Maryland Film Festival – Four Nights in Movie Gomorrah

I never got to bed earlier than 3 AM over the four-day span of the Maryland Film Festival (MFF).  Even so, I only saw nine shorts and five features out of the forty-plus features and seventy or so shorts offered.

But the MFF is about way more than screening films. It’s about living, for a few days anyway, in an alternate universe where everyone you meet is making a film, acting in a film, planning a film, or simply an enthusiastic, card-carrying cinephile.  The festival brings together a crazy creative sub-set of Station Northiness, indie cinema, barhopping, the arts and tech communities, restaurant action, social networking, and a sense of a subculture reunion that is both local and worldly. It is a super-great event for Baltimore, and once again we heap praise and thanks on Jed, Eric, Scott, Rahne, Angie, Skizz, Megan, Mika, and all of the other incredible staff and volunteers that work their butts off all year to make this happen.

There’s no way I can write about all the films, but I can offer a view from where I sat on the merry-go-round.  I attend the festival both as film-lover and filmmaker.  Since I am in post-production on my feature Rows I have a real interest in seeing what other indie filmmakers are doing and how they are doing it. Of particular interest to me is the loosely knit group of New York-ish filmmakers that might be inadequately labeled as an outgrowth of the so-called Mumblecore school.

While there is no formal entity to put a label on here, this de-facto collective of filmmakers includes actors that direct, and directors that act, editors that shoot, cinematographers that act, actors that produce, and so on, and one can define the group by the over-lapping credits on their large body of mostly micro-budget DSLR work in features and shorts.  Together they could start a studio–a neo-United Artists, say, but that sounds a bit too corporate!

This group was represented in no fewer than seven feature films (plus some shorts) screened at the 14th MFF–something like 17% of the features screened. Some of the multiple-hat wearing names include Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil, Amy Seimetz, David Lowry, Ti West, Sophia Takal, Adam Wingard, Kris Swanberg, and others that have been represented in this or past Maryland Film Festivals (and in Hollywood) like Robert Longstreet , Alison Bagnall, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalski, and Aaron Katz.

Ninety-nine Per-center Cinema? I won’t deign to assign a new label to this group, but together with their millennial cohorts across America (and the world) they represent a kind of next-wave aesthetic that stands in contradistinction to Hollywood’s present mega-movie conglomerate-ized advertising synergetic CGI orgy of spectacular, innovation-free popcorn cinema.  Are we in the midst of a movement?  Ask Andrew O’Hehir, writer, editor,’s film voice, and this year’s Opening Night Shorts host.  Thursday night Andrew said we may look back twenty years from now and see a new cinema “golden age.” I think so, too.

Here’s a sampling of films and encounters I had during the marathon sleepless weekend:

The Opening Night Shorts displayed dazzling passion. Director Cutter Hodierne moved to Africa to shoot a fictional Somalian Pirates movie (in neighboring Kenya) with a stunning cast comprised of locally drafted non-actors. Fishing Without Nets wins the award for getting the most prop automatic weapons past Kenyan police officials.   Robert Longstreet kills in Cork’s Cattlebaron.  The Kook re-opens the Heaven’s Gate cult: so funny it’s kinda scary how true it is.

Zach Weintraub’s feature The International Sign for Choking is a carefully observed work of minimalist romantic obsession and emotional self-destruction, notable for its controlled pictorial qualities and excellent existing-light cinematography by Nandan Rao.  Choking makes for a stark stylistic contrast to Sun Don’t Shine, Amy Seimetz’s Badlands-esque detour with inept lover-killers played by Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley.  These terrific actors make the stupidity of the characters’ behavior hilarious and poignant, and the utter futility of their actions endearing.  As with a number of the films screened, this viewer at times experienced hand-held camera fatigue.

The MFF’s great tradition of showing vintage films (A 3-D, a silent, a John Water’s pick) was augmented this year with a package of balloon-themed shorts offered by Josh and Benny Safdie.  Their new short, “The Black Balloon,” seemed a brash and uncomfortable fit with the film it pays homage to, the 1956 French Classic, The Red Balloon. Seeing this excellent print of The Red Balloon was, dare I say it, magical. Sadly, my schedule did not allow for screening my favorite, the WTF Shorts program.  My other regret was missing Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America. Goldthwait was a genial presence at the fest, and hung around an extra day to soak in the films and the vibes.

As the big crowd emptied the auditorium at MICA following the Baltimore–based film Luv, directed by Sheldon Candis, a new line was forming for the late–night screening of V/H/S. This horror omnibus, hosted by Joe Swanberg, was a blast.  The various directors, including must-watch-for triumvirate Radio Silence, offered up innovative, resourceful, drop-dead funny shockers that, though rendered in the “found footage” manner, managed to avoid any sense of horror clichés.  This is the best thing since sliced and diced bread. While comparisons were made to the 80’s Creepshow and Spirits of the Dead from 1968, I found the DNA locus of this form in the indelible Dead of Night from 1945.

Speaking of horror, the other film that kept me (and late-night screening pal, David Troy) up till 3 AM was Lovely Molly, from Maryland native Ed Sanchez. Excellent craft, and excellent performances from Gretchen Lodge, Alexandra Holden, and Johnny Lewis make Molly a must-see for genre fans and the non-squeamish.  (Note: Lauren Lakis’s supporting role was reduced to a cameo, but you will get to see plenty of her superb work in Rows!) Lovely Molly presents a real challenge for a genre film–it is a story that is in a sense without a protagonist. The thriller pays like a drama at times, and deals with some subject matter that makes for a difficult marriage with the horror genre. It will be interesting to see how audiences handle this intricately layered, somewhat counter-intuitive piece of gothic cinema. It must be said that on screen, and in person, Gretchen Lodge is an intelligent, mercurial, physically striking, and unique character.  Her tattoo reads, “”if not now, when?” She kind of kicks the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s ass. Lovely Molly opens May 18 at the Cinemark Egyptian 24, Arundel Mills.

Kudos to the MFF for selecting and winning Dark Horse as the closing night film. Director Todd Solondz generously and hilariously spoke about his new film, the “saddest of his comedies.” (Anecdote: When corporate giant Toys R Us refused permission for shooting in an American store, Solondz took a unit to the Dominican Republic to double the toy store interior.) “Dark horse” is an apt metaphor for the film’s protagonist and for the filmmaker’s work, in that it offers a rare counterpoint view of a dystopian America that few filmmakers can directly confront with such sublime humor and unflinching gaze (perhaps Jody Hill is another filmmaker with the vision to do so).  It’s also a dark horse in the race to win eyeballs in a movie world dominated by the likes of The Avengers. But hey, it was never intended for a four-quadrant audience, just a discerning one.

I lingered at the closing night party, sitting with Ann Haddad, Chris Reed, Rachel Younghans, and Rob Brulinski, re-capping Dark Horse and the festival experience (and having another run-in with hardcore MFFers Barbara Wilgus and Nancy Murray!) It was kind of sad to come to the end of a four-night binge, knowing I had to get up early the next morning, but it was Loads of Fun. I am happy to report that the Maryland Film Festival has its heart, and priorities, in just the right place to promote the art of cinema, and the brand of Baltimore in the arts.