Saturday, May 27, 2006

Role Model

On the way into work today, I noticed a guy walking down the street with his family of four kids. In itself, this was nothing out of the ordinary. But as I passed Dad, I saw a familiar logo on his t-shirt that caught me offguard. It was one of those "Stop Snitchin'" shirts with the big red stop sign on the front and the slogan "You have the right to remain silent" on the back.

What a great role model this father must be for his kids, I thought. Great values to teach them. Hey Dad, how about an alternate, more realistic slogan to teach your kids with, one borrowed from the AIDS Awareness Movement: Silence = Death.

Remember the Dawson family? Angela Maria Dawson and six of her family members were killed when a suspected drug dealer intent on preventing her from "snitchin'" to police firebombed her East Baltimore rowhouse in 2002. Or how about Edna McAbier, who complained about drug running in her neighborhood, only to see her home firebombed by suspected gang members? I wonder if the "Stop Snitchin'" Dad could sense the irony and hypocrisy inherent in a family man missing the whole point of their sacrifice.

The "Stop Snitchin'" Dad. A true Baltimoron.

Related Links:
Stop Snitchin' Shirts (Baltimore Sun article)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hicksville, USA

Yesterday I was reading Honky Tonk Parade, a collection of "show people" profiles by New Yorker critic John Lahr, and came across one of his most famous pieces, a 1993 article about the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, was the greatest comedian of my generation and probably my favorite comedian of all time. I think it's because Hicks was more than just a cheap "joke blower" (as he called one-liner stand-up comics); he was more a Philosopher King interested in The Message, and the message was about how screwed up America was. Comedy shouldn't be just a distraction, in his mind, it should be something that focuses our attention on life's hypocrises and absurdities and motivates us to act to change the status quo. Or as he told Lahr, he saw the comic's function to be "the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame—like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are."

Lahr's article opens in the aftermath of Hicks' 12th appearance on the David Letterman Show (October 1, 1993), a performance full of digs against the pro-life movement (he encouraged them to "lock arms and block cemetaries" instead of medical clinics), that was controversially cancelled - a first for Hicks. Though both Letterman's producers and the network denied responsibility for the cut, the reason appeared obvious to many during the following week's Letterman show when a commercial for a pro-life organization was aired. Hicks saw the censorship as another example of America being "sanitized and manipulated in the name of corporate sponsorship."

Or, as Hicks explained to Lahr, "The networks are delivering an audience to the advertisers...They showed their hand. They’ll continue to pretend they’re a hip talk show. And I’ll continue to be me. As Bob Dylan said, the only way to live outside the law is to be totally honest. So I will remain lawless."

Despite the Letterman setback, Lahr's New Yorker profile jettisoned Hicks into national prominence, sparking domestic interest in an "outlaw" comedian who previously enjoyed his greatest popularity as a cult comic playing to packed houses in England. In fact, his passing was even noted across the pond in the House of Commons:
"...this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on February 26th 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned a s being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers."
- Stephen Pound MP; Parliamentary House of Commons

Sadly, Hicks resurgent popularity came too late. Just months after his Letterman cancellation, he passed away. (Pancreatic cancer works fast like that, making it the NASCAR of lymphomas - remember how quickly Cars bassist Benjamin Orr, R.I.P., went from a rugged Rutger Hauer lookalike to an emaciated stick figure?) Better late than never, I guess. In Honky Tonk Parade, Lahr adds a postscript to his original article that puts this unfortunate ending into perspective.

I don't have much else to say about Hicks - or rather, I have (way) too much to say about Wild Bill than time or space would allow me to here. Read John Lahr's Hicks profile, "The Goat Boy Rises" (New Yorker, November 1, 1993). It says everything that needs to be said. Lahr "got" Hicks, nailed him you might say, and Hicks obviously agreed. Here's what he wrote to Lahr one week after the article was published:
"The phones are ringing off the hook, the offers are pouring in, and all because of you...I've read the article three times, and each time I'm stunned. Being the comedy fan that I am, I've ended the article every time thinking, 'This guy sounds interesting.' It's almost as though I've been lifted out of a ten-year rut and placed in a position where the offers finally match my long held and deeply cherished creative aspirations...Somehow, people are listening in a new light. Somehow the possibilities (creatively) seem limitless."

It's a great piece, one that got Hicks offers to write a book from seven publishers, an offer to write a column for The Nation, and TV and recording offers as well. If you don't know from Bill Hicks, it's a great introduction to Hicksville.

Related Links:
Bill Hicks Website
Wikipedia: Bill Hicks
American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story (biography by Cynthia True)
The Goat Boy Rises (John Lahr's New Yorker profile)
Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People (John Lahr)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

2006 Maryland Film Festival: Day 2

Friday, May 12

I got a late start and missed all the morning film options I wanted to see (ah, the best laid plans...), like David Simon's The Wire discussion, and Downtown Locals (a documentary about New York City's subway performers) and The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang (from the Napoleon Dynamite gang and a personal Skizz pick), but got down to the Charles Theatre in time to catch the first screening of Todd Rohal's debut feature film, The Guatemalan Handshake.

Before the 1 p.m. screening, I stopped by the Filmmaker's Tent to say hi to Todd and he introduced me to Jay Wade Edwards, who kindly gave me a ticket (thanks Jay!) to his 60's beach party-rock and roll-monster movie spoof Stomp! Shout! Scream!, which the MFF film program described as a mash-up of "the adventures of an all-girl garage rock band with the legend of the Skunk Ape (the Florida Everglades' version of Bigfoot)." Jay is no stranger to Baltimore, having previously screened some of his shorts at Skizz Cyzyk's MicroCineFest film festival (including 1999's "Best Short Video" winner Project: Tika Puka Puka). Cooler yet, Jay is also an editor and producer of Aqua Teen Hunger Force for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block.

Monkeying Around

Jay, Todd and I got into a discussion about music rights in films (because I was a fan of Todd's original soundtrack for Knuckleface Jones, with its scene-perfect use of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and The Turtles' "So Happy Together" - subsequently scrapped for the version appearing on the Come and Get It compilation DVD) and Jay mentioned that music publishers wanted $6,000 for one of the songs he wanted to use in Stomp! Shout! Scream! Unbelievably, this was for the incredibly obscure song "Go Go Gorilla" by 60s garage rockers The Shandells (pictured above left) which probably never sold 6,000 copies in its lifetime! Jay's workaround solution was to get Atlanta's all-girl garage rockers Catfight! (not be be confused with Oregon's Catfight!) to cover the song (to hear their version, click here). Their version appears on the SSS soundtrack, which looks to be cowabunga-cool and features the likes of The Woggles, The Vendettas, The Evidents, The Penetrators, Hate Bomb and more. (Incidentally, "Go Go Gorilla" should be required listening on National Gorilla Suit Day, which falls on January 31 of each year. Since I was born on January 30 in the Year of the Monkey, according to the Chinese zodiac, I consider it a categorical imperative now!)

Five minutes before Todd's screening (thanks again for the pass Todd!), I obeyed my body's signals and decided to eat something. Thank God for the logistically convenient Sofi's Crepes (pictured right) right next door. A cup of Sofi's coffee kick-started my brain into drive and the dee-lish Bacon, Egg & Cheese Crepe (a rib-sticking value at $7) gave me all the food I need to get through the day. If you haven't been to Sofi's, I highly recommend it, especially now that they've added additional seating space. It's quick, it's cheap and the staff is very friendly and accommodating.

I ran into my gal pal Barbara at the crepe place and it turned out she was checking out The Guatemalan Handshake, too. By day Babs treats people with STDs at a health clinic but outside of work she's a (non-bacterial) culture vulture, with a particular itch for art films. Calling the Maryland Film Festival her "vacation," she bought an all-access pass and was trying to see as many films as she could to get her money's worth. She certainly got it at the next screening.

Kung Food

As my stomach was adjusting to the bounty of recently ingested crepe, I was hit instantly by a craving for Kim Chi. Not the Korean cabbage, but the hot and spicy pan-Asian female electro dance pop duo (pictured left, with dude DJ Bi Bim Bop) whose song "City Late At Night" was featured on the soundtrack of the opening short, Josh Slates' martial arts homage Ponkutsu Park. According to Kim Chi's official website:
Kim and Chi sing in Korean, dancing their asses off as Powerpoint presentations play in the background. DJ Bi Bim Bop lays down the beat and rocks out on a variety of electronic instruments. All of Kim Chi's samples and lyrics are taken from Korean language courses. Why? Because none of the members of the band speak Korean! Nor are any of them of Korean ancestry! Confused? Don't be! Just rock out, pay attention to the Powerpoint, and learn some Korean.


Though Josh had previously shown his work at the Maryland Film Festival (presenting Here and There in 2002 and Exasperado in 2003), this was his first-ever 35mm film ("2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen! Dolby SR optical soundtrack!") and he was clearly beaming about it. Josh lives on (Far) Eastern Standard Time, so it's not surprising that all the dialogue in his 6-minute short was in Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin (with English subtitles for the unenlightened).

According to the film's website, Ponkutsu is Japanese street slang for "a seedy location that has become overrun with methamphetamine addicts." In Josh's world, this translates to Fort Armistead Park in southeast Baltimore. Josh filmed there in August of 2005, using mostly non-professional actors, with the exception of Hari Leigh, who previously appeared in John Waters' A Dirty Shame and the Franz Ferdinand music video "Do You Want To" (as well as several Slates shorts). Leigh portrays Officer Julie Ponce de Leon and serves as the narrator introducing viewers to the cast of low-life characters, who include local scenester Elke Wardlaw (above right), who bakes vegan pastry for One World Cafe by day and beats the skins for the band Thank You by night. Elke's outfit, like all the costumes, was created by Baltimore artist Spoon Popkin.

I guess there's a narrative to Ponkutsu Park, but it's not really important as this is basically just a 6-minute exercise in fun. Fun with costumes, language, music, subtitles, sound effects and - especially - with turning Pabst Blue Ribbon beer into a martial arts weapon.

The Guatemalan Handshake

And now for our feature presentation...also shot on 35mm anamorphic...the one billed as "a feast for the senses, a challenge for the brain."

And speaking of challenges...It's hard to describe the plot of any Todd Rohal film - not because there isn't one, but because his approach to storytelling is so different from the mainstream narrative. Think Todd Solondz, David Lynch, or Miranda July (whose Me and You and Everyone We Know seemed to be a kindred spirit film to The Guatemalan Handshake, maybe because of it's diverse and colorful characters). So here, taken straight from the horse's mouth (the Guatemalan Handshake website) is the "official" synopsis:
In the confusion following a massive power outage, an awkward demolition derby driver vanishes, setting in motion a series of events affecting his pregnant girlfriend, his helplessly car-less father, a pack of wild boy scouts, a lactose intolerant roller rink employee, an elderly woman in search of her lost dog, and his best friend – a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs.

Pieces of the mystery begin to come together as Turkeylegs sets out to find her missing friend. Cars drive circles in the dirt, a woman attends her own funeral, the sun rises sideways and an orange vehicle trades hands again and again. Everything eventually culminates in a massive demolition derby that throws all of the characters into different directions.

Actually, it's not that hard to follow, as I learned when I watched it for a second time the next night - it's all laid out for us, like a Greek chorus trumpeting the major players and themes, right in the beginning black and white intro. You just have to pay attention to a few details at the start, and then you can enjoy the colorul ride.

Oh, and if you're looking for the scene where there's a Guatemalan shaking someone's hand, don't bother. It's just a random title Todd came up with because he liked the sound of it, though someone in the Q&A did ask if it "meant something dirty" (like a Dirty Sanchez). Todd likes to mess with the predictable in this way, both in his casting (he'll present two sisters of different ethnicity - one white and one black - to make sure we're paying attention) and in his stream-of-consciousness dialogue (like the hilarious out-of-the-blue exchange between two senior citizens, in which an old woman asks a total stranger "Are you a professional wrestler?"). Yes, there is a character in the film who is supposedly Guatemalan, but that's just another one of Todd's jokes, as the actor is none other than the scene-stealing wild man Ivan Dimitrov (pictured above right) - who, as the name suggests, is Bulgarian. When not acting in films (Ivan also appeared Todd's Hillbilly Robot and in the French-US feature co-production of Eating & Weeping), Ivan is a dancer with his own company, the award-winning Ivan Dimitrov Dance Ensemble. I met Ivan after the Saturday night screening and when he told me he was Bulgarian, I instantly asked him if he was a fan of Bulgarian soccer legend Hristo Stoitchkov and whether he was psyched for the upcoming World Cup. But Ivan replied that, being a dancer, he had always avoided the rough-and-tumble injury-prone world of soccer in order to protect a terpsichorean's most valuable asset - his legs.

Like Ponkutsu Park, The Guatemalan Handshake features a mostly non-professional cast, though I should mention that two pro musicians - Will Oldham (as Donald Turnupseed) and The Billy Nayer Show's Cory McAbee (as Spank Williams) - appear in this film, though the music itself was composed by David Wingo (who previously scored the George Washington soundtrack) and W. Clay with celebrity cellist Gretta Cohn (of Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley).

Everyone in the cast is excellent, especially the Chicago-based actress Sheila Scullin (pictured left in a glamour pose with moi) as Sadie, the pregnant demolition derby driver (pictured below left in full regalia) and Rich Schreiber (pictured below right) as the lactose-intolerant exhibitionist loser Stool. According to the film's website, the role of Sadie wasn’t cast until it was realized that Sheila had dated Schreiber for a lengthy period years before, at which point, "The uncomfortableness of their relationship made the casting choice a perfect and rare fit." Rich, like several cast members (Ivan Dimitrov, Christopher Morse as the Insurance Man) had appeared in Todd's previous film, 2001's Hillbilly Robot.

But it was seeing the newcomers to the silver screen that impressed me most. Many of them came from in and around Harrisburg, PA, where the film was shot last summer and where a casting call was put out for local talent.

People like Katy Haywood (pictured right, next to the guy with the fake finger moustache) as Turkeylegs, a pre-teen newbie whose voiceover ties the narrative together as she presents the story from her 10-year-old's point of view, acting like Mary Badham as Jean Louis "Scout" Finch in the screen version of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Appropriately enough, Katy actually played "Scout" in an elementary school production of To Kill a Mockingbird!) According to Todd, in his post-screening Q&A, her role was originally written for a boy, but Todd changed his mind after seeing The Trachtenburg Family Sideshow Players, a musical ensemble whose drummer was a (then 10-year-old) little girl, Rachel Trachtenburg (pictured left).

And Ken Byrnes (pictured below right), a retired Topps Chewing Gum executive, who plays Mr. Turnupseed. That picture in the movie that shows Mr. Turnupseed posing with Willie Mays? That's a real photo from when Ken, as Vice-President of Topps, presented the Say Hey Kid with The World's Biggest Piece of Bubble Gum! Post-retirement, Ken picked up a guitar and started the New Fossil Trio, which plays the nursing home circuit. Two of Ken's songs are on The Guatemalan Handshake soundtrack.

And especially Kathleen Kennedy as Ethel Firecracker, the lonely old lady who loses her dog and meanders aimlessly all over town posting "Have You Seen Me" posters for her once-faithful companion. Faces like hers are unique, the stuff of Fellini films, because in just one look she speak volumes, a veritable Encyclopedia Brittanica of expression. If she were a comic book character, she'd be one of those lonely souls lost between the cracks in Dan Clowes' Eightball. In other words, a real find!

During the post-screening Q&A, I asked Todd about the story I'd read in the New York Observer concerning his run-in with crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, surely one of the strangest meetings of polar opposites in the history of cinema! It happened back in September of 2003. According to Todd, Abramoff wanted to invest in his film - not knowing, of course, that Todd was an independent filmmaker with a completely different aesthetic from the type of Hollywood crap Abramoff had been associated with (in 1989, he produced the Dolph Lundgren action flick Red Scorpion). To read the whole Observer story by Edward McPherson, click here.

When asked how he came up with the script for his feature, I think Todd reitterated a great quote that I had read in his Filmmaker Magazine interview, something along the lines of "I’m trying to place Kentucky Fried Movie in the middle of Days of Heaven, so you have absurdist situations in the middle of beautiful rolling farmland. There’s an amusement park next to a demolition derby, and Three Mile Island is nearby — we needed all three locations." That was the skeletal framework of the film before it was fleshed out by his talented cast and crew.

Todd also answered the most obvious question about his movie, the one about its true star: that great vintage electric car that iconically graces the posters, postcards and Website related to The Guatemalan Handshake. This wedge-shaped two-seat auto-oddity is a CitiCar (pictured right), one of only 2,200 made in the 1970s by the Sebring-Vanguard company. Built of ABS plastic, the 1,400-pound CitiCar was not subject to rust or corrosion and was powered by eight 6-volt batteries that generated 3.5 horsepower with a range of 40 miles and a top speed in excess of 30 mph. It was so futuristic-looking that it even made an appearance in George Lucas' 1971 student film THX-1138. It turns out the car has a local connection, being invented by Baltimorean Bob Beaumont, who envisioned it being used in the "Utopian planned community" of Columbia, MD. In an interview with GreenCineDaily, Todd explained:
"I found it on the side of the road in Ohio. I'm driving from one town where my parents live to my friend's house on the other side of the state, and it was, like, 2am, and it was out in front of a RadioShack in the middle of this really small town. I stopped and looked at it and immediately started doing research and found that there were only a couple thousand of them on the road. It was invented by this guy in Baltimore, which is near where I'm now living, so I looked into it and thought, "Yeah, this is the perfect kind of thing."

I should point out that there are two scenes in the film in which a pooch is fried and a turtle tossed into the far blue yonder. That'a a perfect kind of thing, too - that's what makes it a comedy! (Disclaimer: No real animals were hurt in the making of this film.)

As a reviewer on IMDB so accurately observed, "one screening is definitely not enough to catch everything being thrown your way" in this gem of a film. Case in point, I have to admit that I missed the part of the closing credits that said "When in Pennsylvania, please take the time to visit Three Mile Island." Of course! Who would want to miss that?

My only regret is that I missed out on participating in this film. I remember getting an e-mail from Todd in 2004 in which he invited me and Kelly Conway (who was previously in Todd's Hillbilly Robot) to be in the demolition derby sequence, which was filmed at the Susquehanna Speedway Park (pictured right) in Newberrytown, PA (the racetrack's website even includes a link to The Guatemalan Handshake under its "Links & More" section). Alas, I couldn't get off work that day.

By the way, Variety panned The Guatemalan Handshake, calling it "a frustrating example of convention-defying filmmaking that tries too hard to be different" and that "reaches nearly unprecedented levels of annoyance and overplayed nonsense." Reviewer Robert Koehler added the riposte, "Commercially toast, this misfire may find allies at niche fests."

Fuck Variety. It may be the spice of life, but it doesn't know shite from shinola when it comes to emerging new talent. But at least it was right about one thing: this clever little film will find plenty of allies at film festivals (it already won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah). And that's not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. It's not exactly aiming for the cineplexes anyway, Mr. Koehler!

Or, as Phil Villareal, writing in the Arizona Daily Star, put it: "It's the exact sort of offbeat, refreshing find that festival trollers are on the lookout for. It may not quite be Napoleon Dynamite, but it's definitely a film Napoleon would watch." That's good enough for me!

Post-Script: After the film, the Renegade media guys (pictured left) saw me walking out and asked if they could ask me a few questions about The Guatemalan Handshake. "Sure," I said, "But I'm a nobody."

"That's OK," the producer said, "We want to talk to nobodies." It was just the role I was born to play! I have no idea what I said (I never do, for that matter), but they said it was perfect. Guess I can be glib on demand. Thankfully, Todd Rohal walked by right after me, and they nabbed him as well. "Now he's a somebody," I said, satisfied that interview justice had been served.

Related Links:
Sofi's Crepes (Chris Skokna's Paper review)
The Shandells
Buy the Stomp! Shout! Scream! DVD (
Kim Chi's Website
Kim Chi's Myspace Profile
Ponkutsu Park Official Website
Kid Stays in the Picture (New York Observer aticle about Todd Rohal)
Bob Beaumont, Baltimore Inventor of Electric Car
Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar Links
The Guatemalan Handshake official website

Friday, May 12, 2006

2006 Maryland Film Festival Journal


Following is my journal of observations at the 2006 Maryland Film Festival held May 11-14.

The 8th annual Maryland Film Festival opened Thursday night, May 11, at the Senator Theatre with a hit-or-miss program of six short films and an unequivocal hit of a post-screening party across the street at the revitalized Belvedere Square Market.

The shorts program continued the trend of the last several years at the film festival and reflected Programming Manager Skizz Cyzyk's love of the shorts genre. Initially, the MFF started out with opening night features, usually with a local connection. In 1999, the MFF debuted with an opening night premiere of Barry Levinson's documentary work-in-progress Diner Guys, followed by Bill Whiteford and and Susan Hadary's Oscar-winning short documentary King Gimp in 2000 (coupled with William Garcia's short A Whole New Day, featuring Sopranos stars James Gandolfini and Kathrine Narducci), and Lynn Sachs' experimental doc about the Catonsville Nine Investigation of a Flame in 2001. In 2002, MFF debuted its all-shorts format with 10 Under 20 (10 films all 20 minutes or less), but in 2003 Barry Levinson returned to present Elia Kazan's 1955 Oscar-winning feature On the Waterfront. Since then, it's been an all-shorts affair on opening night. 2004's 7 By 7 Shorts program even featured films by comedian Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) actor Matthew Modine, and prolific animator Bill Plympton.

All of the films shown were professionally made and acted. But while I applaud the format, only three shorts stood out for me at this year's opening night: local filmmaker Eric Dyer's Copenhagen Cycles, Steve Gentile's Never Live Above a Psychic and Matthew Swanson's Hiro.

Actually, one other thing stood out, too. This year, MFF had each filmmaker introduce their film right before it was projected. As a result, I had my camcorder on my lap to record their comments. All was going fine until a grumpy old man leaned over and snipped at me, "You know what you're doing is illegal! Bootlegging is illegal!" I assured him that I was press, saying, "It's cool, it's all under control." He didn't believe me ("Oh, it's all under control is it?"), and acted like he was going to make a citizen's arrest! Across the aisle a young guy laughed, "Yeah man, no bootlegging!", obviously seeing the absurdity of the accusation. I mean, it's not like there's a big market for experimental art-house short film boots these days. Did the old curmudgeon really think I was gonna try and peddle tonight's fare down at the Lexington Market next to the boots of the new X-Men movie? But I digress...


Eric Dyer (pictured right) is a 1995 graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - and current UMBC Visual Arts instructor - whose stop-motion animated works have been highlights of past local film festivals, including Skizz Cyzyk's other big film event, MicroCineFest (Dyer's Kinetic Sandwich won Best Experimental Video honors at MCF 2002). This year he created and animated zoetropes - pre-cinema devices that produce the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static pictures - for his mesmerizing 6-minute short Copenhagen Cycles. As the MFF program guide described the work,
"The filmmaker created several short animated loops that, when seen with the naked eye, look more like sculptures made out of photographs, yet when rotated and seen through the shutter of a video camera, they come to vibrant and pulsating life."
Though edited using digital video software, Dyer insists that no high-tech computer special effects were used to create the animation. Technology only added the collage-like image layering and transitions that make this short look like a kaleidescope-in-motion. I'm not sure, but the title may refer to Copenhagen's world renown 300-kilometer cycle track network.

The term zoetrope derives from the Greek words zoe (life) and trope (turn), translating figuratively as "wheel of life" or "living wheel." In a traditional zoetrope, a series of images is viewed, one after another, though slits in a drum. The vertical viewing slits are in the upper edges of the drum, and the pictures are placed on a band of paper inside the lower portion of the drum. The observer looks through the slits as they pass by and sees the pictures that are diagonally opposite. Dyer's beautiful, amazingly detailed zoetrope models were on display in the Senator Theatre's lobby on opening night and hanging from the ceiling of the Charles Theatre's lobby throughout the weekend. Following are some examples of his zoetropes.


There were some humorous moments on opening night, but no film was funnier than Never Live Above a Psychic (pictured left). Director Steve Gentile said he did, in fact, once live above a psychic, but that was where the similarities to any of the events in his short end. This 10-minute short, which was shown earlier this year at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival, is almost an anomaly in total's effects-driven animation field: it is Old School hand-drawn animation, with all that awkward, squiggly, wild and wobbly motion you'd see in 1920s cartoons - or on Dr. Katz. Technology is great, but with apologies to Pixar and all the great 3-D and flash animation out there today, there's still something rather charming in seeing someone make their own primitive little mud pie. I know Skizz is a fan of this sort of thing, and so am I. Hand-drawn animation is also a VERY painstaking, labor-intensive exercise in hard work. Never Live Above a Psychic is the culmination of 6,000 drawings! In an interview with New England Film's Andrea Maxwell, Gentile commented:
At its best, it's a very meditative thing making all those drawings, and at its worst, I feel like a psycho whose eyes can't adjust to daylight. The shooting was the worst part -- one drawing at a time on a tripoded 35mm Mitchell Camera system that was set up by my colleagues at MassArt, Flip Johnson and Adam Savje. The shoot took a couple weeks of 12 hour days. It hurt; it was winter; and my studio had no heat at night.

Well, going by the warm reception from the Senator Theatre audience, it was well worth the effort, Steve. The hard work made for easy laughs - thank you!


Matthew Swanson's award-winning Hiro is a 20-minute Canadian short film shot entirely in Japanese with a Japanese cast. The film takes its title from the name of its lead character (pictured right), a reluctant "hero" who is played by another Hiro, Hiro Kanagawa (Protection, Best in Show, Elektra). Here's the press kit synopsis from the film's web site (
Hiro is a shy, awkward Japanese entomologist who spends his time and money collecting rare insects. His obsession takes him to Canada, where he has arranged to purchase a rare beetle from a local insect smuggler. Things don't go exactly as planned -after a chance encounter with a young girl, Hiro's precious insect is stolen. Suddenly, he finds himself thrust into a wild chase to recover his beetle and rescue the girl he has just met from a gang of Yakuza mobsters. Forced to confront a situation far beyond his everyday experience, Hiro becomes a reluctant participant in a strange adventure he will not soon forget.
The exotic looking bug, incidentally, was played by an African "Jade-Headed Buffalo Beetle" that arrived on set just two days before shooting. The captivating female lead was played by Vicky Huang, who, as her name suggests, was born in China - not Japan.

Swanson himself is a Vancouver-based filmmaker who graduated from Montreal's Concordia University in 2002, the same year he started the script for Hiro. Of course, the question that leaps out is, why does a Canadian filmmaker makes a movie entirely in a non-native foreign language? According to the Hiro movie web site, Swanson himself mused:
"I think I suffered from the same disease that affects a lot of people fresh out of film school. At certain points along the way, I remember thinking, why did I write a 20-minute film in Japanese with a rare bug and a car chase? Why didn’t I write a 5-minute film about a guy who doesn’t talk and never leaves his bathroom? But in retrospect I have no regrets. I’m very happy with how it all went and I’d do it again the same way."

According to Hiro's press release, Matthew Swanson has had a long standing infatuation for all things Japanese and credits Hiro’s personality as being inspired by both his own experiences and the "outsider" characters created by Japanese novelists Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami. The original script was written in English, then translated into Japanese. Swanson explains:
"Part of my family is Japanese by marriage, so I was able to use some family connections here in Vancouver and found a wonderful translator to work on the Japanese script with me. The idea of directing in a language other than English was exciting. It really focused my attention on how the characters related to each other physically. I was more aware of the mood being created by the performances instead of the literal meaning of each line as it was read."

Hiro has won or been nominated for more awards than a bug has eyes.
In January 2006, Hiro won the Audience Choice award at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. On March 15th, Hiro was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. On March 26th, Hiro took home the Best International Short Film award at the Cleveland International Film Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. And on April 4th, Hiro receiving eight nods from the Leo Awards, the annual event established by the Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Foundation of British Columbia to recognize excellence in filmmaking in the province of B.C. The Leo Awards were being held the same weekend as the Maryland Film festival, so that's probably why Swanson did not make it to Baltimore for the screening at the Senator Theatre. Producer Oliver Lindsey came in his place. By the way, Hiro won five of the eight categories for which it was nominated: Best Direction in a Short Drama (Matthew Swanson), Best Cinematography in a Short Drama (Philip Lanyon), Best Picture Editing in a Short Drama (Tony Dean Smith), Best Overall Sound in a Short Drama (Brad Hillman) and Best Musical Score in a Short Drama (Don MacDonald). Hiro, take a bow!


But the opening night wasn't all about the films and art. There was also the social hobnobbing and networking that went on in the lobby. Admittedly, there weren't too many big-name celebrities this year - the big headliner Matthew Modine would not make it down until Friday night at the Charles Theatre - but there were plenty of local cineaste heroes in attendance. Enoch Pratt Free Library's "Film Talks" guru Marc Sober is shown at left helping man the information desk, while glamorous Volunteer Coordinator Victoria Hecht was on hand along with her photogenic sweetheart Steve Frantz (photo below removed by request).

Local filmmaker and Towson University acting teacher Steve Yeager (Divine Trash), was in attendance, fresh off his latest documentary, If the Bough Breaks, which aired on Maryland Public Television on March 21, 2006. Yeager produced and directed this documentary, which was conceptualized by Dr. Carol Ritter, with the goal of raising public awareness about Maryland's medical liability insurance crisis and how it affects doctors and patients. I told Steve that one of his earlier films, Aquarium, was being screened later in the month as part of Enoch Pratt Free Library's "Unseen Cinema" rarities program and he seemed pleased. Steve made this 10-minute film in 1981, the very first year that the Aquarium opened its doors. It is significant in that it works completely without any voiceover narrative, letting the images tell the story of what a day in the life of the (brand new) Aquarium is like and how the organization functions.

And former Baltimore Film Office honcho Michael Styer (who's also my Rodgers Forge neighbor) was also on hand and mentioned that he was featured in Matthew Fishel's film, A Short Film Regarding Possibility, that was screening as part of the festival's "Narrative Shorts: Metaphysics" program on Saturday, May 12.

But that's the Old Guard. For me the biggest luminary there was none other than rising Young Turk Todd Rohal (pictured left), in town to screen his first feature length film, The Guatemalan Handshake, at the Charles Theatre the next day and Saturday night. (I liked it so much, I saw it both nights!) Shot on 35mm Cinemascope with a great soundtrack and a cast of mostly non-professional actors, I can proudly proclaim it the best fiction feature playing at the festival, one that will open doors for Todd. Or, as Skizz Cyzyk so aptly put it in his MFF program guide notes, it's "the sort of feature-debut that suggests another seat might soon be needed at the table with the likes of Mallick, Solondtz, and Lynch." And the guy's still only 30 years old! A boy genius teeming with ideas and ambition, lacking only money and (sometimes) a place to sleep (more on that later). And here's the cool thing: unlike so many talented artists, Todd has always remained humble, self-deprecating, and accessible to everyone, be it taking time to indulge the fanboy off the street, or embracing the public access nobody (that would be me, pictured above right with Todd) or holding court with legitimate big name press outlets like the Baltimore Sun or CineMaryland. In short, a nice boy genius. But I'll have to rave more about that in a later journal posting.

Opening night also afforded Todd a chance to catch up with Kelly Conway (AKA "Stella Gambino"), Baltimore's Favorite Hon and a former Rohal film actress (she played a corpse that demented junkman Ivan Demitrov urinated on in Todd's 2001 short Hillbilly Robot - which the Baltimore City Paper named "Best Short Film" of 2002). The dynamic duo is pictured above left. Kelly was also the face of the 2003 MFF, appearing on its official poster and coffee mugs (as shown below).


Though Todd isn't originally from Baltimore, he has Charm City street cred, having lived and/or worked over the years in the Balto-Washington, D.C. corridor and finding success on the local film fest circuit - in fact, I first met Todd when he was screening Knuckleface Jones at the 1999 Johns Hopkins Film Fest (and featured some of his shorts on the "Hopkins 1999 Film Faves" episode of Atomic TV). Anyway, seeing him and Kelly made me think about all the local connections in this year's MFF. There are quite a few.

For starters, John Waters was set to present his annual festival pick, which was the great 2004 German film Head-On, on Friday night at the Charles Theatre.

Josh Slates (pictured left with the ubiquitous Kelly Conway) was presenting his first 35mm film, a 6-minute burst of martial-arts slapstick called Ponkutsu Park, which was coupled with screenings of his pal Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake. Incidentally, Josh's (slightly more famous) pal John Waters was spotted checking out the film at the afternoon screening of Ponkutsu Park on Friday, May 13.

Legendary writer-producer (and University of Maryland grad) David Simon was to give a talk on Friday morning about The Wire, and no doubt much more (like The Corner, Homicide and maybe even his new Middle East-themed TV project).

But the battle of the Universities of Maryland was won this year by University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A total of nine different UMBC faculty members, students and/or alumna submitted entries to this year's festival. Besides Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Eric Dyer's Copengagen Cycles, Retriever reels represented five entries in the "Avant-Garde Shorts" program - Cicada Songs by Vin Grabill (Associate Professor of Visual Arts), Everyday Bad Dream and Here by Fred Worden (Assistant Professor of Visual Arts), Self Made Maps by Nathan Duncan (Visual Arts undergraduate) and Smell of the Beast Pageant by Aaron Oldenburg, Phil Davis and Neil Van Gorder (Imaging and Digital Arts graduate students); two entries in the "Narrative Shorts: Metaphysics" program - Model KSS9004 by Phil Davis (Imaging and Digital Arts graduate student) and Substrata by Carol Hess (Associate Professor of Dance); and Dragin’ On by Katie Hirsch (Class of ’04, Visual Arts and Computer Science), which was part of the "Animated Shorts" program.

Michael Porterfield, who grew up in the Hamilton neighborhood of Baltimore, was presenting his debut feature, the aptly named Hamilton, which got great press from Baltimore Sun film critic Chris Kaltenbach. Kaltenbach, meanwhile continued his 5-year streak of presenting 3-D movies at the festival and his 2006 MFF pick was a classic: The Mad Magician (starring Vincent Price).

Erstwhile Pikesville native Richard Hankin, who edited the award-winning documentary Capturing the Friedmans, was in town to show Home Front, a doc about a disabled Iraq War veteran, Jeremy Feldbusch (pictured right, with Full Cordoroy Jacket-wearing fan Matthew Modine), and how he, his friends and his family deal with war's aftermath.

One of Jeremy's friends in the film is vet John Melia (Towson University, '88), who got Jeremy involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that lobbies on the behalf of injured veterans. Melia (pictured left) attended the festival along with Jeremy and members of the Feldbusch family. When I met him at the Friday night screening, I was glad to hear that we both graduated from Towson U., but very disappointed to find out that I was older than him (Class of '80 - back when it was still called Towson State University!). But at least I had more hair (go me!).

Gilman grad and Cockeysville resident William Whitehurst produced and wrote the screenplay for Mentor, a feature film starring Rutger Hauer (Bladerunner) that was filmed in and around Baltimore, including Johns Hopkins University, Charles Village, Mt. Vernon and Federal Hill. Whitehurst also founded the Johns Hopkins Screenwriters Workshop.

Both Joseph Matthew and Charles Cohen, co-directors of the 2002 documentary The Last Season: The Life and Demolition of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, had entries this year. Matthew (pictured right) is originally from India, but he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and freelanced as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in Baltimore before teaming up with Cohen for their documentary project. For this year's entry, Matthew has teamed up with Dan DeVivo for Crossing Arizona, a documentary that addresses illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Cohen is back with Going All Pro, a work-in-progress documentary about stadium vendor Fancy Clancy that screens as part of the "Documentary Shorts: Works-in-Progress" program.

And there was a front-page Baltimore City Paper article about Darkon, a documentary about a Baltimore area Live Action Role Playing (LARP) group and the events that take place when "an upstart challenges the most powerful kingdom in the land." Personally, I would have called it Dorkon.

Oh, and the D.C. 'burbs were represented by yet another entry by prolific documentarian Jeff Krulik (Heavy Metal Parking Lot), in town to present The Legend of Merv Con, a profile of 86-year-old Merv Conn, "King of the Strolling Accordionists." It was scheduled as part of the "Documentary Shorts: Music" program on Sunday, May 14.

Notice I didn't mention Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover presenting October Sky because I hate football and that whole "Gridiron Celebrity Du Jour Presents" jazz doesn't 'press me. But hey, if you want sports jocks, here's a thought for next year - why not get a competitive eater (it's a sport - I've seen it covered on ESPN!) like Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas (pictured left) of Alexandria, VA to present a food-themed film? There's even a Baltimore connection, as Sonya recently stopped in town to win the Phillips Seafood-sponsored Crabcake eating contest on April 29, 2006 (46 crabcakes in 10 minutes, by the way!). And speaking of food...


Right after the screening, a rainstorm made unprepared festival goers dash across the street to the Belvedere Square after-party, insuring that this soaked correspondent fell right into the comforting arms of the Clipper City libation providers. I drank way too much, seeking solace in Clip City's Martzens and Pilsners while battling the crowds to grab anything edible that moved. (It was not a pretty sight - a ravenous drunk with matted, rain-soaked hair clutching at anything consumable. But such is life.)

Food at the party was provided by all of the Belvedere Square Market's vendors, including Atwaters (asparagus and crab soups), The Dutch Connection (many fine breads and spreads), Ikan Seafood (whose tasty sushi platters included crab and spicy tuna rolls and California rolls for the vegetarians and unadventurous), Ceriello Fine Foods (delicious rotisserie chicken!), Earth's Essence, Grand Cru (vino), Louise's Bakery, Planet Produce, The Peanut Shoppe and the Neopol Savory Smokery.

Milling about I recall seeing Creative Alliance MovieMakers director Kristen Anchor, Johns Hopkins Film Fest director Mark Belinksy (a tall Tim Burton lookalike whose most brilliant bit of programming at this year's fest was the pairing of the notorious Stop Snitchin' DVD with the Baltimore City Police Dept.'s reel retort Keep Talking) and his Bluejay film buddies, the Renegade film and photography crew (who were documenting the festival for a promotional piece for their Hunt Valley-based communications company), and writer-filmmaker Charles Cohen (Charmed Life, The Last Season), who was lamenting the fact that he (like me) left his umbrella in the car.

I don't remember much after that. More tomorrow.

Related Links:
Maryland Film Festival
Senator Theatre
Belvedere Square
Eric Dyer's Kinetic Sandwich (City Paper review)
Steve Gentile's Official Website
Hiro Official Site
The Guatemalan Handshake (Official Web site)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good News from Iraq

Thanks to Gayle Grove (Senator Theatre manager, border collie enthusiast and obsessive-compulsive collector of all things Natty Boh) for sending me these "Boh Outside Baltimore" news updates from the National Bohemian web site ( It looks like there are some National Reserve Bohemians deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and they have even made a Boh Bomb (pictured left)!

Wally writes from Iraq, "This picture is of a bomb that we were going to make a memorial for the unit and the soldiers we have lost here. Unfortunately it is not authorized to go through customs so our plans have changed. SGT Cowan, did the wonderful paint job on the bomb casing. And of course we had to make it a Boh Bomb."


And here's another posting from Wally about his unit's Natty Boh truck: "Good week to all, here is another picture from the deployed Bohemians. Pictured is Sgt. Ben F. (right) and SPC Paul S. (left). This is their assigned truck. It is also the first one to carry Mr. Boh into Iraq...I hope these pictures help Baltimore feel the part they are playing in this OIF. We have lost some good soldiers, but they are not forgotten, and we will keep on truck'n."


And in the picture at left, Wally shows off the Natty Boh flag while commenting:

"This is me with SGT McKinney, he is one of the behind the scenes guys in the maintenance section. He pretty much falls in to take care of the important inspectable areas of a maintenance section. Definitely worth his weight in gold. We would not be as good as we are without him. Please take notice of the patch on my shoulder. I had that made about 3 months ago, about the same time as the guidon. I am not too sure if he enjoys the beer as much as I do but I hope he chooses to enjoy a few with me at the completion of this deployment. I have some other pictures that should be ready by next Sunday. The company is picking up on Mr. Boh. Of course we put the stencil on all of the trucks now, so the guys and gals are excited to get a picture into me with the idea of seeing themselves on the website. I hope this helps your cause. The Iraqi people will be seeing a lot of the one eyed mascot. The hat was sent to me by my daughter Holly. Love you Holly. A couple of soldiers have told me about times when they have had someone come up to them and ask if they were from Maryland, due to the Mr. Boh on their trucks. I thought that was pretty cool. Well with all we are accomplishing here, maybe Mr. Boh will be seen on CNN on"

Wow, could Mr. Boh become the most famous one-eyed soldier in the Middle East since Moshe Dayan? Or will the Iraqi people think he's an American casualty who caught some eye shrapnel from a road bomb? Stay tuned!

See articles here: Boh Outside Baltimore

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Have You Heard the News?

Mouthing Off

Finally there's some good news in today's headlines. Finally there's something to cheer about. In the Maryland section of today's Baltimore Sun, this headline leapt off the page at me:
Study in city shows percentage more than doubled 1994 to 2004

The article stated:
Among males ages 12 to 25, the percentage who acknowledged having oral sex jumped from 16 percent to 32 percent over the decade, said Emily Erbelding, a co-author of the report and chief of clinical services in the Baltimore City Health Department's sexually transmitted disease program.

The rate among females of the same age jumped from 14 percent to 38 percent, she said.

The article went on to say experts believe oral sex's increased popularity may be due to the fact that it avoids unwanted pregnancies and carries a minimum risk of potentially deadly consequences in the age of HIV and AIDS. Well, yeah. Hello, no-brainer!

While the Bush administration pushes its agenda of abstinence, anti-sex ed, anti-contraception and anti-abortion against the Pro-Choice, pro-sex ed, pro-contraception camp, pro-personal freedom camp, we have a moral compromise engineered by today's frisky hormones-gone-wild teeming teens, carnal collegiates and post-grad cads. Oral sex. Everyone wins!

We have enough damned kids on this over-populated planet so I love any act of intimacy that rules them out. As the Church of Euthanasia's One Commandment proclaims: "Thou shalt not procreate!" Or as erstwhile Baltimorean Vermin Supreme once proclaimed, when running for President on a dental hygiene platform in 2004: "U.S. Out of My Mouth!" Mr. Supreme should resurrect this slogan for an oral sex platform next time 'round in 2008.

The oral sex news report also made me think back to to the East Coast Video Show in Atlantic City in October of 2001. In the wake of the previous month's September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, Bill Margold of the adult film industry's non-profit group Adult Entertainment Against Terrorism (hey, porn stars can be patriotic too!) sold t-shirts proclaiming the group's slogan, "We Blow People, We Don't Blow Them Up." (AEAT actually raised more than $2,500 for disaster relief during a fundraiser at the show - go 'hos!) I remember thinking what a great way to assert the good, life-affirming side of "decadent" Western Values against the life-taking hard line of the terrorists. Remember, without blowjobs and cunnilingus (clearly covered under "the pursuit of Happiness" section of our Constitution), the terrorists win.

So the next time some annoying Born Again stops you on the street with "Have you hear the news?" as a precursor to preaching to you about Jesus (followed by the equally annoying parting, "Have a blessed day!"), you can respond, "About oral sex? Yes, isn't it great!"

Related Links:

Oral Sex Jumps Among the Young (Baltimore Sun)
Oral Sex: A Dangerous New Trend (Landover Baptist Church)
Oral Sex (Wikipedia)
Pocket Idiot's Guide to Oral Sex (book)
Vermin Supreme's Web Site