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The Ninth Annual Rosebud Film & Video Awards Nominee Showcase

At the American Film Institute Theater

The tattered red gym bag is gone, replaced by a sturdy cardboard box containing 21 neatly arranged videotapes that make up the Ninth Annual Rosebud Film & Video Awards Nominee Showcase. But whereas in the past Rosebud has been an outlet for the aggressively artsy, the resolutely odd, and the proudly alternative, this year’s edition contains only two short animations and two works described as “experimental.” There is more comedy than drama, and there are only three documentaries—not including a “comic documentary” and a “mockumentary.”

Five of the works were actually shot on film—one on 35 mm stock. There are three Baltimore entries, and three films come from Richmond. Indeed, many of these efforts are the products of major university film schools, and doubtless they appear here on but one stop on the increasingly extensive festival circuit. The preponderance of lighter fare indicates that although Rosebud is developing as a showcase, it’s not exactly growing up.

I had time to watch 17 of the 21. This is what sticks in my head:

One of the finest films arrives with some controversy. Little Castles is listed in the program under Lillian Bowers’ name. But the credits on the print say “A Film by Lillian Bowers and Skizz Cyzyk” and “Directed and Edited by Skizz Cyzyk.” Cyzyk is a Baltimore cinemapresario of some renown who sent along an e-mail painfully detailing the “total nightmare” that the production became for him. Cyzyk wrote that the film “took three years and a lot of my money to make, but when it was finished I had little choice but to walk away from it.” I’ve met Cyzyk, and he’s the sweetest guy imaginable. I don’t know Ms. Bowers, nor do I know exactly where things went awry, but I do know that there’s something about making a film that can turn friends into enemies—even a film as lighthearted as this. One needn’t be a high-priced Hollywood egomaniac to let the act of filmmaking drive common sense and decency from one’s mind. (I’ve got stories, but I’m saving them for my bitter autobiography.)

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Whatever headaches were involved in its creation, the result is delightful. Little Castles is a charming look at Charm City’s fixation on Formstone, a faux stone finish that covers seemingly half the town. Invented before World War II, but coming into most prominent use in the early ’50s, the fake rock siding was offered with the pitch that for the price of three paint jobs, homeowners got a maintenance-free exterior. Some even installed it inside their houses. Formstone customers and employees, the son of its creator, old-timers, and young enthusiasts are interviewed. A professor calls it “drab and bland.” A member of a preservation society wonders why people were so eager to “dye the whole town gray.” But, says one proud Formstone owner, standing in front of his castlelike row house, “They made it look like Hollywood. God’s truth.” Hollywood director John Waters sagely weighs in on the subject, calling Formstone “the polyester of brick.” Now Baltimore is wrestling with the dilemma of whether to legislate to preserve Formstone-covered houses.

Without Remorse is Gregg Watt’s attempt to resolve some family issues. A white man born in South Africa, he returned there in time for the investigations into the Amy Biehl murder, to “face up to my own past.” Unfortunately, this reckoning isn’t quite captured on film. The more interesting story, also not quite captured, is that of a black woman who moved from a depressed township to an exclusive, mostly white neighborhood. What is captured, however, are echoes of attitudes and demarcations that exist in D.C.

Similarly, in his film The Pinelands, writer-director Ely Baumel-Lamonica points out that the move from Clifton Terrace in Northwest D.C. to central Virginia offers fewer changes than one might imagine—or hope for. Probably the only film this year to feature the Huck-a-Bucks on the soundtrack—which is a pity.

“Chrissie’s 16, and she’s a good parent. That’s my role model.” So says a blasé 17-year-old in Rebecca Yena-wine’s Creation Truths, a look at young mothers in Baltimore. Apparently the film was shot with a camcorder; the audio is often barely intelligible. But the depressing message comes through clearly. The only words questioning the kids-having-kids situation come from a cautious 12-year-old.

D.C.’s Melissa Young captures the worries of children in Sirens. Like many of this year’s films, it’s a nice effort that ends rather than resolves.

In Conscious, Slane Ramon of Silver Spring asks, “What makes a ghetto?” He answers with a sharply stylized rumination of urban life that I’m betting wins one of the prizes.

Family, by Aaron Skillman and Andy Marchal of Richmond, is “a narrative animation combining stop-motion and CGI techniques to create a micro/macro study of the human condition and the finite situation it exists in.” I won’t argue.

The shaggy-dog story is the most prominent theme this year. Like haiku, it is a deceptive form. And most of the comedies here are simply too shaggy.

In The Toothbrush, David Strayer, Hugh Burruss, and Patrick Gregory present a burglar with attention deficit disorder who can’t quite concentrate on the job at hand. An attempt at Jean Shepherd-style quaintness is undermined by an unpleasant punch line. Dan Schmeltzer’s Dead Sorry is an odd gothic tale set in a Florida swamp. The Midnight Dreams of an Urban Cowboy, by Tzanko Tchangov, combines stream-of-consciousness drawing with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” and the Misfits. Rachel Max’s quick animated deconstruction of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV is titled, aptly, Rocky IV. Her version is so much better.

For some reason, Christopher Reiser of Rockville created a very literal live-action version of The Little Prince. It’s not bad, but I’ve read the book and seen the feature film. Filipina Vilma E. Zefran took a look at Appalachian teens in Outside, Looking In and found that some of them like opera.

I eagerly reached for Puberty: Benji’s Special Time, by Richmond’s Luke Fannin, first. It purports to be “Part 5 of the Ready, Set, Grow series,” and this MCMLV-era black-and-white parody features well-used archival footage along with modern re-creations. If it were half as long, it would be twice as funny.

The Pitch, by Rob Lyall, Alex LaGory, and Joe Talbott, pretends to be an insider view of the Hollywood process, as various “types” present movie ideas to a producer. Quick editing connects their farcical story lines, though the actors mostly oversell the wackiness. My dear friend Wes Johnson, however, is particularly good. But when Hollywood can seriously offer the public a remake of My Favorite Martian, The Pitch’s point is muted, if not moot.

Suzanne McDonnell’s Every Night and Twice on Sundays is the most ambitious and elaborate entry, but I’m not sure where the inspiration came from. It is a “mockumentary,” supposedly about the woman who was first chosen to play Mrs. Fletcher in a local version of the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” TV commercials. Which means it’s about 12 degrees farther removed from an already obscure source than seems necessary. Original songs were written, for heaven’s sake. I don’t want to discourage these folks, but I have to ask, where’s my reference point?

Although Little Castles and Conscious are solid contenders, the hit of the show for me is another Baltimore effort, Todd Rohal’s short, Knuckleface Jones. A work of demented brilliance, it puts words in Harriet Tubman’s mouth, the angry young Kinks on the soundtrack, and a very angry young woman behind the wheel, and it offers the disquieting sight of pasty white men wandering the woods in their BVDs, spastically rapping to their cheap beatbox. The non sequiturs pile up on one another to hysterically bizarre effect. Description is difficult, explanation perhaps impossible. But Knuckleface Jones gives me hope for Rosebud No. 10.

The Ninth Annual Rosebud Film & Video Awards Nominee Showcase screens Saturday, March 13, and Sunday, March 14, at 11:30 a.m. at the Kennedy Center’s AFI Theater, with a “Meet the Film-

makers” session during intermission. $7. Call (202) 797-9081, or visit http://www.members.aol.com/rosebudwdc.CP