“THEY HAVE THAT SAYING ‘Keep Austin Weird’—and Austin’s great, but people move to Austin to be weird. It’s just something in the water here.”
This was comedian “Bobcat” Goldthwait, introducing his fifth film, Willow Creek, playing on the largest of Baltimore’s Charles Theatre’s five screens to an audience that included the city’s patron saint of indigenous strangeness, John Waters. And during the five-night, four-day Maryland Film Festival, ample weirdness was in evidence, in afterparties and on the screen.
Now in its fifteenth year, the MDFF has distinguished itself as a showcase for American independent films, and a place for those who make them, distribute them, screen them, and write about them to congregate. The festival’s inaugural event, in effect the first in a series of conversational panels throughout the long weekend, is a closed-door filmmakers’ conference bringing together guests for a free-for-all “State of the Art” powwow. The takeaway from the ongoing conversation in the panel tent was that DIY movies are, in many respects, easier than ever to make and make available outside of traditional corporate channels—and more difficult than ever to monetize. In this hopelessness lies a certain freedom. Do exactly as you like! Nobody’s getting money anyways! Shoot your movie!
Baltimore’s fest is as welcoming as its slate is challenging, and its motto, “Film for everyone,” is no put-on. Screenings were almost uniformly well attended by Baltimoreans from all walks of life, and on the stroll north along Charles Street from the Hotel Monaco (where all fest invitees were housed, and whose lobby hosted the nightly bacchanals) to the theater, it was not uncommon to be drawn into a conversation about the merits of, say, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, with a barista who had noticed one’s festival lanyard.
Willow Creek was the best among the smattering of genre movies, thanks to its appealing, funny leads (Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson); feeling for American obsessives; and a stand-up’s sense of timing, which gives shape to its centerpiece, a static single take lasting nearly twenty minutes. Goldthwait finds signs of life in the moribund found-footage horror template, while Gabriel DeLoach and Zach Keifer’s If We Shout Loud Enough, chronicling the life of punk trio Double Dagger, is an effective piece of boosterism for the arts renaissance in once-moribund Baltimore, featuring interviews with scene luminaries like Dan Deacon and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner.
Double Dagger are credited with resuscitating the local music scene after the city’s best-and-brightest had, per credited music historian Tim Kabara, “moved to cultural hubs like Williamsburg, to worship the Strokes.” The arts have since thrived in the last low-overhead city in the northeastern corridor, and an assertively prideful school of Baltimore filmmaking has concurrently reemerged. As one interviewee in Shout observes, supporting your local scene usually means sitting through a lot of crap bands—but I can report, as one with no ties to the place, that the contingent of Charm City cinema at this year’s fest was unusually strong. I Used to Be Darker, the latest from local Matt Porterfield (Putty Hill), is a naturalistic drama on the surface, but discreetly a lovelorn musical. There’s a vignette at an all-ages warehouse show—shot in the Copy Cat Building, a hub of local arts activity—that’s perfect in every tonal detail, and musicians Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor play a singer-songwriter couple strumming through their separation. Moving between their Baltimore homes are two cousins, both barely undergraduate age—their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross), and lissome Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Northern Irish, fugitive from her parent’s supervision, working for the summer in a Maryland beach town when she learns she’s pregnant and flees to her nearest relatives. Porterfield doesn’t aim for emotional resolution but rather dedicates himself to decisively capturing the ineffable atmospheric presence of little moments, and this precision gives his scenes the poignancy of memories that linger for reasons unknown: that warehouse show, a swimming pool on a sticky wine-drunk evening, a stolen kiss in an abandoned tram car, a couple’s hushed and furious spat on the lawn during a soft, rainy morning.
The star of the other Baltimore film of note, mythopoeic doc 12 O’Clock Boys, is an African-American teenager named Pug, a scrawny braggart who relishes and seizes the chance to perform his own legend before the camera. First-time filmmaker Lotfy Nathan manages, miraculously, to keep up with Pug while he attempts to join the ranks of the titular gang, outlaw dirt bike and ATV riders who engage in matador-like goad-and-retreat games with police cruisers. The “12 O’Clock Boys” are so named because the ultimate stunt on their hot-dogging pack rides is managing a wheelie that points a vehicle straight up and down, like the hands of a clock at noon. These moments of perfect equilibrium are drawn out into voluptuous reverie with dreamy slo-mo—this is what immortality looks like. Pug was filmed over three summers, aged thirteen to fifteen, zipping all through his Westside neighborhood. He scarcely seems to grow during this time, but much else goes on, as Pug learns to wrangle a bike twice his size, drives mother Coco to the corner bar, and sees his eldest brother set out in a coffin after an asthma attack, a premature death that must be laid at the feet of poverty. (Telling its own health-care horror story is Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s Remote Area Medical, shot during the weekend-long touchdown of a massive, volunteer-run free clinic at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Eastern Tennessee, where specimens of neglect queue up hopefully outside a shiny NASCAR coliseum with an unfathomable price tag.)
The festival has effectively piggybacked on the city’s new hip stature, fostering relationships with local musicians like Deacon and Animal Collective. MDFF director Jed Dietz, giving a guided tour of the abandoned Louis XIV circa 1915 Parkway Theater up the block from the Charles, which the festival had recently purchased from the city, envisioned Beach House live-scoring silent films there. After the Saturday night Darker screening, Oldham and band Old Calf performed across the street from the Charles; on Sunday morning, Boston’s three-piece Alloy Orchestra, longtime attendees, pounded out their score to the 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Creating the template for just about every rampaging monster movie to come, the film revived dinosaurs from extinction through influential stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien, later the mentor to Ray Harryhausen, who had died the week before, and to whom the screening made an inadvertent but touching tribute.
Who can say if the Baltimorean renaissance will continue for one thousand years, or if it’s already in its Indian summer? Eliza Hittman’s feature debut It Felt Like Love takes place in Brooklyn, still the lodestar of cool, but this is the Brooklyn disdained by the New York Times Styles section. When we first meet Lila (Gina Piersanti), Love’s protagonist, on the beach, she looks like a mime, her face painted with sunscreen—the image is recalled in the film’s conclusion, when the hip-hop dance classes we’ve seen Lila gracelessly shuffling through pay off in a recital, her wearing a blank Eyes Without a Face mask. A virginal brown mouse with a pout of a mouth who lives with her father in Gravesend, Lila spends her summer at the bus-convenient waterfront, sullenly trailing her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), watching boyfriends float in and out of Chiara’s arms. (This is their relationship dynamic—Chiara needs an audience; Lila any female role model.) Approximating its protagonist’s eavesdropping perspective, Love is a film of curious, furtive, longing close-ups, while the circuitous rhyming of images proves that there’s nothing haphazard about Hittman’s approach. Chronicling Lila’s cruel sentimental education, Hittman shows an acute sense of crawly, mortifying humor—though never squelches sympathy for a laugh.
A native of the same South Brooklyn territory as Lila, Hittman has created interludes among the wild reeds and tide pools that have the feeling of a guided tour. And here is what unites the best of MDFF, from Hittman’s urban-rustic New York to Porterfield’s humid summertime Maryland to, yes, Willis O’Brien’s handcrafted dinosaurs. It’s a celebration of the personal, the private, the obsessive—the ethos being that for film to be for everyone, it must first be for someone.
The fifteenth Maryland Film Festival ran May 8–12, 2013.