5:10 Day Two of the Wisconsin Film Festival kicked off at around five on Thursday's gorgeous and sunny afternoon. I skidded into the Memorial Union after work, dodging overly bronzed collegiates and beer pitcher holders, and ducked into the Union Theater for the 5:30 screening of Cooking History, a documentary by Peter Kerekes on the role that military chefs played during twentieth century European wars, dating back to World War II and all the way to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
In front of the theater stood a table staffed by volunteers Alexandra Sklansky, Katie Arnold, Kyle Van Vonderen, and Nora Outernzabet, all university students who signed up to work twelve hours out of their pure love of film (and a free festival pass). "I'm seeing three movies tomorrow night," Arnold said. "Plus, I mean, we get free t-shirts." All four of them wore these t-shirts, which were light gray and silkscreened with a vaguely extraterrestrial design.
5:25 Inside the theater, Laura and Susan, co-workers on a prairie restoration project, discussed the merits of this year's offerings. The festival's dates unfortunately coincide with peak prairie burning times, and Laura said her four tickets this year are "much less" than her previous investment, back when the Festival ran in February.
I asked Laura how she heard about this Cooking History, and she said most of the movies she chose had food themes.
"So, you're a foodie," I said.
"Well... I guess you could say that," she said.
She also told me she worries that she heavily favors films whose titles begin with the first half of the alphabet, as a result of the way the guide is organized. "It's a lot to look through," she admitted. Which made me feel relieved, because I think I do that, too.
7:00 When the lights went up, I dabbed my eyes. The guide told me that "humor is often front and center," but between the slitting of animals' throats and reliving of war traumas, I found it more melancholy than mirthful. In a good way, though. And the pain was offset considerably by the culinary porn of coq au vin, Hungarian sausage, and Russian meat pancakes.
7:05 I only had a half hour before the next film began, so like any good Wisconsinite, I recharged with a scoop of Babcock Hall ice cream from the Union's café. Although the line snaked down the hallway, with a number of people holding their orange tickets or fanning themselves with the program guide, I waited for the praline pecan, anyway. The kids behind the counter looked harried, but were very prompt and polite.
7:30 The next film on the docket was One Crazy Ride, another documentary. This one, by Indian filmmaker Gaurav Jani, was more a low-budget travelogue compared to the visually and historically rich Cooking History. Ride chronicles his and four friends' extended motorcycle tour of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in Northeast India, on a road that many considered to be nonexistent because of its remoteness and dangerous because of the reputed hostility of the locals. Both Jani and fellow rider Nicky Pereira were in attendance for the screening.
Jani is no stranger to long hog rides, having, in his last film, told a story of his solo journey through the Himalayas. Although his camera's quality is mediocre and the production values are low, the stunning beauty of India's topography and as well as the touching interactions between the fatigued riders and hospitable locals make for entertaining, if not revolutionary, filmmaking. But If anything about the movie could be considered revolutionary, it would have to be Jani's navigation of near-impossible terrain on his motorcycle, including across a rickety wooden bridge that hovered hundreds of feet above a rushing river.
9:00 Jani and Pereira were met with raucous applause when the film finished, in addition to the spontaneous clapping and gasping by audience members during the film when certain obstacles were overcome.
In the question and answer session, Jani said that the most important lesson he learned was that "You cannot make nature your opponent. You just have to go with the flow." By overcoming landslides, leeches, and lost roads, he appeared to do just that.
9:15 By the time I left the Union, night had fallen, and it seemed rain had, too. Stray droplets from State Street's awnings fell on my head as I hurried toward the Orpheum. A barista at the Steep&Brew said the place had cleared out after the storm. I asked him if business had picked up at all as a result of the festival crowd, and he said, "No, nothing like last year. Last year we were packed every day, groups of twenty at a time. It's been slow."
9:20 Marc Cohn was manning the Orpheum's doors when I arrived. The Most Dangerous Man In The Room, a already well-received and well-known documentary on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, was about to let out.
Cohn told me the show wasn't sold out. "It rarely does there are so many seats," he confided, though Saturday's viewing of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the exception to the rule. However, the line for rush tickets not only rounded the corner onto Dayton and into the parking garage, but also curled behind the theater to the stage door entrance. "That was a first," he said.
9:30 Ticket-holders for The Host, a South Korean film that was scheduled to run at the Orpheum main stage at ten, lined up like eager schoolchildren against the wall. The first person in line was Linda DeBoer, a Madison resident and Nurse's Assistant who plans on attending eighteen yes, that's right, eighteen movies this year.
"Last year, I dropped the ball," she said. "Saw only seven. But it was my first year. I know better now."
The trick, DeBoer explained, is taking advantage of time through geography; her goal is to stay in one location as much as possible, preferably in the same theater. So it works out well for her that the three-part "Red Riding" series is showing this year.
I asked DeBoer if she thought she held the record for most films viewed over the four-day celebration. She's not the type to brag, but she did say that the highest number she had heard otherwise was thirteen.
"This is my vacation," she said. "I schedule time off work. I just love the movies. It cost me 95 dollars, but look, The Lion King is that much, just for one night. And this is four days. It doesn't get better than that."
It doesn't, indeed.