Written by Carlos Valdes-Lora
On April 16, the Film & Media Studies Program hosted a screening of Works & Works in Progress by the program's four faculty filmmakers. The audience in attendance was a mix of both university students and the general local public, and a reception after the showcase brought the evening to an agreeable close.
Filmmaker John Mann opened the screening with an excerpt from a documentary entitled, Shelter, which concerns the experiences of homeless men living in shelters in Kansas and North Carolina. Shot in only six weeks, the film is structured around of a series of sit-down interviews. In one interview a man speaks about having participated in a study where he was paid to allow for his heart to be stopped and revived. In another, a man confesses that while anchored to his socio-economic status he feels little self-worth. Mann joked that the most critical responses to the documentary centered around the fact that it "provided no viable solution to homelessness," although that was hardly his intent. Afterward he screened an excerpt from Locust Point, which represents a departure from the traditional documentary form. Comprised of exquisitely composed reenactments over narrated journal entries and personal letters, the film portrays experiences of immigrants living in the Baltimore neighborhood during the early 1900s. Lastly Mann presented his most recent -- and what he suspects to be his last -- documentary, Running to Keep from Falling. As a reaction to the notion of the hyper real ever present in modern life, the film clearly delineates the trajectory Mann's directorial career has followed. Over static shots of descending elevators, ascending escalators, and passing trains, a series of automated phone messages and voicemail entries are assembled -among other things- as dialogue exchanges and statements addressed to the viewer. The content of these messages either clashes with or recontextualizes the associated image, and the coupling demands active spectatorship to arrive at meaning with respect to the whole.
Writer/director and photographer Matthew Porterfield, who teaches screenwriting and film production, presented test footage of actors and location studies for his next film, slated to begin production this summer. Entitled, Metal Gods, Porterfield's second feature is best described as, "exploitation meets the art house genre." Set in southeast Baltimore during the reign of metal music, the period piece explores a week in the lives of Sean and his older brother, Trevor, as they are forced to rectify a conflict disturbing their social sphere. The filmmaker has been casting since November of last year, and has thus far held over 400 open auditions. What has resulted from months of work is an eclectic cast of largely non-professional actors. While Porterfield normally skipped to the best segments of each audition screened, he insisted on playing one video all the way through. In it, an audition with a young non-professional prospect on his front porch is cut short by a phone call from the kid's mother. From behind the camera we hear Porterfield on a cell phone as he struggles to quell the concerns of a woman having an understandably hard time with a stranger videotaping her son. The accidental material makes the audition a short in and of itself. Afterward he screened test footage of a few location studies, including an abandoned paintball field and a pipeline on the side of the road that seemed to recede infinitely. Porterfield has managed to generate positive interest in Metal Gods well before its production.
Animator and videographer Karen Yasinsky teaches both animation and visual language courses at the university. Yasinsky first screened a stop motion animation short entitled, I Choose Darkness, which adapts its subject matter from Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. Yasinsky combines fluid animation, emotive and expressive lighting design, and a rich and engaging soundtrack of carefully foleyed effects to both evoke and echo the sense of filmic realism characteristic of the Bresson feature. Yasinsky has also created a live action animation short that derives its subject from the opening of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante. While her works are often adapted from live active feature films, the filmmaker frequently takes the narrative in different directions, establishing similarities while subverting expectation for the astute viewer familiar with its source material. The adjustments and modifications always service the medium and acknowledge that the practice of adaptation has its own set of complexities. Since she prefers to steer clear of spoken word, gesticulation is a high priority. She noted that the subjects of her animations express themselves through different modes of rubbing, or physical interaction. Once accustomed to this unique gestural vocabulary the result is affective. Yasinsky humorously admits she finds comfort in the work she does and the discipline it entails because it aligns naturally with her tendency to stay indoors and willfully removed from social settings. She says the work ethic associated with both stop motion and line drawn animation conforms to her obsessive personality as well as her sensitivity to detail. Yasinsky's acclaimed shorts will also be featured at the upcoming Maryland film festival this year.
The most recent addition to the Hopkins Film program faculty is Douglas Sadler, who co-teaches narrative production, a course offered to both MICA and JHU students. Sadler presented three distinct works that mark a clear transformation in both aesthetic and thematic preoccupations. Demonstrating directorial range, Sadler began by presenting an excerpt from a student film depicting a charged dream-state experience. The second excerpt screened was from a Samuel Beckett teleplay of Ey, Joe?. Influenced by the Dogme95 movement, Sadler's next excerpt from a digital feature entitled, Riders, illustrated the extent to which a shoe-string budget, a small crew, limited technical means can deliver a gratifying cinematic experience. The fourth, a mainstream narrative feature film entitled, Swimmers, which garnered a number of festival awards during its run. The most mesmerizing of the set was the clip of Joe, in which the subject is depicted in one take listening to a voice addressing him off screen. The take is uninterrupted and eight minutes long. Abiding by the strict stage direction presented in the original script, the subject was not permitted to blink for the entirety of the take.
A wine and cheese reception provided the ideal setting for students and locals to exchange a few words with these active and award-winning contemporary filmmakers. We look forward to similar showcases in the future as faculty members continue to develop their bodies of work.