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Cinema St. Louis showcases local filmmakers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2010 - In the cold and snow of the Catskill Mountains, two men trekked, sparring with the elements and each other.

Actually, there were three men and about a $10,000 budget, but in the feature film "Daniel and Abraham," you never see St. Louis native Ryan Eslinger, since he was the writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor, among other jobs.

But you do see the rest of the film's entire crew -- the two actors who also worked all the other roles necessary.

For the 28-year-old Eslinger's third film, it was just three men and a story, and this weekend, local audiences can join the journey at the 10th annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.

The 16 film programs, each featuring a variety of entries, will air at the Tivoli from July 18 through the 22. Seminars on such topics as documentary, micro-budget and genre filmmaking will be conducted on July 17.

Films include documentaries, shorts, horrors, comedies and feature length films with ties to St. Louis, including Eslinger's "Daniel and Abraham,"  which tells the story of a young man, Daniel, who's hiking into the mountains to spread the ashes of his estranged father, and the mysterious older man, Abraham, who follows him, taking the journey on a dark turn. 

"It's really very good," says Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which puts on the showcase. "It's not just a stunt."

Of the 96 entries, 65 films will be played through the course of the showcase, and include comedy shorts, documentary shorts, horror shorts, plus full-length features.

Chris Clark, Cinema St. Louis' artistic director, doesn't have one favorite, he says, because they're all so different.

Now in its 10th year, the showcase has found that narrative themes with the entries tend to stay consistent, he says, since about half of the entrants are college students.

"Girls and boyfriends and bad parents, they're just human issues," Clark says.

There are also experimental films; and each year, the documentaries presented tend to be more topical.

Froehlich says he's grown used to the quality of films that come out of St. Louis and St. Louis filmmakers, so that's no surprise, but each year new filmmakers do pop up and get some attention.

After watching all the event's films, the staff at Cinema St. Louis will choose winners, which will go on to be screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

The weekend also includes chances for more active learning with seminars on everything from documentary filmmaking to genre filmmaking. Eslinger, whose first film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and second film starred Timothy Hutton and Sharon Stone, pared down his budget and crew for "Daniel and Abraham," and he'll lead what he calls a discussion about micro-budget filmmaking on Saturday at the Regional Arts Commission.

Froehlich thinks Eslinger's experience -- creating his first film while in college to working with a much bigger budget for his second film and then pairing it down again for his third film -- can give local filmmakers an idea of what's possible.

The showcase also offers local filmmakers a chance to have their work seen by people outside their own bubbles, Froehlich says, to get feedback and to continue building the filmmaking community in St. Louis.

And that community and the people behind it, like Froehlich, are what makes St. Louis a great place for filmmakers, Eslinger thinks.

"Daniel and Abraham," which premiered at the 2009 Hamptons International Film Festival, will air at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Other films include "Pennies for the Boatman," by Niyi Coker set in North St. Louis in 1958, a documentary short about drag culture in St. Louis, and Rebecca Ormond's "Gateway Guardians," about a volunteer group that rescues and cares for stray animals in East St. Louis.

Review of 'Daniel and Abraham'

When we first meet Daniel (David Williams), he is setting off for a five-day hike in the dead of winter in the snow-covered woods. His aim is to go deep into the wilderness and spread his father's ashes. Along the way, he meets the mysterious Abraham (Gary Lamadore), who seems to come out of nowhere and is not easily shaken.

Alexander veers unpredictably from being vaguely menacing to helpful, which makes Daniel, who's woefully unprepared for a week's hike, alternately rebellious and dependent. Not surprisingly, we discover that both have mirror issues: Abraham (get the patriarchal name?) was despised by his sons; Daniel was estranged from his father.

While the film taps into primal, even mythic themes, the spare dialogue, naturalistic acting and crisp photography keep the film real and taut. The pacing slowly but effectively builds suspense. And while the movie takes place in the frigid outdoors, the mood feels increasingly claustrophobic. Director Ryan Eslinger's accomplished film offers a chilly take on the winter of Daniel and Abraham's discontent. -- Susan Hegger

Review of 'Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture'

Too bad the documentary about Louis Henri Sullivan to be shown July 22 at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase is no way as imaginative or original as its subject.

Sullivan (1856-1924), as the picture tells us repeatedly, was an iconoclast as well as a genius. He mission was to reform the architecture of 19th and early 20th century America, and for a while he succeeded in turning his art from the decadence of puffed up and hackneyed historicism to soaring declarations of grace and rationality.

Like Adolf Loos in Vienna, Sullivan was resolute in his devotion to the ideal of an architecture stripped bare of the superfluous, the better to tell the truth. He summoned forth an architecture expressing his conviction that "form ever follows function." He never feared offending his fellows; even when a touch of diplomacy might have saved him from another month in a cheap hotel, he would not shut up.

Yet unlike many of his more "successful" contemporaries, he is a force to be reckoned with still. There's no better place to perform the reckoning than in St. Louis.

Here, downtown, in his audacious 1892 Wainwright Building, form following function is expressed so precisely and so poetically it takes your breath away. Here, at Seventh and Chestnut, he propelled architecture into the modern age, finding in verticality a particularly muscular and ambitious - and functional - idiom.

After more than a century, after the ebbing and flowing of notions of and harangues about and manifestos concerning what is good and what isn't, the Wainwright Building maintains an undeniable eminence.

It is, indeed, as is so often proclaimed, the first skyscraper - not because it is tall enough to scratch the heavens but because its verticality suggests it just might be able to. And as the documentary quotes Sullivan's saying, it is "a proud and soaring thing," so revolutionary that every skyscraper from Chicago to Shanghai can trace its ancestry right back here, to a street corner in St. Louis.

One might hope, as I did, that "Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture" might be told in a cinematic testament that would be, itself, a departure from the quotidian.

Too bad. This struggle languidly obeys the same old, worn-out, tiresome, stupor-inducing History Channel cliches: sunlighted trees animated by a zephyr; slow pans caressing still pictures, sometimes more than once; the dramatic devout proclamations-without-end of talking torsos, half hidden in inky and dramatic shadow, and so prevalent that after a while the technique becomes an unintentional visual metaphor for the entire show.

Too bad. There can be no more compelling a subject, even in novels, than this human meteoroid, no more vivid testament to exuberant genius than his writhing, sensuous ornament, seemingly living, perhaps never to end. One is struck with wonder in the company of his riotous patterns and color. One is struck by his courage.

I cannot imagine a world without the architectural legacy of Sullivan nor can I forget the moral lessons he taught about the importance of sticking to one's guns, come what may.

His vitality is ours to experience and to touch. First go to the corner of Seventh and Chestnut, where the Wainwright Building soars upward as it had done for almost 120 years. Then make your way to Bellefontaine Cemetery at 4947 West Florissant Rd., where the Wainwright Tomb stands with such affecting dignity and authority.

Look carefully, and you can imagine you hear Sullivan speak. -- Robert Duffy