I'm the writer/director of a "controversial" movie called Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein. I've had to sponsor my own grassroots screenings because it couldn't get into any worthwhile film festivals. It seems the types who run these fests (at least in the USA) are a bunch of prissy little fuckos, or cinephiles if you prefer?especially those who organize the supposed underground or cutting-edge fests. I knew a movie where gerbils die and gayness is made fun of didn't have a chance of getting accepted at Sundance, but I was genuinely surprised that both the New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals turned it down. And then, to add insult to injury, the Independent Feature Film Market refused to show it. This, a market where you pay $400 for a screening slot.
I was getting a bit frustrated. Here I have this recently completed movie that's getting rave reviews but nobody has the balls or brains to bring it to an adoring public. I thought that's what the festivals were supposed to be?advocates for films that aren't the same old recycled Hollywood horseshit. But there I was, relegated to showing the movie on VHS in venues seating under 100 people. Renting a theater capable of screening a 35-mm print wasn't even an option. My last name ain't Rockefeller, baby. I've got more credit card companies crawling up my ass than a crack whore has crabs.
Even before the film was completed I knew we needed a kickass website?one of the few ways the little guy can compete with the Time Warners of the world (in theory, anyway). So a computer-wise friend designed a site for me . This led to an e-mail from the director of the Helsinki Film Festival, telling me he'd like a copy of R&R Frankie and possibly invite the movie to screen in his fest. I hadn't even applied to any foreign festivals at this point. I was under the impression I had to get something going in the States before I could take my show on the road. But now a presumably responsible person running a film festival in a faraway land was actually saying his interest was piqued. Frankie might have legs on the European film festival circuit. It was worth a shot anyway.
A few months later, the cats in Helsinki tell me they do indeed want to screen Frankenstein at their festival. On top of that, I'd been contacted by the Fantastisk Film Festival in Sweden, and they also wanted it. Since the festivals were being held within a week of each other, I figured, hey, two birds with one can of film. Almost all foreign film festivals get government sponsorship, which means they've got money for things like plane tickets and hotels. So in the name of cultural exchange I was being offered an expenses-paid vacation to invade Europe with Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein. Dig it.
The first obstacle I had to face was the prospect of actually getting onto an airplane. I hope you won't think any the less of me, dear reader, if I confess to you that I'm deathly afraid of air travel. When I get inside one of those big silver birds and the engines roar and the wings slice the sky I turn into a quivering bowl of jelly. My balls hop into my throat. Ouch! But I was a man on a mission. I'd just have to suck it up and get on one of those infernal flying contraptions.
Luckily for me, Steve McLaughlin, my associate producer, wanted to make the trip. After knocking back a few beers and a pint of my favorite single-malt scotch, the takeoff from Newark wasn't that bad. Of course, considering the shape I was in I wouldn't have noticed if we had crashed and burned. The downside to getting that sloshed is you tend to get loud and say some rather inappropriate things in public. Alcohol always makes me a bit garrulous, so near the start of the flight I felt obliged to inform the woman seated to my left that we were on our way to important film festivals in Scandinavia. This led her to bring up the subject of Woody Allen. I suppose it was an innocent comment on her part, but naturally I took umbrage. In all honesty I can't remember my exact response, but it had something to do with the fact that I'd sooner watch a stretched asshole splayed across the overhead movie screen than one of Mr. Allen's masterpieces. We had little further conversation for the rest of the flight.
When we touched down in Copenhagen we only had enough time to rush through the mega-maze of a terminal and barely catch our connecting flight to Helsinki. No time to replenish my trusty flask or even down a couple of beers. The second takeoff had to be faced cold turkey. It didn't help that the Nazi flight attendant insisted that I shut off my portable CD player. Somehow he was convinced that my puny discman could cause 100 tons of steel to drop from the sky like a turd from a feathered duck's ass. I survived this second flight by ignoring Adolf Junior's instructions and downing a few beers with my early breakfast.
After collecting our baggage in Helsinki we were immediately spotted by our film festival escorts?Jari (aka The Hat), a tall and gaunt cat who could easily be mistaken for an undertaker, along with a shaved-head grunt whose name I couldn't pronounce and sure as shit can't write now. Waiting curbside was a mint condition '57 Caddy. I thought, hmm, these guys have got some style. The Hat spoke to us in perfect English, as did nearly everyone I met during my week in Helsinki. What a beautiful thing it is to be an ignorant American. The only foreign phrase I can remember from my high school language class is the obligatory "No hablo español," and yet I can travel halfway around the world and hold a conversation like I'm some kind of an educated Homo sapien.
As I was to find out, most Finns speak at least three languages: Finnish, English and Swedish. Finnish is totally different from all the other lingo spoken in Scandinavia, and since the Swedes used to own the country, the Finns learn that language. And then of course English.
We pulled into Helsinki proper and I couldn't help but notice how clean and orderly everything looked: shiny trolley cars, quaint buildings, manicured parks, tall and thin people everywhere, and they all had cellphones attached to their ears. We got settled at a functionally elegant hotel I'll call the Klaus Kinski because it was the Klaus something, but it's always easier to remember a name if you put a face to it. And Kinski had some face.
A few hours later I'm at the festival press conference. They sat me on a podium with my fellow filmmakers. The director, Pekka (yeah, he gets ribbed about that), introduced me as a guy who'd made a film that insults everyone. I soaked in the compliment and then gave my little spiel about being the pissed-off American who can't get any respect in his own land. The assembled press shot some video, took a few photos and? nothing. Not one of the two dozen or so members of the esteemed fourth estate piped up to ask a question. I found this kind of odd, but nobody seemed to notice. They all went back to drinking beers and getting acquainted.
I asked Sepi, another of the organizers, what the deal was. He informed me that the Finnish press is notoriously "shy." The press conference was more or less a dog and pony show where the assembled journalists took a peek at us, the idea being they'd contact you later for a one-on-one interview if they were so motivated. Weird?the Helen Keller press corps.
For the rest of the night we were free to get drunk, drinks on the house. Hey, when in Finland? As of matter of fact I pretty much spent my entire stay in Scandinavia swimming in a dreamy alcohol-induced haze. I hadn't gone on a bender like that since I was in my early 20s. And it felt great. I even discovered a cure for hangovers?stay up all night and eat a huge breakfast before going beddy-bye. The Klaus Kinski made it easy. Each morning from 6:30 to 9:30 they served a complimentary self-service breakfast, the likes of which I'd never seen. Heaps of fresh fruit, mounds of cold cuts, piles of soft-boiled eggs, stacks of fresh bread. I could go on, but you get the idea. After a booze-fueled evening I'd stuff my face (usually two helpings) and then crash for a few hours. Later I'd wake up feeling none the worse for wear. Then I could start the cycle all over again?a treadmill to nowhere, but what a way to get there. If I lived like that for any extended period of time I'd end up looking like a round-eyed sumo.
At some point on that first night I conversed with a middle-aged chick sporting crooked teeth who eventually asked me if I wanted to go to bed. Even considering the little tail I get, I've still got my standards. So I politely begged off, claiming that I had a lot to do in the morning (like brush my teeth). That's always a sticky situation, seeing how every red-blooded fella is supposedly ready to fuck anything with a hole. But I just couldn't face the idea of waking up in the morning and being stuck with a new friend I wouldn't be able to shake for the next week. Jesus, that's why I don't own a dog.
Unfortunately, the next night, when I did find a chick I liked, she played hard to get. She was a fine Finn filly of only 20. As we sat around the Bio Rex getting hammered in the wee hours of the morning with other festival hangers-on, I suggested we go back to my hotel room and "check out the view." Seeing how I was staying on the second floor this was a rather transparent ploy. She didn't take the bait.
Earlier that night I'd attended the premiere of some Finnish movie that didn't have subtitles. Big mistake. I couldn't keep my eyes open and my head from lolling side to side. I didn't want to insult my hosts, but in any language this film looked like a dog. And speaking of dogs, toward the end of the movie the lead actress shoots a pooch dead. That woke me up. At the reception afterward in some swanky club I was introduced to the director and pretended I hadn't been at the screening. But since at that point I already was a couple of sheets to the wind I told him somebody else said it was the best gay porn they'd ever seen. He forced a smile, but I don't think he appreciated my American wiseass sense of humor.
Later that night, or I guess it was the next (hey, with all the booze I put into my system I'm lucky I can remember I was in Finland at all) we were escorted by Jouni (aka The Kid) to a disco, where I trolled for trim. The Kid was listed on the festival info sheet as a jack of all trades and he was pretty amazing. If I knew what he knows at his age I'd be ruler of the world by now, or at the very least not headed to bankruptcy court next week. The Kid was 19 and had started with the fest when he was 15.
So we were sitting in this disco watching passing Finns elbow one another nearly to death in a bizarre ritual of human bumper cars they like to play. It took me a while to get used to that. For some reason the Finns think it's perfectly acceptable to push, shove and forearm your way around a club. They've got another similar custom: At the end of the night it's normal to hear the constant crashing of pint glasses as they slam to the floor. When I brought up how bizarre this seemed to me, my Finnish handlers mentioned the penchant American teens have for showing up in school with an assault rifle and going on a little shooting spree. Point taken.
So I turned to the severely intoxicated blonde sitting to my right in this disco and asked her if she was going to catch any of the films at the festival. Of course I was just angling for a way to drop the fact that I was a minor celebrity looking for company. She informed me that she had one free pass but seemed rather down on the picks the organizers had made for this year's festival. She kept going on about the lack of Spanish-language films, specifically Mexican fare. I informed her that Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein was a Mexican film, although shot in English. I assured her the entire crew was Mexican, myself included. She was thoroughly impressed (and, like I said, drunk). I introduced The Kid to her as the director of the festival and told her he was to blame for the deplorable underrepresentation of Mexican films. I kept on trying to convince her that she should introduce us to friends with a similar beef?after all, here was their chance to vent directly to the director. Unfortunately, she seemed to be a loner. What a pity: visions of a drunken orgy evaporating from my spinning head.
Every Finn on the fest staff had the stamina of 10 men. They'd go out and drink with us all night and then be up in the morning performing their duties without missing a beat, even though they had enough residual alcohol in their systems to pickle the average human being. It's like they never slept. They worked with the efficiency of Germans, but you never once felt like they had the urge to throw anybody in an oven or invade another sovereign nation. During the day I played tourist, taking a ferryboat to some island housing an old fort, and caught up on my e-mail for free. There were public cyberstations where anybody could just sit down and hop onto the Internet, no questions asked. Finland is per capita the most wired country in the world.
As I walked around the city one thing that stuck out was how homogenous the population is?white as a Klan rally at Christmas. And I never saw any homeless people?until I stumbled on the train station. It made me feel right at home to see the vacant stares and rumpled clothing of a few scattered bums. But the homeless were uniformly of the deranged variety, unlike here where the schizos are mixed among the drug-addicted and the just plain lazy. If a vagabond remained stationary long enough hefty paramilitary coppers in blue jumpsuits would show up and bodily remove him from the place. Now that's what I call efficiency.
As for the festival itself, something like 100 films were screened in 10 days at five theaters all within walking distance of each other. The main hangout was the cafe at the Bio Rex, which is a 700-seat state-of-the-art multimedia theater capable of screening in film or any video/digital format, and the image quality was better than anything I'd ever seen. And the beautiful thing was that the Finns were totally into using this technological wonder for our own amusement. One night after closing we took our beers into the theater and sat down to watch a short documentary I'd made from my days as a porno film editor, called The Prince of Porn. It intersperses outtakes from Avon Productions' sleazy bondage and discipline movies with an interview of my old porno boss. At the end of the show The Hat and Sepi asked me why I hadn't submitted The Prince of Porn to the festival. I thought they were kidding at first, but they asked me to leave the tape so they could show it as an added attraction before a feature documentary on Johnny "Wadd" Holmes, which was screening later in the week.
I did actually check out some of the flicks showing at the fest. There were some great surprises. I got to watch things as diverse as South Park (laughed till my sides hurt) and Surrender Dorothy, written and directed by Kevin DiNovis. Kevin and I hung out a bit. I'd heard of Surrender Dorothy, a Slamdance winner in '98. I thought for sure I'd hate the movie and was relieved to find the opposite, since I liked Kevin. Also got chummy with an Irishman by the name of David Caffrey who was the director of an incredibly slick and entertaining comedy/drama entitled Divorcing Jack. He insisted I give him a tape of Frankenstein so he could spring it on his unsuspecting countrymen.
Then there were the two mild-mannered, middle-aged Belgian gents who'd made a film called S. They'd shown it at festivals around the world and had already sold rights to most foreign territories. They kept on telling me how divided the audiences were and the strong reactions it evoked. I'm thinking, are these two old codgers for real? Well, after seeing the movie I knew what they were talking about: lots of sex and violence (some great lesbianism with two seriously hot chicks), even had a scene where the lead actress shoots a priest and then pisses in his mouth. Now that's what I call art! I didn't understand what any of it meant, but it didn't matter. I can't wait for the sequel.
I met a few directors of other festivals and got the word that we'll be invited to Portugal and Brussels in the spring to screen Frankie. What a charmed life. I thought I'd have to join the Navy to see the world.
On Saturday night Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein had its first screening, in an outdoor cafe. I'd never even heard of a cafe where you could screen a 35-mm print. No doubt about it, these Finns are a technologically superior race. The crowd dug the movie, and when I came out for the Q&A I was asked to autograph a couple of ticket stubs?something I'm told is a rarity in those parts. A fan even called Frankie "art."
The other two screenings also got very vocal responses, which is unusual for Finnish audiences. They're a pretty reserved lot, usually sitting in respectful silence?kind of like a theater filled with dead wood. At the final screening they actually got up and cheered. Out on the street I met a couple of enthusiastic patrons and handed them novelty giveaways. They acted as if they'd been given gold ingots.
On Thursday morning we had to head to the airport under appropriately rainy skies. We still had another fest to attend in Sweden. Compared to most American film festivals, where the filmmaker hospitality suite consists of a dish of M&M's, the Swedish fest was impressive, but we'd been spoiled by Helsinki, so anything else was bound to be a letdown. The funny thing is that the Swedes consider Finns their inferior cousins, kind of like the way Americans look at Canadians. I don't know much about the Scandinavian region, but I got the impression that where we were?Lund, Sweden?is comparable to Buttfuck, Mississippi, or some hickish place like that, although the town had a university with 34,000 students and a ton of hot, hot chicks.
But that's another story. There'll be other fests. By the time you read this I'll have taken Frankie to festivals Sitges, Spain, and São Paulo, Brazil. But I'll always remember Helsinki as my first, and it'll be hard to top... If only I'd gotten some snatch.
The New Filmmakers Series will screen a Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein Halloween show at Anthology Film Archives, including alive performance by the Psychonauts, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 8 p.m. 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.), 505-5110.