That's a Wrap!

The Maryland Film Festival and the revamped Charles made great first impressions this weekend. When it comes to movies, Baltimoreans show up in droves, Hon.

April 26, 1999

IT WAS CLEAR that the Maryland Film Festival was going to be a laid-back affair as early as Friday morning, when Zeke, organizer Jed Dietz's standard poodle, could be seen padding in and out of the auditoriums of the newly expanded Charles Theatre.

The message: Get some popcorn, kick back and enjoy.

The almost cozy temperament of the first edition of the new festival was anticipated the night before, when director Barry Levinson showed a rough cut of a documentary called "Diner Guys," a big-screen home movie that was warmly received by an audience at the crowded Senator Theatre.

Relaxed, unpretentious and designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes, the Maryland Film Festival clearly valued art more than attitude.

And it was a ringing success by anyone's measure.

From "Diner Guys" to yesterday's enchanting presentation of the 1924 film "Peter Pan," which was accompanied by a live 11-piece orchestra, the festival drew healthy crowds who appreciated the eclectic program, which was obviously fashioned with the secret ingredient of any festival: love.

Inside the theaters (festival movies were shown in all five Charles auditoriums, as well as the Orpheum in Fells Point), the emotional power of film was proven over and over again.

"Pastor Hall," a 1940 film that was originally banned because it showed the beginnings of the Holocaust too graphically, brought a few filmgoers to their feet after its showing Friday morning, and emerged as a festival favorite after it was screened again on Sunday.

Friday afternoon, a sold-out and supportive audience saw the Polish filmmakers Jerzy Hoffman and Jerzy Michaluk introduce their sweeping historical epic "With Fire and Sword."

Meanwhile, filmgoers in another auditorium heard Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's introduction to "The Godfather," which he said he watched on election night in 1982, when he became state's attorney, and has watched every election night since (and quite rightly, apparently).

That night,

John Waters presented "Boom!" a rarely seen camp classic that has so many surreal moments that filmgoers must have woken up the next day confused about what they had seen. ("Was that really Richard Burton chasing a monkey on a terrace in Sardinia dressed in a Samurai robe?")

Talking film

If the screenings themselves were fun, the scene in the Charles' magnificent new lobby was positively bracing, as filmgoers, filmmakers and apparatchiks milled about and chatted, sipping coffee and munching on wrap sandwiches or popcorn.

On Saturday, another full house enjoyed "American Hollow," a documentary about an Appalachian family filmed with great insight and sensitivity by Rory Kennedy.

Many stayed for "The Brandon Teena Story," another non-fiction film, which told a fascinating true-crime tale involving homophobia, gender and identity. Later on Saturday, a sold-out audience heard the painter Donald Sultan introduce "Il Gattopardo" ("The Leopard"), Luis Visconti's rarely seen epic about an Italian nobleman contemplating the end of his way of life, and one of the most lavish and visually stunning movies ever made.

On Sunday morning, the Charles was overrun with kids waiting to see "Peter Pan," which was presented by the local film restorer David Pierce.

This delightful silent movie, accompanied by Philip Carli's outstanding musicians, was probably the festival's most magical moment. Few moviegoing experiences can compare to the thrill of hearing live music swell as the first credits come up. It also came as a reminder that, at its best, film has always been an interactive art. This was underscored when the audience enthusiastically clapped Tinker Bell back to life.

A few bumps

There were all the glitches to be expected during a festival's first year, but they were minor and gratifyingly few -- especially considering that the weekend also marked the shakedown cruise of the newly expanded Charles. Screenings started late and some were interrupted by equipment failures.

But often the technical difficulties presented opportunities for even more delightful surprises, such as the costume designer Alexander Julian narrating the first five minutes of "Duck Soup" when the sound went out. (The Charles projectionists deserve special mention for handling the daunting task of showing more than 50 films over three days with aplomb and care.)

Parking didn't seem to be the problem many expected, although some visitors were locked out of the Penn Station parking lot, as well as the lot across the street from the Charles, Thursday night.

In fact, the two biggest problems will be the easiest to fix. The festival needs to get its program information out earlier next year, and not just titles but enough information about the movies so filmgoers can plan. Also, the program was difficult to read and contained some schedule mistakes, and the grids need to be bigger.

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