Cinema and Shoplifting: John Waters at the Maryland Film Festival

BY Arts Desk  May 12, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

While movie stars are gathering on the Riviera for a splashy time at Cannes, moviegoers flocked last weekend to Charm City for the 11th annual Maryland Film Festival. Held at Baltimore’s Charles Theater, one of the main attractions is always a film screening by writer-director (and native son) John Waters.

Maryland Film Festival 2009 Poster

Every year, the so-called “pope of trash” chooses a film to show the world — or at least to Baltimore. This year, he presented ‘Love Songs’, a French twist on the movie musical, directed by French director Christophe Honore and starring Louis Garrel. With a tangle of bisexual love triangles, it has been called the anti-“Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the classic 1964 romantic musical starring Catherine Deneuve (incidentally, her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, appears in “Love Songs”). The film didn’t get much attention in America, never playing on more than six screens at a time.

“It’s a really unusual movie full of young people falling in love,” said film festival director Jed Dietz. “He’s 11 for 11 picking a movie I’ve never even heard of until he picked it.”

Waters began presenting movies at the first festival when Dietz asked him to be involved at least once. Waters immediately proposed hosting a screening and question-and-answer session, returning every year. A veteran of Sundance and Cannes, Waters helped create a unique identity for the festival in his hometown.

“He has a great sense that we need to build a festival that’s our own festival, that doesn’t imitate anybody, that has our own personality, and he’s been part of it,” Dietz said. “We’re the only festival he’s been at every year and done this for.”

The Baltimore festival distinguishes itself because it has no categories and no awards, Dietz said. They champion shorts, have silent, experimental and 3-D films, and bring in special non-film guests to present a favorite movie. This year, novelist Laura Lippmann presented “Funny Bones” (1995), and Ian MacKaye, founder of post-hardcore band Fugazi, presented “Nina Simone: La Legende” (1992).

“We just look for things we can do that are ‘us’ and help celebrate movies,” Dietz said.

More than 125 movies were screened over the weekend. Per tradition, Waters packed the house.

Besides his festival duties, Waters has been keeping busy working on a book called “Role Models,” which is scheduled to be released next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. But his upcoming children’s movie, “Fruitcake,” a Christmas movie set to star Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey, has been scratched due to funding problems. It hasn’t been an easy year for arts in the city. The Senator Theatre in North Baltimore is saddled with debt, and other museums, theaters and the city’s bankrupt opera house are also struggling.

Art Beat caught up with Waters at the festival, where he told us what he’s up to now, how he’s been affected by the economic downturn, and how he may have to resort to desperate measures (“Watch your bag,” he warned us.)