It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!
Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.
I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Size, about the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.
Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.
Generally there are several films on my Salem Film Fest “itinerary”, but this year (the Festival’s 10th) I seem to be focused exclusively on one documentary: Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine. I don’t think I’m quite as fixated on time travel as the two subjects of the film, animator Rob Niosi and theoretical physicist Ron Mallet, but I’m a Time Machine aficionado too: of the book and both (major) movies. I think there are personal motivations behind their mutual quest, but I haven’t seen the film yet. Beyond Wells’ storytelling abilities, the attraction for me is the steampunky notion of playing with time: I certainly don’t want to conquer or even control it! Like most historians, I don’t have a romantic attachment to the past either: I know it was dirtier, smellier and dark, but not, perhaps, as dark as the future, so I would still prefer to go back, if only for a spell, in my dependable machine.
A century of time machines, from Enrique Gaspar’s “time ship” (1887) to the 1960 Wells machine, to TARDIS.
I’m just a casual delver into science fiction, but it seems me that The Time Machine is seldom discussed in the context of its lighter predecessor, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), probably because the latter is so light and not as concerned with the logistics of time travel. It is interesting to me that at this time, the tail end of the nineteenth century, so many people were interested in going back or forward or to anywhere but where they actually were! These two works initiated a time travel genre that will no doubt be with us forever, encompassing everything from Time Bandits, to Back to the Future to Midnight in Paris and everything in between, including my personal favorite, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.
Knights descend on Salem!
CATS, architecture, the Renaissance (or pseudo-Renaissance)…all my favorite topics are featured in documentary films screening at this year’s Salem Film Fest, which opened last night with Curious Worlds: the Art & Imagination of [miniaturist] David Beck. The festival is now a Salem tradition, in its ninth year, and of course a welcome addition to the non-witchy/kitschy calendar. I usually go to one or two films, and regret not seeing more. Even though the slogan of the festival is Come to Salem, See the World, its organizers always include some local productions, so the entire experience has a “glocal” feel to it, which seems appropriate for our city, our time, and this particular medium. This evening we will see Concrete Love: the Böhm Family, which purportedly “paints an intimate and pointed portrait of the complexity and inseparability of life, love, faith and architecture” through its examination of the life and work of German architect Gottfried Böhm, the patriarch of an architectural dynasty which includes his three sons. This weekend, I’ve got my eye on Projections of America, featuring 26 short propaganda films about America: the people produced for European audiences following the liberation of France in 1944, Kedi, all about the hundreds of thousands of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul, American Renaissance, a short on Renaissance-faire culture (I can’t miss this, as hopefully it will give me all sorts of insights into my students), and The Million Dollar Duck, (not to be confused with the 1971 Disney film of the same name) about the fierce competition among six artists to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. I feel honor-bound to see this last movie, as one of Salem’s most illustrious artists, Frank Benson, was actually one of the competition’s first victors!
German poster for Concrete Love: the Böhm Family; Projections of America poster; character cats in Kedi; a “Renaissance” plague doctor in American Renaissance, poster for The Million Dollar Duck, and Frank Benson’s winning design from 1935.
We’re in the midst of the eighth annual Salem Film Fest, featuring a diverse menu of documentary films from all over the world. I’m for any initiative that plays to Salem’s worldly past rather than its witchy one, and this extremely well-planned festival does just that: its slogan is Come to Salem, See the World and this year you can embark on a “curated itinerary” following the themes of arts and artists, films about music, righting wrongs, films about identity, contemporary political and social issues, land and sea, and living on the edge–giving it all. Several screenings include Q and A sessions with the filmmakers, and there are also forums which explore particular aspects of documentary production. I always have an ambitious itinerary of my own, but generally end up only seeing one film. Perhaps I’ll do better this year. This weekend I saw Dennis Mohr’s Mugshot, which examines the cultural significance of these little pictures, from law enforcement tool to celebrity signal to object of art. It was great, perfectly mixing past and present and imagery in my favorite way. Then I got focused on an academic project (a good thing) and missed American Experience Presents, about the making of the iconic PBS series, later on Saturday afternoon as well as today’s screening of Sex and Broadcasting, focused on the independent New Jersey radio station WFMU. There are still several screenings left of what looks like the “feel good” film of the festival, The Optimists, about a Norwegian volleyball team for women aged 66 to 98, so I think I’ll probably see that one, and I’m also interested in Seeds of Time, which examines one man’s mission to save the world through seed-saving and crop diversity.
Cats and dogs: the festival mixes its worldliness with local perspectives by including shorts by local college students and promotional “Salem sketches” which offer a frame of city life in very short films–a minute or two. I love this one featuring our local cobbler (and his cat) and even though “Snow Place like Salem” dates from a few years ago, it perfectly captures life in Salem this winter.