A week’s worth of fabulous film-going, told more or less movie-style.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE – SATURDAY NIGHT – DAY 10
A MUSICIAN walks onstage carrying an acoustic guitar and a boombox.
Hi. I have a tape I want to play.
The musician presses play on the cassette deck and a beat drops.
Applause echoes throughout the 87-year-old movie palace and around each Buddha statue standing guard along its walls. The aisles are soon filled with shaking hips and torsos. A conga line snakes through the seats. During the band’s biggest hits, the crowd shouts the lyrics back onstage. For a brief moment a few bold audience members ascend the stage to dance, before being escorted back down.
The scene described above did not take place at the Oriental Theatre pre-1988, back when it hosted live concerts. It happened last Saturday night during a screening of the classic 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Festival goers were transported, like magic, to Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre 30 years ago.
A native son and member of the Talking Heads, Jerry Harrison, took the stage before the film. He recalled concerts he attended at the Oriental pre-1988 and praised the communal experience of movie watching.
The bright sunshine and dead leaves on the sidewalk outside the Oriental Theatre match the row of yellow school buses parked on North Farewell Avenue. An orderly line of children await entry, a first for most.
It looks kind of scary!
I think it looks like a church.
This place is so cool!
It’s the eighth and final weekday morning in the MFF’s Education Screenings. The series was designed by teachers and comes complete with a curriculum. A number of grants have made the screenings free, including (most) buses. The majority of the students come from Milwaukee Public Schools. Programming is geared to age appropriate groups.
Earlier this week high schoolers had the chance to see and engage in a Q&A with Marshall Curry and his documentary Point and Shoot, before the general public.
Milwaukee Film Education Director Cara Ogburn is beside herself with pleasure as the students shout out each letter as they appear onscreen during The Numberlys animated short film. I caught up with her during the screening.
Have the Education Screenings been a part of the festival from the beginning?
No, they started in 2010 or 2011 somewhat informally. There was a school group that wanted to see one of the films that we were showing within our kids program. And then we realized this was something we should offer to the public.
Do you talk to the kids about the films?
Yes, we have a discussion about what they liked. It’s sort of sneaky educational because watching a film is about literacy. It’s about learning how stories are told and thinking about ideas. The curriculum approaches some Common Core standards and we ask that they send us work back. It’s amazing to see kids engage with these stories and ideas.
Do you have any favorite anecdotes from the Education Screenings?
A few years ago we showed Brooklyn Castle, which is about middle school chess champions. Golda Meir has a chess team and they ended up going to Brooklyn, seeing the school and meeting the subjects of the documentary.
My search for a seat at the Education Screening (1st to 3rd grade) became increasingly adorable as I realized whole rows of seats that I thought were empty, were actually small children.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE – SATURDAY NIGHT – DAY 10
A few hours before the Oriental main room is grooving to the Talking Heads, the seats are packed for the Milwaukee premiere of Jimi: All Is By My Side, the MFF centerpiece.
The film is a triumph. Sleek, unconventional sound design, clever storytelling and a tour de force by musical genius-turned actor André (3000) Benjamin as musical genius Jimi Hendrix, is a gorgeous glimpse into Jimi’s year in London (1966/1967).
A private plane was chartered at the last minute to bring hometown filmmaker (and 2014 Oscar-winner) John Ridley from the set of his new ABC show (shooting in Austin) to be in attendance for the screening. Ridley’s family is also in the house for the one of a kind event. After the screening Ridley is joined by MFF Artistic and Executive Director Jonathan Jackson for a Q&A.
First off, I want to say that it wasn’t that long ago that I was sitting in those seats watching films here at the Oriental. This is very special and I want to thank all of you for making it happen.
Why portray this period of Jimi’s life?
Unfortunately, a lot of times with biopics, particularly music biopics, many have the same rhythm and become cliché. For me, the opportunity to spend two hours looking at this one period of Jimi’s life, rather than trying to cram in all 27 years, that was more interesting. I think it makes more room for excavation.
When you make a film that includes major historical figures like Hendrix, Clapton and The Beatles, they are lightning rods for criticism. Did that concern you?
All of us are concerned about who we are and how people perceive us, in little ways and big ways. You don’t want to go and tell stories where you luxuriate in the negative. One of the things that was very important to myself and the other people who worked on this, was to not do a sex, drugs and rock’n’roll biopic.
It was very important to put everything in context. We’ve all seen biopics that are a little sanitized, whitewashed, sanded around the edges. So there was a concern about our attempt to deliver emotional honesty and velocity to the storytelling. At the end of the day, the fact that Eric Clapton, Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr signed off on the film says that they believe the film is honorific.
Indeed it is, Mr. Ridley. The fact that André Benjamin took eight months out of his life to work with Ridley for free, which was true of many cast and crew, speaks to the power of Jimi: All Is By My Side, which opens today at the Oriental.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE – FRIDAY NIGHT – DAY 9
Twenty-four hours before John Ridley graces the Oriental stage for a Q&A, another renowned African-American filmmaker, Robert Townsend, speaks with the audience after screening his classic 1987 directorial debut Hollywood Shuffle. The film is preceded by a reel of Townsend’s illustrious work. Hollywood Shuffle is a brilliant, dream-like satire of the limited, stereotypical, negative roles afforded to black actors.
I grew up on the west side of Chicago and I’d run home every day after school past the gangs and drugs and all that mess, and watch TV. I’d watch so much TV the kids at school started calling me “TV Guy.” They would ask me what was on that night and I knew. Over time I noticed that almost always I wanted to be the white characters. It wasn’t until Sidney Poitier that I saw a black man play a role with dignity and strength.
Before cueing up Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend came onstage and introduced the film.
When I finished work on A Soldier’s Story I told my agent I wanted to act in more movies like that. My agent said, “They only do one black movie a year Robert, and you just did it.” He was referring to the fact that I had auditioned for the role of Harpo in The Color Purple and didn’t get it. I missed my black movie. So I decided to make my own.
WOMEN SITTING BEHIND ME
Those groupie years are behind me girl. But damn, he still looks good.
I think we’ve become desensitized to a lot of stuff. Today is a really crazy time because you can see anything online. And we have to be really careful about what we let into our eye gates and our ear gates. I worry about my kids, because those images can get into their spirits, they can get into their souls.
Local filmmaker Xavier Ruffin gets a shoutout from Townsend, who has apparently been mentoring him lately.
Right now technology makes everything so affordable that there’s no excuse for a filmmaker in this room not to be born. The question is, how good is the material? Is it funny? Is it touching? Can we see that it’s coming from the heart?
A woman asks Townsend for advice on how to get her screenplay off the ground.
The key is to be fearless. The thing that stops a lot of filmmakers is fear. Everybody is afraid that somebody is going to see their movie and think that it sucks. You have to believe that no matter what you’ll enjoy the experience. Then the film will be worth making.
FILM FINANCING PANEL
To more directly answer the woman’s question, a panel of producers commandeered a panel discussion the following afternoon around the topic of Film Financing. What I took away was that you should not hesitate from sending your script to festivals and writing competitions. You should be okay with a tight budget.
Aspiring documentarians should have a social justice angle to their project. Ford and Sundance, “the parents of documentary film,” have decided that the films they sponsor should speak to a cause or galvanize the public in some way.
If you’ve been able to shoot your film, the next step is to cut a trailer. Once you have a trailer you can take it to social media or crowd sourcing to help complete the project. If your subject has a built-in audience, sell merchandising. Most importantly, get the first film in the bag. After that, it’s supposed to get much easier.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE – FRIDAY NIGHT – DAY 9
Standing in the lobby of the Oriental is a tall, well-dressed baseball player named John Axford. Once a beloved Brewer, this Pittsburgh Pirate and MFF Supporting Sponsor wouldn’t have made it to town had his team not lost their Wild Card game on Wednesday. If Lucroy and the gang can’t be in the Playoffs, at least we got Axford to return for the MFF. I chew the fat with the pitcher before he presents a late night screening of the cult favorite Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
What inspired you to maintain your relationship with the MFF after you parted ways with the Brewers?
In all honesty, the love they showed me. Beginning in 2011 I wasn’t yet a sponsor, it was just my face on a few ads around Milwaukee. The appreciation that I felt from the festival matched the passion I have for film. This is something I want to be able to continue even after I’m done playing. It’s been fantastic to have a group of people and a city embrace me like Milwaukee has.
Do you support any other film festivals?
No, this is the only one so far. I really don’t think it would branch off to any other places. When I first signed with Cleveland I looked into it, but their film festival is in March, so I wasn’t going to be able to attend. This kind of thing is based on relationships, and the ones I have here are strong.
I’m also honored to be able to help out local filmmakers with the Cream City Cinema series. I know what it’s like to have classes and try to do what you love. You have to pay for it all, so for me to be able to help out with the production feels great.
I was a part of the Cream City Cinema board a few years back and that’s when I realized there is a lot of talent in this town. If I can help those artists out with financial support it makes it that much easier for them to achieve their vision. Hopefully the monetary reward isn’t the only thing pushing these filmmakers. They need a passion to tell their story, and those are the people I’m hoping to help out.
In another 20 Sundays or so we may end up seeing The Imitation Game take home a handful of miniature naked golden men at the 87th Oscars. Once this biopic about the gay British mathematician who invented the computer when he built a machine to crack the Nazi code during World War II hits theaters nationwide, it won’t be hard to crack the code to its success: A gripping and tragic WWII story told with witty dialogue by an excellent cast. It’s a Weinstein production after all. Harvey rarely misses.
EXT. SIDEWALK IN WINNIPEG – AFTERNOON
A JOURNALIST is exploring the neighborhood around his hostel, the latest stop on his cross-Canadian journey. The mysterious face of a mustached man with parted jet black hair is plastered on a fold out sign advertising a bookstore inside a nearby building. The journalist descends the stairs into MORIS’ lair, a one-room dungeon full of beatnik/hippie/counter-culture/anti-establishment books, music and memorabilia.
Who’s the guy on your sign outside?
That’s Nick Cave. He’s the real deal. Might be the greatest living songwriter. Hell of an author and performer to boot.
I had no idea what Moris was talking about. But I was intrigued. Sunday night I broke my ban on Fox Bay Cinema and Grill (I’m a city kid, I try to keep my dollars inside Milwaukee, with the occasional Tosa exception) and saw a screening of 20,000 Days on Earth, a film about Nick Cave. If the onstage version of Nick Cave even begins to approach the cinematic representation of him, I envy all those who have seen him live.
THE MILWAUKEE SHOW II
Monday night I got to wade in the wake of the local talent pool. The Milwaukee Show II screening attracts a large crowd and my friend and I sit in the balcony. A program of shorts, some beautifully shot (Balloons), some funny (‘Tis the Season, This is Jackie), some informative (To Hold In the Heart), some absurd (The Waystation to the Stars), and some action packed (Geoffrey Broughe Handles Confrontation Poorly). But the most inspiring moment of the night is in between films, when a subject, Ben Koller, from the ESPN Films production of MECCA: The Floor That Made Milwaukee Famous makes an appeal to the audience.
This is the World’s Largest Pop Art painting created by one of our greatest living artists. It was made in Milwaukee for Milwaukee, yet still finds itself homeless. Which has led me to question Milwaukee’s commitment to our cultural assets and our commitment to supporting the things that impact our community. It doesn’t matter how many museum additions or sports arenas we build if we don’t value our history and cultural assets.
I believe people live in cities for the experience of being part of something greater than themselves. We starve for real connection in this high-tech, low-touch world, and if we think back in our lives to the things that have truly had an impact and brought us together, I’m sure many threads would lead to the experiences we had doing art, playing sports and participating in cultural activities with our friends, families, and even “strangers.”
The MECCA floor has been validated by other cities and the international press. We have something special here in Milwaukee and we should use it as a platform to inspire other Milwaukeeans to think big and do new things. Let us support our creatives, cheer on our athletes, but most of all invest in our vibrant culture and diverse community by putting our money where our hearts are and building on the foundation that was left by those that came before. The history is great, the present moment is beautiful, but the future is undetermined.
WEDNESDAY- DAY 14
The only, and I stress only, major disappointment at the 2014 MFF for me was the Super Secret Members Only Screening. I don’t regret becoming a member at all, I look forward to my year of Members Only free screenings, but I can confidently say that had I known the film would be Last Days in Vietnam, I would have skipped that American Experience documentary. One of the last things an anti-war progressive like myself wants to watch is a film about a “positive” thing the government did in Vietnam, told from the perspective of the military, no less. It felt like a consolation to all the conservative donors and sponsors of MFF, who’ve made possible a progcram full of thought-provoking and establishment-challenging films.
When I got back to my apartment that night I cooked dinner while watching Cesar’s Grill, a documentary by an Ecuadorian filmmaker living in Germany who goes back home to help his father with his restaurant, and tries to mend their relationship. My father is Ecuadorian-American and also difficult to talk to, so needless to say, the film delivered a good cry, luckily not all over my food. (I was finished eating by the time the tears showed up.)
While in bed that night I threw on a pair of headphones and immersed myself in The Tribe, one of the most talked about films at MFF. It is the kind of story that demonstrates the power of moving images. Film is a universal language. That became ever apparent while witnessing the exploits of students at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, told without subtitles. The effect is illuminating and haunting. More governments should invest in film. It can literally change the world.
CLOSING NIGHT – DAY 15
The opening act for MFF 2014 Closing Night is a series of shorts promoting Milwaukee entitled Dear MKE. They are essentially commercials, but commercials with a soul. The films highlight the stories and characters that make our city special.
“Creativity is the new commerce,” proclaims visual artist Reginald Baylor, subject of The Truck Driver. At least that’s what all of us in this business are hoping.
According to local writer and producer Jeff Gendelman, the Closing Night feature film, The Surface, hired 90 percent of its TV and film crew from Southeastern Wisconsin. In a city hard pressed for work, that’s speaking our language. But the film is much more than a paycheck for local crew. I’ll have more on The Surface before it opens in Marcus cinemas Halloween weekend.
Well, that’s the end of the 2014 edition of the Milwaukee Film Festival, which is now bigger than any film fest in Chicago. But don’t worry cinephiles, you don’t need to travel south for your fix. The Milwaukee LGBT Film Fest runs from the 16th to the 26th.
The strength of the Milwaukee Film Festival is that is has good bones. What I’m referring to is the theaters, primarily the Oriental, that East Side located, East Indian-themed gem. It’s a breathtaking, elaborate frame for film. Because the bones of the festival are so solid, the programming possibilities are endless, which ensures the future of the festival.
When I die, I wouldn’t mind being an old man sitting in the Oriental main room watching the credits roll on a film when a green-eyed lion falls from the ceiling and kills me instantly. In that brief moment before the Great Beyond, I might echo a sentiment expressed by John Ridley during his Festival Q&A.
“I’ll always be a kid from Wisconsin who will remember how stories transported and moved me.”