Film and video makers and watchers gathered in Baltimore, Maryland for the third annual Microcinefest. Screenings took place at the G-Spot (a loft space which served as a temporary microcinema), the Charles Theater, and the Coffee Mill which hosted a free outdoor showing of selected shorts. Several of the screening programs were filled to capacity as over 2000 people, including 50 out of town festival guests, attended over the five day festival which showcased 101 films and videos. Microcinefest presented a wide range of works with a substream/psychotronic bent with emphasis on the festival motto, “Big ambition on a little budget.” Doing so provided a venue for everyone from established underground filmmakers to film students learning their craft to those who simply picked up a camera for the fun of it. Beyond the film and video screenings, guests were treated to museum visits and a duckpin bowling party.
Of course, however, the main attraction was the films and video, though there were more quality works than can be mentioned in this recap. The big standout of the festival was Existo, a musical satire of the conflict between the arts and morality. Bruce Arnston is outstanding as the performance artist title character, and Existo managed to earn Best Feature Awards from both the audience and the Grand Jury which was comprised of Maryland Film Festival programming consultant, Gabe Wardell, Atlanta Film & Video Festival director, Genevieve McGillicuddy, and Cashiers du Cinemart editor, Mike White. Director Coke Sams whose previous credits include work on several of the Ernest movies was on hand to provide an entertaining question and answer session during which he revealed the intricacies of the penis-shaped pogo stick among other things.
The other feature to take home accolades was Spectres of the Spectrum, the latest film from mad scientist, media archeologist, and underground filmmaker, Craig Baldwin, who mixes footage from old high school instructional films, low budget sci-fi movies, and old television broadcasts to tell the story of a band of media outlaws in 2007 who fight against the “New Electromagnetic Order” which threatens to bulk erase the brains of every human on the planet. The result is a densely layered and challenging view of technology gone awry.
Many of the screening programs were devoted to short films and videos including the always popular animation program which opened and closed with mini-retrospectives. The opening retrospective presented seven short films from Webster Colcord whose versatility was demonstrated by the variety of animation techniques used in these films. The animation program closed with four darkly comic films from Don Hertzfeldt including Billy’s Balloon, an award winner from the Slamdance Film Festival. Between the two retrospectives were many notable works including the crowd pleasing music video, Monkey Vs Robot from Geoff Marslett, and the painfully funny The Hangnail from Shane Acker. Interesting animation techniques were presented in the form of Gregory Godhard’s visually stunning experimental animation Mind’s Eye which was made with 1200 still photographs and Ya-Nan Chou’s Pinpoint which was made using different embroideries on fabric.
The shortest of the short films was the 45 seconds long Crack from legendary underground filmmaker Jon Moritsugo. In less than a minute Moritsugo is able to successfully convey conflict, resolution, and the panic of a soundman who is unprepared for his job. Other very short (under five minutes), but effective works included Andrew Betzer’s Diet Pink Lemonade (winner of Best Low-Budget Film), Andrew Wardlaw’s editing exercise Fire Ant Ad, the Third Reich meets children’s television of Monroe Bardot’s Kukla Fran and Adolf, and the self descriptive My A*s is Bleeding from Jim Stramel. All four filmmakers were on hand to discuss their works.
Documentaries were well represented in quality if not quite in quantity. Mark Hejnar’s TV Ministry, a look at an organization that believes that Television is God not only gives a look at an interesting group of people, but also provides a look into the media in general, though it’s a good thing that Chris Clements, Julie Goldman, Mich Giancola, and Maria Bowen’s What’s Up didn’t literally gives us a look at its subject matter considering that it consisted of a collection of vomit stories. The Best Documentary Award went to I Created Lancelot Link, Jeff Krulik and Diane Bernard’s look behind the scenes of everyone’s favorite secret chimp.
Filmmakers also borrowed the documentary style to tell their stories, as several mockumentaries were shown including the pre-Blair Witch Project in search of a legend in the woods armed only with cameras movie, The Last Broadcast. Other mockumentaries ranged from the amusingly absurd Bread: The Life and Times of a Self-Appointed Bread Promoter about a woman who extols the virtues of bread to anyone who will listen by Chris Dotson to the genuinely creepy “is it real?” style of How to Start a Revolution in America, an instructional video made by three domestic terrorists who present their strategy on how to bring about a violent revolution in America from director Mike Z.
Danny Plotnick, a Microcinefest favorite, was represented in 1999 with Swingers’ Serenade which took the unique honor of Way Cool Randiest Film. Serenade was shot on 16mm using a script from an old amateur movie making magazine complete with all of the lurid sexual dynamics found in the original script. Relationships of a less racy nature were the subject of several other short films. New love was explored in Jay Lowi’s very funny 12 Stops on the Road to Nowhere which yields a surprise twist ending. Knuckleface Jones by Todd Rohal (winner of Best Short Film), on the other hand, deals at least partially with the end of a relationship as a new folk hero emerges despite being dogged by his ex-girlfriend. The story of the friendship between two very different women is told through striking images and keen use of music in Mary Gillen’s Blue Star, and the father-son relationship is examined in Gavin Kelly’s More or Less. Rohal, Gillen, and Kelly all participated in question and answer sessions following their screenings.
Of course a substream/psychotronic film festival would not be complete without a screening program devoted specifically to psychotronic films and videos, and Microcinefest provided such a program with enough monsters, scantily clad women, zombies, and camp to satisfy any Ed Wood devotee. Jay Edwards was on hand to collect the Best Short Video honor for his sci-fi spoof, Project: Tiki Puka Puka. The latest from Rock Savage, Beast of Retro City, a campy drive-in movie which featured masked wrestlers, voluptuous girls, and nasty villains, also played on the bill, and the zombie quota was ably filled by The Collegians are Go!!, a film from Dean Collegian, Ph.D. in which a fearless threesome must do battle with the International Organization for the Advancement of Evil who have resurrected President Kennedy and transformed him into a zombie to aid in their goal for world domination.
Microcinefest also featured several works which didn’t use a straight narrative framework, including Carl Wiedemann’s visually astounding A Primer for Dental Extraction was awarded Best Experimental Film. Jennifer Gouvea used photo animation and optical printing to explore the emotions of a manic depressive woman in In the Marrow of Cassandra, while Ryan Lutterbach zoomed in and out of still photographs to probe the inner thoughts of characters on a street frozen in a moment in time in Moment.
Overall, based on reaction from both the audience and the visiting filmmakers, Microcinefest ’99 was a rousing success. The festival received high praise not only for the quality of the films and videos shown, but also for creating an enjoyable environment including an interesting screening venue, a friendly atmosphere, and the natural charm of Baltimore. All in all, Microcinefest remained true to its motto and proved that even a film festival can succeed with big ambition on a little budget.