theatre 2) and 0s & 1s (Charles Theatre 5) suffered from this. 0s & 1s director Eugene Kotlyarenko even apologized to the audience afterwards for the sound (though he blamed himself for trying to fix it in the booth prior to the screening).

  • The Ace Face Thing. I've never been a fan of the "celebrity presenter" film series (who cares that blowhard Brian Billick likes The Unforgiven? I'm more interested in what Ebert, or Hornaday, or J. Hoberman think), with the notable exception of John Waters, who never disappoints - even though he's called the Pope of Trash and the King of Bad Taste, John actually has really good taste and is a closet arthouse cineaste who reads Film Comment (I used to love his "Guilty Pleasures" columns for them!) and Cineaste just like the rest of us film geeks. But I realize they generate a lot of interest/attendence from the masses.

  • The 3-D Thing may have jumped the shark. I like Chris Kaltenbach and share his passion for 3-D films, but he's shown all the good ones (and it looks like scoring a copy of his coveted The French Line, starring Jane Russell, may be as fruitless as Don Quixote tilting at windmills) and is starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Maybe, post-Avatar, it's time for a new gimmick.

  • MFF dropped the ball in promoting the appearance of Prudence Mabhena, subject and star of the Academy Award-winning documentary short Music by Prudence, which screened twice at this year's festival. Nowhere on the MFF website, blog, or program was the Zimbawean singer's in-town appearance mentioned. The Sun and MICA promoted it, but that's it. I thought about going to see this, but figured a) it won the Academy Award for best Documentary Short so it'll turn up on IFC or Sundance eventually, and b) Though Prudence and director Roger Ross Williams - whose Oscar acceptance speech was appallingly cut-off by estranged producer nutjob Elinor Burketta - were both going to be there in person at the screening, how do you justify $10 for a 32-minute film? Pro-rate that and it would work out to $30 for a typical feature-length film.

  • Must the closing day/night fall on Mother's Day?

    Mommie Dearest

    I know a lot of people who planned on doing the 3-for-$20 deal or seeing the silent film-with-Alloy-Orchestra, or Closing Night Film - but had Mother's Day obligations that took precedence. I know scheduling is tough, and may is especially hard with all the area festivals, but this one really seems to compromise a lot of people - much more so than blowing off a Spring festival. There're plenty of those to choose from this time of year.

  • And what happened to the food vendors? In years past you could grab something to drink or eat in the parking lot across the street. This year it was strictly tappas or crepes from those restaurants that bookmark the Charles.

My Film Scorecard

*** Mars ***
(Geoff Marslett, US, 2010, 83 minutes)

This animated feature was hosted by Skizz Cyzyk, who's long been a fan of director Geoff Marslett (Monkey Vs. Robot), who stretches his artistic skills here working with a live-action cast and a lot of "green screen" animation. Call it Slackers in Space. Mark Duplass was great, which surprised me because I didn't like him in the self-indulgent mumblecore "relationship" film The Puffy Chair. But his self-deprecating, sarcastic Banner Boy for the Post-Modern Irony Set astro-not "Charlie Brownsville" character was great, especially his Robert Smith-meets-Haysi Fantayzee hairdo. Fellow astro-nots included "Hank Morrison" (Paul Gordon of Gretchen fame) and "Casey Cook" (Zoe Simpson) were also outstanding, and comics artist James Kolchalka also appears in the cast.

And you knew the movie would find a place for Bowie somewhere on the Howie Gelb (Giant Sand) soundtrack, though the obvious choices of "Life on Mars" and "Major Tom" gave way to the Bowie-produced/backed Lou Reed gem "Satellite of Love," with Neko Case on quirky vocals. Howie Gelb pulled double duty in Mars, not only scoring the film but playing the great "Do I look like a give a shit?" NASA ground control character "Shep."

I hate senior dementia, but I'm already showing signs of it in my early 50s. The whole time I was watching Mars, I kept thinking I'd seen one of the actresses (in a minor role). The familiar face was none other than TV veteran thesp Cynthia Watros - she of The Guiding Light, The Drew Carey Show, and Titus fame - most recently seen on Lost as Hugo "Hurley" Reye's love interest "Libby Smith." Duh!

I am the Waltros, koo-koo-kachoo.

*** 0s and 1s ***
(Eugene Kotlyarenko, US, 2010, 86 minutes)

In a word: brilliant.

Yet, as filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko said afterwards when asked how he came up with the idea for his film, he was surprised no one had thought of it before. The Internet and Social Networking and all the little apps-driven devices and portals into modern Telecommunication - why hadn't someone done a film about how it impacts and drives the lives of today's young people. Other people have parodied aspects of the Internet, like Crossroads' hilarious "Facebook in Real Life," but this is the first film I can think of that covers it all. And the medium truly is the message, as well as the true star here, as pretty much all the characters are jerks.

Kotlyarenko's first feature-length film tells the story of an LA poser separated from his beloved computer, who "is forced to use the operating system known as real-life interaction, only to discover a generation of users and losers worse off than he." As MFF programmer Scott Braid described it, "The entire movie appears on our screen as though on a laptop running on a fictional operating system. The screen bursts with chat bubbles, system-warning windows, MP3 applications, email messages, web browsers, and anything else you can think of that might pop-up on your laptop monitor. It is an approach to filmmaking that is totally fresh, and provides a real treat for the eyes."

I agree. Watch the Os and 1s trailer to see what we mean.

The most amazing thing about this film? In a room filled with the very people representing the youth demographic depicted onscreen, no one turned on their electronic devives! Not one iPhone flicked on. Not one Droid. Not one Blackberry. And no one texted or got news updates. This is a first for me at the Charles Theater!(By the way, kudos again for festival director Jed Dietz censoring a transgressor at the 12th and Delaware screening with a succinct but effective "Please turn that off!" What you said, Jed!)

Magic Eye film series curator Mary Helena Clarke emceed the proceedings and hosted the informative Q&A afterwards.

*** 12th and Delaware ***
(Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, US, 2010, 80 minutes)

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp) are my heroes (OK, heroines). Their new abortion documentary, which has been picked up by HBO, looks at two sides of the debate on (literally) "the front lines": an anti-abortion "Crisis Pregnancy Center" situated strategically across the street from the "Woman's Medical Center" abortion clinic at the intersection of 12th and Delaware in Fort Pierce, Florida. As they explain (see video clip below), the filmmakers started off planning only to be flies-on-the-wall observing the operation of the Crisis Pregnancy Center, but decided they couldn't ignore the clinic across the street that provided the very raison d'etre for the anti-abortion clinic's existence (and strategic location).

Watch Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady's very eloquent description of how their new doc 12th & Delaware came about.

What She & She Said

At the MICA Brown Auditorium screening, I discovered that two prominant anti-abortion figures from the film - "Crisis Pregnancy Center" director Anne and Father Tom (yes, an anti-abortion priest - go figure!) - were sitting right in front of me. I found this fascinating and focused my Flip Camera on them to study their reaction. (I noted that Anne's hair is perfectly coiffed, just as in the movie and in a style I would call The Lesbian College Basketball Coach Coif; and Father Tom was ants-in-the-pants fidgety, constantly gnawing on a pen or playing with his lips -exhibiting an oral fixation that would certainly give me pause if I was altar boy.)

Watching them, I wondered if these two uber-religious zealots attend every screening of the film to further their dogmatic views and/or intimidate the filmmakers? I mean, they live in Florida, yet they came all the way to Baltimore to make sure they could hand out flyers criticizing the abortion clinic for some obscure health code violation (initially I thought they were friends of the filmmakers or festival volunteers, even though they weren't wearing the staff's yellow "Charlie Brown" t-shirts)...

... and to, I dunno, stalk the filmmakers? Two Pro-Lifers who look like No-Lifers beyond this one obsessional issue.

What's interesting about their health code nitpicking and "ethical" concerns is that they, by contrast, don't seem to care that their statistics and "facts" are all controversial and, as far as their "Ethics" go, Anne and Father Tom are the people whose modus operandi is Total Deception - from their strategic location across the street from an abortion clinic, to their clinic's name "Crisis Pregnancy Center" (which sounds like "Woman's World Medical Center" - with the "Crisis" sounding apropos of an abortion clinic), to Anne misrepresenting herself when she lets the women that mistakenly come to her center (all the women depicted in the film entered the Crisis Pregnancy Center thinking they were in the abortion clinic) think she's the director of the place across the street, to even lying about the sonograms (saying a woman is only 7 weeks along in her pregnancy instead of 10-12 weeks so that she thinks she has more time to wait and think - until it becomes too late in most states to legally have an abortion). And by the way, what are Anne's credentials? Does she have a sociology or counseling degree? Divinity degree? Medical training?

Furthermore, I didn't see Anne offer any "counseling" other than fear- and guilt-mongering. Basically, pregnant women were told they would be guilt-ridden murderers who would burn in Hell if they went through with the abortion. At least across the street, " A Woman's World" Medical Center director Candace Dye told the mother of six, or the teen coming in with her second straight "accident," or the I'm-too-old-for-this-shit 47-year-old mom about birth control. But no - that would be too realistic and pragmatic for the other side of the street, where the only options are babies or abstinence.

And despite Father Tom's assertion that "We wouldn't have agreed to participate in the film had we known you were going to film the other side," it's hard to see how that would have changed anything. Going by the audience's reaction, I doubt it. After all, the anti-abortionists are hoisted on their own petards. All the things the audience found laughable or wince-worthy or disingenuous were the freely offered advice and actions filmed by the "counselors: inside the Crisis Pregnancy Center. And their positions were certainly not helped by the scariest figure in the film, the Beefy Badass Born-Again Bald-headed Bouncer-Biker Dude who stalks the abortion clinic doctors and intimidates the women outside the clinic. This guy oozed testosterone, arrogance, and sexism ("Women are are under the mistaken belief that they are in control of their bodies, not God!") in equally pungeant amounts; he looked like the kind of aggro fanatic that would bomb clinics and kill abortion doctors.

My favorite line in the film is the black chick who is in an abusive relationship with a player boyfriend who, after being told by Anne (who looks like she's never had sex) that condoms are only 85% percent effective replies, "Well, all I know is every time I used them I didn't get pregnant and the one time I didn't, I got pregnant. No 85 percent, that's 100 percent with condoms." Anne is stunned into silence. She also corrects Anne's definition of what an abortion is when she says, "It's a termination of an unwanted pregnancy. This pregnancy is unwanted and I want to terminate it."

Anne buys this woman lunch and eventually the young woman figures out that she's being stalled and in the wrong place. I love the scene where she excuses herself to go oustide and call a friend, saying, "This bitch is starting to get on my nerves. She thinks she can change my mind by buy me some cheap-ass McDonald's food?"

The audience exploded with laughter.

Unfortunately, not all the women in crisis were so perceptive. In one scene, a group of Latino men and women stop a fellow Latino woman from going into the clinic by promising her that they'll take care of her and her baby for the rest of her life. The woman tells them she already has six children and cannot manage another little nino, but is swayed by their guilt pleas. (Boy, if the Church should ever doubt its power, the successful colonization and indoctrination of its South and Latin American minions surely attests to their foresight and long-range planning; it's all in the numbers.) And yet back at the Crisis Pregnancy Center, all the woman leaves with is a stuffed teddy bear. (An affiliated do-gooder later paid the cost of the woman's cancelled termination procedure.)

Watch Father Tom, who along with anti-abortion "Crisis Pregnancy Center" director Anne (seated next to him) is prominantly featured in the film, object to Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's "unethical" filmmaking approach in their documentary "12th & Delaware" at the Maryland Film Festival post-screening discussion.

Watch part 2 of their response to the talk.

Watch part 3 of the Maryland Film Festival post-sceening discussion of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's documentary 12th & Delaware.

I had to be furtive in my filming, as I was afraid the odd couple would engage me in some pointless theological-ethical debate, so pardon the cut-offs.

Coming out of the auditorium, we ran into our friends Barbara and Metti, All-Access Passers who were sticking around to take in yet another film that night, Night Catches Us. They admitted that, film fanatics though they are, even they had to take some time off that day to rest their orbs and grab some food. Ah, food...that's what we craved at that moment, so we bid them adieu before we lost our appetite hanging around Anne and Father Tom, who were still proselytizing in the Brown Auditorium lobby afterwards.

Outside "12 & Delaware" with my Pulchritude Posse:
Amy, Metti & Barbara (If only I had worn my other t-shirt!)

Related Links:

Read my friend Barbara Wilgus' "A Fan Notes":

MFF 2010, Day 1
MFF 2010, Day 2, 3, and Closing Night


Anonymous Mary Anne Tom said...

Firstly, you and Amy are so cute together. (Is she really half-Japanese, or was that a joke? And she is related to Jim somehow?)

Secondly, your comment about the sound at the Charles seemed to be accurate. I haven't been going to movies there for a while now, but the sound def. had to be turned up at the Burroughs doc. Not that you could understand anything he said, mind you...

Thirdly, my friend did get food and drink from the tent area, but she admitted that her bloody mary was so strong, bec. she got the end of the mix. Maybe they had closed up shop before you went over there? I opted for a crepe and had no idea they had food over there, until my friend met me with her burger and drink in hand.

(And I enjoyed the Brian Billick presentation with "The Unforgiven." Alas, that was the night my passport disappeared there (I dropped it during the film) and my efforts to retrieve it were rebuffed, so that is the main reason I have not been going there for so long.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous jaiview said...


12:36 AM  

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