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Take a ride with a 'Wild Bunch'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This weekend, satire does not close on Saturday night: It stays open through Sunday at the Maryland Film Festival.

On Sunday, at 1 p.m., National Public Radio's Scott Simon is guest host at a screening of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

It should be a jolly freak-out to hear Simon introduce the film in his resonant NPR tones right before Kubrick's NPR-style narrator announces, "For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon: a doomsday device."

To top this, the festival would have to bring in NPR's "Car Talk" guys to analyze Stephen King's "Christine," the tale of a homicidal '58 Plymouth.

The entire festival schedule mixes mischief with social conscience. This blend should satisfy any sane festival-goer's need to see films based in experience, films that offer an escape from it -- and films that provide both reality and comic relief in a structured satiric vision.

"Dr. Strangelove" started out as the director's dead-serious response to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Laboring on the screenplay while their stomachs rumbled in the wee hours of the night, Kubrick and his frequent collaborator, James B. Harris, wondered: What would happen if the denizens of their War Room were in the same position? Would they order out to the Gayety Delicatessen for sandwiches? Months later, Kubrick hired writer Terry Southern to help him counterpoint nuclear horror with absurdity.

The result was a classic that tickled, jolted and inspired generations of filmmakers. Ron Shelton, the writer-director of my "critical advocacy" selection, "Cobb" (as well as "Bull Durham"), once wrote a terrific nuclear-deterrence comedy called "The Button." The epigraph to that unproduced screenplay puns, "There's no such thing as a free launch."

Like Shelton, a festival fan might do well to follow in Kubrick's footsteps and leaven sobriety with creative insanity, going from, say, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowaska's ironically titled "Happy Man" to American animator Bill Plympton's full-length cartoon, "Mutant Aliens."

An array of documentaries promises lucid presentations of powerful subject matter. I've seen two: "Startup.com," an engrossing chronicle of the rise and fall of a dot-com and the breakup and tentative reconstitution of a friendship; and "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," one of the most moving and revelatory movies ever made about the poetics of filmmaking. (Paul Seydor, who created the "Wild Bunch" documentary, also edited "Cobb" and will appear at both screenings.)

Opening night marks the world premiere of "Investigation of a Flame," a documentary about the anti-Vietnam-draft efforts of the Catonsville 9. Other fact-film entries include "An Unfinished Symphony," about the Vietnam Veterans' Against the War rally on Memorial Day 1971, in Lexington, Mass.; "A Union in Wait," about two women's attempt to have their same-sex union consecrated at Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel; and "I Remember Me," a filmmaker's autobiographical investigation of chronic-fatigue syndrome.

But festival-goers should try to fit in some of the guest hosts' way-out satiric selections -- and not just to clear the palate.

While Simon has chosen "Dr. Strangelove," John Waters chose "Baxter," the 1988 French comedy usually described as the story of a serial-killing dog. The original ad line is more pertinent: "Beware of the dog that thinks."

A bad bull terrier

The antihero is a bull terrier who narrates his life story in voiceover. The scariest canine since Cujo, he knows "neither love nor fear." The film is too thin to be great: The bipeds in the picture are only half as fascinating as the four-legged antihero. What's creepy is how the director-co-writer, Jerome Boivin, insinuates us into Baxter's logic. Humans try to project their own needs, phobias and neuroses on Baxter, not realizing he has a strong inner identity.

This movie burlesques the complacence of child-raising and pet-training: Boivin interweaves Baxter's fate with that of a schoolboy who shows signs of serial-killer syndrome, from sadomasochism to a fascination with Hitler. Briefly, the two are a perfect match.

So, in a way, are "Dr. Strangelove" and "Baxter." They both have a cracked deadpan manner. When "Dr. Strangelove" came out in 1964, the rap against the picture was that it was too broad and comedic, with overly silly caricatures of the Cold War's political and military elite. But 20 years later, when it enjoyed a flurry of revivals in the wake of "War Games," friends reported that in rep houses Kubrick's movie didn't raise a laugh; and a recent university-press book lists it as a war movie, not a comedy, partly because "it's not funny."

Actually, it's hilarious. To Kubrick, the whole notion of nuclear brinkmanship was so insane that it had to be depicted in a parallel universe, just like ours but a bit "off." In many ways, he styled the film as if it were a conventional war movie, from the newsreel-like hand-held-camera footage of the ground skirmishes to the use of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" on the soundtrack. But his point is that traditional frames of reference can't capture the scope of nuclear war. What may still throw audiences isn't just the anti-Establishment parody -- it's the movie's backbone of irony.

Genuine irony is the art of the incongruous -- the art of shattered expectations. It demands that a person understand what a word or an image means in a normal context, and then appreciate how the artist is changing the context and altering the meaning. What's pleasurable, in its small way, about "Baxter" is that it strips the audience of any preconceptions about dog movies -- and dogs. It heightens your consciousness even as it sets your nerves on edge. As Baxter takes pains to point out, he doesn't kill at random, or for pleasure. He kills for what he thinks are good reasons.

Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" also challenges the status quo, but in a broader, more spectacular way. In the great lunatic tradition of sprawling movie nightmares like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," Gilliam pulls together a vision of a neo-Fascist near-future, centering on an Every-middle-man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who caroms from deadening and sometimes deadly bureaucratic work to a winged fantasy life.

It's no wonder that an architect, Richard Gluckman, has chosen to present "Brazil": The movie is a masterpiece of design. This gleefully eclectic production mixes Mussolini-era monoliths, art deco and found objects from a couple of centuries in a style that could be dubbed art drecko.

The film starts with a TV discussion of ducts, which isn't just a whimsical touch. Ducts and pipes and tubular passages of all kinds dominate the imagery, snaking through the background or popping out like kudzu or taking center stage at a tony restaurant. They're the concrete expression of the serpentine politics of the State. When the Marx Brothers turn up on a TV set, the homage is earned. "Brazil" is Gilliam's "Duct Soup."

This spirit of irreverence imbues some of the festival's other tributes. In addition to presenting "Baxter," Waters will introduce cult figure Herschell Gordon Lewis -- the man behind low-budget gorefests like "Blood Feast" -- at a Friday-night screening of "Gore Gore Girls." According to "Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia," Lewis snorted when informed that the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema had anointed him a "subject for further research." The one-time schlockmeister quipped: "That's what they say about cancer."

On Saturday night, at the Bengies Drive- In, Lewis' "2000 Maniacs" will screen with "This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse" by Jose Mojica Marins, the subject of a documentary called "Coffin Joe: The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins." Both Lewis and the documentary's director, Ivan Finotti, will appear on Saturday afternoon at "The Panel of Blood," a discussion of gore movies.

A mini-tribute of sorts will also honor pioneer experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke. The festival will screen both a new version of Jack Gelber's play "The Connection" -- the basis of Clarke's most famous feature, of the same name -- and a new print of Clarke's documentary "Portrait of Jason." This 1967 movie has a kinky, intriguing camera subject: Jason Holliday, a gay hustler and frustrated nightclub entertainer forever on the verge of getting his act together. He speaks in "cool world" jargon, sometimes catching fire and rattling off an anecdote in a punning compendium of jive.

He enjoys proclaiming for the camera, "Why, I'm Queen for a Day!" -- but he wants his audience to believe he's tragic. Jason hopes to make his unhappy childhood take the rap for his tawdry adulthood. Clarke forces him to confront his glibness and his fakery.

I've always had mixed-to-negative feelings about "Portrait of Jason." It bears every sweat-mark of '60s "realism," including fuzzy sound and indifferent lighting. Furthermore, I distrust Clarke's use of the camera to foment psychodrama.

But at a 34-year remove, there's something stirringly quixotic about Clarke's effort. Her belief that the unfettered camera will record raw reality and deliver the truth is a fantasy more grandiose than any of Jason's.

"Portrait of Jason" is also a portrait of Clarke as a moviemaker: It forces us to confront both the self-satire and irony of its subject and the romantic quest of its director.

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