Monday, March 14, 2011

Oxford film fest trip with Kim (February 10-14, 2011)

Exactly one month ago I went on a trip with Kim to the Oxford Film Festival in Oxford Mississippi. I had most of this ready to post on February 15th but got caught up editing, adding and being distracted by normal life and fatigue. And then I finished it and was ready to post but that was the week that everyone in the house got sick. So here it is in all of its long and rambling glory.

Thursday in Seattle:

Its 5:30 on a Thursday morning and I'm standing in a line of people waiting to get on the second plane to Phoenix where Kim and I will connect to a flight to Memphis and then an hour and a half shuttle ride to Oxford Mississippi. The first plane had a critical problem that was discovered after everyone had boarded. We sat in our sardine can seats for a half hour and then were told we would deplane and board the plane waiting at the next gate.

Our connection in Phoenix leaves 40 minutes after our original flight's arrival time. That's tight even with no delays. Lucky for us we're pre-booked on the next flight from Phoenix to Memphis (12 hours later). Did I mention how lucky we were.

At this point I'm working on about five minutes of light dozing and two cups of coffee. Since we had to leave so early to get to the airport for a 5:15 flight, we just did our packing and other household tasks until it was time to leave. On the drive to the airport off-site parking place I noticed that my gas was getting a little low. I wasn't in any danger of running out but I'll need to fill up before hitting the highway home. I forgot to grab Cal's antibiotic on the way out of the house in the morning so I had to drive an extra 50 miles to get it and take it to his mother's house before leaving on this trip.

Changing Planes in Phoenix:

We missed our connecting flight. Luckily the airline automatically transferred us to another carrier with only a couple of hours of layover. I guess I wasn’t joking about being lucky. This was good since we had to exit the airport and take a shuttle over to the Delta terminal, get new boarding passes, go through the security screening again and find our gate. I didn't mention that the first time through security at SeaTac I got to have my sexy body immortalized for all of the TSA to admire with my first full-body scan.

We got some "edible" burritos and then retired to a Starbucks (near a power outlet, of course) to while away our layover in "The Grand Canyon State." As an aside I had to throw away my black Sketchers boots. The heel was starting to separate from the sole before the trip but I thought they had more life left in them. But when I took them off to go through Security at the Delta terminal, 2/3 of the sole separated from the boot. Since I only had a carry-on bag for this trip, it was into the waste bin for the boots and on to the feet for the black Converse.

Getting on the Delta flight was uneventful but with the bonus of only Kim and I in our three seat section. I was able to scoot over into the window seat and Kim snuggled up next to me. I was able to get slightly better sleep (involuntary unconsciousness is a more accurate description) and drank a Ginger Ale. I was just starting to get into David Foster Wallace's “Infinite Jest” when the plane landed and we had to move around

While waiting for the door to open I started noticing all of the small messages plastered repeatedly on the seats, overhead console, emergency exit door one row up, and even the armrest between the seats: no smoking allowed in the cabin, please fasten seat belt while seated, something else about opening the door during flight and killing all aboard in a gruesome hurricane of decompression and forced evacuation at 30,000 feet followed by the tranquility of falling to an impact guaranteed to kill anything that survived leaving the plane so abruptly.

Oxford (also on Thursday):

I dragged my carryon luggage to the normal baggage area and claimed Kim's bag. She called to find out about our ride from Memphis to Oxford and was told we would be picked up in a few minutes by the A-team van. We made a few jokes about the television show and watched the traffic in the pick-up zone. Eventually we were approached by a black van of mid seventies vintage decked out like the one used in the TV show "The A-Team." The van itself looked like it had carried one too many group of frat boys home from partying. The captain's chair I was in wobbled seriously. The engine started making a weird noise so we were switched to a Prius for the ride into Oxford from the A-Team to a Prius; from the Mr. T van to an Al Gore car.

We arrived in time for dinner at Bouree with three of Kim’s friends; Jen Yamato, Todd Gilchrist and James Rocchi where I had a Bouree burger with sweet potato fries. The delays in travel made us miss most of the Thursday night activities. We went over to the Lyric Theater and hung out for a while at the opening night shindig for the Oxford Film Festival. I was introduced to lots of people and quickly glazed over and only remember a couple.

Friday (also in Oxford):

In the morning Kim had to run off to the Juror's breakfast and fight over the documentary awards. I, on the other hand, had a luxurious rest, shower and time to look over the festival material. I looked up the theater where all of the screenings were taking place and it listed its location as the Oxford Mall. Having been to my fair share of malls, I thought I could pick up some breakfast/lunch item there so I didn't eat and hopped on the shuttle about to leave the hotel. Upon arrival at the mall I discover that the mall is only the movie theater and a JCPenneys. The only food available was at the snack bar in the theater. I learned later that the other anchor on the mall was a Wal-Mart that moved down the road to a new supercenter and that killed the mall. I also discovered, after Kim joined me, that there was a green room I had access to with food and drinks for free.

I waited for Kim and then went to the speed pitch panel. Most of the pitches seemed to be more for distributors but a few were for funding of future projects. It was interesting to hear these filmmakers pitch projects and distribution for films screening at OFF. An interesting thing I learned in this panel and explored throughout the weekend was the concept of doing a short film to sell the concept of a longer version of the same film or as a calling card on generic talent to pitch other ideas for funding.

After that we saw the short "Queen's Day" and the feature "Where I Begin." Kim did the Q&A session for this film. “Queen’s Day” was a stylized slice of life by Jeffrey Ruggles centered on the moment when someone realizes their relationship is something more than they thought it was. As more of a vignette than a full story, I found it somewhat dissatisfying. But as I watched more shorts over the weekend I could see where it fit in the spectrum of what short films are there to achieve and I’ve ended up with more of an appreciation for what it is and what it is not.

The movie “Where I Begin” was good, a little confusing, slightly overwrought and amazing when you consider how much was done for the amount of money spent on it. The movie tells the story of Jacob as he returns to his home town 10 years after being driven out under a cloud of rape allegations. The wounds are still open and most of the people still as damaged as when the incident tore the town apart. The character of Tyler and his drug addicted girlfriend Jill were the most compelling to me. Bo Keister was terrifying as Tyler but T. Lynn Mikeska’s portrayal of Jill sold me on just how intimidating he was. Tyler is looking for Jacob to settle up for what he’s accused of doing to Tyler’s sister. Tyler hates Jacob like only a former best friend can. The final confrontation in this film shows well how broken people limp through existence raging at life but not learning how to move on and live. The central question of the story “Did he do it?” is left unanswered and ambiguous in an anti-Hollywood move that works well for this independent character-driven drama.

I got to see about half of Mississippi Innocence when Kim pulled me out so we could go back to the hotel room. She was having an asthma attack and needed to rest and get to where she could breathe again.

When we were all rested and ready it was time to head over to Ajax for dinner. We were meeting people for dinner but they were all still over at the theater doing Q&A sessions that were running long. Eventually enough people showed up to order dinner. I had the chicken fried steak with a side of red beans and rice and sweet potato casserole. Kim had the Ajax meatloaf with turnip greens and the squash casserole. I liked the sweet potato casserole but the Chicken Fried Steak was not hand breaded and it was covered with brown gravy. I know I'm spoiled for CFS growing up in Oklahoma and knowing how good a hand breaded beef cutlet can be awash in good cream gravy. Kim's Meatloaf was great. Apart from being well spiced it also had a layer of cheese in the middle.

After dinner we went down the street to Roosters Blues House to hear an old bluesman T-Model Ford at the Friday night party. We stayed there and listened to the blues and hobnobbed with the movie folk in Oxford until almost 1am. At this point the bus to Graceland Too showed up and the evening really began.

Graceland Too is a house in Holly Springs, MS that has been given over to the obsession with Elvis memorabilia of Paul McLeod. The house is a cross between an episode of hoarders, a tribute to an American legend and he set for a Rob Zombie horror film.

The old school bus that had been repurposed as a party bus had multi-colored rope lights around the interior and hip-hop music blasting from the speaker system. There were 13 of us to start but we lost two when the bus stopped so riders could get drinks and snacks. The 11 left turned our lives over to the driver as he plunged into the depths of rural Mississippi. The trip lasted just a little too long. The roads were a little too bumpy. The cell phone coverage was a little too nonexistent. When it was seen that the half-moon near the horizon was blood red, the bus hit a big bump and all of the rope lights went out. We rode in pitch darkness with only the moon mocking our folly for a couple of minutes before the lights came back on. After a quick head count to make sure we hadn't slipped into a horror movie, we all had a tension relieving round of laughter and snarky comments.

The bus finally pulled up to this two story house with the standard colonial columns fir the area and two lions on each side of the porch literally strangled with rope lights. This old guy with sweaty, stringy, thinning gray Elvis hair invites us into an entryway plastered with images of Elvis. He's on the ceiling, walls and floor (lots of Elvis rugs). The stairway to the second floor is blocked with memorabilia and it can be barely seen in the dim light bleeding up from the entryway that the second floor is stacked floor to ceiling with an accumulation of Elvis. Every room was plastered like the entryway with every square inch covered and dozens of trunks which are probably filled with more Elvis stuff (or the severed limbs of previous lifetime members - people who've been to the museum three times). It's now about 2 a.m. and after everyone has paid the five dollar tour fee, our host wrangles the nearly broken doors shut and padlocks them closed. That's right; he padlocks us all into the house. Worried looks are easy to find in our party.

After a few rooms of floor to ceiling Elvis and a nonstop high-speed monologue with hundreds of thousands of items worth millions of dollars and several declarations with graphic descriptions of how we can kill him if he were lying, we reach the backyard.

With a high chain link fence and all of the outdoor items, the yard increases the surreal near horror movie nature of the experience. But all of that is mere preparation for what lays beyond the pink Cadillac. At the very back corner of the yard down a little chain link alleyway is an electric chair. Next to the chair is a small plastic nativity figure painted black. On first glance it looks like the charred remains of a previous traveler or small child. He claimed the chair was from "Jailhouse Rock" or a replica of the one used in the movie (the speed patter goes so quickly and was infused with so many macabre elements that it was hard to keep everything straight). In the midst of all of this was a collection of old basketballs pained black and a "small-world" international tribute where all of the heads were soccer balls. No one wanted to interrupt and ask how these items pertained to Elvis.

The way out of the back yard led us to a narrow cold hallway whose walls were lined with Polaroids of people who after going through the museum three times were inducted into the lifetime membership club. It was unclear if these somewhat frightened looking people were all hidden under the mysteriously uneven floors or not. The hallway looked like a cattle chute. Luckily there was no one with a hammer or pneumatic hole-punch and pageboy haircut waiting to dispatch us at the end of the line.

Back in the entryway and so close to escaping our doom, McLeod goes into a spiel about Elvis, karate, Elvis, Bruce Lee, Elvis, converse shoes on the set of Jailhouse Rock, Elvis and Marilynn Monroe being interrupted in flagrante delicto by Frank Sinatra, and Elvis, Marilynn and the Kennedys. At this point Kim asks incredulously if he just said that Elvis had sex with the Kennedys and was the recipient of a withering "that's not funny" look from our host. Much was made of this later when the story was that Kim nearly got us all killed by questioning the King's sexuality.

But the host recovered quickly and claimed that if there weren't women present then he did have some stories he could tell. Jen piped up at this and implored him to tell us the stories anyway (begged really). This opened the floodgates on a very blue monologue that can only be accurately compared to the film "The Aristocrats." There were women, dogs, little people with large endowments, Pamela Anderson, Val Kilmer, an old porn star of prodigious manhood and Lucy Lawless being intimately scarred through acts of unselfish physical generosity. It went on and on and started scaring (or scarring) the Ol' Miss frat boys and their dates that made up about half of our tour group. And during this last bit of wisdom the elderly Elvis aficionado starts to play with one of the buttons on Mark Bell's jacket. The button right over where his nipple would be. And then he starts fondling the button on the other side. He doesn't miss a beat in his stories while doing this. And then it was over. The padlock on the door was removed and we were all very happy to see the bus that would take us out of this corner of the twilight zone. We counted heads twice before leaving. The trip back and much of the rest of the weekend was spent rehashing, analyzing, and speculating about the experience. The overall consensus was that everyone should go at least once to Graceland Too but only in a large group.

Saturday at OFF:

After getting back to the hotel room after 4 am we knew that if we didn't set an alarm there was no way we'd be up in time. We set alarms, we really did. But I think it was waking up spontaneously 30 minutes earlier than the alarm that messed things up. I, because it was me that did this, got up and checked the time, saw that it was 30 minutes before the alarm was set and went back to bed. What I didn't realize was that I had also turned off the alarm.

We overslept but not by much. While Kim showered I went down to the coffee shop and got us both coffee and her a banana nut muffin and me a big cinnamon roll.

The first thing we saw was a short film from some Seattle filmmakers called “Our Time Together.” The film captures in a very interesting way, the obsessive conversations guys will have with themselves when building up the courage to ask someone out on a date. It is a very special (and somewhat painful) kind of obsession that usually indicates that there is no actual connection between the guy and the object of his desire. I really liked the film. Kim was supposed to lead a Q&A with them before the main feature started but there was a miscommunication and the feature started immediately after.

The feature was a movie called “Passenger Pigeons” which followed four stories in the aftermath of a Kentucky mining accident that left a man dead. We get to follow his brother and widow's story; a girlfriend of a coworker to the fallen miner worried about her boyfriend, a pair of mining executives sent for PR damage control and an environmental activist stuck in town after the protest was cancelled in the wake of the accident. I like the way the stories were told and that while they all revolved around the one event the stories had very little overlap.

The best scene for me in the movie was when the two mining execs check into their hotel room. The loud brash older guy who’s two weeks from retirement is relaxing on the bed with his shirt undone. The younger guy, his replacement, comes into the room with ice and just stops and stares at the guy. The expression on his face during this extended deadpan stare said so much to me that I could barely contain an explosive bout of laughter.

But the movie wasn't a comedy. It dealt with the range of human emotion in these stories and ended in a very satisfying way with a Viking funeral that makes perfect sense within the context of the movie.

The one thing I didn't like was the sound editing. I never thought that sound editing would be something to like or dislike about a movie but there it is. In many scenes the background sounds were overpowering the main dialog. Whether it was leaves rustling around people in the park or the nearly constant traffic noises, the mixing of the sound was off enough to me that it interfered with my enjoyment of an otherwise fine film.

And then the Q&A for the short and feature started. Kim was aware of the time and asked how much she had. She was told 15 minutes. She spent five on the short and was a couple of minutes into the ten for the feature when a volunteer came up, interrupted her and said this would have to be the last question. Now Kim is a stalwart for treating volunteers kindly at festivals, but this guy crossed her line. They went back and forth a couple of times and she dismissed him and continued the questioning. She did cut it a bit short but felt it was unfair to the filmmakers to do what happened. No one got hurt, this time.

The next set of films I saw was a block of short films made by people from Mississippi. The shorts included Blood Feud (concerning the son of a slain DEA agent and his efforts to revenge his father), The Mistake (about a woman who wakes up in a strange man's bed not sure of what happened to her), Lukos (about a guy with a monthly problem -- and it's not his girlfriend's PMS), and Trick or Eat (about the fun teenagers have scaring young children at Halloween).

For me the highlight of the block was “The Mistake.” As I noted at the time, “It’s the funniest film I’ve ever seen about date rape.”

After the Mississippi short films it was off to the generic short film block where I saw one of my favorite films of the festival. Conlang was the first film in the block and is an uber-geeky love story about a guy who’s creating a complicated language, the girl he likes and is trying to teach it to and a contest for control of the constructed language (conlang) club. In the end he must choose between winning control of the club and winning the heart of the girl. If you’ve ever known anyone who has a Klingon dictionary or an affection for Esperanto (or if that’s you) then this short film is one for you.

The other films in the block: April, Seeing, Untitled, and Antiquities, were good but had very different uses for the short film format. April, a mockumentary about integrating a zombie teen into a southern California high school, was funny and self contained but seemed like a comedy skit that was about to go on too long. Seeing was also a self contained story about a very interesting blind date that was well executed (I don’t feel I can say too much about this without massive spoilers). Untitled was an unusual slice-of-life breakup scene at the beach that seemed like it was a smaller part of a larger project. And Antiquities, a Napoleon Dynamite type production that had a complete story but felt like it was trying to sell a larger version of itself to the awkward teen industry that brought out Napoleon Dynamite and Gentlemen Broncos.

After a short break we all went in to the Awards Ceremony for the Oxford Film Festival. The presentation started off with a showing of the short film “The Hanging of Big Todd Wade.” This comedy western was produced locally by the Oxford Film Festival and starred many local denizens. It was a light film that was fun to watch but not trying to be “important.” What followed was many awards documented on the Oxford Film Festival web site. The film that won the narrative feature award “Prairie Love” was one that was a late addition to the festival. Not having seen it yet I made a note to see it on Sunday. The short “Pillow” also won for best narrative short and the main actor Ed Lowry won the Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award.

With the awards given it was off to the Powerhouse Community Arts Center for the big event of the festival. Of course this was no match for the sheer terror of the Graceland Too visit but they did have a BBQ buffet with pulled pork sandwiches and all of the fixins’ (potato salad, sweet slaw, and baked beans). When we were full, the party had fulfilled its major function and we were off to the party for the film “Where I Begin.”

This party was at a private residence that had a big screen TV, an open floor plan, a big kitchen, a nice backyard with a fire pit and all of the best people from the Film Festival. There was good noshing and lots of good conversations. Several people, including me, indulged in a little Glee karaoke. I got to sing “Proud Mary” and “Somebody to Love.” The Glee versions messed with me a bit since I’m used to the versions from the rock radio of my youth.

A highlight of the evening was listening to Kim and Johnny McPhail talk about corporal punishment in the schools. Both are against it. McPhail had a good anecdote about taking the paddle from his kids school to a board meeting and telling them during the public comment period that he had brought a weapon to the meeting. He then pulled out the paddle and smacked it on the desk and told a story of a child being spanked. It was both a good story and a lively reenactment from a fine actor.

The party was interrupted for me and the host when my glasses broke. I have a screw that holds one of the lenses in place that slowly loosens over time. Usually I check it every day and use the small screwdriver in my computer bag to tighten it. But with all of the excitement of the festival, I neglected my eyeglass maintenance. Eventually the host was able to find a small enough screwdriver and I fixed the glasses.

Sunday (no park, no George, just Oxford):

We got up early and went across the street from the hotel to Donna Ruth’s house to have tea with her before the Festival breakfast. Donna Ruth is a long-time friend of Kim with a great house in a historic area. The tea and conversation were great and I look forward to future teas and maybe a dip in her hot tub.

Being the guest of a juror, Kim, had the benefit of getting me a ticket to the festival breakfast at a restaurant called “The Grocery” but the breakfast was catered by a sister restaurant “Big Bad Breakfast.” I had some meat quiche (and a slice of the veggie quiche) and a big biscuit and some cheese grits. It was a very filling and good meal. Afterward Kim and I went and watched “Prairie Love.”

“Prairie Love” is a movie about lonely people set against the backdrop of a cold North Dakota winter. A loner meets a man who could be dead and was on the way to get his girlfriend as she is released from prison. Several acts of desperation and misdirection lead the loner into a relationship with the recently released woman. There are some muted performances that match the tone set by the landscape. The movie is quirky and yet endearing as the characters are desperate to connect but clueless as to how to do it. The black humor and the setting make a comparison with “Fargo” easy but the similarity of the two movies really ends with the North Dakota setting. “Prairie Love” is far more bleak than “Fargo” and our lonely loners feel more like they’ve escaped from a David Lynch film but not exactly in a positive way.

The next films I watched were three shorts and a documentary. “Sexting” had Julia Stiles as the other woman confronting the wife of her boyfriend. She’s just realized that he’s leading her on but there are still some important things she doesn’t know. “Pillow” was another award winner from the previous night about two brothers, an overbearing mother, a pillow shortage and some odd fishing. It was highly stylized and very well done. The team from Arkansas were all very friendly. The next short was a documentary about a woman with a disease that keeps her from moving much. But this hasn’t stopped her from becoming an artist and a teacher. It’s both inspiring and kind of punk. The woman in the doc has numerous tattoos and piercings.

All of this was leading up to “Mississippi Innocence.” I saw half of this documentary earlier but had to leave when Kim began suffering from an allergy attack. This time we both were able to see just how clueless a prosecution team can be when they are more concerned with getting a conviction than finding the truth or preserving justice. Luckily there is “The Innocence Project” and its ability to get to the bottom of this situation.

I went back to the green room while Kim watched the encore showing of “Queen’s Day” and “Where I Begin” so she could do the Q&A for these a second time. About half way through the movie someone came and got me because Kim was having another asthma attack. We think there was probably someone wearing a perfume that triggered the attack but we can’t be sure. Between inhalers and rest in the green room, Kim was able to hold it together so she could do the Q&A. I would also point out that we were discussing an aspect of the film and the way the settings for each character was indicative of how the character had moved on or not from the triggering incident in the movie. Kim had one take on one of the characters and I had another nearly opposite take. During the Q&A it came out (through a question I asked, of course) that my interpretation was correct. And Kim, being the gracious and giving person that she is, revealed our previous discussion and admitted to the whole crowd that I was right.

A large group went all the way to a catfish restaurant south of Oxford. A group of about 25 of us were there and couldn’t get seated as a group. A table opened up and the seven of us that took the “A-Team” van got in so we could be done by the time it came back for us. What we didn’t know at the time was that about 10 minutes after we were seated, Melanie, a co-director of the Festival, became upset at the personnel of the restaurant and the majority of the group left to have Thai food in Oxford.

So Kim and I had a nice catfish dinner with five other film people who were either jurors at the festival or had films at the fest. Needless to say there was a large amount of cool conversation that continued through the ride home and some the next day.

Monday (Oxford to Seattle):

This morning we met Melanie and Heidi for breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast. I had some of the best biscuits and gravy (along with eggs sausage and potatoes) since moving away from the South. This was good stuff. The whole weekend and especially the food and friendly people, lead me to compare Oxford to some of the better places in red-state America like Austin.

After breakfast we were supposed to get picked up to get to the airport in Memphis by 9 am so we could make our flight easily. But that didn’t happen. Eventually a car did show up, again a Prius. But taking four adults, the crowd now waiting to catch flights, and a driver and luggage in a Prius is a tight fit. But we’re all friendly people so we squeezed in and all made it to the airport.

The flight back is somewhat of a blur with a stop in Chicago and a bumpy landing in the rain in Seattle. We then went back to the car park and drove home so we could collapse and I could get ready to go to work the next day.

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