Offbeat films draw crowds


John Waters extolling a film about two suicidal Turks living in Germany. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch wearing 3-D glasses. Actor Matthew Modine discussing the ending of Full Metal Jacket -- before the movie had started. An 11-minute-long March of the Penguins, only with ducks. Spending Mother's Day evening with Rudolph Valentino. A movie we're not allowed to tell you anything about.

The eighth annual Maryland Film Festival brought a few thousand moviegoers to The Charles and other city theaters over the weekend. In all, more than 100 features and shorts were shown, most the work of filmmakers who have yet to enter anything resembling the mainstream. For three days, area moviegoers looking for something a little different were faced with an embarrassment of riches.

"This year, it seemed to be a crowd willing to take risks," said local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, whose debut feature, Hamilton, sold out its two screenings at The Charles. "It's really a festival for people who love film. Every year, all these people I see around town who are into film arts come together and can be seen in one place. It's kind of a life's blood for people like me in Baltimore."

Porterfield's film, a delicate, meditative drama centering on two days in the life of an unmarried mother and father living in Baltimore, proved so popular that it attracted 200 or so filmgoers to an impromptu Saturday showing at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center.

Festival organizers were unable to provide overall attendance figures yesterday, but noted there were 17 sellouts, up from 12 last year. Thursday's opening night at The Senator, a program of six short films (including Steve Furman's Ride of the Mergansers, which could do for ducks what March of the Penguins did for their nonflying cousins), played to an estimated audience of 600. That number was almost double the number who attended opening night last year at the considerably smaller Brown Center.

Among those in attendance over the weekend were Modine, whose faux pas as he introduced Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was interrupted by a gentle tap on the shoulder from festival director Jed Dietz; Branch, who was seen at screenings of an amusingly campy 3-D horror film (1954's The Mad Magician) and a sobering documentary on the legacy of runaway colonialism in Congo (Pippa Scott's King Leopold's Ghost); and Waters, who every year is host for a Friday night screening that inevitably brings out a huge audience for some little-seen film from the fringe (this year's Head-On, which Waters described as "David and Lisa Go to Hell," certainly fits that bill).

Among the festival's biggest hits was Sunday morning's "secret screening." Everyone who attended had to sign a statement promising not to discuss the film until it is released later this summer. What we can say, without fear of legal reprisal, is that one woman literally fell out of her seat laughing.

The festival closed Sunday -- Mother's Day -- with a screening of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino in 1925's The Eagle, live musical accompaniment provided by the three-piece Alloy Orchestra, whose vibrant scores are helping revive a once-all-but-extinct popular art form. If nothing else, the evening gave its audience an inkling of how mothers of another era might have enjoyed celebrating their day.

Sun movie critic Michael Sragow contributed to this article.

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