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By Dan Erdman | April 7, 2005

You would think that the sort of audience found at film festivals might differ in some respects from the Junior Mint-fueled clods who clog up the nation’s multiplexes. You would think that at any given screening at any given film festival – say, the Saturday morning showing of the second group of Wisconsin’s Own Narrative Shorts Program during the 2005 Wisconsin Film Festival, which I attended – you would find crowds of interested, respectful, attention-paying patrons. You would think that that would be the case. But, to quote Steve Martin, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. As seems to be my eternal lot in life, I found myself seated in front of the most annoying bunch of loudmouthed chattering cretins in the tri-county area. I had plenty of opportunities to turn around in my seat and give them the ol’ “STFU”, but, y’know, you do that and suddenly YOU’RE the bad guy. Anyway, you know what I have now that works better? A public forum. So, to the ninnies who were at the Orpheum Stage Door Theater on Saturday, in the balcony, seated close to the right hand exit, behind the guy in the leather jacket: you guys suck. Please stop going to the movies until you are able to properly distinguish between a cinema and your living room.

In order to make it to the films on time that morning, I had to skip breakfast. So it was to my great chagrin that the short we were to watch was called “Eating,” as I expected many sumptuous shots of mouth-watering dishes which would exacerbate my hunger pangs. Lucky for me, the only food actually present in the film is some variety of bizarre 1970s party food, most of which looked fairly unappetizing. “Eating” begins during a meeting of a support group for “overeaters” and then flashes back (to the ‘70s!) to discover the roots of one member’s food addiction. In a nutshell: mommy was an affection-withholding shrew, daddy was too wimpy to stand up to mommy. This realization occurs during a party that the man’s parents hold one night; a dorky pre-teen, he’s banished to the rec room for the evening while the loud, crass adults work themselves up into a good hedonistic lather elsewhere in the house. After an (offscreen) incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor, he attempts, unsuccessfully, to get their attention; spurned, he turns toward the hors d’oeuvres for consolation.

“Eating” looks great and has an uncommonly good lead performance from (the lead kid) as the young man. The lament against parental inattention is a bit forced, though (and am I the only person who was ever a kid who actually wanted less, not more, interference from my ‘rents?), and the whole thing just feels rather breezy and insignificant – it doesn’t stick to your ribs, if you will. There’s nothing specifically wrong with “Eating”, but, of the five films I saw that morning, it was the least memorable.

“Lifelike” features one of the great “cantankerous old man” performances of the young century from Rob Riley. As a widowed hermit who’s given up on life and retired to his taxidermy shed, he grouses, hems, haws, squints, sneers and furrows his brow like he’s the second coming of Walter Houston (or something). A young ne’er-do-well enters his life and, after some initial mutual loathing, they become friends. “Lifelike” is impressive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it ends at exactly the right moment. Too many of the shorts I saw during this festival forgot that they were supposed to be, y’know, short, adding several minutes of unnecessary scenes at the end well after the point had been made. “Lifelike”, refreshingly, winds everything up to its logical conclusion, takes a bow and clears the stage for the next movie.

That next movie was “Tiger: His Rise and Fall.” I’m still not quite sure what to make of this one, a quasi-noir parody about a talent agent in the 1940s who discovers a singing frog. The frog, (the “Tiger” of the title) becomes a huge star, only to crash and burn later on as he becomes bogged down by drugs, bizarre sex and delusions of grandeur. This features lots of tedious footage of the singing frog (actually an immobile rubber doll), as well as a singing giraffe and a bizarre running gag about a woman who drops food on the floor. The director wrote the two (very good) original songs that the animals sing. The costumes and sets are pretty good for a low-budget production, and the whole “look” of this film feels very authentic. Swell production values aside, I can’t decide if “Tiger” is smart or stupid. Many more of the jokes failed than succeeded, and in the end I decided that this was probably more interesting than good.

“Katydid”, on the other hand, was both interesting AND good, taking a completely loony idea and making it work somehow. A high school senior brings home a girl that he likes, tries to impress her but is upstaged by his twin brother. The kid turns to his best friend for advice, only to discover a secret that he’d rather not have known about. The same actor is able to play both brothers thanks to primitive (but convincing) “Patty Duke Show” special effects! The only real problem with “Katydid” is a bit of monotonous editing near the end which, to be fair, was probably necessary to make the effects work. This was a deeply weird movie that was among my favorites of the many shorts I saw.

When they announced the title of the next film, “Something About Meryl”, I thought they had said “Something About Merrill”. “Merrill”, of course, is Merrill, Wisconsin, a town about 20 miles north of where I grew up and which is reputed to have the highest citizen-to-tavern ratio in the United States. Merrill’s population is 9,860; I’ll leave the rest up to you.

At any rate, “Something About Meryl” concerns the plight of two fanatical Meryl Streep fans who meet in the bleachers in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater (the actress is going to dip her hands in the cement; the two fans arrived six hours ahead of time to secure a seat). Although they both at first exhibit the kind of misanthropy that’s unique to the obsessed, they eventually forge a connection based on their common fandom. “Something About Meryl” looked and sounded great, with lovely performances and editing to boot. Like, “Death is My Co-Pilot”, the very first of the shorts that I saw on opening day, this was a light, fluffy, distraction that made me smile more than once, and there’s no arguing with that.

“Head-On” was one of only three narrative features I would get to see at the festival, a lamentable fact made even moreso by the fact that this was the only one worth recommending. In modern-day Germany, Cahit
(Birol Unel) a middle-aged, alcoholic Turkish man winds up in a psychiatric hospital after a night of booze-fueled mayhem. There, he meets another Turk – a young woman named Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), the child of more recent immigrants, who was committed after her most recent suicide attempt. She reveals to him that she is at odds with her very traditional, conservative family (that’s putting it mildly: she tells of a beating she received at the hands of her brother for the crime of holding hands with another boy); since her only way out is through marriage to an eligible Turkish bachelor, she proposes a marriage of convenience between the two. This may read like something that ought to star Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, but these two don’t exactly meet cute: when Cahit initially balks at her scheme, she smashes a nearby beer bottle and re-cuts her wrists right there.

Cahit eventually overcomes his misgivings and, in the movie’s funniest scene, asks her father for her hand in halting pidgin Turkish. One uncomfortable wedding later, the couple enters into “Head-On”’s version of domestic bliss, in which Sibel gets to keep fooling around with other men and Cahit gets to keep his drunken rages. Eventually, the inevitable occurs, and the two start to like each other, or at least get properly steamed over the other’s “infidelities.” This reaches something of a boiling point, and Cahit lands in jail after an assault on one of Sibel’s trysts goes too far. The scandal makes the newspapers, with the shabby details of her extramarital carryings-on included. Coming from a subculture in which family disgrace equals a death sentence (read up on the phenomenon of “honor killings” in Europe’s Muslim communities if you’re not sure what I’m getting at), Sibel has reason to fear for her life; she hops the next plane to Turkey. Although ostensibly her “homeland”, she has far less connection to that place than to the Germany she’d lived in for most of her life, and she carries on in much the same way as before.

Some years later, Cahit is released from prison and has cleaned up his act (the formerly-ubiquitous can of German lager has been ditched for truly gargantuan bottles of mineral water, something which I alone in the audience found amusing). He desperately wants to see Sibel and, against the better judgment of all involved, journeys to Turkey to find her.

This is probably as good a place as any to conclude the “plot summary” part of this review, since I want there to be some surprises in store for you when you see this. Most critics likened “Head-On” to Fassbinder’s “Fear East the Soul” (the ones with real ambition went on from there to drag poor Douglas Sirk into it; hadn’t “Far From Heaven” allowed these guys to scratch that particular itch once and for all?), but I’m not sure that’s such a great fit. Okay, fine, both are German-language films which feature immigrants in lead roles and which concern themselves with the way social pressures can affect romantic relationships. But the two protagonists in this film have exactly the opposite problem as their counterparts in “Fear Eats the Soul.” In the older movie, society conspires to keep the lovers apart, while Cahit’s and Sibel’s marriage is a means to conform (at least superficially) to the expectations of society.

In any event, “Head-On” is well worth your time. Its a sharp bit of social criticism which doesn’t reduce its charters to ciphers or become just another “social problem” film. Somewhere among all the sex, drugs, violence, cursing, drugs, nudity, decadence and squalor there’s plenty of laughs as well – if this is a romantic comedy (you could make that argument), its coal-black. Even if none of that persuades you, go see “Head-On” so that you can stare at the almost comically beautiful Sibel Kikelli for two hours. This first-time actress (discovered by a producer in the middle of some shopping mall) gives this movie much of its manic, creepy energy and is also one of the handsomest creatures I’ve seen on the big or small screen in some time.

I closed out the night with another collection of shorts, this time from the Kino group. Kino is a loose affiliation of film-viewing and -making cells located throughout the world. The Madison branch, which calls itself “Wis-Kino”, is the first to form in the United States (2005 has also seen the debut of cells in Buffalo and Kentucky).

Wis-Kino meets somewhere in Madison approximately once a month to screen new short films. Anyone can submit a film, provided it is 10 minutes in length and was created specifically for Wis-Kino. Occasionally, they will hold a “Kaberet” screening. Kaberet films are usually produced in an extremely compressed period of time (anywhere from 48 hours to seven days) and must include a previously-agreed-upon “theme” ingredient. As with the regular screenings, anyone is invited to submit anything to these impromptu film festivals.

Wis-Kino is not developed enough to provide instruction or equipment rental, but has merely spent the last two years attempting to create a grassroots movement of film artists and cineastes; the whole thing is very low-rent, local and independent (for more info on this group, check out

The screening was somewhat sparsely attended; only the true movie-obsessed would trudge clear out to the tiny theater in the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union to watch a bunch of short films. After a brief introduction, each from the head honchos of the Wis-Kino group and a few representatives of the Quebec branch, it was time for more films; ten in all. The lights went down, the projector flickered to life, and it happened.

I fell asleep.

I used to occasionally nap through especially boring lectures in school, but you know you’re officially an old man when you actually nod off during an activity you enjoy and have been looking forward to. But this is what film festivals will do to those of who aren’t made of sturdier stuff. The combination of too much fast food (gotta eat on the run…), not enough physical activity (all that sitting there in the dark…) followed by bursts of too much physical activity (racing across town on foot to get to that next screening…), too much booze (you get to drink in the theater!) and not enough sleep took me down.
What’s the name of that new Guy Maddin movie? Fat, Lazy, Drunk Insomniacs Bend at the Knee?

I woke with a start in between two of the films. It was pitch black and all around me people were clapping for the last film; needless to say it took a minute to get my bearings. Once I did, I threw in the towel and left, embarrassed (what if I’d been snoring?) and disappointed in myself. So, by means of restitution, let me end this by urging you to support and patronize your local branch of Kino: go to the screenings, go to the Kaberets, contribute you own shorts, give ‘em money, volunteer to help or, failing all of that, start a branch in your own town.

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

Go to Day Two coverage>>>

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