This weekend I was lucky/nerdy enough to attend the Kansas International Film Festival. What’s that, you say? You didn’t realize Kansas had a film festival? Why, neither did I until I saw a rather silly but endearing TV ad for it. I was like, “Huh, I wasn’t aware Kansas City had any sort of film culture worth mentioning.” My interest was piqued for a few seconds, but it was quickly distracted by watching a bunch of catty women fighting over a bloated 80s hair metal rock star on VH1. Weeks pass and I say to myself, “Hey, wasn’t there going to be some kind of film festival?” So I google it and lo, information that would change my life appears on the screen. Guy Maddin is going to be a guest of honor.
YES. THAT Guy Maddin!
Needless to say that by itself sold me. I made plans to attend to see his new film he was shopping around the festival circuit, Brand Upon the Brain. I had no idea what it was supposed to be about. Who cared? Guy Maddin!
So that Thursday before the festival, like always, the local paper’s “Enjoy” section came out with an entire section on the film festival and what was going on with it. Of course it listed Guy Maddin (why wouldn’t it? It’s Guy Maddin!), but along with him was 24‘s Louis Lombardi and Troma auteur Lloyd Kaufman. Needless to say I squealed and looked for someone to high-five, but no one was around. Now I HAD to go to this festival and meet these people. But did I have… the right stuff?
So I screwed up my courage and plunged into the unknown realm of indie film festivals. I drove straight to the theater from work and purchased my ticket for Brand Upon the Brain ($10! That mofo cost $10! In Kansas! The hell?!) with a jaunty smile. I wasted the time before the showing at a local Borders checking out the graphic novel section and when I returned to the theater for the screening, everyone was there eagerly anticipating the show to follow! But first we had to endure mostly shitty trailers for almost assuredly shitty movies. One of them was a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a movie about groundhogs that featured people in big groundhog fursuits. Yeah.
So the movie was about to start, and the person running the festival trotted out his “good friend” Guy Maddin. This guy would never fail to mention how Guy Maddin was his “good friend.” I’m not disputing that, if he was my friend, I’d probably brag about it, too, but I just thought it was a funny quirk. Anyways, Guy comes out and is humble and wonderful and tells us what the movie we’re about to see is like and that it’s gonna be preceded by a short film of his. He gets applause and adoration and then he goes away and the lights dim.
The short film, “The Heart of the World,” before the feature was a fairly interesting and entertaining little number. It seems that two men, a mortician and an actor portraying Jesus in a passion play, are fighting over a beautiful but indecisive state scientist. One day, she discovers that the world’s heart is failing and that the world will end. People panic, orgies occur, but the two suitors are intent on winning her heart in what little time they have left. What follows is chaotic, sensationalistic and more than a little bit amusing. The whole thing is done in Guy’s typical style: using Super 8 film and blowing it up to 35mm for ultra grainy-ness and that silent film appeal. The short is silent, using only intertitle cards to describe the action to the audience. It’s very retro while staying delightfully post-modern. Even if it ended up making no sense.
I could say the same for Brand Upon the Brain. The film starts with Guy Maddin (no relation!) being asked by his ailing mother to return to his childhood home, a lighthouse/orphanage, and give it two fresh coats of paint so that she can see it looking spiffy for once in her life before she passes on. Guy goes there and gets to work, but soon he’s overwhelmed by the memories that lie there and we descend with him into his memories of what happened in that lighthouse when he was a child.
We are introduced to his childhood starting with a pagan ritual being performed by one of the orphans, a creepy teenager named Savage Tom who is frequently naked throughout the picture. One things leads to another and soon he’s asking for the beating heart of Guy’s orphan friend, a child whose guilty conscience manifests as nervous tics because he accidentally electrocuted his brother. They’re saved when Guy’s mother, the head of the orphanage, spies upon them with the lighthouse spotlight and uses the strange phonograph-like invention made by Guy’s father that runs on strong emotions to demand that Guy come back home.
We soon discover Guy’s mother is a horrendous overbearing harpy who uses threats of suicide to bully her children into behaving. Guy’s sister is the rebel, constantly being scolded by their mother for looking like whore because her hair is falling over her forehead. Their father is a fantastic inventor, if you haven’t guessed yet, who is always wordlessly working in his lab and is an inconsequential part of his children’s upbringing. Their life is pretty wretched until one day Guy discovers Wendy Hale, one half of the famous teenage detectives the Lightbulb Twins (is that their name? It was Lightbulb something), snooping around the beach of the island they live on. He is immediately smitten and as she’s introduced to his sister, it’s clear that an attraction exists between her and Sis. So what does a teen detective whiz do when she finds herself attracted to a girl? Pretend to be her own brother in drag, of course!
Wendy pretends to be Chance Hale for the majority of the film, making the the disguise sorta-work with the absence of makeup and a thick woolen hat over her head. S/He begins to woo Sis who is very open to the possibility of going all the way with Chance, even if he does have the strange quirk of insisting that only the person with the Undressing or Kissing Gloves may be allowed to kiss or undress the other. Chance also must dress in a full suit during dangerous missions, conjuring the appearance of Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon. At least for me. Guy is also not immune to Chance’s charms, much to his confusion.
The mystery begins unfolding, as Chance/Wendy is investigating why the orphans have odd marks (brands, if you will) appearing on the back of their heads. S/He begins to understand more about the connection between the marks and the orphanage when Mother punishes Sis one day by playing a sound that causes her to go into a trance, reporting to Father behind closed doors…
Needless to say, this movie succeeded in capturing my attention with the central mystery. I looooooove a good mystery, as my enthusiasm for the Harry Potter books can attest to. While I can’t call this one a “good” mystery, it’s at least passable. The explanation’s not really grounded in reality, so there’s no point in trying to guess how the plot will twist. Especially not when the movie is so full of deliberate weirdness. It’s like Guy tries to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink in terms of quirkiness just for the sake of quirkiness. Most of the stuff doesn’t even become relevant to the plot. It’s just there. Taking up runtime. And there’s so much nudity in the movie that by the end it seemed like Guy was doing it just to show he wasn’t afraid to put a penis to film.
The movie is described as a remembrance in 12 parts. Indeed, the film is divvied up into chapters, each one giving out a bit more character and plot. It works wonderfully with the teen detective motif, allowing clever cliffhangers to keep you in suspense about what will happen in the next chapter. Not only that, but I think this sort of mini-serial is a great idea for people like me that are having a tougher and tougher time finding the time to fit in a movie during the work week, so being able to watch 10 or 15 minute segments is a blessing. And the part about remembrance is indeed important, since the movie takes place mostly in a memory and the grainy, fuzzy, surreal nature of it makes it somewhat similar to a fuzzy memory from your own past.
I’ll say this, the actors were certainly game, with tons of expressive performances. The best have to be the ones for Mother and Wendy/Chance. Probably because a lot of the movie’s lifting is being done by these two (three?). Sis is also nicely done, as well. If anything, the little boy playing Guy isn’t given much more to do than to be glum for most of the movie. Adult Guy veers perhaps TOO over-the-top at the end, which I wasn’t sure was possible, but there you go. Isabella Rossellini narrates parts of the movie, and she does a superb job. Having her oddly accented, wet, thick English describe the thoughts and actions of the characters is a delight even if I think that she might be the most frightening actress this side of Isabelle Adjani (or Laura Dern).
The music’s all right and it should be considering it has to accompany nearly the entire film. But it never really rises to the point where I say to myself “I HAVE to get the soundtrack to this!” Especially when Sis sings a song near the end that makes my ears want to bleed. Yuck. Have pity on me, Guy.
So the movie ended and Guy Maddin (Guy Maddin!) was trotted out again. He sweetly pointed out that he, himself, would feel shy asking questions, but he encouraged us to please attempt to. One person asked if he would be comfortable showing this to his mother. He laughed nervously and said that it was, indeed, semi-autobiographical, based on his sister’s relationship with someone that ended up being untruthful about his/her gender and Guy’s own boy-crush. He said he was more worried about his sister’s reaction to the whole thing. Another asked how the movie got made. Guy answered that there was some sort of weird Seattle non-profit studio that gave him a call in the middle of the night and offered him a movie deal. But it had to be done really, really soon. So of course he jumped at the chance and because of time limitations, decided that it had to be a silent movie (no time for writing quality dialogue!) and it would have to star people basically in the Seattle area. So he had to rush through pre-production and casting and get to actual photography and even that became really rushed when he found out that he had scheduled a flight one day earlier than he remembered and had to finish shooting a day earlier than he originally planned. He also admitted that the movie was about 20 minutes too long (the movie’s only about 95 minutes to begin with) because of how rushed his planning was. I agree with him that the movie’s a bit too long. Not that it ever TRULY dragged, but it could’ve been nipped and tucked into a more tense, tight movie.
Then we were invited to a reception to talk more with Guy.
So I drove to the Holiday Inn in question right after the movie and sorta awkwardly toddled my way into the shindig. It was a pretty modest spread, some finger foods, cheeses, fruit and bruschetta. I started out by loading up with cheddar and strawberries and asking people where the napkins were only to be ignored. I sat down by myself at a table by the door, but everyone else seemed to be gathering around other tables, all acting like they already knew each other. They probably did, since I think it was mostly friends and students of the festival director at this point. Guy moseyed around a bit uneasily, being stopped every so often by adoring fans. One even correctly guessed an influence he had in the movie The Leech Woman. Which I guess has a record for the biggest percentage of stock footage in a movie? Anyways, the gist was that everyone else was having a fantastic time and I was sitting by myself eating cheese and getting gassy.
Then Guy was ushered over to sign some festival posters, and I took it upon myself at that point to make my own luck and go over and introduce myself to him. I timidly walked over and tried to get his attention with a lily-livered “M-Mr. Maddin?”
Success! He started talking to me, although it was clear he was just as shy about the whole talking-to-a-perfect-stranger-thing as I was, which was endearing and awkward at the same time. I started off telling him how I was introduced to his movies through friendship with Film Walrus, and that begot a conversational thread about his Dracula adaptation, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, which was actually a ballet. He went on about how he actually doesn’t like ballet or ballet movies, but he took the job because he was broke. So he went to go look at the actual ballet performance, which the ballet troupe dutifully gave to him. He decided to film the performance for his own reference and decided to really get up close to the dancers, but feared getting kicked in the head or something, so he actually had someone there to yank him back whenever he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So he ends up with this chaotic video of the dancers up close and not even being able to see all of the movements, you can actually HEAR their tendons and it doesn’t resemble ballet in the least. Yet when he showed it back to the dancers, they told him THAT was the ballet they knew. So he wasn’t afraid to get all up in the dancers’ faces while filming the movie and he said it actually helped him stop relying on the tripod so much, since he said pretty much every shot he could think of in Saddest Music in the World was done stationary with a tripod. It was a really fascinating conversation, but I could feel he was much more comfortable dealing with me as someone he could give a spiel to than someone to have an actual dynamic conversation with. After the requisite awkward moment where neither of us said anything, I bid him a good night and said I enjoyed his movie and he thanked me and off I went back to my table.
Only there were people sitting in my seat now. I decided to roll with the punch and just move over a seat to let them stay at the table, but seriously, who sits in a seat where there’s a friggin’ plate of food? They were even flipping through my program. Grr! But I decided to make nice with them to fill the aching loneliness inside my soul and it turns out that one of them was Sarah Kelly, a director of another movie that had screened that night. I asked what it was and she rattled off that it was basically The Big Chill for the 80s generation. Apparently she was growing tired of finding different ways of describing it since that’s all she’d been doing for a while. I asked if it was hard to get all of the 80s music licensed and she said no, then there was some silence while we ate. Then the most amazing thing happened. Louis Lombardi came over and sat down at our table. This is when I just about flipped my lid at how cool this all was. I mean, I had been hoping to maybe glimpse him during the weekend, but here he was laughing it up at my table and I hadn’t even had to seek him out! He asked me where I was from and I said I was from KC, and that seemed to interest him, since everyone else there was just in town to promote their movies. He asked how I got to be sitting here and I said, “I just sat down here.” This seemed to charm him all the more as he got a little smile and said, “Okay, I see…” They all asked what there was to do in town and I laughed and asked what it was they were interested in. Louis loudly said, “ORGIES AND HOOKERS AND COCAINE,” which made me bust up. I told them the only real attraction in town was the Plaza, and they said they’d already seen it.
So the conversation went on until some festival staff doofus came over and tried schmoozing Louis like a douchebag. Louis played along, but this staff kid was sort of a fake jerk, saying that he wanted to see Louis’ role in 24 but he “didn’t own a TV.” After he went away Louis ripped on him and asked me, “You know him?” I told him (truthfully) that I didn’t know anyone there and he smiled and said, “Good.” After a little bit where he was complaining about some of the behind the scenes hassles of his own movie, Doughboys, he was called away to sign some of the posters and after that people from the table began drifting away bit by bit (including his incessantly iPhone-ing friend/producer/whatever).
So then I started chatting up the seat-stealers. Apparently they were moving to L.A. and Kansas was one of their stops. The guy I was talking to was a drummer/cartoonist (two things I’ve always wished I could do!) and once watched Batman Returns every day of the week for a month. We traded opinions on Spider-Man 3 and then he and his friend went to continue on their trek.
So I sit there for a while longer eating chocolate-dipped strawberries before deciding I’ve had my taste of the Hollywood life and skedaddling. But who should I run into on his way out of the bar? Louis Lombardi! Again! AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH~! He recognized me and formally introduced himself. “Call me Louie.” I will! He asked if I was taking any food home and I said I didn’t know, since I didn’t see any containers. “Just get a take-home container from the bar and if they give you any grief, tell them you’re getting it for Louie.” So I did! EEEEEEEE! I thanked him and mentioned how nice it had been meeting him as we said our goodbyes and I went home shaking like I had been the entire night from the nerve-wracking awesomeness of it.
I was so stoked by my awesome first night that I decided to go again the next night to a movie that promised to be interesting, a horror film called End of the Line. It sorta got hyped up through the festival’s materials, so I was pumped to check it out. Oh god. Oh god, I wish I had kept my $8.50 to myself. The movie was MST3K-quality. First off, this young mediocre-looking psych nurse takes the subway home one night only to have the subway car stopped suddenly and cultists start coming out of the woodwork trying to “save them” from the apocalypse by stabbing them with daggers made from crucifixes. So she has to team up with the surviving people from the subway cars to flee into the tunnels and find a way back up to the surface.
This movie was so damn shitty. It was not “eerie” or “thrilling” at all. The only aspect of horror that the makers seemed to grasp was having things coming out of nowhere and saying “boo” because that’s what most of the movie encompassed. There was no creepy uneasiness, no dread, no nothing. Just lots of boring violence, fake blood and about 15 seconds of effects/makeup. The story is absolutely RETARDED, relying on the subway to be completely SWARMING with these cultists who are (almost) all undeniably and irreversibly insane and unrelatable. One of them, the one the movie wants us to hate the most is certainly dislikable, but pretty much because he’s a shitty, annoying actor playing a shitty, annoying character. He tries to rape pretty much every woman in the movie. I don’t think they told him they were making a movie, though. The parade of stupid characters doesn’t end there, with the requisite sex-victim Asian woman and guy who exists solely to take off his shirt and show off his muscles in the final act. And let me spoil the movie for you right now: TURNS OUT THE CULTISTS WERE RIGHT AND IT IS THE APOCALYPSE, LOL. The back row and I were laughing derisively throughout the whole thing. Let’s never talk of this waste of celluloid ever again.
So after that I was a bit gunshy about seeing things at the festival. There was another movie I thought was interesting showing, called amour-LEGENDE, from Taiwan. I read the description about three times and watched the trailer on Youtube and still can’t understand what this movie is supposed to be about. Something about smelling rotten things and mysterious women? That’s descriptive of about half of all Asian movies. I ended up not going because I felt really tentative about paying $8.50 for something that would likely be shit.
Which for some reason didn’t stop me from attending the IFC Trailer Trash Competition on the final night of the festival. Basically the local independent film organization gets its members together and asks them to make 3 minute or less trailers for trashy grindhouse-style movies. I thought it sounded fun, so sue me. Turns out Lloyd Kaufman, head of Troma Films, was going to be doing the judging of which trailer was best (and really, who would know better than him?) and as I was walking to the back of the surprisingly long line to wait to get into the screening, he had a little table in front of the entrance to the theater, advertising Troma merchandise and some of the books he’d written. There were some (presumably) Troma members in attendance orbiting around him. It seems the general uniform is hair dye, piercings and tattoos.
Anyways, there I was in line, right? Turns out most of the people in line that early were the filmmakers themselves, waiting to see others’ efforts and to see how others would react to their own. I’ve never really been too close to the whole film making aspect of the movie industry, although it might be generous to call this that, and there was a bunch of “networking” and schmoozing going on in the line. People constantly recognized each other and went up to talk to each other and offer each other parts in movies that would be shooting soon. And everyone had at least a three day growth of stubble. The guy I was standing behind seemed to have won the trailer competition last year and was feeling cocky, so I took special pleasure in hearing that he’d gone to the festival Saturday to see Guy Maddin and missed him.
So we finally got seated and the competition was about to commence. We were given little programs detailing who Lloyd Kaufman was (rife with puns) and were asked to circle who we thought should be the winner, so they doubled as ballots. Before the actual screenings, a corny, retarded slide show started of the IFC members goofing around shooting their films with the song “Mmmbop” playing. Uuuugh. This set the tone for what was about to follow.
Now, I was expecting low budget but funny, clever and amusing trailers. What I got was definitely the low budget part, but almost everyone seemed to have missed the memo about making them funny, clever or amusing. Almost ALL of them seemed to have discovered the same filter in Adobe Premiere that let them put scratches and stuff over their video to make it seem vintage. Needless to say 99% of the time this did not work because you could still tell it was made a few days ago in someone’s backyard using a digital video camcorder. The only thing some of these trailers had going for them were the titles. Zombie Pussy? The Adventures of Horatio Fellatio? Hell yeah! But the trailers for these two just seemed content to bask in the cleverness of their own puns and not put any effort into making the actual content compelling in any way. Infatuation was some kind of confusing stalker trailer where a guy and a girl room together and the guy does various gross/disturbing things to the girl for… some… reason. It mainly stuck to scatalogical humor and I am ashamed to say it got some laughs from me, if only to see how far they’d go for a titter. Barley’s Bitches was a Charlie’s Angels spoof, but even trashier, with one of the girls named Chesty and smothering enemies in her cleavage. The “Bosley” character in this almost single-handedly ruined this promising premise by camping it up entirely the wrong way and engaging the girls in a can-can dance at the end that didn’t fit the tone at all. One of the trailers was so bad it bordered on pure softcore S&M, the title being something like Sado-Woman from Outer Space. I’ll let you figure out what that one was about. One of the better entries was The Fluff, a 1950s monster movie parody about vicious pieces of cotton fluff. “More shocking than The Notebook!” the narrator claimed to belated laughs. It looked like it had twice the thought and production values poured into it than all the others and actually felt semi-professional in its execution, impressing me. Of course it also turned out to be made by the pretentious git standing in front of me in the line. By far the best trailer there was the one for a double feature of Foot Fiend and Heathen High School Splatter Fest Part 666. Packed full of hookers, harnessed monster hunters, dirty old men and demon schoolgirls, it captured B-movie trash perfectly and with surprising effectiveness. Stand-out lines like “Being a dominatrix is very much like being a detective” and “You shower with your sword?” endeared these to me and I actually ended up wishing that they’d actually get made. It doesn’t surprise me, however, that it seemed to be the one trailer that hadn’t been made specifically for THIS festival. Also, if you’re asking yourself, “Hey, did I just see for free what John paid $8.50 for?” the answer is yes. :(
Well, the trailer competition was an almost total bust, seeing as most of them were so bad it looked like I could’ve done a better job (and that’s saying something) and I lost the pamphlet/ballot, meaning I didn’t get to vote for my favorite OR get to keep it to remember the awesome trailer titles. Sigh. But this was a new experience I needed, going to my first film festival. I hope to get to go with Film Walrus to the St. Louis Film Festival and talk to you all about what I see there. I doubt I can do better than getting to meet Louie Lombardi and Guy Maddin (Guy Maddin!), though.
Really, what the KIFF needs to do is try to lure in more non-local independent films. Because most of these local films are amateurish. This is crap. You know it, deep down in your heart, festival organizers. Do I HATE local filmmakers? Of course not, more power to them for continuing to hone their craft. But I do hate having to pay $8.50 to see a movie with a promising premise only to see a digital video piece of crap where no one can act and the set is someone’s friend’s porch. Maybe if this year was successful enough, they can drag in some more big name festival movies and guests, because THOSE were worth the money. I suppose in the meantime, this is the best Kansas can get.