The Wisconsin Film Festival took over 10 theaters throughout Madison this past week. I made a surgical strike Saturday to take in the world premiers of two documentaries that could not have been more different.
At the new and beautiful Memorial Union South, I saw "Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann," directed by Dan Levin, explores the life and work of Madison playwright and director, Joel Gersmann, founder of the infamous Broom Street Theater, "the world's oldest thriving experimental community theater." If you know nothing about Joel Gersmann or Broom Street Theater (which I didn't), this film painted a complex portrait of a man with a singular vision: make theater with the bare minimum that isn't successful until it pushes the audience's sensibilities to the point where they actually leave.
When your accomplishments include a musical called "Bombs Away, Enola Gay!" and "Sexy Priests," a play about child molestation in the Catholic church, his intentions were anything but veiled.
Gersmann, who passed away in 2005, was one of those insane geniuses who is infamous in town and unknown elsewhere. Indeed, some of that is by design. Gersmann was so uninterested in commercial success that he never allowed any of his plays to be preformed outside of his theater.
When a producer from New York caught wind of one of his scripts and reached out to Gersmann about bringing his play to the theater hub of the world, one profanity-laced phone conversation ended any chance of the greater world being introduced to Gersmann's unique brand of theater.
The next movie I saw was about a man who was the polar opposite of Gersmann. "Last Day at Lambeau," directed by Michael Neelson, chronicled the journey Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers took us on from his last game at Lambeau Field as a Packer through his last game at Lambeau Field as a Minnesota Viking. Compiling interviews with many local and regional commentators, this film presented a very even-handed telling of each step along the road that led our hero to our arch-rival.
Being a big Packers fan, this is a story I (and seemingly everyone else in this state) followed very closely as it unfolded in real time. While there weren't any dramatic reveals in this film, it consistently presented the element that was missing from the news coverage: the fans' perspective. Formerly witnessed in the comments sections of endless blogs on the topic, the border war that erupted between "real" Packers fans and Brett loyalists was finally explored on the big screen.
Many of us educated sports fans wrestle with the import we place on the choices these overpaid prima donnas make and the effect they have on us. But, for a couple hours in a theater in Madison, we were kids again, our hearts breaking as our erstwhile idol chose once again to "stick it to Ted Thompson."
Just like when I watch the recap of the 1982 World Series, I kept hoping for a different outcome, knowing I wouldn't get one. The emotional distance that time is supposed to provide melted away as audience members succumbed to tears when Brett retired again (and again and again) and cheers when Aaron Rodgers threw his first touchdown pass.
After the film, the Q&A went on for a long time and I got the distinct impression that we were all simply enjoying talking Packers and rehashing a story we all know but can't get enough of.
Two very different films about two very different men. Quite an afternoon at the Madison Film Festival.
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