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MASTERS OF BALTIMORE EXTREME

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Waters, Barry Levinson and David Simon aren't just appearing on stage for the first time together for the Maryland Film Festival benefit on Nov. 14. They're also throwing their support behind the event in advance.

"I think we'll be good!" says Waters. "We won't be the Three Stooges, but we will be the Three Musketeers of extreme Baltimore behavior. ... I can make a movie about a Towson soccer mom who is a serial killer ["Serial Mom"], Barry can make a really moving movie about anti-Semitism in the Baltimore of his youth ["Liberty Heights"] and David can make the best TV shows ["The Corner," "The Wire"] since Pee-Wee Herman or Howdy Doody. But they're all at extreme ends of Baltimore behavior - and Baltimore has all these different extremes, that's what makes it so great. Often, friends or other filmmakers will come to Baltimore for the first time and say, 'Now I see your films are documentaries.' I think they could say that about all three of us."

Levinson says, "You have these three voices from Baltimore, and we're all very different. Outside of New York, I can't think of another town that has produced voices that are so disparate and so specific to that town. And there is a heritage connected to Baltimore. It doesn't always get recognized, because anything you do outside New York is considered outside the center of the universe and not to be taken as seriously or [is] taken as something of an oddity. But all three of us have connected with audiences and other directors because we've stayed so specific. I see that in the reaction to the documentary I just did, 'The Band That Wouldn't Die.' By the fact of staying connected to Baltimore, there is a very specific identity about what we do."

Waters says, "I don't think you could watch any of our movies and say we don't love Baltimore." Of course, there is a vocal contingent of Sun readers who thinks that "The Wire" has fixed the city in outsiders' minds as a dysfunctional and deteriorating metropolis. Simon is now at work on a new HBO series in New Orleans, "Treme," about the rebuilding of that city through the eyes of musicians, but Waters rises to his defense: "I so disagree. Everywhere I travel in the entire world, 'The Wire' is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence. This city should be incredibly proud of 'The Wire.' It's ridiculous to say 'The Wire' makes Baltimore look bad. Every major city has sides of it where the problems are, and David took them and turned it into a great novel on television. I think we should be proud of all those shows: 'Homicide' [which Levinson helped create], 'The Corner' and 'The Wire.' "

Simon adds, "I'm proud to appear in any collective that includes Barry Levinson and John Waters. These are the two fellows who established Baltimore as both a point of origin and a destination for filmmaking. More than that, these guys created and nurtured the city's film culture and film community for decades. Everything that comes after has its roots in 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Diner,' 'Hairspray' and 'Avalon.' "

By the time Waters makes his next point, he's already proved it: "Certainly we all like each other, which is not always true about a group of filmmakers who work a lot in one city."

The Maryland Film Festival is selling tickets for this native-son summit on Nov. 14. TCM's Elvis Mitchell will moderate at MICA's Brown Center. There will also be an auction of movie-related items. For $250, all-access pass-holders can attend dinner with the filmmakers and a dessert reception afterward, as well as receive assigned seats. Conversation-only tickets cost $150 and include a cash bar before the event, the conversation and auction, as well as a one-year membership in Friends of the Festival at the Presenter Level (usually $50). To purchase tickets or co-sponsor the event, call 410-752-8083. 'The Hustler' at the Charles: : Paul Newman won his only Oscar for best actor in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money," the 1986 sequel to Robert Rossen's 1961 masterpiece, "The Hustler." He ought to have won it for "The Hustler." Here, as Eddie Felson, Newman creates a portrait of the artist as a pool player. His pride in craft should make him a Hemingway hero. But he shows gracelessness under pressure in an epic match with Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and lets a Satanic gambler-manager named Bert (George C. Scott) get his hooks into him by calling him a born loser.

This black-and-white marvel of action and character helped Newman mint the image that he would refine and vary in later hits like "Hud" and "Cool Hand Luke." Neither of those other beautiful performances has the dimensions of his title character here. His hustler is part self-centered bastard and part magnetic underdog. And Eddie's drama of corruption and regeneration depicts what great art demands: qualities of character like patience and honesty, as well as talent and originality. The love of a sad lady named Sarah (Piper Laurie) nearly heals Eddie after Fats busts his ego and waterfront thugs break his thumbs. Unfortunately, he doesn't trust love any more than he does his own mental fiber.

Rossen intersperses the consummate pool matches - the rare sporting sequences that show men battling their demons as well as each other - with equally probing scenes of romance between two wounded people. Laurie's contribution to this movie is underrated: She evokes the hidden power of a wayward, self-destructive personality as superbly as Newman does conflicted emotions. And if Rossen's adaptation of Walter Tevis' novel takes the shape of a moral fable, it's not a sentimental one. There's no phony attempt at "closure" with characters like Eddie's tossed-away old manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick).

Sarah nurses Eddie back to health, but before long he falls under the spell of Scott's glittering-eyed Bert, who vows to reintroduce him to big-time pool. The rap on this movie has long been that its strength is in the poolrooms, not in the bus-station cafe and bar or the apartment and hotel room where Sarah and Eddie come together and apart. But see the movie fresh, and its two halves feel unbreakable. Rossen uses Eddie's games of pool to open up a man's soul, and Laurie's Sarah is the one who sees exactly what's at stake.

Her presence is as indelible as Scott's sinister yet somehow seductive Bert - and Gleason's graceful, enigmatic Fats. "The Hustler" takes Eddie Felson from despair to tragedy-tinged triumph. There's no Rocky finish. What Eddie shouts to Bert at the climax is a two-sided death threat: "You tell your boys they better kill me, Bert. They better go all the way with me. Because if they just bust me up, I'll put all those pieces back together, and so help me, so help me God, Bert ... I'm gonna come back here and I'm gonna kill you."

"The Hustler" screens at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St., at noon Saturday,7 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Thursday. Go to thecharles.com or call 410-727-FILM.

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