My 2012 Maryland Film Film Journal
Friday, May 4, 2012
My attendance at the Maryland Film Festival has dwindled over the years, as a combination of financial and scheduling issues (and the eventual availability of many of the films on NetFlix or cable television - for those of us that can wait) has tamped down my enthusiasm for the festival. This year I only saw two documentaries and a shorts program. The docs were great, the shorts presentation a 50-50 hit-or-miss proposition, which is to be expected with shorts programs. I would have liked to have seen the Bobcat Goldtwaite (God Bless America) and Todd Solandz (Dark Horse) films, but they were either screening too late or for too much, so I will catch them on the inevitable second run on NetFlix or the Sundance/IFC cable channels. The word from my friends and co-workers was that Jafar Panahi's house-arrest document This Is Not a Film, Edward Tyndall's psychotropic non-narrative doc Reconvergence, the Jeffrey Dahmer docu-drama Jeff, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights (I loved Arnold's Red Road and Fish Tank!), and the Alloy Orchestra-accompanied Expressionist silent From Morning Till Midnight were great. I will look for them in upcoming NetFlix queues.
That said, it's still a fun festival and, I realized, could almost be nicknamed The Video Americain Alumni Film Festival. The past and present Video Americainers who have staffed the festival include current programmers Eric Hatch and Scott Braid, not to mention Skizz Cyzyk, Scott Wallace Brown, Rahne Alexander, Joe Tropea, Gabe and Trin Wardell, Kevin Coehlo, etc., etc, etc..
As usual, I skipped the opening night shorts (sorry programmers, $35 is still too steep to see a 60-minute shorts program, even if there's crackers and cheese and brew at the post-screening nosh-and-gab soiree!) and went straight from work on Friday night to The Charles Theater, which serves as the MFF's Official Ground Zero. My long-suffering girlfriend Amy and I were hoping to get into the "Passion of the WTF Shorts" program at 7 p.m., mainly because my face was originally used as a model for one of the characters in my filmmaker friend Laurence Arcadias and Juliette Marchand's stop-motion animated short Tempest in a Bedroom - no, it was not a horror film, despite a character design based on my mug! - which began development in Baltimore and was shot last year in France.
This animated comedy by Arcadias (Co-Chair of the Experimental Animation department at the Maryland Institute College of Art) and Marchard (a former MICA animation instructor now based in France) pokes fun at class struggles and sexual attraction and tells the story of a couple who have everything - except a satisfying sex life. I know it involved lots of behind-the-scenes work, from using actors to create puppet faces and building model armatures to creating green-screen compositions and other special effects. I had missed an earlier free screening at MICA and was curious to see how my talented friend's short, which got partial funding from French television, turned out. But, sacre bleu, it was not to be!
Tempest in a Bedroom (Laurence Arcadias & Juliette Marchand, 2011, 11 minutes)
Walking across the Penn Station car park, we ran into Scott Huffines (nattily attired in a KISS t-shirt) and his stylishly dressed missus Kristin Miller, who were on their way in to see their pal John Waters' special presentation of Barbara Loden's '60s indie-cult film Wanda.
A scrum of fans line up for the annual "John Waters presents" screening
While I like most of the films he picks and always love hearing him talk (about anything, not just films), the "John Waters presents" screenings are always packed to the gills and I hate crowds; besides, you have to be both picky and meticulous when it comes to scheduling films to see at a festival, and Wanda came out on DVD years ago and has even aired on the Sundance Channel periodically. I knew of its existence long before, thanks to the praise heaped on it by fanboy (and erstwhile Dreamlander) "Orpheum" George Figgs.
A vaclempt George Figgs genuflects before the genius of Barbara Loden
Like me the first time I used the Penn Station lot's pay machine, Scott overpaid the machine, so he gave me his ticket that was good for 24 hours free parking, as he and Kristin were heading off to the Bahamas the next day after hanging with JW (ah these Essex Jetsetters - how I envy their Haute-Hillbilly Highlife lifestyle!).
Scott KISSed his parking meter money goodbye!
WTF is up with WTF???
Amy and I made our way across the street to Tent Village and were all set to purchase the 3-for-$20 film deal, but the volunteer chick at the ticket tent confused us, saying that the WTF Shorts program was on "Standby Only" alert.
After a long-winded explanation, we gleaned that meant kind-of-soldout. Thanks to the All Access Pass geeks who, in effect, buy the right to see every film at the festival, the MFF peeps used some kind of algorithm to calculate how many people could theoretically attend each screening (so every All Access person is assumed to be going to any given screening); it's a necessary (but stupid) calculation, I guess, but it turns out it the screening wasn't sold out at all. The girl at the tent confused us because she thought the screening was at 7:30, indicating we had to wait to find out the status of tickets sold half an hour before the program, when it fact the films were set to start in 10 minutes. Whatever. We had to think fast and, since she wouldn't sell us tix to the WTF Shorts screening, we grabbed tix for Wild in the Streets - not to be confused with the 1968 Youth Rebellion film with the same title (in which anyone over the age of 30 was put in "forced Retirement" concentration camps and fed LSD)...
Watch trailer for the 1968 "Wild in the Streets."
...at the Wind-up Space, two blocks away, booking manically to make it by post time. We made it, and saw that former Video Americain Charles Village manager (and full-time film-and-soccer enthusiast) Kevin Coehlo was there to introduce the director of...
WILD IN THE STREETS (2011)
Directed by Peter Baxter, USA/UK, 2011
Shrovetide football is a real ball (& nose & head & ribs) buster!
One game, two days, 3,000 people. The ancient Shrovetide football game is the lifeblood of English market town Ashbourne and the origin of soccer, rugby and American football. It traces its roots back to Pagan times when the head of a virgin was chopped off and kicked around town for sport; but as everyone in the Midlands knows, virgins are as scarce as central heating these days so a leather ball became the new standard bearer.
Watch a clip from "Wild in the Streets."
I hate writing film synopses (bother!), so here's my friend Barb Wilgus' description from her annual MFF Journal:
Wild In The Streets [dir. Peter Baxter] covers Shrovetide Football, which is the forebear of rugby, of soccer, of american football, and which is largely extinct. One town in England, Ashbourne, has continued this game for centuries, passing the tradition from generation to generation. Basically the game goes thus: the two sides of the town, divided into Up’ards and Down’ards [determined by which side of the brook one lives on], over the span of two days [Shrovetide and Ash Wednesday], mash into a huge town-wide contest to get a large leather ball [in the origins of the game apparently it was the severed head of a virgin- oh, those Brits] across town to their side to score a goal by banging the ball three times on a large, centuries old metal plate of some sort. Each side’s goal is 3 miles from the town center. Whomever has the most goals scored at the end of the two days wins. That’s really all I can describe about the game itself, which seemed most like rugby, but with hundreds and hundreds of people playing at once [the whole town! Really!], with no rules other than “get that ball to our side”. Watching this raucous battle unfold, you can palpably sense the history, tradition, and deep pride of community and place inherent in keeping the game alive. Tough, bloodied, grown men actually burst into tears, overcome with emotion from scoring a goal, a life’s achievement here, raising them to the status of legend.
The muscle in the game is meted out by "Huggers," while pace is provided by fleet-footed "Runners" (I think I'd be a runner!), but other than a 10 p.m. curfew opening night, there's a scarcity of rules other than getting the ball to one of two goals by hook or by crook, whether Over Under Sideways or Down.
Afterwards, director Peter Baxter (founder of the Slamdance Festival) explained that Shrovetide's Up'ards vs. Down'ards contest is the Ur of local British "Derbies" (a "Derby" being a sporting fixture between two local rivals, particularly in the same town or area) and pointed out that it derived from nearby town of - yup, you guessed it - Derby (which is in the same county as Ashbourne, Derbyshire. How utterly appropriate!).
Though he now lives in Los Angeles, Baxter grew up in Ashbourne and admitted he was a Down'ard who was born south of the river that divides the town. When someone asked whether outsiders ever crashed the Shrovetide party, he revealed that a Japanese man named Aki flies in every year from Tokyo to partake. Amy loved that there was a (tenuous) Japanese connection to this year's festival, which had hardly any Asian film representation other than one 4-minute film in the WTF Shorts program!
Baxter also corrected me when I asked if the film's football-loving narrator Sean Bean was a West Ham supporter, informing me that Bean is a Sheffield United supporter. (Turns out he has their logo tattooed on his arm, sits on the Sheffield United board of directors, and may have caused manager Neil Warnock to quit when he berated the gaffer after United were relegated). (Sheffield United's derby, of course, is with crosstown rivals Sheffield Wednesday!)
I really loved this film, which concentrated on the likeable people of Ashbourne who - even though they may bust a few neighborly noses and break a couple of riverside rival ribs during Shrovetide, always kiss and make up afterwards as if nothing's happened; we felt like we were invited into the homes of the friendly peeps who participate in Shrovetide football and I personally felt like I was watching an episode of the character-rich Brit coms Shameless or Doc Martin. The only problem Amy and I had was, being late arrivals, sitting way in the back where (being little Ewoks) we had trouble seeing over the heads of the people seated in front of us on the hard (uncomfortable) wooden seats. It was a little like watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, albeit without the snarky commentary. The sofa in the back was comfortable, but made us sink down even farther in our seats. Amy's tailbone was sore and I ended up standing for half the screening.
MST sight lines at the Wind-up Space
Leaving the Wind-up Space, we ran into our painter-turned-seamstress friend Jenny McBrian (visit her etsy store at jennyjen42) and her boyfriend Ashley (such a British name!), who was sporting a bright green-and-yellow jacket that I instantly recognized from watching the Fox Soccer Channel.
"Is that a Norwich City Canaries jacket?" I asked him.
"Why yes it is," Ashley replied proudly, and we talked about how good Norwich City F.C. was in this, their first season back in the English Premiere League after a six-year absence. They've already famously beaten Tottenham and Sunderland (and tied an under-achieving Liverpool) and Ashley was looking forward to their clash at Arsenal the following morning (which turned out to be a veritable goalfest, ending in a 3-3 draw). Ashley told me Norwich's star Irish international Wes Hoolahan is called "The Irish Messi." (Hmmm, on an unrelated note, my house is sometimes called The Rodgers Forge Messy.) High praise indeed. Of course, Norwich's non-footy star remains native singer-songwriter Beth Orton (aka, the Bummed-out Badlands Angel of Love).
Speaking of derbies, Ashley told me that Norwich's biggest regional rival is Ipswich Town, with whom they have contested the East Anglian derby 138 times, the most recent derby resulting in a famous 5-1 thrashing of the Townies; as a result, Ashley noted that the Canaries now spell Ipswich as "1p5wich"! The Canaries fan song "On The Ball, City" is regarded as being the oldest football song in the world. I wonder if songbird Beth Orton knows it?
Saturday, May 5, 2012
We spent the afternoon walking through the Flower Mart before heading up to the Wind-up Space for our second attempt at "The Passion of the WTF Shorts" program...
THE PASSION OF THE WTF SHORTS
5 p.m., @ Wind-up Space
We missed Ryo Hirano's Hietsuki Bushi, Jillian Mayer's I Am Your Grandma, Matt Lenski's Meaning of Robots, and (again!) Tempest in a Bedroom. Of the remaining films we saw, we absolutely HATED Craig Butta's ugly, meandering (13 long watching-paint-dry minutes!), gratuitous sex-filled While Henry Sleeps and the the stupid Transitions (a 4-minute viral video that overstayed its welcome by about 3 1/2 minutes), and thought At the Formal and Crown were meh and obvious.
The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke
Surprisingly, I really liked Jilliam Mayer and Lucas Leyva's visually imaginative The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, starring Luke "2 Live Crew" Campbell, which was a very loose variation on Chris Marker's La Jetee (a film that supplied the same source material for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys). Instead of Paris (La Jetee) or Baltimore (where much of 12 Monkees was filmed), this was a Miami-based adaptation telling of Luke's rise to fame with 2 Live Crew and his eventual downfall following a nuclear apocalypse that turned Miami into a radioactive wasteland. As the lone surviving soul brother, Luke is captured by dorky honky scientists and tasked with repopulating Miami with Funk. It was funny and I liked the cartoony set designs, which reminded me of cult Midnight classic The Forbidden Zone.
Watch the "Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke" trailer.
We also liked the trippy animation of Abby Luck's The Observer, though I had trouble figuring out what it all meant - it reminded me of one of those "cosmic" college acid trips where you were certain you had a profound experience but couldn't say exactly what it was you learned.
Abby Luck's "The Observer"
The MFF program description reads "A curious citizen triumphs over the reign of a greedy king by spreading word about a new way of life. After the passive villagers are poisoned by the king's ideological vomit, the Observer seeks the truth in a mysterious forest." Um, yeah...what you said! (I defy anyone who watched the short to tell me that's how they saw it!)
And we were initially intrigued by Carlos Puga's doc short about Richmond's moped gangs, Satan Since 2003, which followed the exploits of the Hell's Satans and their battles with The Terribles.
Hell to the Chief: Hell's Satans Gang Leader
That is, until I learned some of the scenes were actually phony, like someone throwing a Molotov cocktail, burning a rival gang member's bike, and staging a hit-and-run accident. But what do you expect from a director who cut his teeth on one of those MTV "reality TV" series? God, I fucking hate mockumentaries! Why not lose the irony and 86 the snarkiness and make a real doc about a real subculture; mockumentaries have a limited shelf life - why not make something that has lasting value?
Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos
6:30 p.m. @ Charles Theater 5
Having just seen - and been blown away by - the nuanced "cult" feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, I was looking forward to seeing this documentary about Father Yod (rhymes with "road" and is the diety alias of Jim Baker) and The Source Family. This cult, or commune if you prefer, didn't grab headlines like Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple or the Manson Family because they didn't kill citizens or each other. They only ate health food, had lots of sex and babies, and made lots of records. But like all alternative "spiritual commununities" headed by a charismatic "father figure," they inevitably featured a homo erectus using his power in a "family" to sleep with multiple women - almost always of the much younger, textbook-vulnerable variety. It seems to go with the Power Trip turf. (Where are the matriarchal cults, ladies???)
Father Yod strikes a Hugh Hefner pose with his posse of "spiritual wives"
The Source was directed - and hosted - by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, who may very well be the most beautiful filmmaking team in the history of cinema. (OK, Freaks in Love's Skizz Cyzyk and David Koslowski run a close second!)
SOURCE directors Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos
Though Maria Demopoulos has a background in integrated media and directing television commercials, this is her first feature film. She seemed to be the techie nults-and-bolts side of the project.
Jodi Wille's background is as a book editor and what her Wikipedia entry calls "cultural event producer." She's known for collaborating with individuals interested in documenting offbeat American subcultures. In 2005, she formed Process Media (www.processmediainc.com, specializing in books about "American subcultures" and outre musicians like Roky Erikson, MC5, Moondog) with Feral House publisher Adam Palfrey, and came to this film project via her interest in Father Yod and his Ya Ho Wa 13 records. And, of course, thanks to Isis Aquarian, who was the official photographer and archivist of the Source Family. Isis wrote a book called The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, which is available from Process Media.
Isis Aquarian's "The Source"
Here's the Process press release for the book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod:
"It was 1972, time of the cult-occult-commune explosion. By day, the Source Family served organic cuisine to John Lennon, Julie Christie, Frank Zappa and others at the famed Source restaurant. By night, in a mansion in Hollywood Hills, they explored the cosmos through the channeled wisdom of their charismatic leader, Father Yod. Father was an outlandish figure who had 14 'spiritual wives,' drove a Rolls-Royce, and fronted the rock band Ya Ho Wa 13, now considered by collectors to be one of the most singular psychedelic bands of all time.
The Source Family’s true story - kept secret for over 30 years after Father’s spectacular hang-gliding death in 1975 - is revealed here by the Family members themselves, with over 200 photographs and a full-length CD of rare Ya Ho Wa 13 live performances and Family recordings."
The Source Family was just one of hundreds of alternative communes/cults that thrived during in Southern California during the ‘60s and early ‘70s hippie era. It was formed by Jim Baker, an ex-GI, award-winning martial artist and health food fanatic. He opened a successful health food restaurant called The Source (it was parodied in Woody Allen's Annie Hall), experimented with various branches of mysticism and philosophy, and surrounded himself with over 100 followers at the commune's peak. Before moving to Hawaii (anticipating some sort of Apocalypse, just like Manson anticipated his "Helter Skelter" race war) and cutting themselves off from society, the Source Family counted major celebrities among their friends (Steve McQueen, John Lennon, Marlon Brando!) and released dozens of self-released psychedelic rock albums. Even Sky Saxon of The Seeds was a Source follower (see reunion show flyer below)!
Yahowa 13 headlined over Sky Saxon!
Looking at Jodi Wille's Facebook page, you can see she's genuinely interested in alternative spiritual paths, and brought a sympathetic ear to the project which, as she explained in the Q&A after the screening, was needed.
"Isis initially wanted this film to be a whitewash," Wille explained in answer to a question about how family members reacted to the film, adding that certain Source members (they still exist) still hold onto secrets about some ritual that binds them for life. As any good documentarian knows, getting to know your subjects and getting them to trust you is the most important aspect of the undertaking. It appears these filmmakers were successful. Wille and Demopoulos' even-handed treatment of the material - presenting Yod/Baker as a genuinely charismatic (albeit flawed) personality without "whitewashing" him as a deity - is a great accomplishment. Too many films "dumb it down" and insult their audiences' ability to think for themselves. The Source, like life itself, was not a black and white cartoon; it was filled with multiple shades of gray. They may have worn tunics, togas and beards, but have you looked at nuns dressed like penguins (or the Pope's get-up) lately? From a distance, all religious/spiritual orders look kinda hokey.
Yod Hog: Father pimps his ride with four of the Yahowa 13
I found Isis to be the most interesting member of the family. She was dating a famous photographer before she joined The Source, and quickly assumed the task of being their official photographer and archivist; though she lamented having to document everything - which as any camerman knows means removing yourself from being "in the moment" for the "sake of preserving the moment" - God (Yod?) knows, we probably wouldn't have this film or her book without her efforts. Her material provides the backbone of this fascinating documentary. (And hey social media fans, Isis Aquarian is on Facebook, so be sure to "Like" her.)
Isis Aquarian today
My girlfriend Amy commented later that she was most impressed by the long-lasting relationship between two fellow family members, Electra and Orbit. Though at one point Electra was bequeathed to another lover (Mercury?) on Father Yod's orders, she went back to and remains to this day with her lover Orbit. (Amy's a romantic at heart!) Jodi Wille later added that another Source couple, Electricity and Harvest, have now been together for 30 years.
By the way, I love the Source Family names (everyone's surname is "Aquarian," as in "Electrity Aquarian")...at the Q&A afterwards, another Source family member came out of the audience to talk about his experiences. His name was Explosion, though he explained that he uses another name to board airplanes. He lives in Silver Spring and is actively involved in regional theater. He also had a Super 8 camera back in the day, and said he recognized some of his footage in the documentary. Explosion had a nice Father Yod/Rick Rubinesque beard, which made him look like someone you'd see at the Dutch Farmer's Market. (Though I've read that Isis thinks only George Clooney could portray Father Yod in a Hollywood treatment of the Source Family, I'd throw pop producer Rick Rubin's name into the hat too, just for the beard! Now that's a Hollywood feature I'd like to see!)
When Father Yod started calling himself a god and partaking of polygamous relationships, his relationship with his followers became somewhat thorny - though many followers to this day still subscribe to his teachings. Explosion seemed to suggest that there's even a Source presence today in Lutherville! (No, it's not John Waters - he moved away to a more posh neighborhood!) But his death in 1975 from a hang-gliding accident (hardly the stuff of folkloric martydom -yet somehow strangely appropriate for a Southern Cal-based commune!) made it hard to carry on. Father Yod, like Elvis, had left the building.