`Existo': Soldiers in a strange land

Film: From the guys who brought you the `Ernest' movies comes a war story ... make that a musical ... um, make that a comedy from the nation's cultural battles.

November 04, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Sunday night, hundreds of Baltimoreans will eagerly line up at the Senator Theatre, awaiting the first glimpse of hometown boy Barry Levinson's fourth installment in his Baltimore series, "Liberty Heights."

But for an audience of distinctly less conventional sensibilities, an equally important screening is being held farther south that evening. A movie called "Existo" is making its Baltimore debut at the Charles Theatre, and fans of subversive, playful musical comedies -- think early John Waters by way of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" -- won't want to miss this chance to see that rarity in the world of cinema: a true original.

"Existo" is the story of a band of merry performance-art pranksters who set out to free a Jesse Helms-ified world from moral and aesthetic tyranny. It stars and is co-written by Bruce Arntson, a Nashville comedian and performance artist whose inspired rants combine the rage of the late Bill Hicks, the white-soul rhythm of Buster Poindexter and the culture-critical chops of Michel Foucault.

As the title character, Arntson leads his rag-tag band of drag queens, punks, poets and misfits in an ill-advised war against a right wing that has declared all art illegal. In a climactic scene, he rallies his troops while bouncing on a pogo stick resembling an unmistakable part of the male anatomy.

Still not curious? Then consider this: Arntson and "Existo's" co-writer and director, Coke Sams, are the same guys who brought you a series of films from an entirely different part of the cinematic spectrum -- the "Ernest" movies. In fact, Ernest (actor Jim Varney) has a part in "Existo," albeit one in which he never utters the words "Hey, Vern."

"In a sense, there's always been a weird streak to the `Ernest' movies," Sams says from his Nashville office when asked to connect the dots between these two very different, um, cultural phenomena.

"What `Ernest' did for a lot of us here was that it was a big building block for the film community. Nashville is known as the music capital, but there has not been traditionally a whole lot of film work here. So `Ernest' really helped coalesce those of us who adamantly were not going to Los Angeles. It gave us work, and it also gave us a bizarre form of legitimacy, both here and in L.A."

Sams and Arntson, who are neighbors in Nashville, wrote "Existo" in 1997, long after the dust from Jesse Helms' rumble with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe had settled. Indeed, some early reviews of the movie, which made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in April and has appeared in festivals around North America since, accused it of being somewhat dated.

But then Rudolph Giuliani took on the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and suddenly "Existo" was as timely as ever. When Arntson's wild-eyed, priapic Mephistopheles demands all arts be state-subsidized, all unions be legalized and every American flag be sold with a match, it's as if he's speaking directly to Giuliani himself.

"The culture wars are one of the staples of our society," Sams says with some resignation. "Yes, it's supremely topical right now, but it's always simmering right on the edges."

Still, one of "Existo's" supreme strengths -- aside from dazzlingly clever writing, some delightfully catchy tunes and several tour de force performances (Arntson is well-supported by real-life collaborator Jackie Welch, as well as Gailard Sartain, Michael Montgomery, Jenny Littleton and Mark Cabus) -- is its evenhandedness in doling out the ridicule.

As goofy as the film's right-wingers are ("If you see art, do not, I repeat do not, attempt to interpret it yourself. Call 911 and have the Art Squad defuse it," says one government announcement), the left wing is pretty dizzy, too. As well as depraved and drug-addled.

"We wanted to play the left the way the right thinks they are, and the right the way the left thinks they are," Sams says, adding that too much thinking might not be wise with a movie that was meant to be a lot of laughs.

"Every now and then, people think they find meaning in it," he says, "but there's less there than meets the eye."


What: Closing film of MicroCineFest '99

Where: Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.

When: 7 p.m. (Filmmaker Coke Sams will present the movie and answer questions afterward. A party will follow at The G-Spot, 2980 Falls Road.)

Tickets: $5

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