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)


Post a Comment

<< Home