Mainely Magnificent: Severely MIFFed

Over the hills and through the woods, to the Maine International Film Festival I go. Weaving my way through the back country roads that link the coast of Maine to the I-95 corridor (Portland → Augusta → Winterfell → The Wall), I idly wonder how many people out there are willing to drive nearly three hours round-trip, on a whim, to see a revival screening of a 1958 Polish drama. Looking out over rolling green farmland, I suppose there might be those who would make this trip just for the hell of it – Maine’s heartland doesn’t have quite the rugged, rocky beauty of the shoreline, but it’s a serene, exceedingly pleasant journey nonetheless.

In any case, when the film in question is “Ashes and Diamonds,” I would be willing to travel through far less agreeable surroundings. I reviewed the film for this blog several years back, shortly after seeing Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece for the first time, and repeat viewings since have only solidified its place in my personal pantheon. It’s a visually stunning electric charge of cinema, fresh and fierce and despairing and tragic; it’s everything the French New Wave wanted to be, before the French New Wave did it. An opportunity to see “Ashes and Diamonds” on the big screen – after a beautiful new restoration performed by members of a Polish post-production house who spoke to one of my classes earlier this spring, no less – was too good to pass up.

And so I found myself on the road from Bucksport to Waterville, generally known, if at all, as the home of NESCAC stalwart Colby College. The college, however, sits on a hillside a good mile or two out of Waterville proper, which, like so many other New England mill towns of its kind, could generously be described as having seen better times. The first thing you notice upon crossing the Kennebec River is the abandoned mill itself: a hollowed, run-down shell of prosperity past, rusted and overgrown railway lines trailing away to long-forgotten destinations. As it turned out, Main Street had its fair share of the usual quant antique shops and ice cream parlors, and a well-kept pedestrian bridge offered a lovely stroll over the river, but Waterville would still not be the first place one would picture when imagining a film festival.

The actual site of the screening turned out to be, appropriately enough, a small independent theater called the Railyard Square Cinema – a modest, three-screen affair in what I assume is a repurposed train station. It’s a clean, comfortable, decent-sized facility – the most remarkable thing about it, I suppose, is that it exists at all, although after over a month of working at a regional non-profit archive that manages to stay afloat while focusing almost exclusively on a clientele that remembers Super 8 film, I have ceased to be surprised by the apparently robust support for small-time film operations in rural Maine. A gaggle of friendly volunteers, more than would probably be necessary for a Wajda screening at Lincoln Center, much less Waterville, directed me to the correct theater, and I settled in for two hours of watching everything go to shit for Poland. Again.

Once Maciek met his ignominious end somewhere on an Eastern European landfill, the lights came up and the few MIFF patrons who shared my enthusiasm for mid-century critiques of Soviet society trickled out of the room. The screening had already taken place in the smallest of the building’s three theaters, and even then the seats were perhaps not even a third filled. I suppose even film-savvy Mainers have to draw the line somewhere.

(For the record, I did return to Waterville a week later for another revival screening, this time for the pristine 50th anniversary restoration of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” recently released by Janus Films and The Criterion Collection; a far more rollicking, and unsurprisingly better-attended, event. There the Railyard Cinema’s membership chuckled, with more than a hint of condescension, at the mass hysteria of Beatlemania – though the thought crossed my mind that some of the aging audience members could very well have been one of the sobbing young men or women on the screen)

The sun had set by the time I left the theater, and winding my way back to Bucksport became a journey into the heart of darkness (hopefully with fewer murderous savages). When you live in New York City, or a smaller city or even a suburb, you can forget what it’s like out past the streetlights, where the sky is an inky black dotted with a thousand thousand tiny flecks of light, rather than just an indistinct pink haze. There was no one else on the road, just me and my headlights rushing forward into the night, carving a path that disappeared behind me as quickly as it came. The countryside felt curiously still around me, eerie and empty. The “Game of Thrones” audiobook on my iPhone began to feel like an intrusion, so I switched it off; finally, I had to just pull over to the side of the road, and take in my surroundings outside of my Hyundai bubble.

God only knows where on State Route 137 I was. Even if I were to return there now, I would be hard-pressed to tell you which hillside exactly I stood on briefly, or whether it was a farm or a field or a forest that lay just beyond my limited line of night vision. But out in the black I thought I could see, for a moment, a young Polish man stumbling through rows of hanging linen, gutshot and bloodied; I could see the Fab Four bounding just ahead of the horde of shrieking fans nipping at their clicking heels; I could see Iréne Jacob chewing bubble gum and Steve McQueen jumping a barbed wire fence and a boy and his dragon suspended in the clouds. They all floated by, luminous and vivid as daylight in my mind’s eye.

There was a lot I could see in the dark.

I took in a final, deep breath, clambered back in the car, and, a little slower now, continued on my way home.

For Your Consideration: June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood is taking audiences on another trip down desaturated-color lane this weekend, with his adaptation of the smash Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” Jukebox musicals are theoretically a sure bet – they come with a nostalgia factor that ensures the built-in fan base of whatever band or musical genre you’re appropriating will be interested. On the other hand, that same quality can be alienating: what if Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons just aren’t your cup of tea? What if you yearn for the vocal stylings and fab hairdos of a different era? Sigh no more, we’ve got you covered with three more jukebox flicks.

– Ethan

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Famously referred to in the Village Voice as the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox musicals, Richard Lester’s Beatles vehicle is rather astonishing for the way it still feels fresh even after fifty (fifty!) years of the freewheeling, irreverent music videos it inspired. The movie’s flimsy excuse for a plot – mostly composed of the four members of the band running from their hysterical fans, while Paul’s “grandfather” (Brambell) occasionally stirs up trouble – relieves the songs from any kind of narrative duty, allowing us to appreciate the unflappable energy and sincerity of Lennon and McCarthy’s early songwriting: from the jangling title track to the tender “If I Fell” and riotous curtain-closer “She Loves You.” And somehow, amid the rollicking music sequences and cracking dialogue far more witty than it has any business being (the screenplay, let’s not forget, was nominated for an Oscar), Lester has some genuine satire on his mind. The straight-faced bafflement with which the Fab Four handle the ever-growing absurdity of their own fame would make Buñuel’s bourgeoisie proud.

Criterion recently released a gorgeous new digital transfer of “A Hard Day’s Night” with special features, including invaluable interviews and commentary tracks, that are definitely worth seeking out; Janus Films will also be releasing it into select theaters in the U.S. starting July 4.

– Ethan

“Pennies From Heaven” (1981)

Cast: Steven Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Pennies From Heaven” was a box-office bomb at its debut, almost certainly because audiences expected Martin, in only his second starring film role, to follow the success of “The Jerk” (1979) with another comedic vehicle. Instead, he and director Herbert Ross gave them this supremely sad, if undeniably gorgeous, Depression musical, which repurposes pop hits of the Astaire-Rogers era to reveal the existential ache and sexual longing of a battered and disillusioned generation of Americans. The choice to go with lip-synching over original recordings rather then creating new cover versions adds an extra layer of fantasy and detachment to the tale, drawing a stark line between the harsh reality of the characters’ predicaments and their idealized, unattainable hopes for what life could be. The original BBC mini-series, starring Cheryl Campbell and the late, great Bob Hoskins, is also well worth a watch.

– Ethan

“Moulin Rouge!” (2001)

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

No, you haven’t been drinking absinthe, but Baz Luhrmann’s chaotic, erratic, synthetic pop mash-up spectacular spectacular might make you doubt your own sobriety. Drawing from random 20th-century musical sources seemingly out of a hat, the Baz fleshed out an archetypical romance with atypical style, and it remains the flawed masterpiece of the Aussie’s particular brand of emotional, sensual (who-cares-about) storytelling. The first twenty minutes or so of “Moulin Rouge!” are a whirlwind of bright lights, over-saturated color (this is really the anti-Eastwood pick) and nonsensical madness – a fabulous rush of pure cinematic adrenaline. Then Baz tries to actually tell a story. But despite the treacly and unremarkable script, glimpses of that opening sequence’s brilliance continue to flash through, in scenes like the “Roxanne” tango and Richard Roxburgh’s insane cover of “Like A Virgin,” when logic gives way to a wall of sound and sensation.

– Ethan