Adding nonsense and sensibility

Members of the film festival's advisory board bring their own quirky selections to the already quirky proceedings

April 23, 2000|By Ann Hornaday, and Chris Kaltenabch | Ann Hornaday, and Chris Kaltenabch,Sun Staff

The second edition of the Maryland Film Festival will unspool next weekend, with more than 100 short and feature films shown at the Senator and Charles theaters. And as with every festival, one question, for good or for ill, will be on every filmgoer's lips: Where do they find this stuff?

Part of the answer is simple. Festival founder Jed Dietz and program adviser, Gabe Wardell are both veteran film festivalgoers, who travel from Toronto to Park City in search of works to share with audiences back home.

But when Dietz started the festival, he wanted more than his and Wardell's viewpoint represented. He asked 13 people -- local filmmakers, theater owners, programmers and marketers -- to make up a program advisory board.

"They've really affected the formation of the festival from the beginning," Dietz said, adding that members have often been responsible for the festival's biggest programming coups. Last year, for example, filmmaker and programmer Skizz Cyzyk persuaded Dietz to play Canadian director John Paisz's films "Crime Wave" and "Top of the Food Chain," both of which have gone on to fame, if not fortune, on the festival circuit.

"And some of the most fun programming comes out of these conversations," Dietz continued. "Like [Orpheum owner] George Figgs calls and says, 'What do you think about Jonathan Richman as a guest host?' ... And then a day later he calls back and says [Jonathan] may like to do it, can you call him this weekend. Who'da known?" (Richman, the singer-songwriter who appeared in "There's Something About Mary" and also made a name for himself in the rock band Modern Lovers, will present "Cyrano de Bergerac" on Sunday.)

What's more, for a noncompetitive festival that does not have a formal submission process, the advisory board is a valuable source of films that reflect a wide range of cinematic styles and thematic content.

"They add a texture to this festival that's very unusual," Dietz said of the board. "Compared to much bigger festivals and older festivals, who have formalistically made an Asian section or a documentary section or a Latin section or whatever, I think we're [diverse] in ways that feel pretty organic to me."

The Sun caught up with five advisory board members, who talked about their contributions to this year's program.

Darryl LeMont Wharton

When Darryl LeMont Wharton was attending film school at Ithaca College, he and his fellow students would compare notes on the most influential films of their lives. The usual titles would come up -- "Mean Streets," "Apocalypse Now," "A Clockwork Orange" -- and then Wharton would offer his: "Cooley High."

"Everyone would always say, 'Cooley High'? What's that?' " Wharton recalled recently. "And I'd have to explain to them what 'Cooley High' was." For Wharton, the 1975 film, a comedy-drama about a group of African-American high school students during the 1960s (it's often called the "black 'American Graf- fiti' "), was one of first films people in urban America could identify with, and one of the first films that touched him growing up.

"'Sounder' was more about the South, and all the blaxploitation films were about getting the Man or all these superbad-dude kind of things," he said. "This film was just about a bunch of guys living and existing and doing the everyday."

Wharton, 31, who grew up in Baltimore and became a staff writer for "Homicide" after directing his debut feature, "Detention" in 1996, added that "Cooley High" had a far-reaching impact on popular culture and its ripple effects are still being felt. The film's writer, Eric Monte, went on to create characters for "The Jeffersons," as well as "What's Happening," the television series that was based on "Cooley High." He also helped create the comedy series "Good Times."

And, Wharton said, "Cooley High" has influenced an untold number of African-American filmmakers who probably saw the film around the same time he did, and whose work bears its stamp. "If you look at this film, you'll see that it was probably an influence on 'Boyz N the Hood' and 'Menace II Society,' " Wharton said, "and it's probably because of that film that Boys 2 Men had a hit single, because the song that closes the film, 'So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,' was one of their hits." In addition to "Cooley High," which will be shown Saturday at 4:45 p.m., Wharton is responsible for bringing three more films to the film festival this year: "Blue Collar," local filmmaker Todd Cole's documentary about a group of Baltimore men who work as low-level drug dealers; "Another Planet," Canadian director Christine Browne's comedy about an African-Canadian woman who grapples with her identity while working on a pig farm; and the short film "Black Sheep," about director Aaron Woolfolk's experience as an African-American man living in Japan.

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