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By Dan Erdman | April 5, 2005

Madison, capital city of Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin as well as a quarter-million or so people, has a kind of complex about itself – it can’t ever decide if it wants to be Mayberry or Metropolis – but is basically an okay place to live. Since 1999, it has been host to the Wisconsin Film Festival. Formerly “The Great Wisconsin
Film Festival,” conceived as such by the brain surgeons at the State Tourism Office as a way to raise the state’s profile in Hollywood (which, as the argument used to go, would lead to a transformation into some kind of an American Ottawa for filmmakers seeking cheap, non-union crews and location-fee-free locales). The tale of this spectacularly daft scheme is resurrected every year by the local press in their coverage of the festival. The single aspect that seems to perfectly symbolize the lunacy of the whole enterprise as initially planned is the “Golden Cheesehead,” an award that was to be given every year to some lucky person who’d devoted a suitable amount of their career to (as they put it) “challenging motion picture agendas.” No one knows exactly who came up with the Golden Cheesehead, but I don’t think that cheese is what his head was made of, if you get my drift. The inaugural recipient of this honor was to be none other than…wait for it…Robert Redford, who mysteriously declined the invitation at the last minute. Since much of the advance hype for the event rested on the possibility of spotting genuine (!) celebrities (!!) wandering up and down State Street, this sent everyone’s plans into a tailspin.

The state contemplated canceling the whole thing, but it was heroically rescued by two university students, who correctly reasoned that Madison was better off as a venue for more traditional “festival” fare (foreign obscurities, restorations, independents and so forth) than as a platform for state government social-climbers. The 1999 program didn’t exactly go off as planned – the roster of films was much more scaled-down, and autograph-seekers went home disappointed – but that it occurred at all was beyond anyone’s expectations. That it was actually a fairly successful event – 3,000 people saw the 16 scheduled films – was a minor miracle.

The success has continued to snowball every subsequent year, and the entire operation has become smarter, tighter and much, much more well-attended. Still, as with any good thing, sudden popularity has its downside. Acquiring tickets used to be a cheap and somewhat less-minute affair. When my wife and I attended in 2000, we decided whether to see a film in the moments before it started and bought most of our admissions at the door to the theater. No longer: I had to drag myself over to the student union’s box office on a Saturday morning in mid-February and wait for an hour to buy tickets. By the end of the following week, most of the shows had sold out.

While the Wisconsin Film Festival has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, it has a very, very long way to go before it can be placed in a class with similar events in Chicago or Toronto, its closest regional competitors. As a result, very few world premiers find their way onto the roster, unless they are from Wisconsin-based filmmakers. Every year, the “Wisconsin’s Own” series puts exactly these films in the spotlight. Though often varying in quality, there have been many pleasant surprises from this group, and I will attempt to spotlight some of these in my report.

Most of the rest of the films are what you might expect to find: foreign and independent movies which have acquired some critical momentum, but not enough of it to propel them onto Madison screens via a theatrical run. A good example of this is “In the Realms of the Unreal”, which I saw on Thursday, the opening night of the festival (at 7 PM; it was awfully nice of them to accommodate those of us who work for a living). The grad student type who introduced it congratulated those of us in the packed theater on “being here for the very first screening of the 2005 Wisconsin Film Festival.” Well, that wasn’t exactly true – there were six other films going on at the same time, a testament to how the festival has grown since the old days. After the festival’s official leader – which, on first viewing, comes off as merely snarky and goofy but which will surely become the bane of my existence later on in the weekend – we were off.

“In the Realms of the Unreal” (directed by Jessica Yu) is a documentary about Henry Darger, a Chicago man born in the early part of the 20th century. His mother died when he was very young, his infant sister was adopted out to strangers and his father eventually became too ill and infirm to care for him. He was sent to a special school for the “feeble-minded,” where he worked on a state farm. After the death of his father, he escaped the farm and walked back to Chicago (from Decatur, IL – look it up on the map!), where he worked in various menial jobs for the rest of his life and attended Mass regularly. He died in 1973.

It was only after his landlord entered his tiny apartment that Henry’s story becomes interesting. There, lying amongst his vast collections of old magazines, newspapers and balls of twine were 15,000 written pages and over 300 illustrations comprising his life’s work, a novel entitled “In the Realms of the Unreal”. A bizarre pastiche of biblical motifs, turn-of-the-century juvenile literature and Darger’s own unique obsessions, the tale concerns a great war between two fictional nations. One, “Glandelinia,” is a horrific land in control of mortarboard-wearing fiends who practice child slavery; the other commands a virtuous Christian army, bent on defeating the Glandelinians and rescuing the children. In the middle of it all are seven young sisters who lead a revolt against the slave masters and who seem to be blessed with some manner of holy, supernatural invulnerability.

Needless to say, things become complicated over the course of 15,000 pages. While sorting out Darger’s meandering narrative might be too much to ask of any filmmaker, I came away from the movie with a sense that Yu had merely skimmed his work. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, the film feels slight; if anything, a documentary about the creation of such an epic, overstuffed work ought to have the opposite problem.

Yu also missteps somewhat with the biographical material as well. While it is evident that Darger’s “real” life was almost heartbreakingly uneventful, I for one am curious as to how his work was able to survive its creator. A closing title informs us that his art has become famous throughout the world as an inspiration to several other artists, poets, writers and musicians. Well, how, exactly? Who are these artists? Where has his work been exhibited? How has his art been received? How is “outsider art” able to wield such influence? I left the theater with a head full of questions that Yu never bothered to address.

That said, “In the Realms of the Unreal” still earns an unreserved recommendation for its jaw-dropping, eye-popping, brian-melting visuals. Darger’s art seems to have been designed with the cinema in mind. Attempting to describe these drawings with words would be futile, but…oh, alright, here goes: picture a cross between William Blake and Windsor McKay but with – get this – even MORE detail. Depictions of battles are filled to the frame with explosions, bayonets and soldiers (with the evil Glandelinians clad in Confederate gray). Breaks in the action occur as lovely pastoral scenes, which overflow with blooming flowers and nude little girls with, uh, penises (it is suggested elsewhere in the film that Darger was so ignorant of sexual matters that it never occurred to him that there was an anatomical difference between little girls and little boys). Tasteful animation adds to the interest without completely lousing up Darger’s original work. Even if you hate this movie, you will not soon forget these images.

After a couple of drinks at Nick’s Restaurant, it was off to the Bartell Theater, just off the capitol square. With a large auditorium and plenty of single-seat rows (perfect for obsessed, muttering, antisocial cinema fanatics), it’s actually a pretty swell place to see a movie, but for one slight problem: the Bartell only puts on plays and, thus has no regular projection equipment. This means that the cheapest and lightest technology is pressed into service; this means projected video. On the upside, the fact that it’s, you know, a legitimate theater means that they get to serve alcohol in he concession area. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ll take it.

I was afraid that I would need it, furthermore, since I was about to delve into the first of two programs of shorts from Wisconsin moviemakers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I regard short films as a kind of penance, something you do to make up for the fact that you went and saw “You Got Served” opening weekend and let the latest Almodovar slip through town unseen. I can’t help it, I’m just used to the pace of features; in shorts, events fly by, emotional gears shift too quickly and I’m a wreck by the end of it all. Sadly, the only real venue for shorts is film festivals; if I had my way, they’d be back in front of commercial, theatrical features where the belong. Hey, people tolerate ads for Pepsi and Legos and Toyota (which I guess are short films after a fashion), surely they’d sit through “L’Age d’Or”!

If they had to sit through any of the entries in the Wisconsin’s Own Narrative Shorts Program, their odds would be pretty good: of the six features on Thursday night, I count two very good films, three “just fines” and one “godawful.”

“Death is My Co-Pilot” concerns the travails of a young man who is followed by death everywhere he goes. No, really, he’s actually followed by Death – the guy from “The Seventh Seal” – everywhere he goes. Death chats up strangers at parties, plays Frisbee, exchanges Christmas presents and so on. This was funny and fast and cute and weightless, and there are certainly worse things for a film to be than that.

It could, for example, be “I Am Ann”. When the title and opening credits for this movie appeared on screen, the audience began to buzz as though they were about to see a new Star Wars trailer. Someone actually hissed out an excited “yesssss!” Good grief, I thought, this film must really be something.

I had no idea. In this pseudo-documentary (“mockumentary”, whatever), a group of women out for a hike in the mountains are suddenly struck by the compulsion to mount a nearby boulder, spread their arms and shout “I am Ann!” This activity catches on, becoming something of a national passtime. Various people, individually and in groups, men and women, yell out “I am Ann!”

The audience I was with found all of this inexplicably hilarious. As I rolled my eyes, they rolled in the aisles, practically screaming with laughter. Either I have no sense of humor or the filmmakers brought a lot of their friends along. I know which scenario I think is more likely.

Things improved markedly with “The Varieties of Romantic Experience”, in which an English professor gives a highly, um, inappropriate first-day lecture to his undergrads concerning a disastrous love affair with his teaching assistant. His tale is told in a tight close-up with occasional cuts away to show the bored, disgusted or amused students; intercut with this are scenes that illustrate his tale. Its all very fashionably chaotic, with a great deal of aural and visual cacophony (the sound track is actually fairly amazing), but its still very funny and, on the whole, works. The portrait of the English department as little more than a day job in which everyone is secretly at everyone else’s throats was especially rich, and (take it from me, a former academic type) all too accurate.

Hokey title aside, “Wishtaker” was not a bad little film. The allusive, dreamy story concerns a group of strangers, each with their own lives and problems, who are connected by a park fountain into which each has cast a coin. The cinematography and acting were excellent, but “Wishtaker” tries to do too much with too many characters and is stuck with some clumsy pacing as a result. Too much ambition is probably better than not enough, but its not a good idea to cram a “Short Cuts”-sized story into a 15-minute short (never mind that “Short Cuts” itself barely fit into three hours).

“Negative Space” continued along in this decent-to-good vein. A photography student with a crush on a classmate finds that the pictures he’s taken in a nearby park contain the ghostly image of a woman who wasn’t there before. She smiles, waves and makes various attempts to communicate. This definitely felt very college-y, with every character dressed in a shabbily hip manner and living in some broken-down, pre-WWI apartment. Aside from the music, which I found overbearing and hopelessly twinkle-toed, everything about this short was Perfectly Acceptable.

The best of the bunch was wisely saved until the end. “Spaceman Dan’s 243rd Flight” does not directly concern astronauts or spaceflight, its merely a bizarre, affecting, smartly written and directed story about childhood and sibling relationships. Two child characters appear in the beginning, telling each other stories and playing around in the woods. Flash forward several years and the girl is now a washed-up, bitter adult. The movie alternates back and forth between these two stories, intertwining them in near-brilliant ways. The great, expressive cinematography ought to win some kind of an award, but even that’s just one standout element in this nifty film. Go out of your way to see this movie.

Check back for more coverage of the 2005 Wisconsin Film Festival!

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