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 (Amazon.com)
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


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