It's a typical moment in the life of Gabe Wardell.
Bombing up the Jones Falls Expressway in a white, slightly battered Toyota Camry, he jockeys the stick shift while keeping up a steady stream of chatter. He's right on time for a meeting at the Baltimore office of Allied Advertising and Public Relations, a local film publicity firm, where he will hammer out this season's schedule of Cinema Sundays.
But what makes the moment so typically Wardellian isn't where he's going but what he's doing, which is talking -- passionately, incessantly and quite intelligently -- about the movies.
"The director cheated!" Wardell says, his voice rising. The subject is the sleeper hit of the summer, "The Sixth Sense." "He only shows you privileged moments, so he's able to frame scenes and cut them in a way that's intentionally misleading. It's concealing information from the audience just for the payoff of the surprise ending. You feel like you got a little bit used."
Before Charles Theatre co-owner John Standiford or a fellow passenger can respond, Wardell lists at least three more flaws in the movie (which will go unrepeated so as to keep the ending a surprise). And so it goes until Wardell pulls into Allied's Owings Mills office, where he will trot out his wish list for this season's Cinema Sundays (the film series resumes at the Charles Sept. 26) and float his latest thought balloon: Son of Cinema Sundays, a pared-down afternoon adjunct to the Sunday morning ritual of movies, bagels, coffee and discussion.
Wardell, 28, is an accomplished and credentialed critic (he's written for the City Paper in addition to delivering extemporaneous commentary on the WJHU program "Media Matters"). He also travels the country as a projectionist, and can be seen behind the projector at festivals from Park City, Utah, to Birmingham, Ala.
Making a name
But it's as a programmer that he has made his most significant and lasting mark in Baltimore. For the past year he has brought his own tastes and sensibilities to appreciative -- and only occasionally nonplused -- audiences not only at Cinema Sundays but also at the Maryland Film Festival and the Johns Hopkins summer series.
Culling from movies he's seen on the festival circuit (this year he's attending the Sundance, Slamdance, Urbanworld, Toronto and Rehoboth Beach festivals, as well as the Independent Feature Film Market this week), Wardell acts as something of a matchmaker, bringing to Baltimore films he thinks Maryland filmgoers will enjoy, whether at the festival or Cinema Sundays.
"I pretty much refer to myself as a film consultant," Wardell explains a few days later, when asked to describe the living he's cobbled together. "I think of the festival as kind of a home base and the center of operations because of the amount of time and energy and the scope and scale of it. And all the other things I view as part of that."
Nowhere is Wardell's influence more visible and concentrated than in Cinema Sundays, the film series started by George Udel five years ago, that has become required viewing for Baltimore cinephiles. When Udel stepped down as host and artistic director last January for health reasons, he chose Wardell as his successor, confident that the Young Turk would nurture Cinema Sundays' loyal audience even as he provoked it.
Udel says he was looking for someone "who's young, who's devoted, who can bring some fresh ideas, and who knows film very well and whose instincts I trust." Wardell, whom Udel had worked with at the Baltimore Film Forum and Baltimore International Film Festival in the early 1990s, fit the bill. "Not necessarily that I agree with him on all his programming choices, but he knows what he's doing."
Those programming choices have been somewhat controversial. When Wardell brought the pseudo-documentary "20 Dates" to the Charles last spring, the Cinema Sundays crowd was less than pleased, according to Udel. And there was also some consternation surrounding Wardell's choice for this season's kick-off film: He wanted "Tamango," a 1957 film starring Dorothy Dandridge, and Udel preferred the festival circuit hit "Happy, Texas." ("Happy, Texas" won because "Tamango" turned out to be unavailable.) Still, Wardell is committed to shaking Cinema Sundays up, at least a bit. Not only does he plan to add a cheaper afternoon program -- in which he will introduce a rescreening of the morning's movie, without the bagels and coffee -- but he hopes to bring in a slew of new speakers. Wardell hopes that these changes, along with showing more self-distributed films that are even more independent than those offered by Miramax and Fine Line, will attract a younger and more racially diverse audience.
For example, Wardell plans to show "Dreamers," a self-distributed film that was photographed by Neal Fredericks, a Towson University graduate who was the director of photography on "The Blair Witch Project."
"It's important to expand what we're doing," Wardell explains. "We've been in a holding pattern for a while. There's an audience that I want to retain, obviously, who have been loyal to Cinema Sundays for years. But I do think it's necessary to try to appeal to a wider age demographic and definitely a wider racial demographic. ... Generally when I've looked at past [speaker] lists, any time there's been an African-American speaker it's been to speak for an African-American film. Why not take a little chance there? And ideally this Son of Cinema Sundays will be able to draw a lot more young people and a lot more people with kids who have family obligations on Sunday mornings."
Wardell's fascination with film started early, when he was growing up in Govans in, as he puts it, "the glow of the Senator Theatre." After graduating from the Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., he attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he studied film with such luminaries as Adolfas Mekas, Peggy Ahwesh and Peter Hutton. After graduating in 1993, Wardell worked briefly for Kino International, a tiny film distribution company, and then returned to Baltimore in 1994 to work at the Baltimore Film Forum, an organization that would be defunct the next year.
Having put in his time writing reviews for the City Paper and working at local video vault Video Americain, Wardell was pursuing a master's degree in cinema studies at New York University in 1997 when he accepted a position as festival and exhibitions coordinator at the Atlanta Film Festival.
"One of my primary motivations for going to Atlanta was that, since the fall of the Film Forum and the Baltimore festival, I knew that Baltimore needed and could sustain a film festival," Wardell says. "But I also knew that I didn't have the financial clout or the connections to pull it off by myself. Atlanta was the first place where I got to take over the full visionary part of that position."
Faith in Baltimore
Wardell returned to Baltimore a year ago, without a firm commitment from the Maryland Film Festival, although he had spoken with festival founder Jed Dietz throughout the preceding months. "The whole reason I came back from Atlanta without knowing what could happen [was that] I believed that we could do it here, I knew that there was interest in it, and I will continue to believe that until I'm proved otherwise."
By most lights, the first Maryland Film Festival, which unspooled at the Charles last April, was a resounding success. But Wardell tempers his optimism with caution. "I've seen the way these things happen, where you show up one day and the board has met and the doors are closed," he says. And whereas Dietz has led the charge for the festival by appealing to its role as a generator of tourism dollars, Wardell is more focused on developing a local following.
"We can try all we want to make it a tourist festival," he says, "but the more we go in that direction the more we're going to alienate the local people and the numbers may not ever measure up. If you alienate 1,000 Maryland people by trying to appeal to tourism, you may replace them with 1,000 people next year but two years from now will those same 1,000 tourists come back?"
In an effort to broaden the festival's geographic scope, Wardell came up with the idea of a festival tour, during which he and Dietz would present a feature and a short film, both made by Marylanders, in small-town theaters throughout the state. In October, Paul Zinder's documentary "Mom Mom Loves Herbert" and Elizabeth Holder's short film "Weekend Getaway" will be shown in Frederick, Columbia, Annapolis, Easton and Salisbury.
Although Wardell talks like a screenwriter -- deconstructing movies and their flaws to within an inch of their lives -- he insists that filmmaking is not in his immediate future. For his part, Udel could see Wardell programming his own festival outside Maryland. It's also possible to see Wardell following the same course of another former Baltimorean, John Pierson, who has turned a love for movies into an eclectic living as a programmer, producer's representative, author and television host.
Whatever he winds up doing, it's clear that Wardell's axis will remain constant. "I love movies, and I would like to work with them and work in them and work on them and be surrounded by them.
"And," he adds, barely pausing for a breath, "talk to people about them."