Moving Pictures
Aug 25, 2023, 06:28AM

A Dispatch From the Inaugural New/Next Film Festival

On Morvern Callar, Carpet Cowboys, and Dogleg.

Morvern callar 1 2002 lynne ramsay credit bfi national archive.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The word festival is derived from the Latin festum, meaning feast, and for better or worse, a film festival is a place to gorge oneself. Just like attending a large banquet can demand the unbuckling of belts, to attend a film festival is to binge. My not-so-secret ambivalence about this marathon structure notwithstanding, when I decided to go to the first-ever New/Next Film Festival here in Baltimore last weekend, gluttony was part of the deal.

A film fest has its hosts and its guests. The guests are filmmakers, producers, distributors, press agents, and anyone else who travels from far and wide to attend. The hosts are the festival organizers, and at least in the case of smaller regional fests, communities of local film lovers who volunteer and otherwise attend. Hosting any event in a city like Baltimore demands a certain amount of personal PR. That can come in the form of restaurant recommendations for some visitors and, for others, reassurances that they will (probably) not get robbed if they visit. All of this is motivated by a desire to make the city look good and offer its guests the best possible experience.

For the first time ever, I receive emails from production companies and distributors about screenings. In these exchanges, I overshare and try to make Baltimore seem more fun than it really is. I tell them to go to Pretty Boy reservoir, despite it being a half hour drive (plus a decent 20-minute walk to the water). I mention Mi Comalito and Ekiben and a few other restaurants that everyone else has already told them to go to. To hear it from me, the Baltimore of 15 years ago never changed. It’s a non-stop parade of illegal warehouse shows and night swimming. The perfect place for a film fest.

Big festivals don’t have this problem. New York City doesn’t need to prove itself, nor does Venice, Toronto, or Berlin. These cities host destination festivals, the kind that attract major movies and sell out. The regional film fest is different, especially in a city with Baltimore’s media profile. We’re more grateful. It’s like when a really good band comes to a small town. Everyone appreciates it a little bit more, which makes it special. I don’t buy a weekend pass. I have too many memberships that I’m trying to justify as is, watching more DVDs and Blu Rays than might seem reasonable to milk my Beyond Video membership and going to the pool several times a week to surpass the 20 visits needed for my summer “Country Club” pass to pay for itself. Therefore, I get only three tickets.

I skip Friday. I hear good things about Rotting in the Sun (my friend’s summary: “like the Troye Sivan ‘Rush’ video if it were a film noir”), but I spend the evening seeing Chiffon at Current Space instead. Except for brief breaks to get my oil changed, cut up a watermelon, and go for a run, I spend Saturday writing until about five o’clock, at which point I start cracking beers.

I show up three beers deep to Morvern Callar. Beach House gives the film a nice introduction. Victoria talks about the impression the movie made on her when she first saw it 20 years ago. Alex mentions the idea of abstraction, which he sees as a throughline in Lynne Ramsay’s work. I’d never thought of her filmography that way, but it’s obvious in hindsight. My admiration for Ramsay’s work is not without qualification—in fact, I’m pretty lukewarm on her films, especially the past couple—but she’s one of a few genuine auteurs to emerge in the past quarter-century. Go in blind to any of her movies and within five minutes you know it’s her.

Ramsay’s films are all, to some degree, about opaque, or at least difficult-to-read characters. Their stories unfold slowly, the details doled out piecemeal and peppered with impressionist flourishes (slow-mo, shadows, strobing lights, heavily saturated color). When we meet Morvern (Samantha Morton), she’s lying on the ground, her face illuminated by a blinking light somewhere offscreen. She lies next to someone who is face down, motionless. Shooting in close-up for a minute or two, Ramsay’s images withhold their meaning. They are, for lack of a better word, abstract. Then she cuts to wide and we get a fuller view of the scene: the flashing, colored bulbs of a miniature Christmas tree; blood on the kitchen floor; a man beside her, his wrists slit.

It's 20 years since I’ve seen this movie, and I mostly remember that it begins this way, with Morvern finding her boyfriend on the floor, a condescending suicide note left on his computer monitor that includes directions on where to publish his manuscript. But I don’t remember the movie being this funny. Morvern ignores her boyfriend’s corpse until the stench demands that she dismember it in the bathtub. She then steals his manuscript and uses the money she was supposed to bury him with on a Spanish vacation for her and her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). When we see his name quickly disappear from the novel’s cover page, followed by a shot of Morvern’s fingers slowly typing—"M-O-R-V…”—it hits me: this is a comedy.

Or kind of a comedy. Ramsay’s trademark abstraction lends her films a certain resistance to the easy classification of genre. Morvern Callar is her best movie, I think, partly for the same reason that it’s harder to pin down than any of her others. At times it feels like a fantasy or modern-day Brothers Grimm, at other times it’s closer to the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, and then there are all the odd little scenes that land somewhere in between, like Morvern and her friend’s impromptu flour fight, or her random one-night stand with a man whose mother has just died. Its nebulous form is provocative, not in the edgy or transgressive sense of the word, but rather in its aims to provoke many overlapping, conflicting reactions from moment to moment.

I go swimming at Dru Hill the next morning, then come home and watch Righting Wrongs on Blu Ray. I’ve been hearing about this movie for years, and it doesn’t disappoint. When Yuen Biao starts dodging cars in a parking garage, I know this is a bad idea—the cinematic equivalent of eating a bunch of junk food before a big dinner. How am I supposed to enjoy a quirky documentary about carpet or an indie movie about making an indie movie when only hours before I watched Cynthia Rothrock vs. Karen Sheperd in a shopping mall?

Carpet Cowboys doesn’t offer anything quite as captivating as that movie’s nihilist spectacle, but as a meditation on globalization, imperialism, and the tyranny of artifice, it’s not bad. Directed by Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier, the doc lives in the shadow of its producer John Wilson, whose HBO doc series How to with John Wilson similarly revels in unexpected left turns. Carpet Cowboys isn’t as formally inventive as How to (few docs are), nor do its swings feel quite as wild. But the symbolic weight of its subject—carpet as a metaphor for everything from the destruction of nature to cultural imperialism to the corporate takeover of small-town America—lends the images a suggestive power that works in absence of those qualities.

I don’t stick around for the Q&A. A movie says what it needs to say or it doesn’t. Besides, Carpet Cowboys isn’t especially cryptic. When one of the titular cowboys tells his old partner that he misses him over the phone and the retired cowboy, on a beach in the Philippines, refuses to reciprocate and just yammers on about constructing a giant mansion on the beach, it’s pretty clear how the logic of carpeting has poisoned this guy’s life, and by extension, the world around him.

Instead of the Q&A, I drop off/pick up a few discs at Beyond Video, then grab a kale Caesar and a frozen piña colada at Royal Blue (both are good!). I rarely go to bars anymore, but it seems like Royal Blue has overtaken Club Charles as the bar of choice in the Charles Theater’s neighboring blocks, as the former has alienated just about every Baltimorean I know. The list of complaints includes rude bartenders (par for the course), fights breaking out in the barroom (ditto), and a problematic proprietor with an alleged history of shady business practices.

But I digress. So does Dogleg. In a Q&A that I do feel compelled to stick around for, co-writer Michael Bible explains that the title refers to a sharp turn, the kind that Dogleg makes a few different times. Al Warren plays Al, a writer/director living in LA who’s watching his fiancée’s dog while she’s on a business trip. Al also has a scene to shoot, a disorganized mess that’s made worse after he loses the dog at a gender reveal party (the host’s indifference to Al’s dilemma is equally unnerving and hilarious). Interspersed throughout are scenes from Al’s movie that contain small echoes of his current predicament: a woman loses her goat while renting out her farm to a yoga retreat; a retreat attendee returns to L.A. and runs into an old acquaintance at a casting call; a PA from the casting call is seduced by two visibly unhinged women after he helps them carry a mattress to their apartment.

The movie climaxes in an on-set scuffle between Al and his director-of-photography, which Warren encouraged crew members to record and post online. That he ended up receiving death threats for his performance says a lot about his talent as an actor and his willingness to take his characters to unflattering places. Many of the film’s funniest moments are just him wordlessly reacting to his surroundings, his pauses while trying to address some ridiculous question or deal with something well outside the bounds of normal human behavior.

I’m not sure the mise-en-abyme totally works. I’m more interested in what’s going to happen to Al than any of the characters in his films. (Whenever Al Warren’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, “Where’s Al Warren?”) But Dogleg is still a funny, tense comedy in the tradition of After Hours, another movie that drags its protagonist through a waking nightmare. Warren gives sunny L.A. some of the same fever dream energy that Scorsese gives nighttime New York City. Both are abysses. In that sense, maybe mise-en-abyme is appropriate.

At some point in the middle of the movie’s six-year production, Warren reportedly talked to critic and author Nick Pinkerton to help him figure out what to do with the footage he’d already shot, recordings of which make it into the film. Warren’s roundabout method for assembling Dogleg was similar to how Peter Bogdanovich made his debut Targets, taking footage that didn’t work on its own and incorporating it into a larger narrative about filmmaking. Warren traveled to several different states, shooting what he imagined to be a series of interlocking shorts, only to end up back in Los Angeles. Searching for his heart’s desire, he didn’t need to look any further than his own backyard.

“There’s no place like home,” I think to myself, passing the mayor in the lobby and making my way out into the street, where I begin my walk home. The sun is setting. Dogs are sleeping in the vestibules along St. Paul St. An ambient chorus of locusts harmonizes with a nearby ice cream truck’s rendition of “Jingle Bells.” The city’s beautiful this time of year, a feast for the senses. No matter what else is wrong with it, I was stupid to think that Baltimore needed to be sold to New/Next’s attendees, and that it needed me, of all people, to sell it. Just like a great film or a great meal, the city of Baltimore vouches for itself, its value self-evident to hosts and guests alike—no Q&As necessary.


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