`The Mudge Boy' is up for Grand Jury Prize


Film Column

January 24, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Maryland Film Festival chief Jed Dietz reports from the Sundance Film Festival that a recent recipient of the Producers Club of Maryland Fellowship - an annual award given to a project emerging from the Sundance Lab - is up for this year's Grand Jury Prize: Michael Burke's The Mudge Boy, the story of an isolated rural teen-ager (Emile Hirsch, of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) who mourns for his mother by mimicking her voice and donning her fur coat.

Dietz credits executive producer Stanley Tucci with catalyzing the production and Burke with building on the slim experience of his one acclaimed short, Fish Belly White, and turning out a debut feature that has made its backers proud. Whether or not The Mudge Boy wins a theatrical release, it will appear on Showtime, the cable network that financed it.

Dietz also is enthusiastic about the movie version of Harvey Pekar's cult comic book American Splendor - Dietz and friends once had an interest in producing it - and remarks that this year the documentaries are as potent as usual and the production values in the fiction films better than ever: "When you see something grainy or scratchy, you know it's on purpose." Dietz says the Maryland Film Office, led by Jack Gerbes, has helped maintain a strong Maryland presence at both the Sundance and the Slamdance festivals.

Whether or not the Baltimore insurgence into Park City, Utah, will net a vital slate for Dietz's own event depends, of course, on deals individual producers strike with distributors - and distributors' attitudes toward the promotional benefits of screening movies at regional film festivals.

`2001' at the Charles

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, playing at noon and 11:59 p.m. tomorrow at the Charles, endures in 2003 not as crystal-ball gazing, but as a mad amalgam of science and showmanship. Its beauty and bombast are as much a part of our culture as The Wizard of Oz. A TV commercial for a minivan has only to play Kubrick's thundering quotes from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and we know that the ad guys are referring to 2001's big black slabs. Its shadow has stretched not merely over obvious candidates such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact but also over the kids' classic Toy Story. When Buzz Lightyear cries out, "To Infinity and Beyond," he echoes Kubrick's title card, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." The "Dawn of Man" opening of the movie has been endlessly pillaged and parodied and spun off; it's hard to imagine even films like Dinosaur and Cast Away without it.

With typical audacity, Kubrick begins his picture with tribes of man-apes competing for food and water and being nudged into humanhood by a mysterious perfect ebony slab that inspires their use of weaponry. Is Kubrick saying that man is innately vicious - or that he just needs technology to survive? The film's directorial poker face is part of its blend of challenge and charm. What's crucial is that Kubrick thrusts us into vast and undefined landscapes that make us feel - like those man-apes - helpless before natural forces or more aggressive animals. We experience the chaos of those prehistoric times - of living without a sense of time and space - and instinctively appreciate the bone tool as the world's first ordering agent.

The movie starts with the emergence of Homo sapiens; it ends with the emergence of homo who-knows? Keir Dullea, the lone survivor of a space mission to Jupiter, undergoes a strange death and transfiguration under the spell of the same (or an identical) black slab. He becomes a figure in an astral fetal sac, leaving us in the exact dilemma we experienced two hours before. Is he an upwardly mobile, evolutionary mutation? Or is he a monster capable of crushing a planet between his fingers?

It's Kubrick's contradictions, not his syntheses, that make the movie fascinating. In one of his funniest and most graceful cuts - one of the funniest and most graceful cuts in movie history - the ape-man's jagged bone weapon, flung into the air in victory, becomes a streamlined nuclear weapons satellite. The edit from a somersaulting bone tool to a lithe 21st century spacecraft emphasizes the wonder of man's tenacity and the intelligence mirrored in his technology. As soon as we go inside, Kubrick seems to be condemning future men for ceding their human qualities to machines. Yet when he plays The Blue Danube as the shuttle and a space station do an extended waltz, the director is doing the humanizing. The entire film is summed up in this paradox: Kubrick wants to have his super-powered future and his Johann (and Richard) Strauss, too. Even before the movie makes its blinding and boggling jaunt to infinity, it's a seductive light trip of the future fitted out, for the most part, with the feelings and rhythms of romantic music from the past.

Admission: $5. Call 410-727-FILM or go to www.thecharles.com.

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