Beneath the surface, pro-U.S. sentimentsPro-U.S. ideas in disguise

Message: Two Vietnam protest documentaries pay homage to both democracy and dissent.

Film

October 19, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

To those who think that everything in a society and its culture must move in lock-step at times of crisis, the Maryland Film Festival might seem to be "off-message" with its six-day presentation of two Vietnam-protest documentaries, Investigation of a Flame and Unfinished Symphony, starting today at the Charles.

But Investigation of a Flame, about the May 1968 "action" of the Catonsville Nine, and Unfinished Symphony, which centers on the May 1971 march from Concord to Bunker Hill by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, are in essence patriotic films. They salute U.S. democracy as they pay homage to the U.S. tradition of dissent.

The greatest tribute to Investigation of a Flame is that when it premiered on opening night of the Maryland Film Festival, witnesses from every political sector, including most of the Nine and their prosecutor, Steve Sachs, agreed to appear afterward. Almost to a man (and woman) they praised the film. Much has been made of director Lynne Sachs' impressionistic style; to some of us, her attempts at poetry blur rather than clarify the material. But to Fred Camper of the Chicago Reader, "images like a newspaper going in and out of focus remind us that shifting contexts alter our understanding of complex events."

Unfinished Symphony, by Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros, is a heartbreaker - at once a lucid analysis of an incisive political stroke and a sweeping threnody for lives blasted and lost in America and Vietnam. Using archival film and never-before-seen footage of Vietnam Veterans Against the War as they followed Paul Revere's route backward, Cram and Majoros bring home how jarring and/or mov- ing it was for civilians to see these men throwing away their war medals in Washington or putting on guerrilla-theater scenes of soldiers rousting "villagers" in Concord.

The film captures the depth of these men's intellectual and emotional commitment and the complexity of their revised version of esprit de corps. When the vets are threatened with expulsion from their camp on Lexington Green, they rouse the spirit of Thoreau's civil disobedience and find unlikely allies in town members who argue for permission for them to stay there overnight. Cram and Majoros don't just score their film to Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony - they organize their material to fit its three movements. Never has Gorecki's composition more vividly lived up to its subtitle, "the symphony of sorrowful songs."

The filmmakers will discuss their work after tonight's 7:30 screening.

Rituals in Seville

At the center of tonight's Creative Alliance event, Milagros En La Calle, is Semana Santa in Seville - Mary Flannery's alternately eye-opening and eye-popping account of the Holy Week processions in Seville. This is a genuine documentary spectacle. Every day of the week before Easter - and virtually around the clock - packs of men from fraternal orders carry life-size antique wooden sculptures in full-scale scenes from the Passion on their necks and shoulders. Others, including some women, march behind them with crosses or tapers in hand, in floor-length, hooded tunics.

Near the start, we learn we shouldn't be put off because the costumes of these "penitentes" resemble a multicolored version of the KKK's; several hooded orders arose to protect minorities from persecution. And the movie makes a brilliant case for the processions' power to imbue people in the street with humility, atonement and transcendence. But the picture might have been stronger if it detailed (rather than just mentioned) how this inspiring event evolved from the horrifying auto-da-fes, or execution pageants, of the Inquisition.

The show ($5 members, $7 nonmembers) is at 8 at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St.

Screening of `House'

Councilwoman Catherine Pugh will be the host of a screening of the Kevin Kline film My Life As a House at the Charles Theatre on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., for the benefit of the Maryland Film Festival. Tickets are $10.

Cinema Sundays

This weekend's entry for Cinema Sundays at the Charles is Richard Linklater's Waking Life, an animated existential extravaganza featuring scores of characters offering personal definitions of dream-life and reality, in images that range from the hyper-real to the surreal. Doors open (with coffee and bagels) at 9:45 a.m. Show time is 10:30. Tickets cost $15; five-film mini-memberships cost $65.

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