Friday, April 12, 2013

A Fine Film Frenzy, No Toilets

For the next week, my life revolves around film.

Tonight was the kick-off of the James River Film Festival, the annual festival "for the independent-minded."

I've been called many things and that happens to be one of them.

Candela Gallery was the site of tonight's festivities, conveniently four blocks from home.

I never watch movies at home because I believe film is meant to be a shared public experience, so I was looking forward to experiencing a couple of diverse films with a bunch of strangers reacting right along with me.

Food was provided courtesy of Comfort, Kuba Kuba and Proper Pie, meaning pimento cheese and chocolate chess pie were present and accounted for.

James Parrish of the JRFF got things rolling by saying, "All theaters have ghosts and although this isn't a theater, Amie of Candela asked me if we brought a ghost with us. Because both toilets are stopped up."

I immediately stopped drinking.

Kicking off the festival was "The Projectionist," a short film about a retired projectionist's lifelong love of movie theaters.

The story was told by the man himself, Gordon, old and bent over, but funny as hell and with a memory that went back to his youthful fascination with moving pictures.

Gordon, who worshiped the old-school movie places (like the Byrd), bemoaned the multiplexes ("cheap-looking affairs"), saying how they'd taken the beauty and magic of old time theaters away.

To feed his obsession, first he made drawings of imagined theaters, then small models and that got him by until the advent of TV and the decline of movie-going.

That's when his basement theater was born.

The miniature version of a grand movie palace, right down to the stage curtains, working organ and nine seats, was the site of many of the interviews in the film.

There were so many times I laughed out loud (he called his projectors "the girls") as Gordon recalled his army days and the outdoor "theater" he'd created while stationed in China.

Consisting of a piece of sailcloth he got from the Navy, he fashioned stage curtains, a marquee and touted it (with a guffaw) as "air conditioned."

Afterwards, director Kendall Messick did a Q & A, telling us he'd first seen  Gordon's theater as a child and not again for 25 years, when he realized that he needed to document this slice of theater history.

The best part was hearing that he'd saved Gordon's theater, removing it from the house so it could be reconstructed at museums (it's currently at an American history museum in Delaware) where "The Projectionist" could be shown.

Fortunately, Gordon lived long enough to see his beloved theater saved and moved by Kendall, something that had worried him greatly in his later years.

James asked of the crowd if we'd like to see Kendall's theater come to Richmond, getting a boisterous affirmative from us.

Since we've already seen "The projectionist," which usually shows in it, James suggested "Cinema Paradiso" instead.


Kendall's film had been a worthy, feel-good and funny start to the festival.

My fellow film-lover and I quickly scored some pizza from Tarrant's during the break, fortification for the punk scene that was to come.

The crowd was much smaller and younger for the second feature of the night, "Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard," about a Melbourne musician.

Jeff Roll introduced the film, saying, "Broken toilets, how punk rock is that?"

Probably more than I needed, but it was also funny.

Like the previous documentary, this one was also about a man now dead, albeit at a much younger age.

In fact, one of the early shots was of Howard being asked what he hoped to be doing when he was 60.

His answer involved loud feedback coming out of his house at 3 a.m., so kids walking by would find him rude.

Early footage of him as a teenager in bands showed a sensitive, talented kid often overshadowed by his band mate, Nick Cave.

The first fifteen minutes of the film required adjusting to some rather thick Australian accents (and occasionally, bad teeth) before settling into an absolutely compelling story of a guy I'd never heard of who was in a band I had (Birthday Party).

About his first important songwriting success, a song called "Shivers", the band's singer Nick Cave admitted, "It was difficult to sing because it had a melody and stuff."

Funny that memory, since several other people including Howard remember that they all thought Howard should sing his own song but Cave's ego prevailed.

Lots of musicians who came after Howard praised his groundbreaking guitar work, people like Thurston Moore, Nick Zinner and Henry Rollins, saying things like, "Two notes in and you knew it was Roland Howard. No one else sounded like that."

Being the documentary dork that I am, I loved how much archival footage the film used, both interviews and show footage, as well as present day interviews with band mates and Howard's old friends/girlfriends.

Seeing the skinny Howard dressed up like a romantic '70s-era dandy, writing passionate songs while waiting for life to happen to him, was both heartbreaking and compelling.

Every woman who spoke of him in the movie did so in the fondest way, with a genuine appreciation for a sweet soul who'd poured out his heart in songs and writings.

By the end of the film when it's clear Howard is deadly ill (liver cancer after finally getting off years of heroin use), all I could think of was what a shame it was that this talented man who'd finally gotten his act together, found a loving woman and was again making stellar music, died at age 50.

Now I need to go explore his music.

Well, not now now, because I still have six more days of movies to watch with people I don't know.

But after the festival, for sure.

That's the beauty of the JRFF. It's just keeps on giving.


  1. A great Richmond film festival! I also loved "the Projectionist."

  2. Tonight it's "A Band Called Death" at Visual Arts Center. Oh, boy!