The Heart of Maryland

Nick Pinkerton on the 19th Maryland Film Festival

Stephen Cone, Princess Cyd, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes.

WALKING OUT OF BALTIMORE’S NEWLY RESTORED PARKWAY THEATER, I was in a daze after having watched a 35-mm print of Agnès Varda’s magnificent Vagabond (1985)—the first time analog film had been shown in the building in more than forty years. I then stumbled into a neighboring McDonald’s and queued up behind a slim older gentleman clad in head-to-toe Comme des Garçons who just happened to be the director of Pink Flamingos (1972). It is on the occasion of such pure strikes of Stendhal syndrome that having devoted one’s life to cinema seems like a not entirely worthless undertaking.

I had been twice before to the Maryland Film Festival, which over the course of its nineteen years has become something of a beacon to American independent filmmakers, particularly those based on the eastern seaboard. For those lay moviegoers not inclined to brave the tribulations of Sundance or the unendurable spiritual degradation that is South by Southwest, Maryland—that’s MdFF for short—offers, across five days, an actually curated slate that contains most of what you’d actually want to have seen at those other festivals in the first place.

Consequently, MdFF doesn’t place much priority on premieres, though there are usually a few. This year, for example, there was Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd and, of lasting material benefit to the festival, the Parkway complex—officially the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, named for the Athens-based philanthropic organization that donated a cool $5 million to the restoration of the circa 1915 cinema.

Located on the corner of North Charles and North Avenue in what has been branded the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the Parkway was a showpiece cinema based on a Coventry Street theater in London and opened by Baltimore impresario Henry Webb in the year of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In later years—from 1956 to 1978 it was the Five West Art Theatre—the building followed a familiar trajectory for downtown cinemas in the years of white flight, going from art house to porno theater to crumbling ruin, in this case adding in a tenure as a Korean grocery, for good measure. When I received a tour of the Parkway’s auditorium shortly after MdFF had bought the building from the city for a purely nugatory fee, it looked like a ruined husk that you’d expect to have been burned down under suspect circumstances years ago. Now it’s open for yearlong programming, both repertory and first-run, with two smaller, purpose-built cinemas supplementing the four-hundred-plus seat big house, which has been brought back, balcony and all, by architect Steve Ziger with no attempt to erase the years of wear and tear: The top of the proscenium arch remains broken, and most of the oval panels on the walls are still vacant, only two bearing faded Rococo revival pastoral scenes. The sightlines are good, the aisles broad, and the achieved ramshackle effect is not altogether unlike that obtained by the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I pronounce it altogether a very satisfying place to watch a film, and yet another hopeful indication of the appearance of a viable new theatrical model after a dispiriting couple of decades.

Of course some Baltimoreans may harbor fears that their city might someday turn into Brooklyn—nobody wants that, including most Brooklynites—and such a prominent addition to the neighborhood was bound to draw scrutiny, hence an article in last week’s City Paper that allowed various long-term residents to voice concerns about the Parkway’s impact on the community’s ecosystem. And analyzing the demographic engineering of Charm City, with its racially rigged history, also happens to be the subject matter of the most prominent Baltimorean film, which played MdFF after appearances at Locarno, True/ False, and Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real: Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016).

Theo Anthony, Rat Film, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

A kind of trash-can city symphony, Baltimore-based Anthony’s film keeps hold of several disparate threads that relate to his hometown’s rat population and various attempts to curb it, but that also—both obliquely and then overtly—touch on the deliberate segregation of the city through both government and private interference, which created pockets of endemic poverty that have been left to fester for a century and more. Anthony moves briskly between contemporary footage of Baltimore’s professional and amateur rat catchers; dissertations on several historical efforts in pest control by researchers at Johns Hopkins University as dispassionately described by automaton narrator Maureen Jones; and analog and digital maps of Baltimore, drawing parallels between human behavior and that of the cornered Norway rat. (Shades of Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amérique [1980] here.) The metaphor gets a little snarled, the utopian-apocalyptic conclusion worked for me not at all, and a digression into Frances Lee’s crime dioramas seems like an instance of the director—also acting as his own cinematographer and editor—being unable to kill his darlings. But for at least several sustained passages the fleetness of the cross connections made was enough to convince me that I was dealing with an exciting young filmmaker with a deft, limber mind and a style to match.

The best movie I saw at MdFF, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Vagabond, which upon review seems easily one of the greatest films of the 1980s—funny and unsentimental and unfathomably sad. Watching the conclusion, in which Sandrine Bonnaire’s exhausted drifter sinks down in a vineyard ditch and gives up the ghost, there to die of exposure as already preordained by the film’s Citizen Kane–esque inquest-and-flashback structure, I thought of some lines from François Mauriac’s 1923 novel Génitrix which have always troubled me: “There was no tear-stained face for her to leave behind, nothing to mark for her this slipping into the shadows. She died quietly, as those who are unloved.”

No less tough, if lacking Vagabond’s occasional leavening cloud breaks, is Werewolf (2016), the feature debut of Ashley McKenzie shot in the director’s hometown of Cape Breton in the northeast reaches of Nova Scotia, a scenic summer destination which also enjoys Canada’s highest unemployment rate and an out-of-control opiate epidemic. Andrew Gillis and Breagh MacNeil, two of the most translucently pale Caucasians I’ve ever seen, costar as ex-addicts whose tab at the methadone clinic is hardly covered by their door-to-door lawn-mowing service. The movie is distinguished by McKenzie’s almost monomaniacal head-down focus on minutiae, her attempt to tell a story through a collection of process-based sequences—the daily routine at the clinic gradually gives way to the MacNeil character’s job at a soft-serve ice-cream place, broken down into the component parts of a crap job, with the rumble of hand-grinding Oreo cookie bits taking on a particularly ominous quality.

Nathan Silver has tended toward a nerve-jangling, vérité-informed style in his previous improv-based productions, which have appeared with unnerving regularity since 2012’s Exit Elena, but Thirst Street (2017), which arrived at MdFF after a Tribeca premiere, is an animal that looks and moves rather differently, shot in anamorphic widescreen and splashed in theatrical gels. Lindsay Burdge, who recently appeared as Lindsay Burdge in Silver’s Actor Matrinez (2016), here plays a flight attendant who begins to recover from the emotional devastation of her lover’s suicide only when she finds a new preoccupation, a skeevy strip-club bartender played by Damien Bonnard. She clings to him, barnacle-like, in the aftermath of a one-night stand, dropping everything to take a job at the club (presided over by the director Jacques Nolot, in a hysterical cartoon of Gallic contempt) and an apartment across the way from that of her beloved. The premise, stretched nearly to the point of snapping, owes something to François Truffaut’s Antoine et Colette (1962), while the stained-glass and neon palette reflects cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s stint on a Locarno jury with director Dario Argento. Now would be as good a time as any to confess a friendly acquaintance with the involved talent here, as well as feeling a powerful ambivalence toward every new film of Silver’s. And I think this is the desired effect: With the willfully lurid suicide scene, the intrusion of Anjelica Huston’s case-study narration, and, above all, the spacey opacity of Burdge’s performance, which has more than a touch of Julie Hagerty to it, Thirst Street rejects every entry to empathy, a real pebble-in-the-sock agitation.

Nathan Silver, Thirst Street, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 83 minutes.

If Silver’s worldview might best be described as comic-grotesque, Cone’s is generous to a fault. When Princess Cyd comes to a scene of violent confrontation, Cone lingers only long enough to show a few frames of hands on a throat, and in a way his aversion to high-pitched conflict is as radical as Silver’s compulsion to goad, irritate, frustrate, and confound. Cone’s latest is set in the leafy suburbs of his adopted hometown of Chicago and concerns an extended visit by sixteen-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick, excellent) to her novelist aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). during which Cyd develops a growing interest in Miranda’s circle of friends—mostly middle-class Christian humanists with various connections to the arts—and explores her budding sexuality with both girls and boys, and gingerly prods at the old wound of her mother’s death. It’s a movie I felt tenderly toward even as I couldn’t help but wish Cone was willing to draw a little blood, but then maybe he wouldn’t be himself if he did. It is for the presence of real individuals that a festival like the one they throw down in Baltimore is to be prized.

The Maryland Film Festival ran May 3–7 in Baltimore, MD.