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Little Big Time

Microcinefest Re-re-re-returns

By Lee Gardner | Posted 10/31/2001

Grainy, grimy black-and-white footage shows a late-model car driving down a country road. Suddenly a strange man appears in the car's path, blocking the driver's every twist and turn by brandishing two hot dogs. The editing is rough but energetic; the special effects are patently homemade; the soundtrack consists of garbled, gibbered quasi-narration and distant spazzy music. Before the short film ends, snow has fallen on the road and then mysteriously disappeared--you're not really sure whether it's symbolic of something or just a continuity problem. And the driver, who looks like someone who takes all of his meals at a bowling-alley snack counter, spends a lot of time showing off his dance moves, giving the whole thing a "Billie Jean"-by-way-of-Tetsuo: The Iron Man flair.

Beware of the Hot Dog People is the latest work from 22-year-old New Jersey filmmaker Matthew Silver. MicroCineFest (MCF) founder Skizz Cyzyk says Silver's work is exactly the kind of thing the fifth-anniversary edition of his acclaimed Baltimore-based underground-film festival is all about.

"Obviously here's a guy with a whole lot of creativity and no budget," Cyzyk says of Silver while taking a break from organizing MCF 2001, which runs Oct. 31 through Nov. 4. "He makes these things any way he can, and they're just brilliant, but it's a brilliance that only certain people are going to see. A lot of people are not going to get past the fact that these things look really low-budget or that they're really weird."

Really low-budget with a side of really weird is the blue-plate special at MicroCineFest; with two short films in the 2001 lineup and a big profile article in the festival's program, Silver is a celebrity in MCF terms. Yet the festival has hung on for five years to make a name for itself far beyond the Baltimore movie-nut demimonde, in large part thanks to the 35-year-old Cyzyk's perseverance, hard work, and underdog tastes. "It's really one of the major alternative film festivals in the country," Jeff Krulik, the Washington-based filmmaker behind the underground classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot and dozens of other shorts, says admiringly. "Part of that is because Skizz is so open in exploring things. Even with his limited resources, he brings in filmmakers and shows stuff you're not going to see anywhere else."

The MicroCineFest story begins with a search for unusual cinema in rural Baltimore County, where a teenaged Cyzyk spent his spare time hiking three miles to the nearest video store to rent movies like Liquid Sky, Pink Flamingoes, Pink Floyd: The Wall, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, over and over again. Before long, he was drumming in seminal Baltimore rock band Berserk, taking every film course available at Towson University, and living with some friends in a spacious old heap of a former funeral home on York Road north of Waverly. In 1993, he began hosting regular underground-film screenings--everything from little-seen classics such as Chris Marker's moody sci-fi short La Jetée to videos from local no-budget lensers such as Catherine Pancake--in one of the house's slightly down-at-the-heels parlors, which was dubbed the Mansion Theatre.

After several years of monthly programs, the Mansion was well-established enough to earn a short article in Filmmaker magazine. Underground auteurs from around the country began tying up the Mansion's phone line, trying to set up Baltimore screenings for their work. Three filmmakers wanted to come to Baltimore the same month, October of '97.

"I thought, That's a lot of work for me, to set up that many film screenings in one month," Cyzyk recounts. "I thought, I'll just book them all in one week, book a couple of other films, and call it a festival." In fact, he says, the first MicroCineFest came about in large part because he wanted to promote several screenings and only make one flier.

Cyzyk halted regular Mansion screenings and moved out of the house in 1998, but not before hosting the first MCF, a four-day event featuring more than 50 short and feature films on 16mm, 8mm, and videotape. The first ad hoc event turned into a second MCF held at the now-defunct Fells Point revival house the Orpheum and boasting more than 120 films, and an even larger third and fourth, held at Hampden gallery space the G-Spot. But the continued existence of the festival has had its shaky moments. As MCF turned from a lark into a going concern, Cyzyk and his girlfriend/MCF partner, Jen Talbert, mounted bigger and more complicated events each year in their spare time, with volunteer help and minimal sponsorship. "By taking it more seriously, it became a bigger pain to pull off," Cyzyk says. "The third year, it was so much of a pain that we weren't going to do it again--until I saw some films at Slamdance [Film Festival in Park City, Utah] and thought, No, these have to be shown in Baltimore."

It's that sense of mission that seems to sustain MicroCineFest and Cyzyk himself. "I go to a lot of festivals, and I never feel like I am the target audience," he says. "And I know I'm not the only one out there that likes this stuff."

Bolstered by Cyzyk's new job as the programming coordinator for the Maryland Film Festival (a position that allows him ample on-the-clock time to work on MCF, with Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz's approval), the fifth-anniversary edition welcomes to town another raft of prime examples of "this stuff." MCF 2001 features more than 100 films that run the gamut in terms of length, style, professional polish, and baseline coherence but share a certain irresistible what-the-hell-was-that? quality. MCF 2001 attendees can watch raptly for three minutes as two men tied together at the knee and ankle silently dodge tennis balls launched at them by an implacable automated server in John Wood's Three Legged, or smirk through Alvin Ecarma's Lethal Force, a full-length spoof/homage that squeezes every straight-to-video action-flick cliché until they fit basement-rec-room sets. The lineup contains its share of old cult chestnuts (Sunday night winds down with The Sadist and Wild Guitar, two '60s Z-movie classics starring sub-competent would-be matinée idol Arch Hall Jr.) as well as films by underground-festival-circuit regulars, such as Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland's jaw-dropping "revenge documentary" Gramaglia. But many of the films at MicroCineFest won't be seen anywhere else, because they've been turned away from other film festivals devoted to less inspired but more accomplished work.

"We've sort of got this history of accepting these little things that have been rejected everywhere else, and someone will see them at MicroCineFest and then years later they'll finally catch on," Cyzyk says. He grins and adds, "It's cool to discover somebody that everyone else threw away."

Case in point: Matthew Silver. Bergenfield, N.J., is a long way from Hollywood, but in 1998 MCF accepted the then-19-year-old Silver's rough but imaginative short film Mother and Son. Cyzyk loved it and recommended it to Krulik, who loved it so much so that he has since sponsored screenings of Silver's films at the New York and Chicago underground film festivals. Now Silver has a small but growing audience of fans, thanks in large part to MicroCineFest.

"It gives a chance for people who don't have a big reputation to show their work and get some response," Silver says. "The people who run it, they have good hearts. It's about making the filmmaker feel good that they make films."

The MicroCineFest kick-off party takes place at Frazier's (919 W. 36th St.) on Oct. 31; the festival proper takes place Nov.1-4 at the G-Spot (2980 Falls Road). See www. microcinefest.org for full details.

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