Enjoyable ‘Double Header’ at the Maryland Film Festival

The 20th Maryland Film Festival (2018) runs from May 2 to May 6 this year. It is centered again in Baltimore’s up and coming Station North Arts and Entertainment District. It will feature 40 films and ten shorts programs, many with a distinctly international flavor. To check out its outstanding program here.

The resurrected SNF Parkway Theatre at Charles & North Avenue is at the hub of the cinema-related activities. On Thursday, May 3rd, I had a chance to take in two of the festival’s fine offerings before large, appreciative audiences: Joe Tropea’s excellent documentary, “Sickies Making Films,” and Matt Porterfield’s riveting “Sollers Point.”

“Sickies Making Films” dealt with the history of film censorship in America — particularly in Maryland, via the “Maryland Censor Board.” In 1961, Mary Avara, a politico and also a bail bonds lady by profession from Southwest Baltimore, was appointed to the Board by then Maryland Governor, J. Millard Tawes. She served on it for two more decades and for much of that time she was also its controversial chairperson.

As the fates would have it, I knew Avara from politics. We belonged to the same organization, led by my mentor, the late City Councilman, Michael “Iron Mike” McHale, from Locust Point. The big boss was Julian “Fats” Carrick, aka “The Chicken Man.” (Mr. Carrick, who was blind by then, liked to bring his gun to the club’s meetings and place it on the table just before the reading of the Pledge of Allegiance.” He would then ask me to read the minutes of the last meeting, which I would do in a shaky voice.”)

Avara’s rulings regularly ripped and railed against the films of Baltimore’s own rising star, the comedic film director John Waters. Of course, he is a big part of the documentary. Her repeated lashing out at Waters, in print, and on television, had the salutary effect of making him into a national celebrity, and her as well! She would often rant that Walters’ film deserved two kinds of ratings: “F” for filthy; and “R” for rotten!

Parkway Theatre

Tropea looking to give his film some balance asked me to share my views of Avara, which I was very happy to do. My positive recollections went back to around 1960 when I first met her at a political rally near the Hollins Street Market. The details are recounted in the film.

One of my other memories of that era is watching Avara doing her thing on the Johnny Carson, Dick Caveat, Merv Griffin and the Mike Douglas television talk shows, and laughing my a.. off. She was a riot and the hosts and the audiences loved her.

Avara died in 1990, at the ripe old age of 90. Bless her memory. I attended her funeral in Southwest Baltimore at the now-defunct St. Peter the Apostle RC Church. The same church where the Baltimore immortal, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was baptized.

Getting back to the festival. There was a lively Q&A after the “Sickies” film with Tropea and Robert A. Emmons Jr. the film’s editor/writer participating. Waters was in the audience and he had a lot film history and anecdotes to share. Here’s the trailer for “Sickies.” It features Waters with some hilarious comments.

The “Sickies” film recounts the history of film censorship and skillfully traces its evolutions from the founding of the movie industry right up till the present time. It’s a treasure chest of information and done in a very entertaining way. Film buffs are going to love it.

John Waters

Besides Waters, ex-State Senators Julian “Jack” Lapides and Howard Denis are in the flick, with some film historians from the local scene, and including the casting agent extraordinary, Pat Moran.

“Sollers Point” was also on my agenda yesterday. Its the fourth film from Baltimore’s talented Matt Porterfield and stars McCaul Lombardi, who attended Cardinal Gibbons H.S. He plays the role of an ex-con, (Keith) a former drug pusher, trying to get his life back together. It’s a tough proposition for sure and the tensions from that struggle give the movie its energy.

The actor Jim Belushi plays Keith’s father in the flick, set mostly in the Sollers Point area of Baltimore County. A critic for the “Baltimore Sun” called the film “another winner from Porterfield.” I have a cameo in the movie as “Fred the bartender.” My scene was shot in a tavern down in Curtis Bay off of Pennington Avenue.

Rotten Tomatoes gave Sollers Point a rating of “83%.” Max Weiss of “Baltimore Magazine” tagged the movie with “3 stars.”

There was a Q&A after this film, too. And yes, Waters participated, much to the enjoyment of the audience. Check out the official trailer for the film. 

Sollers Point opens for an extended run at the Parkway on May 11th. Check it out if you get a chance.

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