A respectable amount of talent is on display in a program of selections from the 1978 Washington Film Festival chosen by members of the festival coordinating committee and scheduled to be shown today through Wednesday at the Inner Circle.
The catch - a familiar one to people who takes a sympathetic interest in independent, beginning or abstract film-making - is that the talent isn't necessarily expressed through sufficiently absorbing pretexts, subjects or obsessions. Such programs presuppose an audience with a professional interest in filmmaking aptitude in the raw, in formative stages that may not seem quite as appetizing to general movie-going audiences.
The two dramatic shorts on the program, "The Incident" and "Jimmy's Biography," are more appealing as exercises than stories. Each could justify itself as an audition movie, proof that the filmmakers were adept and ingenious enough to create an intriguing quality of dramatic illusion on negligible dramatic premises.
The key question for the future is whether the skill demonstrated in concealing skeletal material can be put to the service of sustained, revelatory exposition with full-bodied material. "The Incident," a vignette about a crime of passion, reveals a dashing sense of film style on the part of the two Towson State professors who fabricated it: Rick Puller, who wrote and directed, and Wally Coberg, who designed, photographed and edited. The movie has a gleaming, sinuous look whichidentifies it as humorously as a fraternity handshake as the work of people who take a special delight in elements of style - lighting, design, movement and mood. It's a zesty little appetizer, but it's only an appetizer.
Charles E. Mullin made "Jimmy's Biography" as a student project at the State University of New York. With the aid of a largely subjective camera technique, some inventive passages of stop-motion animation and some decent naturalistic acting, Mullin contrives to sustain an air of mystery about a banal autobiographical sketch, dealing with the discovery that once-inseparable pals have dirfted apart since high school.
As far as one can tell, Jimmy was not a remarkable character and the friendship of Jimmy and Charlie was perfectly commonplace. Again, there is little reason to be impressed by the subject matter, but some reason to be impressed by the artful ways in which its banality has been hidden and neutralized.
Bill Gray's documentary short, "Let the Spirit Move," does expose a remarkable character, but he's also such a devious, disreputable figure that his presence can be sheer torture. Gray ran across a self-styled evangelist on the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C., and documented his peculiar ministry for what must have been a nerve racking period of time. A former felon and mental patient, this porcine white evangelist seems to have aligned himself with a poor black congregation, in part by marrying an enormously pious and overweight sister of the congregation, before skipping out on wife, flock and filmmaker.
Excruciating as this portrait is, there are unforgettable moments. The sight of the "prophet," as he styles himself, going under at a riverside baptismal service while trying to submerge a parishioner twice as big as himself is one for the slapstick memory album. So is his final appearance, thumbing a ride out of town with a new haircut and moustache that make him look like a caricature of Hitler.
The evangelist's metamorphosis is foreshadowed by earlier details, especially his preaching style and his confession of a youth misspent in beating and terrorizing blacks. The problem with the film is that sharing such mean human company ultimately seems more degrading than edifying. No one can contemplate human nature at this demented level without beginning to feel slightly desperate.
The images of children in the congregation are especially disturbing. What effect will these displays of extreme evangelical piety and scoundrelism have on them? It seems unlikely that they can blot out or transcend such impressions, particularly if their families remain as poor and valnerable as they are devout. It's as if one were watching the childhood experience that haunted Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths in "An American Tragedy."
Michael Day's abstract salute to childbirth, "Bloosom in Virgo," caught me at an irreconcilable philosophical distance. Ostensibly, the film commemorates a home birth experienced by friends of the filmmaker. For strictly personal reasons I'm interested in the subjects of parenthood in general and home birth in particular. However, I've never been able to tolerate poetic renderings of childbirth on film, even when they're sincerely or skilfully done. Invariably, they falsify the overwhelming reality of the experience by departing on flights of frequently preposterous imagery.
For example, Day links the birth of his friends' child, a son named Adam, to pastoral images of small animals and cosmic images of, well, the cosmos. Moreover, his lighting scheme is so dark and ominous that one fears that while a portentous event is obviously expected, the portents may not be gladdening. The intended effect is transcendent but the ultimate effect is cliched. Day's cosmic conceits obscure the reality and significance of the experience they intend to exalt.
Even if they were expressing nothing but banalities, I would much prefer to have learned something about the parents and others attending the blessed event. The most stirring records of childbirth are usually the most straightforward and seemingly documentary. The metaphors emerge naturally enough out of the reality. The experience of paternity, I think, is likely to inspire profound feelings of humility, vulnerability and mortality. Far from ascending to the spheres, one may feel more firmly anchored to the earth.
A two-minute animated diversion called "Hit-A-Sin-Rain" suggests a possibly charming and lucrative series in the tradition of the old singalong shorts. The idea is charades with movie titles.
The fun would be enhanced with more difficult titles to guess and more intricate forms of animation to transmit the clues. A lack of funds seems to limit "Hit-A-Sin-Rain" to a simplifield sereies of hand movements in silhouette. Nevertheless, a beguiling concept. Applied to song titles, it might fuse animated charades fith the singalongs.