Wednesday, September 4, 2013

15th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival

Cody recently attended the 15th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL with Jay and has returned with this report on their experiences.

Jay Burleson and I have known each other for 14 years, even since first crossing paths in 1999 on a message board dedicated to the Halloween franchise. One of the first things we bonded over was our shared appreciation for that summer's The Blair Witch Project. We've continued talking regularly over these many years, chatting through instant message services, talking movies, joking, spewing nonsense, confiding in each other about various aspects of our lives, writing and blogging together. It didn't take long for us to start considering each other brothers. Despite the strong friendship and collaboration that had developed over the years, as of mid-August we had never met each other in person. The idea of meeting up at had been tossed around many times and it was a given that it would someday happen, but for whatever reasons we just hadn't gotten to it. The miles, hours, and states between us were daunting.

Then came some amazing news from the programmers of the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only had Jay's short film Halloween: Harvest of Souls been chosen to play at the latest edition of the festival, but it had been set to play in front of a special 35mm screening of a classic film that is an all-time favorite of both of ours: Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (We've previously written about it here and here.)

Thanks largely to Joe Neff and Bruce Bartoo and the horror marathons they've hosted annually in the Columbus, Ohio area for the last several years, I've been able to see most of my favorite horror movies on the big screen, but TCM '74 is one that has always eluded me. The fact that it was going to be paired with a Jay Burleson short immediately made the idea of going down to Birmingham to witness this with my own eyes very enticing, and given that the news coincided with a recent decision to start advancing my life in leaps and bounds, I actually did something big on impulse for once in my life: I booked plane tickets to Alabama.

Not only was this trip about seeing Jay in person for the first time and getting to see TCM '74 projected on 35mm, it was also to accustom myself to travelling by air. When I nervously boarded the plane that began my journey to Alabama, it was the first time I had ever set foot on an airplane. Flying has always been a very scary prospect to me, at one point in my life I had even pledged that I would never fly. And yet, there I was. Flying. Over the course of my round trip, I saw four airports, rode on three different planes, lifted off and landed four times, and by the end of it all I had realized that flying is nothing. Any flights ahead of me in life, I'll be able to handle no problem.

After a total of two and a half hours in the air, I landed in Alabama and was met by Jay. He actually exists. Since I had arrived the day before we were going to head to Birmingham for Sidewalk, we just hung out for a while that first evening and caught a showing of You're Next, starring his friend Lane Hughes.


The next morning, I got in a car with Jay and his cohorts Zach Harding and Blake Miller and we made the drive to Birmingham, arriving and picking up our Sidewalk passes over an hour later than originally planned. Before we had even picked up our passes and programs, someone was conducting a video interview with Jay. Diving right into the festival experience.

We were running so late that I had to abandon the guys almost immediately to go catch the first movie I wanted to see. There are multiple movies playing simultaneously at theatres scattered across a six block section at any one time during Sidewalk, and I had to cover those six blocks to get to the Dorothy Jemison Theater at the Alabama School of Fine Arts to see -


I arrived about twenty minutes after this comedy about RPG players had already begun, but I quickly settled into it and got the gist of things.

The story centers on an overgrown man-child named Scott, who is experiencing some major upheavals in his home life at the same time that a hipster geek named Miles enters his circle of friends and disrupts his social life. Scott immediately resents how quickly the pals his regularly plays RPG games with (Scott is the game master and takes his duties very seriously) take to Miles and starts overthinking the situation - he and his friends are way too nerdy for someone like Miles to be hanging out with, there has to be some kind of ulterior motive, and even if there's not, he can't stand the thought that his friends might end up liking Miles better than him. Scott's anger issues, jealousy, immaturity, and paranoia lead him to crossing a lot of lines.

Zero Charisma was a very enjoyable, amusing comedy with a solid dramatic story at its center. It went over well with the crowd I watched it with and I liked it a lot, I hope it gets the attention it deserves and finds its audience.

When the movie ended, I beat feet out of the ASFA and back down the several blocks I had just walked, headed for the Red Mountain Theatre Company. The door to the building was locked, and would only be opened by a security guard for people who had Sidewalk passes. Thanks to Jay, I had my VIP pass on the lanyard around my neck, so I was allowed entry and directed to go down a flight of stairs to a lounge decorated with chairs and a piano.

After a few minutes of lounging, my fellow waiters and myself were let into the screening room. I was soon joined in there by Jay, Zach, and Blake, who had been attending seminar panels at the nearby Legends Bar, and Ryan Sims, the cinematographer on Jay's short. The big event for us was that the short was going to show with TCM, but it was programmed in another spot earlier in the day.

We took our seats, and after a brief introduction by one of the festival's programmers, the lights dimmed and Jay's short was projected in front of the eyes of a good amount of viewers.


Running just over two minutes, Jay's short was programmed in front of other movies as if it were a trailer because it is a trailer. A trailer for a Halloween sequel that never existed. The idea is that a fourth Halloween film was made in 1985, between the real Halloweens III and 4, was finished and set to be distributed by Orion... Then, for whatever reason, it was shelved and never saw the light of day. Or a projector bulb. Now, the only surviving footage from the film has been unearthed - a trailer found on an old VHS tape.

To get the authentic VHS look and the familiar (to generations like mine anyway) VCR-generated images of a play arrow and an empty time counter, Jay actually transferred his footage onto an old tape and then recaptured it from that. The purposeful image degradation turned out very well, the short was well shot by Sims and the vehicles, hair, and makeup fit the period it's supposed to be set in. It's a really cool look at a lost Halloween installment that never was.

The short got a good reaction from the audience, who responded in all the right ways at all the right places.

The feature presentation followed -


A drama about a troubled mother and her two troubled adult daughters told at an emotional pitch that Zach compared to Tennessee Williams. The sheer amount of screaming and crying the characters do got to be a bit much for some of us to handle, but it was undeniable that all of the lead actresses were absolutely fantastic in their roles.

When the movie ended, writer/director Drew Tobia and actresses Eleanore Pienta and Dana Eskelson took the stage for a Q&A. Jay and Blake stayed throughout and even approached the filmmakers to talk to them afterward, but I had had nothing to eat all day except for a styrofoam cup of dry Frosted Flakes at the hotel that morning, so I decided to skip out to get something to snack on and Zach followed along.

Zach and I talked a bit while I ate two slices of pizza from a Papa John's truck, then when Jay and Blake caught back up with us we headed over to check into the hotel we had reservations at, which was just a couple blocks beyond the ASFA.

We had all considered seeing something else between See You Next Tuesday and when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was scheduled to start. Zach was interested in a documentary about the music of Muscle Shoals, Jay gave consideration to a movie called The Cold Lands, I had decided on seeing one called Loves Her Gun, until the program confirmed that the documentary called Continental that was scheduled to show at the same time was in fact the movie that had been made by Malcolm Ingram, a man any fan of Kevin Smith is familiar with, and Malcolm was going to be in attendance.

But expecting a time crunch between the ending of most of these and the start of TCM, we all skipped the movies we had in mind in favor of getting the hotel room sorted out.

When time for the main event was approaching, we left the hotel and walked our way toward the historic Alabama Theatre, Zach snapping pictures along the way because he had to take over 200 photos to turn in soon for a class project. I took a some pictures myself along the way, one with Zach's camera and a couple with my cell phone, like the above pictures of the Alabama. We reached the Alabama with time to spare, so the guys decided to stop by Legends to get some drinks first. I did not partake in that, but when we did get into the Alabama - allowed early access since Jay's short was going to be playing and we were riding his coattails - I hit up the concession stand for some popcorn, Raisinets, and a 32 ounce Diet Coke.

Entering the massive screening room, I made me way down to a center seat in a row near the front of the room. Since I was finally going to be seeing TCM '74 on the big screen, that screen was all I wanted to see, towering before me. I wanted the movie to completely envelop me.

Halloween: Harvest of Souls got its encore presentation, and surprisingly got a more subdued response from the room full of people gathered to watch a famous horror movie than it did from the room of people gathered to see a modern drama. The programmers were very supportive of it, as fans of horror and the Halloween series they said it was like porn to them. They wanted Jay to go on stage and talk about his short, but he chose to remain in the audience.

There was then a brief introduction to let us know that what we were about to see was one of the last remaining 35mm prints that exist of TCM in the world, and a quote from Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) was read.

And then, the movie began.


The old 35mm print with some rough reel transitions that played out before us allowed me to scratch off one of the most important films on my theatrical bucket list. The scratches only added to the experience. That's the way it looked when most of us who are fans first fell in love with it back in the day, on VHS tapes transferred from prints full of scratches, pops, and grain. Don't get me wrong, the movie looks beautiful when it's fully remastered and restored, but TCM is a movie that benefits from some film damage.

It was great to see TCM, one of the movies most dear to my movie-loving heart, in that venue while hanging out with Jay and seeing his Halloween trailer play before it.

We stepped out of the theatre after the movie to find that a party bus was sitting right there at the sidewalk, packed with people and music blasting from its speakers. We were herded onto the bus and I followed along, even though the party scene is not my thing. I should've just walked myself back to the hotel, and I knew that as soon as the bus was taking us off through the city blocks. There were so many people crammed into the bus that some of us had to stand. I was stuck in a back corner with so little room on the seat that I had to throw one leg over across Jay's. A woman took a picture of my seating arrangement. The further we went across Birmingham with Kanye West filling our ears with the assertion that he is a god, the more I began to panic. How was I going to get out of this situation?

We were dropped off at a bar three miles from the hotel. As soon as I arrived, I began trying to figure out my exit strategy. Walking three miles across the city at night was probably not the best idea. Call a taxi? There were police cars parked around, maybe I could ask a cop how I could get a ride. Maybe the party bus would be coming back around.

I didn't care about the free alcohol that was given out, but the table of free pizza caught my interest and I stocked up on two slices of pepperoni and one slice of veggie, with some garlic sauce to dip my crust in for good measure. Looking out over the partiers as I stuffed my face, I spotted the director of See You Next Tuesday and one of the actresses, and standing there straight ahead of me was the Blow Hard himself, Malcolm Ingram.

I had barely finished my pizza when the party bus returned on its round to pick up anyone who wanted to leave already. I informed Jay that I was out of there and made my escape.

There was no music playing on the bus during the ride back to the hotel, and there was only one other passenger on there with me. Sitting directly across from me. Malcolm Ingram.

Malcolm attempted to strike up conversation with me as soon as the bus started driving, referring to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre shirt I was wearing with, "You wore the shirt." I clammed up. This guy is a celebrity in my house. I've heard many stories about him, I've listened to hours upon hours of him talking on podcasts, I've watched his movies. And now I was taking a several minute ride alone with him.

During our ride back to the hotel, I behaved very awkwardly, not letting on to Malcolm that I knew who he was, but I'm sure he noticed that I was looking at him unusually often during the quiet moments. When he tried to have a conversation, I got out the bare mininum amount of words needed to convey that I agreed with him, it was strange that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was up for the Audience Award. Seemed like a classic would have an unfair advantage against the new stuff. He asked me, "What if it wins?" I didn't know. What I could tell him was that I didn't really enjoy the party we had just left, but I did appreciate the free pizza.

When we reached the hotel, Malcolm kept the door open for me and then we went our separate ways in the lobby. He said, "Have a good night, dude," and I replied, "Yep. You, too." I returned my room, both giddy that I had just shared a private ride with Malcolm Ingram and kicking myself for not letting him know that I recognized him and not asking him how the screening of Continental went.

I went to bed, texting with my girlfriend until we both passed out. I woke up when the guys returned to the room in the middle of the night, but I played dead, listening to their drunken shenanigans until they too passed out.


I got out of bed at the crack of 9 and got ready for the day while the others continued to sleep. I noticed that the guys had apparently scored an entire free pizza from the party, and there was half of it left, so I made my breakfast out of two cold slices of it before I headed out the door.

A couple blocks later, I arrived at the ASFA for the screening of


Writer/director/star Jiyoung Lee was on hand for this showing of her lo-fi comedy about a girl whose patience runs out with her art-douche boyfriend while he films a porno in their home with his iPhone. It's a very uniquely quirky and absurd movie, I can't really compare it to anything else, Lee has her own specific voice.

I walked out of the ASFA after Moral Sleaze just in time to see Jay, Blake, and Zach walking up to the school. They were there attempting to catch a screening of another short Jay had playing at the festival, "Horrible Hearts (In Dark Places)" a music video shot by Ryan Sims for the rap Jay performed under the name No-Name-Maddox and collaborated with Lane Hughes and Blake Miller on.

"Horrible Hearts" was showing on one of the other screens in the ASFA in a block of short films called Alabama Shorts 2, which had started just fifteen minutes after Moral Sleaze began, so it was already well in progress. The guys weren't sure if they had made it in time to catch Jay's video, but I followed them into the screening room to see.

Luckily, Horrible Hearts was programmed into the final quarter of the sixteen short lineup. We caught the last minute or so of one short and then, by pure chance, Jay's short began.


Jay put together a really interesting and strange video for his song, the lyrics of which were inspired by tumultuous personal experiences. The imagery is creepy and disturbing, and I can't believe Jay got away with a couple of the things in there.

The video seemed to go over well with the audience, and I heard that Jay was the only filmmaker who was asked a question during the Q&A that followed the shorts block.

I wasn't around to see the Q&A, which I didn't know was going to happen, because I left as soon as Jay's video ended, following a man who walked out of the screening room with a big smile on his face so he could rate the video on his audience member score card as soon as possible. I couldn't see what he rated it, though.

While that man stopped to circle a letter grade on his card, I kept on walking, continuing out of the building and back to the hotel. The others had already checked out of the room at this point, but I returned my card key to a woman at the front desk, then went over to get some lunch at the Subway next door. My girlfriend had expressed concern that the other meals I had eaten for two days consisted of pizza, so I fixed that issue by trying out Subway's new pulled pork sandwich. And it was delicious.

With lunch successfully devoured, I returned to the ASFA, where another movie on my "to see" list was soon to begin.


This was one of my festival must sees because I'm a big fan of The Beatles, and this documentary centers on a woman named Freda Kelly, who began working for the band and running their fan club when she was just a teenager. She worked closely with the fab four, handling their stacks and sacks of fan mail and keeping the fans up-to-date on the latest news throughout their time together. Now a grandmother, Freda decided that it was finally tell her story... It makes for a very interesting documentary, well assembled and moved along at a brisk pace with a cool soundtrack.

The guys had been sitting in on more seminars at Legends Bar, so I headed across town and joined them for a while. I thought about going to see the lesbian-themed film Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?, but ended up just sitting around inside and outside Legends. In the mid-afternoon, I got lunch from a food truck - a Cuban sandwich and garlic fries.

Eventually, I could see that people were starting to line up outside the Alabama for the next movie I wanted to see, so I went ahead of the guys - who were also planning to attend the movie - and got in line. Soon, the line was let inside, and I visited the concession stand again, getting another 32 ounce Diet Coke and this time foregoing the popcorn for a double dose of Raisinets.

I took my seat in the auditorium and following an introduction by producer James M. Johnston, the closing night film proceeded to play.


It really feels like writer/director David Lowery was emulating Terrence Malick with the '70s period piece, shot on film with authentic '70s era lenses, about outlaw couple Bob and Ruth, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They're split apart by an arrest and prison sentence for Bob, but he is doggedly determined to break out long before his sentence is up and return to Ruth and their daughter. Of course, that's neither easy nor safe.

The way the movie is shot and structured makes it very dreamy and scattered, it felt like I was falling asleep and waking up to just catch bits and pieces of a movie that was playing all night... It was alternately strange, frustrating, and beautiful.

One piece of dialogue really stood out to me and I had to repeat part of it to my girlfriend later, although I can't remember exactly how it went at this point. It's spoken in narration when Bob is writing Ruth letters from prison, he says something like he'll keep writing her letters every day, and one day she'll look up and see that he's the one handing the latest letter to her, and "Words won't matter when I can touch your face and kiss you."


James M. Johnston took the stage again after the movie for a Q&A, but I was quickly texted away from the auditorium by Jay, who was waiting elsewhere in the building.

Jay had called me out of the auditorium because the reception for VIP pass holders was beginning in the upstairs of the building. We went up and milled around the reception, the other guys drank some alcohol while I slurped on my Diet Coke, we did a couple good deeds for man and animal. There was a caterpillar on the floor and I saved it from being stepped on by the crowd of people, carrying it outside to some foliage. Soon after, Jay and I found a cell phone that had been left behind on the floor and turned it over to one of the festival's volunteers. We were later notified that the phone had been reunited with its owner.

Then it was time for the awards ceremony.

We took seats in the auditorium to watch the Sidewalk version of the Oscars play out on the stage, our group joined by an actress named Myra Lee Hammond, who we had been running into throughout our two days at the festival. Jay and Blake were in and out of the place, but Myra, Zach, Ryan, and I stayed for the duration.

When the ceremony was over and we stepped outside the Alabama, information was exchanged with Myra in hopes that we might work with her on something someday. Our time at Sidewalk had ended, my phone was nearly dead, I had to be at the airport to catch a flight in twelve hours, I was ready to get back to the car and out of Birmingham... Then the party bus pulled up.

We were herded onto the party bus again, and this time I had no choice but to follow. There was no hotel room for me to return to, I had to stick with the guys to get back to the car all my stuff was in. This ride in the party bus wasn't obnoxiously loud like the first one was, but I was even more upset with the situation this time. I envisioned several more hours stuck in the city while the guys boozed it up when all I wanted to do was get out of there.

Thankfully, what we arrived at was not a raucous, alcohol-fueled event, but a rather sedate after party based around a buffet of breakfast foods. Free food again made me feel better about things, and I again took advantage of what was on offer. I had a particular focus on the pastry table.

We ate our 11pm breakfast at an outdoor table, the people involved with Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf? sitting at the table beside ours, including actress/writer/director/lesbian icon Guinevere Turner, the woman Kevin Smith's producer Scott Mosier once had a crush on, thus inspiring elements of Chasing Amy. A bus ride with Malcolm Ingram, a meal beside Guin Turner, this wasn't a Kevin Smith event and yet I kept running into people who had a part in View Askew/SModCo history.

Once we had all consumed some free food, we caught the party bus out of there and back to the car. Eventually, we were back in Jay's hometown and I checked into the hotel I'd be getting a few hours of sleep in before my flight back to Ohio.

There were ups and downs during our festival experience, but I had a lot of fun overall, and I'm glad I went to Alabama, getting on a plane for the first time in my life, to hang out there and finally meet up with Jay after 14 years. He and I are still talking online the same as ever, so it appears the trip was a success.

No comments:

Post a Comment