What he sees is what you get

CATCHING UP WITH...GABE WARDELL

Gabe Wardell wants to expand Cinema Sundays at the Charles to draw a more diversified audience.

September 19, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

It's a typical moment in the life of Gabe Wardell.

Bombing up the Jones Falls Expressway in a white, slightly battered Toyota Camry, he jockeys the stick shift while keeping up a steady stream of chatter. He's right on time for a meeting at the Baltimore office of Allied Advertising and Public Relations, a local film publicity firm, where he will hammer out this season's schedule of Cinema Sundays.

But what makes the moment so typically Wardellian isn't where he's going but what he's doing, which is talking -- passionately, incessantly and quite intelligently -- about the movies.

"The director cheated!" Wardell says, his voice rising. The subject is the sleeper hit of the summer, "The Sixth Sense." "He only shows you privileged moments, so he's able to frame scenes and cut them in a way that's intentionally misleading. It's concealing information from the audience just for the payoff of the surprise ending. You feel like you got a little bit used."

Before Charles Theatre co-owner John Standiford or a fellow passenger can respond, Wardell lists at least three more flaws in the movie (which will go unrepeated so as to keep the ending a surprise). And so it goes until Wardell pulls into Allied's Owings Mills office, where he will trot out his wish list for this season's Cinema Sundays (the film series resumes at the Charles Sept. 26) and float his latest thought balloon: Son of Cinema Sundays, a pared-down afternoon adjunct to the Sunday morning ritual of movies, bagels, coffee and discussion.

Wardell, 28, is an accomplished and credentialed critic (he's written for the City Paper in addition to delivering extemporaneous commentary on the WJHU program "Media Matters"). He also travels the country as a projectionist, and can be seen behind the projector at festivals from Park City, Utah, to Birmingham, Ala.

Making a name

But it's as a programmer that he has made his most significant and lasting mark in Baltimore. For the past year he has brought his own tastes and sensibilities to appreciative -- and only occasionally nonplused -- audiences not only at Cinema Sundays but also at the Maryland Film Festival and the Johns Hopkins summer series.

Culling from movies he's seen on the festival circuit (this year he's attending the Sundance, Slamdance, Urbanworld, Toronto and Rehoboth Beach festivals, as well as the Independent Feature Film Market this week), Wardell acts as something of a matchmaker, bringing to Baltimore films he thinks Maryland filmgoers will enjoy, whether at the festival or Cinema Sundays.

"I pretty much refer to myself as a film consultant," Wardell explains a few days later, when asked to describe the living he's cobbled together. "I think of the festival as kind of a home base and the center of operations because of the amount of time and energy and the scope and scale of it. And all the other things I view as part of that."

Nowhere is Wardell's influence more visible and concentrated than in Cinema Sundays, the film series started by George Udel five years ago, that has become required viewing for Baltimore cinephiles. When Udel stepped down as host and artistic director last January for health reasons, he chose Wardell as his successor, confident that the Young Turk would nurture Cinema Sundays' loyal audience even as he provoked it.

Udel says he was looking for someone "who's young, who's devoted, who can bring some fresh ideas, and who knows film very well and whose instincts I trust." Wardell, whom Udel had worked with at the Baltimore Film Forum and Baltimore International Film Festival in the early 1990s, fit the bill. "Not necessarily that I agree with him on all his programming choices, but he knows what he's doing."

Those programming choices have been somewhat controversial. When Wardell brought the pseudo-documentary "20 Dates" to the Charles last spring, the Cinema Sundays crowd was less than pleased, according to Udel. And there was also some consternation surrounding Wardell's choice for this season's kick-off film: He wanted "Tamango," a 1957 film starring Dorothy Dandridge, and Udel preferred the festival circuit hit "Happy, Texas." ("Happy, Texas" won because "Tamango" turned out to be unavailable.) Still, Wardell is committed to shaking Cinema Sundays up, at least a bit. Not only does he plan to add a cheaper afternoon program -- in which he will introduce a rescreening of the morning's movie, without the bagels and coffee -- but he hopes to bring in a slew of new speakers. Wardell hopes that these changes, along with showing more self-distributed films that are even more independent than those offered by Miramax and Fine Line, will attract a younger and more racially diverse audience.

For example, Wardell plans to show "Dreamers," a self-distributed film that was photographed by Neal Fredericks, a Towson University graduate who was the director of photography on "The Blair Witch Project."

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