Take a ride with a 'Wild Bunch'

Mixed bag: Film Fest entries run from the sublime to the lunatic

Maryland Film Festival May 3 - 6

Special Pullout Section

May 03, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

This weekend, satire does not close on Saturday night: It stays open through Sunday at the Maryland Film Festival.

On Sunday, at 1 p.m., National Public Radio's Scott Simon is guest host at a screening of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

It should be a jolly freak-out to hear Simon introduce the film in his resonant NPR tones right before Kubrick's NPR-style narrator announces, "For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon: a doomsday device."

To top this, the festival would have to bring in NPR's "Car Talk" guys to analyze Stephen King's "Christine," the tale of a homicidal '58 Plymouth.

The entire festival schedule mixes mischief with social conscience. This blend should satisfy any sane festival-goer's need to see films based in experience, films that offer an escape from it -- and films that provide both reality and comic relief in a structured satiric vision.

"Dr. Strangelove" started out as the director's dead-serious response to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Laboring on the screenplay while their stomachs rumbled in the wee hours of the night, Kubrick and his frequent collaborator, James B. Harris, wondered: What would happen if the denizens of their War Room were in the same position? Would they order out to the Gayety Delicatessen for sandwiches? Months later, Kubrick hired writer Terry Southern to help him counterpoint nuclear horror with absurdity.

The result was a classic that tickled, jolted and inspired generations of filmmakers. Ron Shelton, the writer-director of my "critical advocacy" selection, "Cobb" (as well as "Bull Durham"), once wrote a terrific nuclear-deterrence comedy called "The Button." The epigraph to that unproduced screenplay puns, "There's no such thing as a free launch."

Like Shelton, a festival fan might do well to follow in Kubrick's footsteps and leaven sobriety with creative insanity, going from, say, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowaska's ironically titled "Happy Man" to American animator Bill Plympton's full-length cartoon, "Mutant Aliens."

An array of documentaries promises lucid presentations of powerful subject matter. I've seen two: "Startup.com," an engrossing chronicle of the rise and fall of a dot-com and the breakup and tentative reconstitution of a friendship; and "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," one of the most moving and revelatory movies ever made about the poetics of filmmaking. (Paul Seydor, who created the "Wild Bunch" documentary, also edited "Cobb" and will appear at both screenings.)

Opening night marks the world premiere of "Investigation of a Flame," a documentary about the anti-Vietnam-draft efforts of the Catonsville 9. Other fact-film entries include "An Unfinished Symphony," about the Vietnam Veterans' Against the War rally on Memorial Day 1971, in Lexington, Mass.; "A Union in Wait," about two women's attempt to have their same-sex union consecrated at Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel; and "I Remember Me," a filmmaker's autobiographical investigation of chronic-fatigue syndrome.

But festival-goers should try to fit in some of the guest hosts' way-out satiric selections -- and not just to clear the palate.

While Simon has chosen "Dr. Strangelove," John Waters chose "Baxter," the 1988 French comedy usually described as the story of a serial-killing dog. The original ad line is more pertinent: "Beware of the dog that thinks."

A bad bull terrier

The antihero is a bull terrier who narrates his life story in voiceover. The scariest canine since Cujo, he knows "neither love nor fear." The film is too thin to be great: The bipeds in the picture are only half as fascinating as the four-legged antihero. What's creepy is how the director-co-writer, Jerome Boivin, insinuates us into Baxter's logic. Humans try to project their own needs, phobias and neuroses on Baxter, not realizing he has a strong inner identity.

This movie burlesques the complacence of child-raising and pet-training: Boivin interweaves Baxter's fate with that of a schoolboy who shows signs of serial-killer syndrome, from sadomasochism to a fascination with Hitler. Briefly, the two are a perfect match.

So, in a way, are "Dr. Strangelove" and "Baxter." They both have a cracked deadpan manner. When "Dr. Strangelove" came out in 1964, the rap against the picture was that it was too broad and comedic, with overly silly caricatures of the Cold War's political and military elite. But 20 years later, when it enjoyed a flurry of revivals in the wake of "War Games," friends reported that in rep houses Kubrick's movie didn't raise a laugh; and a recent university-press book lists it as a war movie, not a comedy, partly because "it's not funny."

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