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

The M Word

Let's start with the little changes.

BY ROB NELSON

MSPIFF COVERAGE:

Home Movie
The director of 'Driver 23' explores 'The Wild Condition' in his own backyard [Page 2]
As American as Apple Valley
'From There to Here' brings MCAD Senior Vu Tran from a southern suburb to the International Film Festival [Page 3]
Close Encounters of the Weird Kind
Oddballs bond in James Vculek's "Anti-Spielberg" film 'Two Harbors' [Page 4]
You Must Remember This
Our picks for the most noteworthy fare in the M-SPIFF's first week. [Page 5]

MSPIFF SCREENING LOCATIONS (first week):
Historic State Theatre,
805 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Bell Auditorium,
U of M, University Avenue and 17th Street SE, Mpls.
Oak Street Cinema,
309 Oak St. SE, Mpls.
Riverview Theater,
3800 42nd Ave. S., Mpls.
Crown Theatres' Block E 15,
600 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
McNally Smith Auditorium College of Music,
19 Exchange St. E., St. Paul

ADMISSION PRICES & FESTIVAL PASSES:
Opening Night Screening and Gala:
$20 ($15 Minnesota Film Arts members)
Closing Night Screening and Gala:
$10 ($7 MFA members)
General admission:
$9 ($7 seniors/students, $6 MFA members)
Platinum Pass (admission to all films and events):
$180 ($150 MFA members)
Gold Pass (admission to all events and films except Childish Film Festival screenings):
$150 ($120 MFA members)
Ten-Film Discount Pass (admission to 10 films):
$75 ($55 MFA members)
Festival passes available in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com.
24-HOUR FESTIVAL HOTLINE: 612.331.3134

FESTIVAL WEB SITE:
www.mnfilmarts.org/m-spiff

Note: The festival schedule is subject to change; call the hotline to confirm screenings.
This year Minnesota Film Arts has added a hyphen--a mere "-"--to its acronym for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. What a difference a dash makes: Call it the keystroke felt around the world. In the past, this marathon showcase of new cinema from all over the globe was known colloquially as the MSPIFF and pronounced MISS-piff, causing some of us to picture a klutzy cineaste slipping on a banana peel en route from Oak Street Cinema to the Bell for a Three Stooges homage from Kazakhstan. Now it's the M-SPIFF, pronounced EM-spiff, and the nickname signifies something else entirely.

That the lowbrow piff has been changed to an elegant spiff, as in spiffy, is ideal for the MFA to connote its tasteful refurbishing of a classic--as if screening an old Ernst Lubitsch comedy of remarriage in a fully restored print. But I'm actually more concerned with the first part of the appellation.

Technically, the M still stands for Minneapolis, where the vast majority of the 300 screenings (!) will take place at a half-dozen venues over two weeks. (See p. 19 for ticket and venue information.) But when this admittedly klutzy cineaste hears that slinky, sexy M, newly liberated from its S and...mmmmm, ready to roam, he suddenly feels not so klutzy anymore. Indeed, the new M sounds mod. It feels metropolitan. And, befitting a fest whose subtitled fare derives from some 60-odd countries, it translates magnificently. (It also recalls a certain Fritz Lang masterpiece that, coincidentally or not, Oak Street will be screening post-fest along with 18 other repertory gems to celebrate its 10th anniversary of reeling in the years.)

You see how this event brings out one's inner obsessive? Let's let the letters lie for the moment and take a closer look at the numbers. Of the 160 films from around the globe, as many as 20 are enjoying their U.S. premieres here--a first for a fest that has been around more than two decades. One man--the inimitable Albert Milgrom--is still credited as festival director, and is uniquely engaged in presenting new work from countries both in and out of the European Union. But four other programmers this year have each been charged with the task of choosing films from within one or more categories: Oak Street curator Emily Condon has taken her picks from Asia and the Middle East (including Iraq and Iran); the Bell's Adam Sekuler looked south to Central and South America; the MFA's recently installed executive director Jamie Hook has focused chiefly on new indies, most from the U.S.; and Deborah Girdwood, Hook's co-director in the domestic sphere, is screening a dozen distinctly playful titles for a Childish Film Festival sidebar geared toward kids of all ages (or three and up, anyway).

A more adult-sounding M-SPIFF number this year is "18+"--the fest's best guess thus far of how many filmmakers will accept its invites to appear in person with their work. Four of the confirmed attendees are particularly worth mentioning: Toronto-based actor-director-writer Don McKellar will be at the State Theatre on Friday, opening night, to introduce his precocious sophomore feature Childstar (reviewed on p. 19 along with 35 other notables screening in the fest's first week); two master auteurs, Olivier Assayas (Clean) and Benôit Jacquot (A tout de suite), will be here from France, the latter toting not just his new film, but the bulk of his oeuvre; and, this just in, the great Wim Wenders--legendary above all for having shared an intimate Minneapolitan meal with Mr. Milgrom back in '78 while his driver, guru-to-be John Pierson, was left to twiddle his thumbs--will be at the Riverview with a new feature, Land of Plenty, that couldn't be better named for a slot in this homegrown embarrassment of riches.

Speaking of which: In recognition that we have a lot more here than 10,000 lakes and the MFA, despite the fest's perennially global reach, we at City Pages have decided this year to focus some special attention on the talent that has been growing in our own backyard, including directors Rolf Belgum (The Wild Condition), Vu Tran (From There to Here), and James Vculek (Two Harbors), all of whom are profiled at length herein.

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

BY PETER S. SCHOLTES

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.

"There's something liberating about just sitting and letting yourself watch something," says the director. "I look at shooting as a game. You have to respond to something as it's happening. And once you have a script, you don't have a game anymore."

Anyone who meets Rolf Belgum will have a hard time imagining him sitting in his backyard for five hours every weekend, pointing a camera at insects and waiting for something to happen. In person, he can't stop moving or talking.

"He's like the tsunami," says Merrilyn Belgum, Rolf's mother. "I know when he's going to come over, I can just feel it. The animals act different and everything."

Merrilyn remembers her son's Minneapolis childhood as a series of calls from the school principal. "I never thought he'd get into the U, let alone be teaching today," she says.

But Rolf eventually earned an art scholarship to the University of California at San Diego. Arriving as a sculptor and collage artist, he left as a filmmaker: His first 16mm project was a 29-minute fiction short about a young man obsessed with Burt Reynolds. "He gets hit with a golf ball," says Belgum, "and Burt Reynolds appears to him as a shaman." The filmmaker's German rocket-scientist roommate wore a glossy picture cut from a magazine to play Reynolds.

After he returned to his hometown, Belgum immediately made a fiction film starring his mom, The Trappings of Success, a project he describes as a disaster. Turning to documentary, he began shooting Driver 23 after meeting and befriending Dan Cleveland in the Dinkytown guitar store where Belgum worked. (The two briefly tried to form a band together.) These two are still friends today, and Cleveland is still in town, studying to be a respiratory therapist. Last year, Darkhorse suffered a tragic loss with the death of bassist Sean Cassidy, the amiable monument to patience in the two films. (Cleveland says he's remastering the Darkhorse CD in a new studio he has built, and hopes to re-release the album with new songs recorded before Cassidy died.)

Rolf Belgum's filmmaking has proven to be as gradual as Dan Cleveland's perfectionistic work, suggesting that the future of "instantaneous" DV cinema may lie in calculated masterpieces realized over years. Belgum's behind-the-scenes story for The Wild Condition might bore Project Greenlight fans: He shot and edited constantly for three years, even taking the camera on walks, but always outside of a full-time job teaching editing. Before post-production, the new movie cost him about $650.

"Hopefully art affects how you live in the world," Belgum says. "People say, 'To see nature, I've got to go over here. I've got to go to Yellowstone.' And I'm just like, 'Did you look in your backyard?'" •

 

The Wild Condition screens at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 13 at the Bell.

 

As American as Apple Valley

'From There to Here' brings MCAD Senior Vu Tran from a southern suburb to the International Film Festival

BY PETER RITTER

One morning in 1991, Vu Tran's parents woke him early. Without saying anything about where they were headed, they brought the nine-year-old and his brother to the sea. There, along with 110 other Vietnamese refugees, they boarded a small fishing boat. Tran and his family spent the next week tossing in the South China Sea and living on a mere handful of rice per day. When, on the seventh day, the boat reached Hong Kong, they were sent to a refugee detention camp--a drab limbo in which Tran would spend the next three years.

"There was a kind of dome over the camp," explains Tran while taking a study break in the student lounge at MCAD, where the 23-year-old is now a senior film major. "At seven in the morning, they open the dome. At seven [p.m.], they close it. Not a lot of freedom. We lived in bunk beds. Our family had two bunk beds for four people. Like this high." Tran raises a hand to shoulder level. "We crawl all the time. We sleep. We crawl."

A child refugee's loneliness and unarticulated sense of displacement permeate From There to Here, Tran's deeply personal half-hour documentary about his odyssey. From its opening archival news footage of the fall of Saigon to its shots of manicured subdivisions in Apple Valley, where Tran's family ultimately settled, From There to Here seems to consciously adopt the POV of a bewildered nine-year-old.

Despite the incorporation of newsreel footage, From There To Here isn't primarily concerned with Vietnamese history or with the plight of international refugees. It is, rather, a personal document, a diary of Tran's integration into American society. His is, in many ways, the typical melting pot narrative. But that familiar story is also grounded in specific personal detail--Tran's minor epiphany upon first tasting McDonald's fries, for instance. Indeed, what From There to Here lacks in technical polish or startling originality, it more than makes up for in the sincerity of Tran's narrated recollections.

"When I got to America," he says, "I saw everything was so organized. Houses, trees, sidewalks--everything lined up perfectly. My first thought was, 'Wow. This is like heaven to me.'" In the film, Tran uses repeated images of telephone poles and lawns to juxtapose this neatly regimented suburban paradise with noisy, crowded Vietnam.

Idyllic as it may have first seemed, though, Apple Valley proved to be another sort of limbo. Despite the fact that his father had been an English teacher in Vietnam, Tran spoke little of the language when he arrived in America. "The first couple years, it was horrendous. Horrible. I cried every day. No one talked to me. Basically no friends. I just hung out with teachers and [school] counselors." Tran ultimately learned English, in part, he says, by watching history documentaries on PBS.

The idea of recording his own history on film began as a way of explaining--perhaps to himself as much as to others--how his family ended up in Apple Valley. "Since I was in high school, people have asked me the question, How did you get here? I'm not a very good writer, but I wanted to do something to tell the story. I thought: I should make a movie about my journey to America." Last year, armed with a $300 Samsung camcorder, Tran went back to Vietnam and Hong Kong. He found that the camp where he had spent three years was gone, replaced by a block of high-rise apartments.

Tran says he might like to make another documentary about those lost years--perhaps even a film tracking the lives of the other refugees who left Vietnam on the same boat as his family. For now, though, his ambitions sound modest. "After graduation, I'm planning to go to California," he says. "Hopefully I can get a decent job and get some money together." He grins. "Maybe pay off my student loans." Ah, the American dream.

 

From There to Here screens at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, April 9 at the Bell along with Joanna Kohler's hour-long docMoving in a Mirror. It also shows this weekend at the Bloomington Art Center; proceeds from that screening, sponsored by the Catalyst Foundation, will be put toward a scholarship program for Vietnamese American girls. For more information, call 507.664.9558.

 

Close Encounters of the Weird Kind

Oddballs bond in James Vculek's "Anti-Spielberg" film 'Two Harbors'

BY QUINTON SKINNER

"I don't have the starving artist personality," says Twin Cities filmmaker James Vculek. "And I don't have the personality for raising money."

Sounds like a conundrum, although in Vculek's case it's one he has solved with pristine simplicity: by holding down a well-paying day job at West Publishing, where he works flex time in order to get three days off every week to pursue his art. So far, so good: His sci-fi tragicomedy Two Harbors landed a spot in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival--quite an accomplishment for a first feature. Vculek wrote and directed it for less than $10,000.

Admirably abstaining from stimulants during our chat at Dunn Bros, Vculek has a reserved, friendly presence--and a refreshing matter-of-factness about his work. He says he drew initial inspiration for Two Harbors from a newspaper article about a pair of rural folks involved in shady circumstances. After that he cooked up the character of Vic (actor-comedian Alex Cole), a flea-market action-figure dealer who's vigorously impatient with the human species. "I pictured this irascible, ornery guy," says Vculek, "and it all fell into place at that point."

Cole's Vic sails along on an ocean of bile until he comes across Cassie (Catherine Johnson), whose stall at the flea market consists of nothing more than two crudely fashioned dolls. The two are fascinated with one another, but they're just too weird to make a connection. When Cassie stumbles upon Vic's trailer--replete with satellite dish, tinfoil-covered windows, and a computer dedicated to catching radio waves from space aliens--a mutant romance is born.

"The people who like Two Harbors the most are the ones who never settle in," Vculek says. His point is well taken. The film employs a bleak black-and-white ambience to tease out the inscrutable despair beneath little lives spent in a little place, applying moments of humor and sweetness to make it a uniquely genre-ignoring exercise. One funny cameo features Guthrie mainstay Richard Ooms as a bitchy antique dealer, while another has Twin Cities multitasker Ari Hoptman haggling ineffectually over the price of a Mr. Spock doll.

Johnson turns in an assuredly fragile performance as a young woman with a mysterious past, making her way through the woods of social contact with little in the way of a map or compass. "I saw her as somebody who had a low social intelligence," the actor has said. "Whether it was mild autism or something going on in her brain, I didn't want to get too clinical about it. But I liked how mysterious she was."

Our heroine's mistiness is deepened when Vic starts getting transmissions on his hillbilly-SETI station--only when Cassie is present. Vic might see the irony in having his search for transcendence work out only in the presence of a young girl who's transparently desperate for contact of a more mundane sort, but Vculek doesn't write him that way. The irony is deep, and it's touching when Cassie hesitantly signs on for a journey into Vic's E.T. obsession. The director describes his work as an "anti-Spielberg film," because in Vculek's world things aren't likely to lead to a cuddly climax. And he praises Cole's prickly performance while admitting that the actor took Vic in unexpected directions. "I pictured Bill Murray and I got Jack Nicholson," Vculek says with a laugh.

Since making Two Harbors, Vculek has already finished his follow-up, The Quietest Sound, which stars Johnson as a young mother being interrogated by police about the disappearance of her daughter. The 75-minute feature was shot in one continuous take on the second try, and ends with a genuinely shocking twist. Vculek isn't one to sing the tragic opera of the creative process: He wrote his latest film quickly, he says, and got it shot for less than $400.

Asked to describe the training and background that could have allowed for such frugal filmmaking, Vculek politely shakes his head. What he has is simple but effective: a digital-video camera and a talent for seeing unusual ideas through to completion. When he's not at the office or on the film set (lighting can be bought at Home Depot for about 10 bucks, he explains), Vculek puts together stage shows for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. At the 2003 Fringe, he presented Shtick and Its Relation to the Unconscious, in which Sigmund Freud (played by Ooms) tries to resurrect the career of a floundering Catskills comedian. Vculek dug into Yiddish musical theater for the show, drawing on his own experience as a Klezmer musician.

For this year's Fringe, Vculek will stage The Princeton Seventh, a two-act comedy that will reunite Cole, Johnson, Ooms, and Hoptman. "It takes place in a hotel bar in Toledo," says Vculek. "People there are waiting for a tribute to a recently deceased poet. That's about all the action there is." •

 

Two Harbors screens at 9:00 p.m. Thursday, April 14 at Lagoon Cinema.

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