The Maryland Film Festival, which took place this past weekend (it ran May 8-12), is among the most ambitious and discerning showcases of American independent filmmaking. Yet the movies on view at this year’s festival reflect a crisis in the field. One harbinger of trouble is a leftover from last year’s edition, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s feature “August at Akiko’s,” which should have counted among 2018’s best films. But it still hasn’t had an official theatrical release. It has played at other festivals; it played for a single night, in Los Angeles, last week; and it will play for a single night, at Lincoln Center, next week. But, by the terms set by the Academy for Oscar consideration and largely followed by editors at publications where movies are reviewed, these showings don’t constitute a release, so this extraordinary film will be a virtual non-event in the cinematic landscape.

In the past dozen years, notable independent films have been likely to find their ways to a week-long run, whether at a movie theatre or a small and specialized venue. The current bottleneck of releases, however, is unfortunately reminiscent of the bad old days of the nineteen-nineties, when, as a result of theatre closings and the increased prominence of home video, it was very hard to release independent films (and, for that matter, international films—many of the best of them from that decade remain unreleased here). Not only did great films go unseen, but, because of the difficulties that they had in making money, many of the most distinctive filmmakers of the time, such as Zeinabu irene Davis and Rachel Amodeo, were unable to sustain a career or even make a second feature. What’s at stake when comprehensively creative filmmakers are stifled or silenced isn’t just aesthetic but also political, in the literal sense. Just as the political realm is deformed by the oversimplifications of catchily reductive narratives, so personal experience and its political implications are deformed by ready-made dramatic patterns, in the absence of challenging approaches to narrative conventions.

The main shift in the current movie-scape is the rise of streaming, which is a potential boon to independent filmmakers—but only if critical attention is called to their work even without a theatrical release. But that attention has, by and large, been missing, and the silence is compounding—as evidenced, for instance, in Amazon Prime’s recent decision to remove from its video-streaming service independent films that don’t get enough clicks. The services, rather than harboring the most ambitious films by virtual outsiders, push them deeper into obscurity.

I suspect that this is why the noteworthy dramatic features in this year’s edition of the Maryland festival show, by and large, less innovation—at the level of process, at the level of the very nature of storytelling and the questions of what a story is, what performance is, what cinema is—and rely more heavily on the tweaking and reprocessing of familiar forms and themes. Even the best films screened this year carry an air of desperation—a fear that, despite filmmakers’ best inspirations and distinctive creations, their voices will be drowned out by the roaring flood of more conventional audiovisual fare. The responses are divided. One approach is to bend toward genre, seeking a conspicuous part of the market that remains sufficiently déclassé and chaotic as to leave a wide field for idiosyncrasy among its conventions. The other is to reach for the tour de force, for the cinematic achievement that’s so admirably far afield as to create a legend or backstory that puts the movie into a brighter spotlight.

A film still from “One Man Dies a Million Times.”

Photograph courtesy MdFF Maryland Film Festival

Jessica Oreck’s film “One Man Dies a Million Times” reflects a reckless ambition that it also, amazingly, fulfills. It’s a story of the siege of Leningrad, set from 1941 through 1944, told with a combination of historical fidelity and post-apocalyptic horror, and centered on the real-life Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, which exists to this day. During the siege, when a quarter of the city’s population perished, many from starvation, scientists working at the research center—which is said to contain the world’s largest collection of seeds—labored heroically to maintain its contents intact. Among the leading threats to its endurance is the scientists’ own desperate hunger; they had to fend off some citizens’ efforts to breach the facility while also resisting their own yearning to consume the seeds, tubers, and other plants that they continued to preserve, catalogue, and nurture. Oreck brings furious historical research and anguished empathy to the scientists’ struggle to survive and to protect the inestimable treasures that would nourish future lives. Astonishingly, she depicts a time and place in which a ration ticket and a crust of bread are the sparks of heinous crimes; in which cannibalism is a looming temptation; and in which a glimmer of public culture, as in Anna Akhmatova’s loudspeaker readings of her poems, holds out hope of the survival of souls as well as bodies. Her vision is inseparable from the contributions of her longtime cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, who films in a hard and contrast-seared black-and-white palette. The images’ raw and tangled textures combine with the harrowing, turbulent action to evoke a Soviet-era super-spectacle rather than a low-budget American independent film.

A film still from “Ham on Rye.”

Photograph courtesy MdFF Maryland Film Festival

“Ham on Rye,” Tyler Taormina’s first feature, is a hauntingly off-kilter revision of the end-of-high-school drama. It’s set in a suburb of Los Angeles, where a wide-ranging group of friends go through the stereotypical preparation for the prom—gowns and suits, makeup and deodorant—all viewed through gauzily halcyon, pastel-tinged cinematography. Minor incidents en route to the gathering offer some idiosyncratic behavioral details. But the party turns out to be a sandwich-fest at a local lunch joint, where the festivities are sparked by the jukebox and the resulting dance has an aching tenderness of a rare power, evoked by avid attention to intimate gestures and glances. Then things get strange, with an element that may or may not be science-fictional, a sidelong glance at the town’s class politics, and a vision of desolation and loneliness, of a quiet headlong leap into the void of the future, that—despite occasional preciousness and self-conscious cliché-milking—has the uncanny echo of a disturbing real-life dream.

A film still from “Tito.”

Photograph courtesy MdFF Maryland Film Festival

The most remarkable feature that I saw at the Maryland festival is the simplest, “Tito,” directed by and starring Grace Glowicki. She plays the title role, a young man who lives in a small house in a state of furtive, quiet terror. Tito—who shuffles along uneasily, ever clad in loose black shorts and a loose black shirt, with a red alert whistle strung around his neck—is organized enough to make a shopping list, yet so unstrung as to be unable to do more than steal a box of cold cereal, which he sickeningly mixes with hot water. Then a well-meaning neighbor (Ben Petrie) arrives to enliven Tito’s regular round of agitated solitude; the neighbor prepares a lavish breakfast, offers weed, provides cheerful daytime adventures in the neighborhood—and his noodgy, unrelenting efforts to draw Tito out of his shell are matched with his own projects of craven macho self-delusion—into which he ropes the unwilling Tito. This movie, too, is a tour de force—of performance, in Glowicki’s astounding display of choreographic expressionism. (She won a prize at Sundance in 2016 for her performance in Petrie’s short film “Her Friend Adam.”) Tito has a splay-footed, straight-armed, galumphing walk combined with a hunched-over, perpetual cringe that suggests the desperate hope of disappearing beneath anyone’s view. The character’s anguished and contorted gaze is a mask of existential agony, an incomprehension of the world that’s linked to an all-too-keen awareness of his own desires and a constant inability to express them. In its physicality, it’s a performance that’s reminiscent of Miranda July’s, in her 2011 film “The Future”; in its silent howl of isolation, it recalls Dore Mann’s performance in Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland,” from 2007. Despite the merely functional reticence of Glowicki’s direction, along with the narrow scope of the drama, “Tito” is an instant classic of acting. What’s more, its recessive way of showcasing performance—as if the artistic intervention of a narrative and visual audacity would detract from appreciation of the performance suggests a mistrust of viewers, critics, and gatekeepers alike that is itself an emblem of a fearsome time for independent filmmaking.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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