Festivals: Maryland & Little Rock
On a gorgeous Friday night in May, on a former railway bridge lit up in neon that overlooks the Arkansas River, the cultural cognoscenti of Little Rock scarfed hot dogs alongside a New York gang leader, a Middle Eastern revolutionary, a Texas goat farmer, and a small army of filmmakers. It was the night after everyone tore into crawfish at a country-punk hootenanny, the night before a dance party in a functioning light-bulb factory, and two nights before a boozy cruise on a riverboat, where any remaining lines between artists and programmers, volunteers and trustees of the Little Rock Film Festival disappeared amid Beyoncé sing-alongs. In between there were films—many very good films—that fueled conversations at those parties, as well as in lobbies and taverns on and around West Markham Street.
Good films, free beer, elevated discourse, and small town resourcefulness—all were in abundance in Little Rock, as they are in regional festivals throughout North America. They certainly were the week prior at the larger Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, which set up its own self-contained “tent village” within which filmmakers, critics, and pass holders could commune and consume. These two fests are successive stops on the film festival circuit, tucked between April opportunities in Tribeca, Sarasota, and San Francisco, and June ones in Seattle, D.C., and Brooklyn—among still others. All have staked out spots on the calendar, and the good lord and Stella Artois know that good times are to be had on those dates, but to what greater gain? When a film festival has few premieres to offer, no marketplace for the showcasing, selling, or funding of films, and little-to-no national profile, what, beyond filmmakers’ egos and local pride, could possibly be at stake?
Quite a lot, it turns out. While it would be misleading to earnestly equate two vastly different worlds, the adage that “all politics is local” does have resonance within independent film culture, perhaps now more than ever.
With Sundance no longer the feeding frenzy it once was, acquisitions have migrated deeper into the festival calendar. More films have to prove themselves on the spring and summer festival circuit, hoping to gain positive notices, especially from trade publications that overlooked them at previous stops. Furthermore, these festivals grant these films what may be their only screenings in an actual movie theater, as exhibition models continue to move away from theatrical to online platforms. And even if a theatrical release comes to fruition, these festival screenings are likely to provide the largest, and most responsive, audiences they’ll ever have. So it’s not just another screening in another town: with such limited theatrical options, every showing is precious and meaningful.
Meanwhile, as this year’s Maryland and Little Rock film festivals demonstrated, one extended, film-focused spring weekend can do more than temporarily stimulate local spending—it can help shape the geography, and even the architecture, of a city. Which in turn, or at least ideally, tills the terrain for locally grown film culture.
Ne Me Quitte Pas
In May, the Little Rock Film Festival celebrated its eighth year by moving into a brand-new screening and event space, The Ron Robinson Theater. This 315-seat, DCI-compliant and Dolby 7.1-equipped venue was built to be the flagship of the Central Arkansas Library System’s main campus, but also to host the annual film festival as well as film screenings year-round courtesy of festival founders/directors Brent and Craig Renaud—two local boys (and globe-trotting, award-winning filmmakers) who’ve grown a transient weekend event into something fixed and physically grounded. The theater wasn’t always brim-full during the festival, but every attendee now knows exactly where to come next May and in the intervening months for singular cinema like Ne Me Quitte Pas, the Samuel Beckett-meets-Jackass tragicomedy that took home the Jury Prize for Cinematic Non-Fiction. The ascent of high-profile small-town festival True/False was unthinkable without its hip hub, the Ragtag Cinema, and now Little Rock has one of its own to build upon.
That’s the idea behind an ambitious, if risky, initiative by the Maryland Film Festival, which has parted ways with the premier art-house of Baltimore, the Charles Theater, to establish a place of its own. Last fall, the festival announced that it would be restoring the Parkway Theater, a once-majestic but long-abandoned and bedraggled old movie-house on the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. The restoration is part of the city’s larger initiative to jumpstart the Station North Arts & Entertainment District, an area that contains upstart galleries, theaters, and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), as well as a legion of shuttered storefronts. Though it’s going to be several years before the Parkway is shipshape—the plan is to be operational for MIFF 2017—the festival deepened its roots in the district with this year’s event, setting up its tent village two blocks over from the Parkway, and further afield from the Charles, which, according to various accounts, dissociated from the festival in less-than-friendly terms.
For MIFF, the challenge facing this year’s edition (and at least two more to come) is to maintain a coherent identity as well as an air of eventfulness without a true home base. After 16 years on the scene, it’s likely that the festival will be able to survive the instability for a few years, but it might take some more ingenuity than what was on display this time around. Venues were spread out just a little too far for migrating between screenings, and varied in quality from a handsome and spacious university auditorium to a no-frills lecture room dominated by conference tables (jerry-rigged spaces can contribute to the charm of a festival, but there’s little charm to a nondescript classroom). Such diffusion made the tent village, with its locally provided footstalls and charming outdoor space for discussion panels (I participated in a talk that, thanks to a sudden thunderstorm, felt like the denouement of White Squall), a crucial gathering place. After hours, the Lord Baltimore Hotel, which housed most of the guests of the fest and stands far from the Station North district, became the de facto social center.
Young Bodies Heal Quickly
Conditions and logistics may not have been ideal, but MIFF certainly made the best of it in terms of programming. Between formally daring documentaries like Actress, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, and Approaching the Elephant (all of which debuted at True/False), and whatsit fiction narratives like Buzzard, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the festival stumped heartily on behalf of true American indies. Two of the best films I saw over the weekend worked at diametrically opposite ends of the formal spectrum, underscoring just how ludicrous it is to hang today’s new waves onto any kind of peg.
Forget pegs, categories, or even genres—Andrew T. Betzer’s Young Bodies Heal Quickly seems to be figuring itself out as it goes. I say seems because it’s all by design, matching the journey of two directionless young boys on the lam with a narrative that hurtles heedlessly forward. At times the film comes across as fable, particularly when the boys bunk up with their estranged and reclusive father for lessons in manhood, and throughout there’s a feel of unreality, of performers playing out these scenarios rather than emerging from them (actors Gabriel Croft and Hale Lytle are identified only as “Older” and “Younger” in the credits). But given the fact that masculinity is both the subject and material reality of the film—Croft gives and takes a beating from first frame to last, while Lytle, the prototypical baby brother, scrambles and mimics and mopes in his wake—the acting out of roles is precisely the point. Such is underscored during an extended final sequence set within a Vietnam War reenactment, where impulses of aggression are given an outlet without any sense of parameters. And neither does Betzer offer us one, instead leaving us to wonder where and how any of it ever ends.
Fresh from its premiere at SXSW, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries sets a Keystone Kops comedy within a millennial relationship meltdown, fluidly toggling between spit-takes and door slams. While Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is an overt touchstone (a squabbling New York couple get embroiled in what may or may not be a criminal situation involving a deceased neighbor), I was also reminded of the broadly smart larks of Andrew Bergman, in which lightly comedic conceits are repositories for morally muddy human behavior. In addition to proving adept at constructing and choreographing scenes that function as both farce and suspense, Levine proves to be a first-rate comedian, mugging for laughs without seeming vain or desperate for them, and expertly exploiting the Allen/Brooks/Arkin sweet spot where relatable and risible, schemer and put-upon overlap. That such an accessible, classically conceived film should struggle to find distribution says more about the criminally skittish indie industry than it does about the film’s appeal. Audiences ate it up in Baltimore, as doubtless they did The In-Laws and Lost in America decades hence. The difference is that now festivals like MIFF present the best, if not the only, way for big screen-worthy films to be seen.
The following weekend in Little Rock I saw similarly accessible films likewise marooned by the industry’s current mealymouthedness. Nifty Texas noir Two Step gets us acclimated to its community of fully realized and differentiated characters before letting blood flow or bullets fly—which is another way of saying that writer/director Alex R. Johnson dares honor the bygone art of cinematic storytelling. It’s a film in which costs—human, financial, moral—are always fully counted and felt. Anything goes once a depressed college student, a Sontag-haired barfly beauty, and a rangy ex-con scammer drift into the same deadly orbit, but we know exactly how they got there, and what they all stand to lose.
Thematically conversant with Young Bodies Heal Quickly but steeped in a very different culture, Five Star tracks a young man’s path-finding in a Bedford-Stuyvesant gang. Starved for male guidance after the death of the father he barely knew, John (John Diaz) comes under the wing of Primo (James Grant), a charismatic gang leader who navigates seamlessly between skull-crushing vengeance and parental tenderness. As with previous feature Welcome to Pine Hill, writer-director Keith Miller not only enlisted nonprofessional actors from the region in which the film was set and shot, but collaborated on conceiving a story that would be evocative of their experiences. Miller’s project may be worthy, but it also makes for good movies. Grant is such a natural in front of the camera that Miller gives him an extended, single-take, cold-opening monologue about prison, parenthood, and regret (all of it autobiographical, according to the actor)—the kind of scene that only a star can pull off.
Grant discussed his checkered past after a screening at the Rep Theater, a handsome double-balconied theater/music venue up Main Street. He marveled at the unlikelihood of his path leading to an art-house crowd in Arkansas, but in truth a film like Five Star belongs here as much as it belongs anywhere. Fifteen yards from the Rep sits R.A.O. Video, an anachronistically cavernous video rental shop with an enviable collection of movies, TV shows, and porn on DVD and, yes, VHS cassettes. No one in R.A.O. seemed to know or care that a world-class film festival was going on next door, but neither had they received the message that only teenage boys watch movies anymore, or that any movie unattached to a superhero or sequel might as well not exist at all. If you took out a U.S. map and pointed to where a giant video store, replete with cheeky subcategories for Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, and “the Baldwin Brothers,” might still thrive in 2014 (as it has since 1977), it’s unlikely your fingers would stray beyond the coasts.
Stop the Pounding Heart
Nor would you pick the Little Rock Film Festival as the likeliest home for documentarian Robert Greene’s Cinematic Non-Fiction sidebar, which included “challenging” fare like Spray & Velez’s Manakamana and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart. Assumptions about what kinds of films play best where get subverted awfully quickly when you actually watch a movie in communities like Little Rock or Columbia, Missouri, and see people engage enthusiastically with works of formal experimentation and moral ambiguity. Or when you witness actor-subjects Sara and Tim Carlson serving as flawless ambassadors for Stop the Pounding Heart, a film that creates a moody, alien-eyed fiction out of their day-to-day lives as devout Christians on a Texas farm. They’re happy to distinguish between what’s documentary and what Minervini exaggerated or concocted, but only by way of illuminating a work of art they respect and seem to adore. Throughout the weekend Tim and Sara could be seen attending films you might not expect them to care for, but like everyone else in attendance, as well as those visiting from near and far, they were clearly up for it.
Few movies have challenged the notion that unconventional art belongs only in rarified air as boisterously as Living Stars, another Cinematic Non-Fiction entry. Either the year’s most accessible experimental movie or its most avant-garde viral video, Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s 63-minute charmer is comprised entirely of Argentines dancing to popular songs in their homes and places of work. In April, at the Hot Docs Film Festival, I watched a multiplex audience largely comprised of retirement age Torontonians go apeshit for the thing, a scene that I then saw replicated in Little Rock at Stickyz, an aptly named low-lit BBQ bar populated by hipsters and filmmakers. Outside of Chaplin shorts and maybe The Muppet Movie, I’ve never seen a motion picture elicit such a joyful response.
The film might be impossible to distribute due to licensing costs (Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Katy Perry are all excerpted, not to mention Right Said Fred, the Spice Girls, and Lionel Richie), but it’s all too easy to imagine distributors taking a pass anyway. What is it? What’s the model? And who’s the audience? In brief: it’s a movie that, when given the chance, many people enjoy. That fewer people have seen a film like Living Stars than would, could, or should have seen it isn’t a problem with audiences—it’s a problem with the business. Until the business gets its problems sorted out, festivals like Little Rock and Maryland are far from being self-contained blips on the film fest calendar. They’re absolutely, utterly essential to film culture. And they respect films, filmmakers and audiences far better than pretty much any theatrical release platform currently in play.