Decisions, decisions. How do you know what's enough until you've had too much? Like most festivals worthy of the name, the Maui Film Festival stuffs a 20-pound load into a 10-pound bag. At that, it seems this year to have been more manageable than at times in the past, when there was another open-air screen in the mix, on the roof of the Wailea Beach Marriott.
The official tally of films this year is 51 features and shorts in five days, many times the number the average American crams into any given year. (Internet figures I've seen — to be used with caution — range from three films to eight.)
The opening-night tribute to Eddie Aikau at the Celestial Cinema at the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course drew an estimated 3,500. But by sundown, early birds at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater had already taken in two features: first, a low-key, prodigal-daughter tale from North Carolina ("Heart of the Country"), then Joseph Levy's documentary anatomy of three restaurants, ultra to dive ("Spinning Plates"). The prime-time slot at the Castle that evening was devoted to "20 Feet from Stardom," a celebration of backup singers immortalized on tracks by the likes of Sheryl Crowe, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder.
The word of mouth, to say nothing of major press coverage, on "20 Feet" ranges from raves to sheer ecstasy. If you missed it, no worries. Theatrical premieres in New York and Los Angeles on Friday are a strong hint we'll get a second chance soon.
Too much, too much. Poke around and you'll find some malcontents.
"You got spare comps?" one Maui artist wanted to know. "No? Well, I guess I'll pass this year. Why would I want to spend 24 bucks a pop and sit through the litany of corporate sponsors over and over again when I wouldn't go to the bargain matinee of the same movies at the mall?"
A family doctor showed similar price resistance, but that wasn't all: "Why sit outside with the mosquitoes? I'd rather rent a DVD from Netflix and watch it with a cat in my lap."
Usually, I'm the first to agonize about biting insects, but at the Celestial Cinema this year I attracted not even one. And much as I love my cats, all four of them, what good is sitting alone in your room?
In limited doses the Dionysian appeal of the stadium experience is irresistible. Stimulants would heighten the effect, but the law is the law, and per the fine print, the Celestial Cinema is an alcohol-free venue. (I swear I smelled some weed.)
Ultimately, you want a festival to add up to more than the sum of the parts you happened to see. Maybe the greatest achievement, when it happens, is to create a new ohana, however temporary, where new friends and old mingle and share.
On that score the Maui Film Festival is way up there. On opening night the kane of Halau Kekuaokala'au'ala'iliahicame and went all too quickly, passing like warrior spirits clothed in sunset and thunderclouds. But their mana lingered. Mahalo to sponsors like cheqbook, the online accounting service for small businesses, homegrown on Maui, and others too numerous to name here. Let's not forget stalwart volunteers, who staffed some 600 shifts over five days.
THE HIGH-END tasting events left patrons fat and happy. But the occasions the populist in me appreciates more are the ones that throw the gates open to all comers for free. As I write, word comes in, alas, that high surf predicted for Sunday morning has wiped out the Hollywood Sand Sculpture Contest on the beach below the Grand Wailea. At the same time, festival officials confirmed the green-to-the-max Saturday night double feature at the "SandDance Theater" in the same location. "Sanctity of Sanctuary" introduces Paul Strauss, a dropout from the '60s who converted 300 acres of ruined Appalachian land into an organic preserve for endangered medicinal plants.
Finally, there's the rhapsodic nature documentary "Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert."
"I think this film embodies my mission in life," filmmaker Thomas Wiewandt said recently from Arizona. "Photography is a crucial educational tool. I live in the Tucson Mountains on 50 acres of pristine desert, which I'm attempting to add to Saguaro National Park at the next border expansion. That requires congressional approval." The county designated his plan "the highest and best use" for the land.
The only accompaniment to the natural sounds is flute and percussion music by Gary Stroutsos, who plays 29 "earthy" instruments from far-flung corners of the globe.
The idea of screening his magnum opus outdoors excites Wiewandt but scares him a little, too. Might the winds and breaking surf spoil his subtle tapestry? Or will it deepen the harmonies?
To experience the director's cut in the controlled acoustics of your home, order the DVD at desertdreams.org. Lap cat optional.