Friday, May 7, 2010

Opening Night at the Maryland Film Festival 2010

I’m blogging from the 12th Maryland Film Festival. Well, actually I’m not there now...but I was, and I have a couple of items to share.

The first is that the night of shorts—apparently a relatively particular novelty among film festivals—featured some really interesting work. Two works integrated to great effect animation, matte photography and live action—they call that sort of thing postmodern. But my favorite tonight was a 15-minute student film called Slow Pitch Relief, made by a young filmmaker named Mark Cummins. The film is a sweet telling of a traveling salesman, who is ready to get off the road after he meets a single mother on one of his door-to-door sales calls. She rebuffs his product pitch, but invites in the pitchman. Prone to fabrications, he tells a whopper to her 11-year-old baseball-crazy son, hoping to gain his favor.

Traveling salesman you say? That was like a 1950s thing. Indeed. Cummins locates his film in 1957, giving it a spot-on mise-en-scene--the clothes, Jolene's house, the neighborhood in which she lives. Incredible detail. The real accomplishment, though, is his stunningly saturated color palette, worthy of Douglas Sirk, all the more impressive given he made the film in 16mm without the best possible lenses. A little post-production color correction gave him a boost, but the vision was all his. I asked this tall, lanky twenty-something what exactly possessed him to locate a rather universal story—of  a single mother and a rootless man finding each other across the great abyss of lonliness—in the ‘50s. Turns out he selected it from a few student scripts offered him last year. He wasn’t drawn so much to the time period as to the baseball angle, the rootlessness of the salesman (Cummins himself feeling somewhat rootless as a displaced New Yorker) and—as a self-proclaimed liar—the idea of getting caught in a really tall tale.

The other highlight for me tonight was meeting Joe Swanberg. I’ve written about Joe before; he being to the oddly-named mumblecore movement what Godard was to the French New Wave—the filmmaker making the edgiest films like Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs. His camera never diverts the audience’s voyeuristic eye from the jagged edges of relationships and the open wounds of floundering relationships. His friend and his “Anna Karina”—Greta Gerwig—are so natural. She so comfortable in her skin. Or that they seem less acting as getting recorded by a hidden camera, just being themselves. We talked for a few minutes, and I asked him if he was an actor by training. He is not, he said. He just lets the story flow and he follows it.

But it’s more than that. They are so good in their naturalness--their faces, their movement. He and Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Justin Rice—all are interesting to watch in the same way method actors Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were interesting to watch in their youth.  They are so completely unaffected, which is their method. I asked Joe if their style is generational, and he thought perhaps it is. These guys grew up in front of a video camera. They played with it the way generations before played with baseballs and soccer balls. So, they’re just doing what comes naturally, naturally.

The Festival features two other mumbecore filmmakers—The Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather. Can’t wait.

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