Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Saberfrog trailer shown in New York City (and other adventures)


I spent the weekend after Thanksgiving in New York City, visiting my old NYU classmate Greg Draves. It was the first time in a while that I'd managed to make it down to the Big Apple, as the demands of my day job have kept me from traveling much.

There's something about New York City that toughens a person up. I don't exercise much at home, but I have no hesitation about running like hell to get from one destination to another in NYC, even if it's many blocks away. NYC traffic also gets me to drive like a cabbie, which I would never do at home.

On Friday, November 26, I got to show the Saberfrog trailer at Millennium Film Workshop. Millennium has a monthly open screening of short films, and the holiday weekend presented a rare opportunity for an out-of-towner like me to participate.

The other films in the program that night were a mixture of formats – film and video, Super-8 and 16mm, sound and silent. A technical problem that evening unfortunately resulted in all of the videos being shown in black-and-white.

Most of the shorts being screened that evening were abstract and experimental. I saw films of shaky street footage, and videos of abstract computer-generated patterns.

One of the few narratives was called Erica Wexler Is Online, and was presented as a fake documentary consisting of staged interviews. It told the story of a college student who had died, but whose Facebook account is still active and still sending and receiving messages. None of the interviewees can say for certain whether the messages are being sent by a hacker, a family member or someone else, but most seem to prefer to believe that Erica is still there somehow, still participating in their lives.

The other narrative was an erotic cartoon – actually a series of still images, like a comic book – depicting a scantily-clad female demon being fought over by two scantier-clad male demons, to the tune of Duran Duran's “A View to a Kill” (“Dance into the fire...”). Interestingly, the projectionist was the director of this particular film.

The Saberfrog trailer was the final work to be screened. Several shots in the trailer (mostly flashbacks) are in black-and-white for dramatic effect, and it was unfortunate that the impact of this was lost by the entirely black-and-white projection. But these things happen.

My memories of NYU film school, plus the fact that all the other films that evening were experimental, led me to expect that a New York crowd might be unsympathetic towards a genre comedy. But the trailer got several laughs, and a couple people told me they looked forward to seeing the whole movie at some point.

It wasn't a huge turnout that night, but knowing that an arty Manhattan film-buff audience had watched and/or heard J.D. Edmond, Reuben Tapp, Wendy Foster, Liz Mariani, John Karyus, John Sindoni, Jahaka Mindstorm, Mary Criddle, Jesse Conklin, Val Perkins, Jes Gonzales and myself (plus Derrick Petrush if you looked quick) was definitely cool.

On Sunday it was back to Rochester, and time to promote the next showing of Saberfrog, this time at the Screening Room in Amherst.


The Thursday after Thanksgiving, I drove to Buffalo to do some advertising, and to see if the latest issue of Artvoice carried a listing for the screening (which it did).

It was a long way to drive just to put up a few flyers (I made it to the Market Arcade theater, Guerrilla Gallery and Just Pizza before it got too late), but I was lucky to do even that much, as the Thruway (Route 90) was partly shut down due to a huge amount of snow.

Then, on Friday, December 3, I reached a milestone: I PAID OFF THE CREDIT CARD DEBT from the movie. That only took two-and-a-half years ...

This past Saturday, December 4, I returned to Buffalo to post more flyers on Elmwood Ave and Main St, and also got to have coffee with Liz Mariani, who I hadn't seen since the October screening. From there I drove to Toronto to view a program of films at a space called CineCycle.

I've been researching various offbeat spaces that might be open to showing the movie, and CineCycle was one of several spaces in Toronto. That night, CineCycle was playing host to a curatorial group called Pleasure Dome, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to check the place out. I had no idea what kind of film I'd be seeing … and there was no way I could have predicted what I got.

If you've ever been to a modern art gallery, you're probably used to seeing some placard basically explaining at length what the artist intended and what s/he was trying to say. Sometimes, whatever aesthetic pleasure you get (or don't get) from the art itself is contradicted by the political statement hammered home in the artist's statement. I kind of got that feeling watching this show. The program notes seemed to threaten a lineup of dull political propaganda, but the films themselves were actually quite entertaining.

This particular show consisted of two longish short films, Home 2 and Blondes in the Jungle, plus the seventh and eighth episodes of a British video series called Paul and the Badger.

Created by a cheery bloke named Paul Tarrago (who also stars), Paul and the Badger seems to be a parody of children's puppet shows – sort of like Pee Wee's Playhouse, but done in the more deadpan style of Wallace and Gromit. It's proudly low-tech – the sets are blatantly greenscreened, and the puppets are clearly puppets – and I found it very enjoyable. In fact, it's one of the most creatively inspiring productions I've seen in some while. It made me go “Yes!!! I want to make something like that!” (Warning: I just might.)

Home 2 (a 2007 sequel to a 2004 film Home, according to the program notes) was a 30-minute mockumentary about a lanky, curly-haired, overenthusiastic American doofus visiting many foreign locations and making a fool of himself. Imagine a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Borat, but a lot more hyper.

This character, played by Brian Kerstetter, was never given a name onscreen as far as I recall. He had weird beady eyes that, according to the program notes, are contact lenses meant to suggest his “inability to truly see and understand his surroundings.” This, and other statements in the program notes, imply that we're supposed to condemn the character as a boorish Ugly American, but I must not be that politically correct because to me the character's joy and awe at the world around him seemed quite infectious. The on-camera locals seem to enjoy his antics, so it's hard to fully buy the idea that it is he who is exploiting them.

It's also hard to be sure how many of the locals might, in fact, be actors taking part in the joke; there's one scene, in which the hero pretends to kidnap four Arabs, that was almost certainly staged. If the main character is actually meant to be culturally insensitive, it raises the question of whether the filmmaker – jaunting around the world to provoke on-camera reactions from local people – is in any position to judge.

Anyway, the film was quite funny, since the protagonist is clearly out of his mind and never seems to calm down at any time during his journey. The variety of location work was also quite impressive – the bulk of the film takes place in Papua, New Guinea, but various (equally goofy) flashbacks show the character in other locales such as Japan and Switzerland. The audience was still chuckling for some time after the film finished.

Blondes in the Jungle was made last year and shares Home 2's theme of “honky fools in the Third World”. Set in 1987 and filmed in the Honduras, this film follows three American adolescents (two male, one female) on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. A fourth character, looking and acting like the Harold and Kumar version of Neil Patrick Harris, also makes sporadic and not-really-explained appearances.

Whereas Home 2 used a handheld-vacation-video approach, Blondes in the Jungle was shot more conventionally; the celluloid photography and slower pace went a long way towards selling the 1987 setting. This film was also more condescending towards its childish protagonists than Home 2 was, and their relentless dumbness (while true to my memories of the 1980s) got old well before the 48-minute running time was up.

The film did have one killer line, though. During the night, the girl in the group has a sexual dream, and in the morning she deduces that she was visited by a Mayan jaguar god. When the two guys express alarm at this, she mocks their fears: “Gods don't have AIDS!” I don't remember the last time I heard an audience roar so much at a line of dialogue in a film.

What follows is a spoiler for anyone who thinks it's remotely likely they might get to see this film at some point, but … our heroes finally find the alleged Fountain of Youth, and go swimming in it. What happens to them next can only be speculated upon, since the remaining half of the film consists of the previously glimpsed Mayan jaguar god giving a John Cleese-like anthropology lecture to the camera.

Again, the program notes hint that all of this is a political statement – this time about the Reagan era – but the possibility that the filmmaker was simply eating coke by the spoonful should not be entirely discounted.

In fact, the oddness of this entire program was quite impressive. I've been slowly resigning myself to the idea that truly idiosyncratic filmmaking was dead, and that everything now was just remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations. Yet these films were not only defiantly weird, but comedic as well, which made them entertaining rather than pretentious.

After the screening, I gave a DVD of Saberfrog to one of the Pleasure Dome curators, in the hopes that they might be interested in screening the film at a future date. We shall see. Until then, there's still the showing at The Screening Room - tomorrow!

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