Homeward Bound

Nick Pinkerton on the 16th Maryland Film Festival

Andrew T. Betzer, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, 2014, Super 16, color, sound, 102 minutes.

IN ITS SIXTEEN YEARS OF EXISTENCE, the Maryland Film Festival has become something of a destination festival for independent filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors—though this year, the destination was itself couch-surfing. For the first time, the MDFF was proceeding without its traditional base, the Charles Theatre, whose five theaters provided the vast majority of the festival’s screens. The show has gone on, but with screenings scattered amid seven different venues, many of them converted classrooms belonging to the University of Baltimore or the Maryland Institute College of Art. In every case, the new venues weren’t an improvement over the Charles. The change was prompted not by expansion, but by bad blood between theater management and the MDFF, almost certainly to do with the festival’s purchase of the c. 1915 Parkway Theater building around the corner from the Charles, which they are planning to renovate into the fest headquarters and a year-round multipurpose venue—that is, competition. (The completion of this project would still appear to be some years off.) Such short-sighted territorial pissings are all too common in the film world, where decisions are made with the jealous presumption of a finite and ever-shrinking audience, rather than with an eye toward expansion, cooperation, and outreach.

The Charles was sorely missed in some cases—shortly after the third amateur hour foul-up in the projection booth, I joined a flotilla of defectors from a 35-mm screening of Liquid Sky (1982). In others, despite technical limitations or the slapdash quality of the setup, the screenings gained something from their setting. For example, my enjoyment of Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s Art and Craft, a documentary about the gifted art forger and serial philanthropist Mark Landis, who has been gifting fake masterpieces to institutions for years, probably gained something from the fact that I saw it at the Walters Art Museum. Landis, who lives alone in Laurel, Mississippi, is a compelling subject, a bent, gray little bat-eared Egon Schiele sketch of a man whose slow, pharmaceutical drawl hides a droll sense of humor. Following on Landis’s trail, Art and Craft gives a glimpse into the workings of America’s small-to-medium-sized cultural institutions before narrowing its focus to their self-appointed avenging angel, ex-museum bursar Matthew Leininger. An OCD personality in his own right, Leininger has a one-sided “relationship” with Landis, having tracked his movements for years—and their built-up confrontation is as satisfying an anticlimax as any I’ve seen in years.

Art and Craft was picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope ahead of its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, though such stories are the exceptions that prove the rule of a rather grim state of affairs for American indies. It’s appalling that two of the most consummately professional narrative features that I saw at MDFF, David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries are, at the time of this writing, still without US distribution. (New York audiences will be able to see both films in a theater, as well as much of the MDFF bill-of-fare, as part of June’s BAMcinemaFest.)

Kumiko looks at what happens when a woman takes her devotion to a fantastic idea of the world, at first a shelter from an unendurable reality, to its furthest extreme. Appropriately, the material has its basis in a modern folk story. In 2003, the body of Takako Konishi, a Japanese office worker, was discovered in a field in rural Minnesota. Her death was a run-of-the-mill lovelorn suicide, but papers seized on the story that Konishi was on a search for the buried suitcase full of money seen in the movie Fargo—which begins with the legend “This is a True Story”—and the Internet perpetuated this misinformation. Rinko Kikuchi stars as “Kumiko,” the put-upon Tokyo office girl who’s disdained by co-workers and a disappointment to her mother. Kumiko needs secrets to preserve her fragile sense of self, and so convinces herself that she is a modern conquistador destined to find untold treasure in the New World. Heading for the wintery wastes of the American North, where Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are part of the everyday scenery, Kumiko passes through a series of roadside encounters, including one with a rural sheriff (Zellner himself), everyone she meets a paragon of well-meaning but clueless politeness. (The film could be taken as a feature-length rejoinder to the “Mike Yanagita” scene in the Coens’ Fargo, and it features a bunny rabbit who rivals Llewyn Davis’s cat as a supporting player.) Scene to scene the film keeps Kumiko’s inner life lucidly before you, and any movie that gets in a joke about the ubiquity of James Clavell’s doorstop bestseller Shogun in middle-American homes of a certain vintage is all right in my book.

MDFF’s big crowd-pleaser was Wild Canaries, a neo-screwball bauble concerning a couple (writer/ director Levine and his wife/collaborator Sophia Takal) who look into strange goings-on in their Brooklyn triple-decker and become embroiled in a convoluted murder mystery, their investigation further complicated by a four-way romantic tangle involving his ex- (Eleonore Hendricks) and their lesbian roommate (Alia Shawkat). Levine’s film owes an obvious debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but it boasts considerably better timing and more worked-out set-pieces than any Allen comedy in the past decade.

Given that Wild Canaries keeps its leads acidly bickering through much of its runtime and Kumiko concerns a subject in the grips of suicidal delusion, maybe my definition of “crowd-pleaser” is a little off from the norm. Nevertheless, the question remains: If a thoroughly professional, buoyantly-paced movie like Wild Canaries can’t catch a break, what hope is there for some of the really hard-sell fare out there? In this category I’m including certain scattered MDFF films which include individually fascinating fragments, like Andrew T. Betzer’s Young Bodies Heal Quickly, a rough triptych involving a young man and adolescent sidekick (Gabriel Croft and Hale Lytle) who go on the lam after an accidental homicide, a film in a state of perpetual transmogrification, consistently frustrating but impossible to discount, for there’s always a gorgeous digression lurking just around the corner.

Scott Cummings, Buffalo Juggalos, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 30 minutes.

The film-as-journey template was much in evidence at MDFF, with Young Bodies…, Kumiko, and Buzzard, Joel Potrykus’s follow-up to his 2012 Ape, in which the writer-director appears opposite Ape star Joshua Burge. Burge plays Marty Jackitansky, a wiseacre metalhead who augments his cubicle gig income with petty scams, his shameless audacity a combination of naiveté and sheer ballsy contempt. The interplay between Potrykus and Burge could be more sharply-written but, as with Kumiko and Wild Canaries, it’s heartening to see a filmmaker thinking about comedy cinematically, devising actual honest-to-God gags. (The most memorable involves a treadmill and Bugles snacks being used to create a kind of live-action Asteroids game.)

Buzzard ceases to try for laughs when Marty dangerously overreaches with his scheming, and is forced to flee his workaday life. Shot in Potrykus’s home state of Michigan, the film follows its protagonist’s descent from white-collar hell into the lower depths of Rust Belt street life—while Scott Cummings’s half-hour short Buffalo Juggalos, shot in similarly economically depredated Upstate New York, explores a youth culture that makes desolation into a kind of blank canvas. In a series of tableaux, Cummings takes the portraits of young men and women in pancake makeup and the costume of the Juggalos, who live their lives inside the mythology created by the crap-rap duo Insane Clown Posse. The Juggalo is an alluring subject, for they remain a resolutely separate subculture in a pop culture that is increasingly melting pot. They listen to literally the worst music imaginable, and their aesthetic could be described as blacklight puke, but they have a certain ingenuity born of poverty. You can’t exploit the Juggalos as a sideshow, because they preemptively style themselves as freaks—a point that Buffalo Juggalos, participating in its subjects’ role-play, absolutely gets. Another short of note, far less sinister in character, was Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, illustrating a Brooklyn record store owner’s story of trying to get a hung-over young woman out of his apartment on the day after a party, the part played with sad-eyed, affable incredulity by Defa’s former roommate, Bene Coopersmith, whose presence anchors this perfect, pocket-sized comic character study in harassed decency.

While the goals and degrees of success vary, the unifying feature of the MDFF films may be the close-to-home touch. Like many film festivals, MDFF exists in a sort of bathysphere, immune to the impersonal economic exigencies of The Biz, if not from economics themselves. (See for example the festival’s tussle with the Charles, or the fact that independent filmmaking remains largely a luxury pastime.) Still, the idea of American movies presented at MDFF is a fantasy at odds with The Way Things Are—like the Dark Carnival that the Juggalos reimagine Buffalo as, or Kumiko’s world of buried treasure. It is foolhardy, as independent moviemaking has even been, and this gives it a sort of grandeur.

The sixteenth Maryland Film Festival ran May 7–11.