So what was so impressive about the lineup of films at the 17th Maine Fest? Catnip for me are 35mm films on the big screen, something still possible at both the multi-screen Railroad Square Cinema and Waterville’s sumptuous Opera House.
By Gerald Peary
I’ve been hearing for years that the Maine International Film Festival each July is the place to be, that the organizers strive to bring together adventurous films, old and new, and unusually interesting actors and directors. And to attract a committed, movie-loving audience in (population: 15,000) Waterville, Maine. Well, I was up there this week, for four eventful days of the 17th annual Maine Fest, and it’s true, my friends, all true. Here’s a model film festival on, programming director Ken Eisen insists, the most modest of budgets.
How do they finance it? Behind the scenes, is there a sugar-Daddy Warbucks who pays the bills for the guests? Cláudio Marques was brought all the way from Brazil to show After the Rain, a political feature; and a week in weathered, blue-collar Waterville was his first view of America! (New York City next.) Bluesman William Bell and rapper Frayser Boy came from Tennessee for the Memphis-based musical celebration, Take Me to the River. They brought an energetic African-American presence to swan-white Central Maine, and took their own culture shock in stride: “That’s the best lobster I ever ate,” proclaimed Frayser Boy.
And then there was Glenn Close, an A-list Hollywood star lured to Waterville by a Mid-Life Achievement Award. After a screening of Alfred Nobbs, Close gamely stayed about a party in her honor at an Italian restaurant, posing for selfies and chatting with various locals. It amazed me: this celebrity party was open to everybody, not just as, at most festivals, board members and big-money pass holders. I mean everybody. You could rub up with Close even if you hadn’t attended a single film.
So what was so impressive about the lineup of films at the 17th Maine Fest? Catnip for me are 35mm films on the big screen, something still possible at both the multi-screen Railroad Square Cinema and Waterville’s sumptuous Opera House. The tribute to Close included 35mm screenings of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Cookie’s Fortune (1999), and Jim Jarmusch, who wasn’t there, offered his own 35 mm, black-and-white print of Stranger Than Paradise (1984), still a funky, dry-humor delight. And what other regional festival would be so bold to show restored 35mm prints of aged B-“noirs,” Joseph H. Lewis’s pre-Bonnie and Clyde Freudian classic, Gun Crazy (1950), and Edgar G. Ulmer’s delirious melodrama, Her Sister’s Secret (1946)?
Waterville got what seems to have bypassed Boston: a series of masterpiece Polish films from the 1950s and after, handpicked and digitally remastered by Martin Scorsese. Get this: 16 Polish films were screened at the Maine Film Festival, pearls from Andrzej Wajda, Krzystof Zanussi, and Krzystof Kieslowski, and other seminal directors. Impressive! I saw an early Wajda in which Roman Polanski played a small role as a jazz bassist. For forty years, I’ve been reading about the legendary filmmaker, Andrzej Munk, dead in 1961 at age 40, At the Maine Fest, I got a chance to see Eroica, a cynical anti-war film, my first Munk picture ever,
Of course, there were new films, too. The aforementioned Take Me to the River, is a splendid show-off of Memphis R&B, Stax Records style, up close with royalty musicians jamming and sharing stories, including the effervescent Mavis Staples, the magisterial Bobby “Blue” Bland. If you loved Twenty Feet from Stardom, Take Me to the River is a buoyant, vastly entertaining follow-up.
Love is Strange, coming soon to Boston, is filmmaker Ira Sach’s sweet, slightly self-conscious tale of an aging male couple (the amiable duo of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow), just married, who find themselves homeless, shuttled between annoyed, petulant relatives. A gay version of Ozu’s The Tokyo Story? (See Arts Fuse review)
A Master Builder, Andre Gregory’s stylized stage version of Ibsen repurposed for the screen by Jonathan Demme, is sharp and smart and totally gripping, and with a dazzling ensemble including Julie Hagerty, Larry Pine, and Gregory himself. Wallace Shawn, short, balding, and with his quack-quack Donald Duck voice, is peculiarly cast as the dashing lead architect, surrounded by adoring women. By sheer will, by belief in his performance, he somehow works out. I bought in, when a golden girl (the radiant Lisa Joyce) arrives at his house to proclaim her dizzying devotion. (See Arts Fuse review)
The Forgotten Kingdom by Cambridge’s Andrew Mudge, offers a mesmeric journey to the kingdom of Lesotho, landlocked neighbor of South Africa. It’s the fictional story of a jaded youngster in Johannesburg who travels to his rural place of birth in Lesotho to bury his father. What a formidable task for Mudge, filming for six weeks in a raw country without any infrastructure for filmmaking. Some of this gorgeously made film feels like a great American western transposed to Africa, exciting stuff, though the film is hobbled a bit by some earnest melodrama.
And more Maine Fest guests: the first tribute ever to nice-guy Leonard Mann, now a California therapist, in the 1970s the handsome star of dubbed, Italian-produced “Eurocrime” cinema. These were The Godfather ripoffs with bosomy babes, erupting machine guns, and the lead actors having to do their own scary stunts. Mann was complimented that several of his genre works were being shown at the Maine Fest but he made no claims for their worth. He’s most proud of being one of the three steamy leads of Wifemistress (1977), a ménage with Laura Antonelli and Marcello Mastroianni.
Finally, the Maine Film Festival gets my thanks because it had a tribute to Sara Driver. It’s about time that Sara, my friend, got formal notice of her one-of-a-kind independent features – You Are Not I (1981), Sleepwalk (1986), When Pigs Fly (1993) – gently magical and paranormal, wistful celluloid dreams. Sara has been partners with Jim Jarmusch for 32 years, and I tried to coax out of her that Jarmusch’s 2014 vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive, was a tribute to their long, long relationship. And that Tilda Swinton’s wildly coiffed character was an homage to her, Sara Driver. She wouldn’t quite admit it. But Sara did reveal that the movie had an unusual uncredited source, Mark Twain’s 1906 The Private Life of Adam and Eve.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.