May 7, 2012

MARYLAND 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Maryland Film Festival

Somewhere around 1 a.m. at the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore, it hit me. Why shouldn't this be the place to have a passionate, detailed conversation about independent filmmaking? Film festivals take pride in the range of experiences they can offer guests and patrons, but nothing I've experienced quite compares with this backdrop: a packed, sweaty dance floor hopping with enthusiastic groovers, while a DJ plays deep soul classics and Charm City icon John Waters sits in a corner having an intimate chat with a fan. Behind the rectangular bar, burly old guys from the Old Country gruffly dispense $2 bottles of Utenos and Svyturys. I bump into an old friend I haven't seen in 20 years, and he immediately introduces me to an unalloyed artifact of the city. I don't understand too much of what he's trying to tell me, but from his T-shirt I know his name. The garment bears a likeness of his pixelated gaze and wild shocks of white hair framing a bald dome, and underneath his face the legend: Rezzy Ray Has a Posse.

We didn't talk for long, Rezzy Ray and I, as I had another posse to engage. In an adjacent room was a convergence of American filmmakers, brought to town for the Maryland Film Festival, which has evolved into an important annual summit meeting. The festival's particular focus is on the ever-emerging microbudget movement and smart, risky, handmade cinema, the kind that has to work hard to assert itself in a world where distributors often want everything and offer next to nothing.

The Patron Saints

"It's like summer camp for filmmakers," noted Kris Swanberg, whose second feature Empire Builder premiered at the festival, during one of several panels devoted to relevant themes. With a lineup that included Craig Zobel (Compliance), Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine), Kate Lyn Sheil (Sun Don't Shine, Empire Builder, The Comedy, V/H/S), Rick Alverson (The Comedy), David Lowery (apparently everything, but here notably as the cinematographer of Empire Builder and Reconvergence), Sophia Takal (Supporting Characters, The International Sign for Choking, V/H/S), Bill and Turner Ross (Tchoupitoulas), Rachel Grady (Detropia), Jonathan Lisecki (Gayby), Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulous (The Source), Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (Francine, The Patron Saints), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and even Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America) genially popping up everywhere, among many others, it was a rich mix of talent that also wasn't limited to one creative circle.

Between the panels, the parties and a freewheeling daylong conference that brought filmmakers together with programmers, critics and at least one distributor (and remarkably left no scars), the festival becomes what South by Southwest or Sundance might be for many if they weren't too busy pushing their own film or chasing deadlines to chill out and get real, and amazingly enough finally watch each others' films.

Empire Builder

Fostering that communal vibe at a festival that isn't about making deals or working the press is the genius concept here. On the one hand, Maryland is a kind of aggregator event that cherry picks the best or most apt titles that already have played Sundance or SXSW (or even the New York Film Festival, where foreign-language auteur events like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse made their U.S. premieres last fall), but in many cases have yet to reach festival screens in New York. On the other, that all but guarantees a satisfyingly strong schedule. It's more or less what Brooklyn's BAMcinematek will do in a few weeks when it launches the 2012 BAMcinemaFest, an event whose curatorial tastes argue for the vibrancy of so much work that exists under the radar of mass media/multiplex consumption—but gives audiences a truthful account of what's happening in America right now. But BAM programs its festival over a dozen days. Maryland serves up a strong, fast dose of cinema, packed into four nights of screenings that stretch over a weekend, with almost everything centered around the historic Charles Theater and an adjacent parking lot transformed into a tented HQ/lounge/bar zone. The design makes everything easy.

Though it's mostly not a "breaking news" festival like SXSW or Sundance, it was fascinating to re-watch films and reassess how they felt outside of the bubble of those omni-fests. For instance, the multi-director omnibus V/H/S, once you know what's going to happen in each episode, plays even more strongly as a comedy. Even if, objectively, it's far from perfect, the film delivers genuine excitement: laughs, subtle or extreme, peppered with scares that finally escalate into seat-bouncing freakouts. Underneath the decayed texture of the found footage concept, there's some fascinating crosstalk between the different writer-director teams whose casts usually are engaged in some kind of male-female power game. Compliance, as elsewhere, generated a lot of debate. The heard-on-the-street reactions to Zobel's chilling "based on a true story" drama of a sexual assault on a fast food employee incited by a prank call reminded me of Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?": Misogynist! Genius!

The International Sign for Choking

The "girls vs. boys" themes abided in debuts like Swanberg's Empire Builder, in which Sheil plays a frustrated Chicago housewife (married to Swanberg's real-life filmmaker husband Joe) whose one-week escape to a Montana cabin with baby (Jude Swanberg, in his first role) on board. Once there, in a grandly minimalist terrain lensed by David Lowery, she begins to experience a renewed sense of herself—a room of one's own, really—but soon falls in with the handyman (Bill Ross), and almost wordlessly finds herself back where she started. The improvised drama makes much of landscape and expression without much dialogue, to an end that felt head-clearing and meditative, leading up to a sudden, literally hysterical ending that then shuts down the movie cold. Zach Weintraub's The International Sign for Choking is similarly stripped down, with a character (Weintraub's Josh) at his own summit of discontent, uncertain how to move forward. Shot in Buenos Aires by the talented and often experimental cinematographer Nandan Rao (Green), the film might have taken place anywhere: Much of the action is shot in a bedroom against a brightly colored backdrop of floral wallpaper. Rao's knack for abstraction and playful use of focus seems to reflect Josh's own state of mind. He's a stranger in Argentina, stuck on a documentary commission and unable to break out of his shell, when he meets-cute with Takal's Anna (they discover each other playing knock-knock on either side of a wall in a rooming house). A fixation leads to unexpected stalker behavior involving Anna's dates, and the story carefully builds suspense of a highly existential sort.

What happens next to these films this small and personal is hard to say, but the Maryland Film Festival exists to keep showing them, and generating conversation about them that won't be over anytime soon.

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Posted by ahillis at May 7, 2012 9:25 AM