Muskegon, Michigan — In public, scant minutes from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Buzzine head Richard Elfman dropped his pants. Flash, but not like that: No one seated May 22nd in the Harbor Theater here took offense or had reason to croon in falsetto, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.” Facing front, no butts about it, Elfman kept on his boxer shorts as, at the inaugural Lakeside Film Fest, he introduced his camp 1982 musical comedy Forbidden Zone.
He’d dropped trow in mock challenge to an audience member and cinema crony, Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman. A week before visiting the Harbor, an art-and-independent movie house that sits within sight of sailboat masts rising above Muskegon Lake, Elfman, in an interview with The Muskegon Chronicle, challenged Kaufman to a nude mud wrestling match.“Where’s Kaufman?” Elfman now grinned into his hand-mic. “It’s do or die in the mud, pal!” Both laughed the joke off. The audience chimed in when Kaufman called back from his seat, “I’ve got mud in my pants.”
Serious filmmakers with smiles on their faces, Elfman and Kaufman highlighted the four-day festival that screened a number of movies as yet unseen outside a handful of film festivals. Highest popular praise was heaped on Howl, writer/director Robert Epstein’s dramatization of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg’s 1957 obscenity trial. Kudos rained on James Franco as Ginsberg in a film featuring Jon Hamm, of TV’s Mad Men, as Ginsberg’s defense attorney; David Strathairn for the prosecution; Bob Balaban as the judge who brought his gavel down on the nonsense; and Jeff Daniels, a native Michigander who still lives in his hometown of Chelsea, as a smug academic whose hypocrisy testifies to the legal folly of calling over-educated sh*theads to the stand.
Having flown in too late on the Friday night of the festival’s lone Howl screening, Elfman and his wife, Lauren, Buzzine’s senior managing editor, didn’t see it. What they did catch over the weekend were stunning West Michigan sunsets and the ease of Midwestern graciousness.
“Believe me,” Elfman said over drinks on the open-air patio at Lakeshore Tavern, “you don’t get that on the coasts, in New York and L.A. People here are really nice. I love this place.”
Little things apparently do mean a lot. One that stuck with Elfman was he and his wife savoring a sunset picnic of wine, cheese and assorted snacks, from their room at the high-rise Shoreline Inn, a hotel that struck Elfman as “very supportive of the festival.” Another, beyond the fledgling festival itself, were a couple breakfasts at Mr. B’s, an eatery where gracing the wall are prayers for four different religions.
“People here just seem so polite, so accepting,” Elfman said before lauding the efforts of the married couple that runs the Harbor and pulled off the little festival that could, Brendan and Jen Pelto.
As is indigenous to such gatherings, the festival saw actors, writers, directors and those who wannabe ‘em take in movie after movie, posing group-hug snapshots that reaffirmed the contemporary wisdom that life is a photo op. Young actress Katie Rotolo was up for it, as was local filmmaker Tom Berdinski. Florida native Rotolo had ventured north for the festival premiering Lies, a short in which she stars. Rotolo said she was en route to pursuing a film career in Hollywood, an itinerary that suggested she could use a new GPS.
Immersing himself in the presence of Elfman and Kaufman, Berdinski was in his element. The past five years have seen him write, direct, produce and promote the hell out of his rookie flick, the two-part Italian Zombie Movie. Shot in the Muskegon area for virtually no money and peopled with actors who aren’t really, IZM, as it is called, gave Berdinski an inside track to the directing workshop that Kaufman ran at the festival. It also got Berdinski, who big-time pursued Rotolo for his next project, an IZM sequel, vis-à-vis advice from Elfman.
“(He) told me … that success in film is 50 percent talent, 50 percent promotion. So much for math adding up, though Berdinski continued, “I hope my cast and crew continues to help with that last 50 percent. We are sooooooo close to something really amazing here… Sooooo close…”
Elfman’s previous exposure to the area had come a couple months before, during a Forbidden Zone screening in nearby Grand Rapids. There he’d been called to the stage as a musician, recalling days with his brother, movie composer Danny Elfman, in their band Oingo Boingo. Eflman found himself surrounded by strippers from a local retro-burlesque troupe whose qualms about baring skin paralleled those the topless tootsies in Forbidden Zone.
One actress, who won’t be getting that kind of exposure in the upcoming sequel to Forbidden Zone, is Elfman daughter-in-law, Jenna Elfman. During a post-screening talk-back, Elfman confirmed that she indeed would perform, albeit clothed, thank you. The music score, Elfman said, as it was the first time around, will be by his bro (with a little help from Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway).
The Q & A approaching the late-night side of morning went from Elfman discoursing on Forbidden Zone offending censors to the point of being banned; to one of its stars, Marie-Pascale Elfman, being his ex-wife “who’s still my good friend. We’re actually in business together”; to the colorization of the original black-and-white film; to credits peppered with such bogus actor names as Ugh-Fudge Bwana, a latent thespian who, wild guess, doesn’t exist.
So went the first Lakeside Film Fest. It gave most attendees their first look at Neil Jordan’s unreleased Ondine, starring Colin Farrell and which the festival showed a second time because part of a first screening appeared upside down; the restored version of Fritiz Lang’s 1927 futuristic masterpiece Metropolis; Spike Jonze’s I’m Here in which robots in love are more human than human; and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, swiping its title from playwright Tom Stoppard and sinking its vampire fangs into the jugular William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Security was less than tight, made up mostly of two of Kaufman’s iconic Troma title characters, the mop-wielding Toxie (The Toxic Avenger) and a feudal white-masked Japanese dick (Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD) transported to modern day. They wandered outside the Harbor, waving for passing motorists to pull over and check it out.
As for Richard Elfman, who Tweeted updates, the festival’s final day brought sunshine and a temperature of 86 that stopped one degree shy of a May 23rd Muskegon record. Not prime-time to lure a visitor indoors.
“We took a drive around the lake.”
He didn’t say which one. Another wild guess: Muskegon Lake, not Lake Michigan.
Editor’s note: Buzzine officially recommends visiting Muskegon, Michigan and staying lakeside at the Shoreline Inn. Sunset view from hotel balcony — just add wine.
Text by Bill Iddings