Dispatches from Maryland Film Festival: Sunday silent film is exhilaratingly odd

Dispatches from the Maryland Film Festival.

Editor's note: This article will be updated throughout the weekend with ongoing coverage from the Maryland Film Festival. New information will be added to the top. 

Day 5

Going silently avant-garde with the lavishly inscrutable ‘L’inhumaine’

This may be a Maryland Film Festival first: The Friday night movie presented by John Waters was more accessible than the Sunday morning silent film presented by the Alloy Orchestra.

Waters’ pick, Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” was a fairly conventional (though beautifully told) tragedy of a woman who loves too much, and a man loves who not enough. Sunday morning’s Alloy offering was Marcel L’Herbier’s avant-garde landmark, “L’inhumaine” (“The Inhuman Woman”), a purposefully disjointed, pioneering sci-fi flick about a singer who wants to leave Paris and the men who wish she wouldn’t.

Truly, “L’inhumaine” was an odd concoction of a film, with the first part set at a party hosted in the middle of an art-deco indoor pool, complete with speckled swans and waiters wearing papier-mache masks. The last third was set inside a mad scientist’s laboratory that not even Victor Frankenstein could have imagined. And in between there was a concert at which a (real-life) riot broke out, one whose audience, according to popular legend, included Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, James Joyce and probably Vladimir Lenin (well, not Lenin, but allegedly the other guys).

The story centers around Claire Lescot (Georgette Leblanc, looking like a sinister Mae West), a Parisian singer who is considering abandoning the stage. At the party, she is courted by a guy referred to as The Apostle, a maharajah and a young scientist who arrives late and spends most of his time there steeling up the courage to actually walk into her line of vision.

(LeBlanc, according to the Alloy’s Ken Winokur, was actually a renowned opera singer who agreed to finance the film, on condition she star in it.)

Lescot is one cold fish, and this is one exhilaratingly oddball film — with the sort of script in which people say things like “I am only interested in what I can conquer” and “Your humanity leaves me cold” and “Without you, this world is odious to me.”

Alloy did its usual tremendous job of scoring; the orchestra's dedication to breathing renewed life into silent films, an art form we’ve regrettably forgotten how to appreciate, makes them a national treasure. And this score, heavy on clanging chimes and whining saws (which sound just like a theremin, but is much easier to transport) and other appropriately unearthly sounds, was one of their best.

Perhaps it’s best that the story of “L’inhumaine” is a bit inscrutable, because that leaves audiences free to enjoy the lavish sets, the quirky designs and the feverishly oddball gadgets that show up once events move to that laboratory. Here it is, 1924, and L’Herbier and his cohorts have put together a futuristic fantasy that foresees television, defibrillators and even Skype. Outrageous.

From ‘Dallas,’ with love

“Hotel Dallas” was a combination of documentary, unstuck-in-time fantasy and young people’s theater that showcased the uniquely skewed artistic vision of the husband-and-wife director team Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang. Set in post-Ceausescu Romania, the film uses the Romanian people’s obsession with the American TV series “Dallas” as the jumping-off point for a cross-genre rumination on art, popular culture and shifting political winds. The effect is mesmerizing, and happily confusing.

The cast of “Hotel Dallas” includes Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing in the original TV series (a character whose resurrection from the dead serves as a sort of inspiration for much of the film). Duffy’s character, Mr. Here, is an off-screen voice for much of the film, showing his face only occasionally.

Ungur, who left her native Romania 12 years ago, was asked how they got Duffy to agree to be in the film. The process was disarmingly simple, she said. They found his agent’s address online and sent him a copy of the script; a couple of days later he called, and said he’d be interested in participating.

What sort of budget did they have to work with? Duffy asked. Told there wasn’t much, Duffy agreed to work on the film, Ungur said, in return for a bottle of wine.

Day 4

The instincts that drive 'Norman Lear' prove dead-on

MDFF favorites Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing couldn’t have picked a better subject for their first documentary biography than Norman Lear, a titan of TV comedy during the 1970s (was there a hit sitcom during that decade that he didn’t produce?) who, just short of his 94th birthday, remains an indefatigable bastion of liberal morality.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” got its “hometown” premiere Saturday night (Grady, a member of the festival advisory board who was on hand to introduce the film and  answer questions afterward, apologized to her “other” hometown of Washington, D.C., for letting Baltimore have the honor). In just 91 minutes, it managed to touch on the highlights of Lear’s extensive and formidable career (he started writing for TV in the 1950s) and featured testimonials from a range of Hollywood stars, including John Amos, who played patriarch James Evans Sr. in Lear’s “Good Times,” and Rob Reiner, who got his big break playing Michael Stivic (aka Meathead) on Lear’s ground-shattering “All in the Family.”

(An extraordinary snippet of a joint appearance by Lear and fellow TV pioneers Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, a group with nearly two centuries of spinning American comedy gold between them, was almost worth the price of admission alone.)

But as enjoyable as the career retrospective was, it was almost secondary to the documentary’s insights into what has made Lear tick (the legacy of an emotionally and at times physically absent father, for one), and what has made him continue to tick well into his 10th decade (family, and a liberal world view that refuses to be cowed).

Ewing and Grady fashioned a unique narrative device to help viewers along in their journey – a young boy, wearing Lear’s trademark headgear and clearly intended to represent his younger self, appears onscreen periodically throughout the film, a constant reminder of what got Lear’s moral and emotional compass pointed where it continues pointing.

Grady said they came up with idea of using the boy early in the filmmaking process. Lear himself was skeptical of the idea, she said, but eventually was won over. Clearly, his instincts remain right on the money.

'The Love Witch' proved a very good witch indeed

Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch,” which had its second MDFF screening Saturday night at MICA’s Brown Center, stars Samantha Robinson as a practicing Wiccan trying to find the right man to force to love her. Wildly entertaining, Biller’s film is a loving throwback to late-‘60s adult fare. Its look and feel, from the film stock Biller chose to shoot on (no digital projection, a rarity these days) to the soundtrack to the raven-haired Robinson's Morticia Addams-length hair, was all wonderfully evocative of the period.

In her post-film comments, however, Biller stressed that “The Love Witch” is no period piece. And indeed, the outfits and cars on screen are clearly modern day. And if that doesn’t clue viewers in, one character’s use of a cell phone certainly should.

Rather, she said, using film helps to promote the sense of a created reality, one for which the filmmaker is solely responsible.

“I don’t like reality that much,” Biller explained. “I like transforming reality.”

The result is a cinematic ride to be relished — cheeky, compelling and often hilarious, clearly like the work of few other (if any) contemporary filmmakers. Biller insisted she sees “The Love Witch” as a tragedy with feminist overtones, not a comedy (indeed, she said she’s frequently surprised by the humor audiences find in her film). It’s a tribute to her unique skills and vision that it works as both.

Day 3

John Waters even gets the weather to cooperate

We now know who to blame for Friday’s rain.

Turns out John Waters ordered it up, so audiences would better appreciate the movie he presented as his annual pick for the Maryland Film Festival, Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea.”

“It’s really the perfect weather for tonight’s movie,” Waters said in introducing a movie where the main character spends the opening minutes trying to kill herself, and we spend the rest of the film watching the development of the doomed, obsessive love affair that brought her to this point, as well as what happens afterward.

Featuring a compellingly nuanced performance from Rachel Weisz as the hopelessly besotted Hester Collyer, complemented beautifully by the lush vision of director Davies, “The Deep Blue Sea” offered a peak into the more serious side of Waters. “It’s not campy at all,” he assured the audience at MICA’s Brown Center in his introductory remarks, “but it’s great, great melodrama.”

Which is not to say there isn’t a twisted side to Waters’ admiration for the film. After seeing the movie, he promised, “You’ll wish you were suicidal over someone who didn’t love you back.”

(We also learned a key piece of info about Waters’ movie-going habits: he probably won’t be standing in line to see “Captain America: Civil War” anytime soon. Noting that Weisz’s co-star, Tom Hiddleston, has played in the “Thor” movies – as the Thunder God’s evil brother, Loki -- Waters tossed off as an aside, “I’ve certainly never seen any of them.”)

Life, documented (briefly)

Many are the cinematic gifts the Maryland Film Festival presents to its audiences every year, but perhaps none is more welcome than the chance to see collections of short films that movie lovers in these parts may never get the chance to see anywhere else.

At Friday morning’s “Documentary Shorts” presentation, the audience at MICA’s Studio Center got to watch seven short works, ranging in length from eight to 18 minutes. The films took them on an emotional ride from the silly to the sublime, from the comical to the tragic.

The set opened with Patrick McGowan and Brett Garamella’s unforcedly uplifting “The Champion,” a visit with the joyously garrulous Estaifan Shilaita, a former Iraqi boxing champ now driving a taxi in Chicago, and his wife, Hanna. Would that we all could share his optimism, love for his family and appreciation for the good things in life (and refusal to lose himself in the bad, no matter how bad).

The films also included the oddball humor of the 14-minute “The Rocket on the Roof,” as a guy furtively, but determinedly, tries to figure out why that rocket is on that roof (co-director Josh Polon admitted he manipulated events a little, to spur the film’s protagonist along); Bryan Storkel’s 14-minute “The Dean Scream,” a look back at the campaign-defining (or should that be deflating?) screech Democratic presidential candidate Dean gave from the stage following his loss in the 2004 Iowa caucuses (a scream Dean politely, but firmly, declined to reprise for Storkel’s camera); Bryan Reisberg’s 16-minute “The Unrelenting Charlie Davies,” the story of a rising soccer star’s amazing comeback following a debilitating auto accident; Darius Clark Monroe’s visually poetic “Two Cities,” offering one man’s rumination on having been forced out of New Orleans in Katrina’s wake and resettled in Houston; and the tragic inappropriateness of Scott Calonico’s “When AIDS was Funny,” eight minutes of Reagan-era press conferences where questions about the growing “gay plague” were dismissed with laughter and quips.

Perhaps the most affecting of all the shorts was Zack Godshall’s 14-minute “The Boatman,” about an old man living in New Orleans post-Katrina, going blind put still hoping to finish work on the 60-foot boat he’s spent 30 years building. Joseph Gonzales and his wife, Selina, lost nearly everything to Katrina but each other, and as they prepare to celebrate their 71st anniversary, it’s hard not to get caught up in their love for each other, as well as their profound sense of loss but refusal to be defined by it.

The Documentary Shorts program will be screened again at 2:40 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Lab School, 2220 St. Paul St.

No shuttle service at this year's festival

Could the Maryland Film Festival have picked a worse year to drop its shuttle service between venues?

Bad enough that the festival is more spread out than ever before, with venues ranging from the Walters Art Museum to the Baltimore Museum of Art (a 43-minute walk, according to the festival program).

Bad enough that construction and road closures near the Walters, caused by a combination of a Centre Street sinkhole and this weekend's FlowerMart, made driving around the area, much less parking in it, the stuff of nightmares.

But add in Friday's unceasing rain, with calls for more Saturday, and the conditions for strolling between venues were far from ideal.

"We just couldn't make the shuttle work," said MDFF Director Jed Dietz. Festivalgoers in past years, he said, were often frustrated, having to wait for the shuttles' arrival. And the cost of contracting for the shuttles, which he placed at "thousands" of dollars, was too great.

"It just would frustrate people, which is the opposite of what we were trying to do," Dietz said.

The festival is urging attendees to use Uber or the free Charm City Circulator.

Day 2

'Orange Sunshine' director takes a big risk in winning subjects' trust

A special award for tenacity should probably be given to William A. Kirkley, who spent 10 years making “Orange Sunshine,” an extraordinary documentary chronicling the rise and fall of a ‘60s-era LSD manufacturing combine known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

He should also get a second award for taking the biggest risk, at least logistically.

Much of the first seven years, Kirkley says, was spent finding former Brotherhood members and convincing them to trust him with their story. When he finally convinced two of the group’s leaders to be interviewed on camera, other members followed their lead. The resulting material was so good, he said, that he pretty much started remaking the film from scratch. Only one of those 25 interviews conducted during the first seven years of production made the final cut.

But that wasn’t the chance he took, Kirkley explained after a showing of the film at the Baltimore Museum of Art that ended just before midnight. The gamble was assuring his reluctant interview subjects (in fact, writing it in their contracts) that if they didn’t like the way they came across in the finished film, they could ask that all their footage be removed.

“When I first approached the Brotherhood, they were not interested in doing a film,” Kirkley said. “They were very private people and they said I seemed nice, but they’re not going to tell their story. Every time their story had been told in the past, it had been sensationalized and, they felt, not told correctly.

“I showed them the rough cut, and I was incredibly nervous. And by the end of it, there was tears and hugs. … They were crying. It was this big emotional thing, and they loved it. They didn’t ask me to change anything.”

In addition to all that, an accident of timing makes the film even more poignant. The last interview he got, and it took a lot of convincing from the other Fellowship members to get this guy on board, was with their long-time lawyer, Michael Kennedy.

Kirkley did the interview in December — the first one Kennedy had ever agreed to, the filmmaker says. Kennedy died just a month later, at age 78.

"Orange Sunshine" is getting a second festival screening at 7:15 p.m. Friday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive.

A filmmaking numbers game, courtesy of director Clay Liford’s 'Slash'

The two characters in "Slash," a shy introvert named Neil and a rebel-at-heart extrovert named Julia, are supposed to be 15 and 16, respectively. That’s an important plot point, since both characters are high schoolers writing erotic fan fiction for a website, and lie about their age both to gain access to the site and to be allowed to read their work at a no-one-under-18 gathering.

Neither of the actors who actors who play Neil and Julia, however, are underage — or were when the film was made. Michael Johnston (Neil), who plays Corey in MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” was 18. Hannah Marks (Julia), a veteran of TV’s “Awkward,” was 22 (she turned 23 last month).

Their real ages are kinda important, since “Slash,” were it to be submitted to the motion picture ratings board, would most likely earn an “R.” It deals with the proverbial “adult subject matter,” includes a handful pretty lewd drawings, and has language that could make some parents squirm.

Casting real high schoolers would have been a problem, director Clay Liford said during the post-film Q&A. Not just because of the film’s content (really, it’s nothing worse than a 12-year-old Jodie Foster was subjected to while making “Taxi Driver” back in the mid-‘70s). But using younger actors would have required on-set tutors and limited the amount of time they could have worked in front of the camera (by law, such things are strictly regulated).

“The tension of having somebody too young there would have been too insane,” Liford explained.

Happily, everything turned out just fine. “Slash” is a winning coming-of-age story, in the finest Hollywood tradition, with real heart and just enough fumbling sexual tension to keep things interesting. And the kind of chemistry that develops between Neil and Julia is something younger actors might not have been able to pull off.

And Liford got the culture of erotic fan fiction right, too, according to at least one father in the audience. “We’ve got a 22-year-old fan fiction writer as a daughter, and you’ve got the character dead-on,” he assured Liford.

His daughter, Dad added, is heading to divinity school.

“Slash” will be getting a second screening during the festival, at 4 p.m. Saturday at the MICA Gateway Building, 1601 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Maryland Film Festival nears fundraising goal for Parkway Theatre

The Maryland Film Festival is just $1.2 million short of the $18.2 million it needs to fully fund renovations to the 100-year-old Parkway Theatre and the opening of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, MDFF director Jed Dietz told the opening-night crowd Wednesday.

The festival has received some $4.2 million in tax credits and, in recent weeks, $1.2 million in grants, bringing it tantalizingly close to its fundraising goal.

The film center, scheduled to open at the southwest corner of Charles Street and North Avenue in time for next year’s festival, was named in honor of a $5 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which has offices in New York; Athens, Greece; and Monte Carlo.

Renovations to the Parkway, which opened in 1905 and later operated as the 5 West before closing in the late ‘70s, began last month. When it reopens next year, the center complex will include three movie screens (including the Parkway’s original auditorium), with a combined seating capacity of about 600.

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