The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival: It Ain't a Small World, After All

The sort-of true story of a Minneapolis man who made his mom into a movie, plus two local trailers, and 36 reviews from around the globe

So--how on earth to sum up such a sprawling affair? Well, at a time when the calamitous state of the world has somehow empowered even smart people to insist that mere "culture" isn't worth taking as seriously as "politics" (funny, we've always thought the two went hand in hand), this new M-SPIFF, with all its familiar old flaws, deserves the greatest respect and support for being a rare anti-anti-intellectual enterprise. Yeah, movies sell popcorn (and ads), but they also influence hearts and minds, to borrow the title of one recently revived film that in its day had more than a little to do with the world outside.

More than anything, the M-SPIFF is an open invitation to klutzy cineastes of all shapes and colors to come and wave our freak-flags high while waiting in line or hopping a bus to the next screening. Coming out of the State on opening night, we might look down Hennepin toward the Block E 15, where Sin City will be making a killing, and say--in a host of languages, in the spirit of other outsiders with pride--We're here, we're queer--get used to it.


Home Movie

The director of 'Driver 23' explores 'The Wild Condition' in his own backyard


Rolf Belgum's dog has his nose in my crotch. Like most wire-haired fox terriers, Jacques is serene and intelligent--think Asta in The Thin Man. But after brushing him away twice, and firmly telling him, "No," I'm beginning to realize that commands won't do much besides make his owners apologetic.

"He's not very well trained," laughs Julia Belgum as her husband scoops up Jacques in his muscular arms and feeds the dog a treat. The Belgums, who have welcomed me into their south Minneapolis kitchen for chili, aren't exactly disciplinarians.

"Just watching his physical expression has kept me paralyzed with enjoyment for the last eight years," says Rolf, cradling the fuzzy white animal so that its hind legs stick up in the air.

Jacques is the star of The Wild Condition, a startlingly original new movie from Rolf Belgum that's part nature film, part fiction film, and part human-based documentary. The director is known for his 1998 rock-doc Driver 23, a portrait of struggling prog-metal musician Dan Cleveland and his local band Darkhorse. That film's classic scene--Cleveland building and rebuilding an elaborate pulley system for loading equipment out of his basement--planted the seeds of the ideas that grew to become The Wild Condition.

"I realized [Driver 23] is a nature film,'" says Belgum. "Watching Dan build that ramp was exactly like watching a beaver build a dam."

Shooting humans as wildlife served the filmmaker well on Driver 23's 2001 sequel The Atlas Moth, which the director says he made to show that Cleveland actually did finish his album. But The Wild Condition is a departure--and thank the metal gods it's not about how cute his dog is. Shot in lush digital video with a handheld camera, the movie follows a frustrated middle-aged son who moves his salt-and-pepper-haired mom from a nursing home into an apartment. ("I don't like people," she admits.) The son hopes this change will stop his mom from habitually wandering out the door and into the city, where she gets lost, and he hires a young nurse to take care of her. But soon the old lady makes a break for it anyway.

It's a painfully familiar scenario for anyone with a lonely parent facing anything like dementia, and early scenes of The Wild Condition get the emotions just right. When the son leaves the apartment after one fight, we watch him through the window, over the mother's shoulder, as he walks down the street, the sound of her breathing getting slightly heavier in apparent desperation. That sound is all the acting required to create one of the more spellbinding moments in the film.

Good thing, too, because Belgum used non-actor friends and family in The Wild Condition, casting his own mother, longtime comedian Merrilyn Belgum, as the screen mom, while letting other performers retain their real-life first names: Julia Belgum as the bright-eyed nurse Julia; Christopher Wells, Rolf's fellow teacher at Art Institutes International Minnesota, as the son Chris; and Jacques, playing the son's dog--Jacques--with zest. (Rolf himself appears in a small role as Chris's physical therapist.)

Each of these actors drew on autobiographical stories to improvise scenes for the camera, according to Rolf. The resulting vignettes feel natural, but also musical and symbolic. The sound of breathing recurs throughout the film--in the machine the son uses for an unnamed lung ailment, in the dog's panting. Between these scenes, the camera zooms in on the minutiae of nature--luscious close-ups of insects, wolves' noses, and Jacques himself. (Not surprisingly, Belgum says Jacques is the film's true muse.) The behaviors of Mom and dog are intercut, paralleled, and juxtaposed with the daily activities of butterflies and spiders. The film then veers into an ending that makes no sense to me in literal terms, but has an effect that's a little like The Hellstrom Chronicles meets Persona. Any picture that begins with the birth of a puppy litter and ends with an 82-year-old wandering through the wilderness has a recognizable emotional logic: Belgum has made a film about the life you can't control--which is to say it's about all of life.

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