A block of North Charles Street was turned into a cinematic playpen over the weekend, as thousands of movie lovers ventured to the Charles Theatre and its environs to sample everything from a 90-second short celebrating gnats to the latest film from Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney.
The 10th annual Maryland Film Festival launched with a shorts program Thursday evening and wrapped last night with a new work from blaxploitation film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles.
In between, nearly 50 features and 80 short films were shown. Although final figures are not yet in, ticket sales were "significantly up" from last year's total of 17,000 tickets, festival head Jed Dietz said.
Variety was key to the weekend's success, as the range of offerings was wide enough to satisfy even the most discerning - or, perhaps better said, demanding - taste.
Augustine Cook, who works in Kent County's office of economic development and was hoping to drum up some filmmaker interest in shooting on the Eastern Shore, enjoyed the scope of Luke Wolbach's Row Hard No Excuses, a documentary on a trans-Atlantic rowboat race. "I liked the way the two main rowers, how [the director] went back and showed us something about their families, about what they had to go through to even be in the race."
For filmmaker Sean Donnelly, in town to show his documentary about obsessive fans of pop-singer Tiffany, I Think We're Alone Now, watching Mary Bronstein's Yeast, a drama of roommates who often seem barely able to tolerate one another, proved something of a revelation. He likes films, it finally dawned on him, with unlikable characters.
"Most people like movies only if they have likable characters," he said, doodling in a sketchbook while waiting for his own film to finish screening, "but I felt like I could relate to these characters very well. As awful as one of them was, I felt I could really relate to her."
Michael Gamer, who works in an auto-parts warehouse but aspires to success as a songwriter, enjoyed a break from the faux reality of TV. He praised Nanette Burstein's American Teen, following a group of adolescents being themselves at an Indiana high school, as "the anti-Laguna Beach."
The weekend's offerings included a silent film with live music accompaniment (Underworld), an investigation into just what people around the world think of the United States (The Listening Project), a couple of squabbling Bigfoot hunters (Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie), a drama centering on a black man trying to get in touch with his heritage (White Lies, Black Sheep), a look at Harry Potter fanatics (We Are Wizards), a golden-age 3-D movie starring Rita Hayworth (Miss Sadie Thompson) and a short starring a curious mollusk (The Inquisitive Snail).
Like we said, something for almost anyone. Plus, the festival offers no prizes and is far enough removed from Hollywood and New York to be off the radar screens of the major studios. That left filmmakers free to simply show their films, chat at length with their audiences and sample the works of others.
"This is a really hospitable film festival," said Daniel Robin, whose short, My Olympic Summer, was part of the opening-night program. "I'm happy whenever my film is shown in front of somebody, and they get to ask questions."
"It's been unbelievable," said Dietz, the festival's founder and tireless advocate. "When we started [in 1999], the question was, could we do things, in our own way, that would make this one have its own personality. I think it very distinctly does."
The range of activity didn't end with the festival's official offerings. The Metro Gallery, across the street from the Charles, offered its own minifestival, Videopolis, featuring live performances from Protomen (specializing in music inspired by the Mega Man video game) and two days of experimental shorts and documentaries. Special-effects fan Ryan Graham was handing out packets of fake blood and hoping to get something started. Ticket buyers for Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, were handed insurance policies, guaranteeing their heirs $1,000 if they died of fright while watching the film.
And over at the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Brown center, local artist Billy Pappas displayed his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, an astoundingly detailed pencil drawing he spent 8 1/2 years producing. His quest to, as he puts it, "take realism, naturalism and set a new precedent," was detailed in Julie Checkoway's Waiting for Hockney. The film's audience members, who after the screening could take magnifying glass in hand and look at Pappas' Marilyn close-up (with an armed security guard standing by), came away impressed.
"From far away, it looks like a standard drawing," said Stephen Doolittle, a MICA grad student who lives in the city and saw the film. 'Close up, it's almost breathtaking. The details are amazing. There was a moment where I said, 'Oh, my God.'"