On the surface, it's hard to imagine two filmmakers more different than Les Blank and Matthew Barney. Blank, the guest of honor at this year's Ybor Festival of the Moving Image, makes lively and unpretentious documentaries about regional cooking, soul music and other things that make life worth living. Barney, who was featured at YFMI a few years back, is an art-world enfant terrible who makes inscrutable, glacially paced opuses in which characters coat themselves in Vaseline and grow extra body parts.
Blank is a populist, a filmmaker for the people, while Barney is the living, breathing definition of High Art. Yet both make perfect sense within the context of the Ybor Festival of the Moving Image — an unabashedly eccentric event that embraces spirited individuality of all stripes, and that plays by its own logic-defying rules.
Blank's effortlessly entertaining filmmaking will be the centerpiece of this year's YFMI, but it'll be surrounded by some 60 projects of varying degrees of strangeness, some that virtually defy description. There are feature films from several countries, lots of narrative-busting experimental works, and numerous examples of border-crossing multimedia projects — music, performance, dance, sculpture — that incorporate cinematic elements but are worlds removed from what most of us think of us as "movies."
There's a playful and often party-like approach to even the festival's most bizarre excesses, though — more attuned to a spontaneously combusting Burning Man vibe than a stodgy art school lecture — and you can even bring the whole family. This year's festival, which runs from April 5-9 at Muvico Centro Ybor and HCC's Ybor campus, even offers a handful of kid-friendly extravaganzas, from free outdoor animation screenings to afternoon picnics in the park.
It all kicks off on Wed., April 5 with a reception for Les Blank that's also a sort of homecoming, seeing as how this internationally acclaimed filmmaker was born right here in Tampa back in 1935. Blank will be on hand to chat with festival-goers and enjoy the weather as his films The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins and Yum, Yum, Yum (a delightful doc on Cajun eating habits) are projected on a 24-foot screen outdoors at the corner of Palm Avenue and 15th Street. In the event of rain, the free screening will move indoors to the HCC Auditorium, Performing Arts Building.
From the Blank reception it's a short stroll over to Muvico Cento Ybor, where perhaps the best film in this year's festival, Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, screens at 9 p.m. (and again on Thursday at 9 p.m.). A remarkably cinematic adaptation of Lepage's one-man show, Far Side of the Moon is a beautifully realized think piece that parallels humankind's passion for reaching the stars with the necessity of exploring our own innermost depths. Not much by way of a conventional plot here, but an eloquent and provocatively cerebral work nonetheless.
There's a slew of activities scheduled for Thurs., April 6, and some of the most interesting stuff is totally free. From 5 to 9, no less than four events take place within walking distance of each other, from opening receptions for celebrated image manipulators Charles Lyman and Nancy Cervenko (Centro Ybor Gallery) and a show by the always unpredictable Mic Knight (HCC Art Gallery, Performing Arts Building) to programs of experimental shorts (HCC Auditorium) and animation (HCC Black Box, Performing Arts Building).
Those in search of slightly more traditional diversion might want to check out Beowulf and Grendel, screening that same evening at Muvico Centro Ybor at 7 p.m. This adaptation of the famous Anglo-Saxon myth features some semi-big names (Stellan Skarsgard and Gerald Butler) and lots of gorgeous cinematography (it was shot on location in Iceland), but ultimately feels low rent and too small for its epic story. Director Sturla Gunnarsson seems to be striving for a certain authenticity with his medieval adventure, but the hodgepodge of accents and use of modern slang gives the film a smug, vaguely pomo feel at odds with his vision.
Things get rolling early on Fri., April 7, beginning at 10 a.m. with a free screening of work by students from Blake High School, Lee Academy, USF and University of Tampa. A number of short film programs will take place during the day, but once the sun goes down things really heat up. Beginning at around 7 p.m., you have your pick of outdoor festivals at both HCC Park and Centennial Park, where free screenings, music and live performances will take place, as well as an assortment of other surprises.
Also scheduled for Friday are two interesting but otherwise completely dissimilar films, Elektra and Whole New Thing, both screening at Centro Ybor at 9 p.m. A smarter-than-the-average coming of age tale (about the precocious, sexually confused child of hippie parents), the Canadian production Whole New Thing transcends narrative clichés with clever writing that still manages to pack an emotional punch. As for Elektra, don't make the mistake of confusing this with the Jennifer Garner super-hero dud. This Dutch import is as gratuitously nasty as it is stylistically flashy, with a junkie journalist wandering through a landscape of unpleasant sex and mutilated bodies. Proceed at your own risk.
Friday's schedule also features Blank's acclaimed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (8 p.m., HCC Ybor Room), but it's mostly an appetizer for Saturday April 8, which the festival has declared as Les Blank Day. The Blank retrospective kicks into full gear Saturday with a five-hour marathon of films (10 a.m. to 3 p.m., HCC Auditorium), and finishes up the day at 8 in HCC Park, with a free outdoor screening of Chulas Fronteras, Blank's foot-stomping ode to Tex-Mex music.
Films are rarely just films at YFMI, and Blank loves making events out of his public screenings, so the "Yum Yum Garlic Cookoff" scheduled for Saturday afternoon should be a match made in heaven. In celebration of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, Blank's big screen homage to the "stinking rose," the filmmaker will be presiding over a friendly competition where amateur and professional cooks are invited to offer up their very best garlic-infused recipes. The film, food and fun get rolling in Ybor's Centennial Park at noon, with live music, bocce ball and all sorts of other activities and diversions completing the party-like atmosphere.
As if the BlankFest wasn't enough, there's a lot more happening on Saturday as well, with screenings taking place all day at Muvico Centro Ybor. There's always been a strong socially conscience side to YFMI, and the festival puts its politics front and center on Saturday with films such as Boys of Baraka (11 a.m.), a hard-hitting doc about troubled high school kids on an exchange program in Kenya. Equally uncompromising are Favela Rising (12:30 p.m.), a documentary about a former drug dealer's struggle to transform the slums of Rio through music, and The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2 p.m.), a devastating indictment of racism in America.
The political stuff is highly recommended, but if you're not in the mood to assume the weight of the world on your shoulders, be aware that the festival's Saturday line-up also includes lighter fare. The goofy Turkish import G.O.R.A. (Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.) is absolutely ridiculous and proud of it, an enormously bizarre sci-fi comedy — from Turkey! — that must be seen to be believed. Also at 9 p.m., local filmmakers Peter and Paul Guzzo get a shot with their homegrown 99, a comedy about misbehaving college kids. But best of all is I Like Killing Flies (Sat., noon; Sun. 2 p.m.), an absolute beauty of a doc about a one-of-a-kind restaurant and a vanishing breed of New Yorker. Very nearly a one-man-show for cranky, iconoclastic, über-opinionated Kenny Shopsin (who concocts thousands of strange recipes in the Greenwich Village restaurant bearing his name), I Like Killing Flies is one of the funniest and most curiously moving films I've seen in a long time.
There's much more going on, too, from filmmakers' panels to special parties to more films from Les Blank (whose movies play all day Sunday in HCC's Ybor Room), but I hope these highlights will give you an idea of how to begin navigating your way through this action-packed and always unique festival.
Just by way of a final caveat, however, remember that unpredictability is the name of the game of the game here. Odds are that the festival's schedule will be in some sort of flux right up until the last minute and possibly beyond, so do yourself a favor and call ahead to confirm screenings and events. Expect the unexpected, smile, and go with the flow, baby.