Hidden in the auspice of the North near the Great Lakes, Madison, Wisconsin offers the refreshing bounty of great cheese, thick beer, diverse gastronomy, political underpinnings and a bevy of foreign films nestled in the vision of the Wisconsin Film Festival.
The Wisconsin Film Festival flourishes with the paradoxes of its town. Both capital and university central, its interconnection allows for a balance of intellectual appeal, bohemian pursuits and social perception. Drawing on an audience specific crowd that is more urban than farmland (as might be perceived from elsewhere), the bevy of volunteers, young in their progression, provide an energy to the proceedings.
Films here, in their identity, show a diversity of structure. The location and proximity of this film festival allows for a different combination of titles that might not be able to be seen elsewhere. A lot of film festivals, through no fault of their own, are engaged in getting premieres both nationally or internationally to bolster their visibility. The great aspect of the Wisconsin Film Festival is that, in being the major film festival of the state, it can lay claim to the state premieres allowing a richness of film that might have been refused from others because of second-played status. This is none more prevalent in the abundance of globe-spanning foreign films.
The first of that indominatable foreign presence is “Ghajini”, a Bollywood spectacle with the slickness and darkness of great peril but with a vibrancy that is fantastically buoyed by a score by Academy Award winner A.R. Rahman. The film follows a man who hides his status to win the heart of a girl but his business causes undeniable complications and, ultimately, tragedy. “Man Jeuk” (Sparrow), by comparison, from Hong Kong directed by Johnnie To has a lyrical, sped-up quality that is all in the details with a bit of humor thrown in. It follows a gang of pickpockets who becomes obsessed with the same girl who is the kept woman of a local crime boss. It is an intrinsic film with subtle and vigilant style. “Rusalka” (Mermaid), another entry, this time from Russia, has the poignancy and wistfulness of a Jean Pierre Jeunet movie in its story about a young girl who searches for love after moving from the isolated beaches of the North to the urban sprawl of Moscow. The luscious camera moves and an inspired performance by the lead actress give it merit.
On a more domestic front, the documentary “The Rock-a-Fire Explosion” chronicles the creation and nostalgia of the animatronic characters from Showbiz Pizza back in the early 80s exploring the essence of the creators and the diehard fans who their magic alive. There is a sense of oddness to the proceedings which only adds to its allure which was very much applauded at the late night screening on the edge of the town square.
Madison also offers an interesting gamut of culinary and spirit based concoctions to experience while in the midst of this filmic crosssection. Most of the highlighted food selections are within easy walking distance from the festival headquarter hotel, the Madison Concourse, which is on the bottom side of the main square. In a college town such as this, there is an adequate balance between pub based established restaurants for get-togethers and more trendy nouveau riche spots for late night rendezvous.
The most diverse of the late nights revolved around The Old Fashioned Tavern which sports a dizzying array of Wisconsin beers along with a late bloomer menu that swirls within the warm and shadowy interior of the establishment. This spot boasted a lot of couples hanging out with others of like ilk. On tap, the Lake Louie Milk Stout offered a great lift after a great cheese plate consisting of Willy’s blue cheese and a Darlington ten-year chedder which prepped the palate. The main event was the house burger (which was so good it had to be eaten with a fork) topped with fried onions, Bavarian smoked bacon, garlic sauce and a soft cooked egg along with a side of rich chili serenaded with cheese and sour cream. Retiring to the bar, the different tastes of Wisconsin beer continued on the brew front with the most poignant being the smooth Horny Goat (from La Crosse), the tasty Black Wheat (from New Glarus), the tart Hopalicious (from Ale Asylum) and the rich 3 Ft. Deep Stout (from Spring Green). The ending proclamation, which had to be done since many at different tables ordered it, was The Wisconsin Beer Bomb which provided a goblet of Pabst Blue Ribbon with a Lakeside pickled egg drowned in short order.
The more revealing level of dining marking the trend as the Capitol building rose in the background was the Ocean Grill, one of four restaurants visited that falls within the auspice of Food Inc., an investment firm that incorporates very diverse thought processes in terms of culinary. The seafood at Ocean Grill was flaky and smooth, not unlike the best cod tasted in Oslo, Norway. The vision of the horseradish encrusted grouper from the Gulf provided the right bit of spark surrounded by wasabi whipped potatoes and a chunky rich clam chowder followed by a wisp of a ’07 Nobilllissima Pinot Grigio from Italy. The dessert, like the rest of the meal, was light yet satisfying in the form of a gateau au vin blanc, which is a white wine cake, tickled by a lick of berry compote.
The Eldorado Grill, by comparison, a short walk down to the edge of one of the surrounding lakes, is more Southwestern in its comparison. As the sun sets watching over the cusp of the bar, a Smoking Gun cocktail combining the essence of a margarita and the chile-infused tequila Sombrero perfectly matches the restaurant’s signature Texas Torpedoes which are pickled jalapeno peppers stuffed with shrimp and Monterey Jack cheese before being wrapped in bacon…a deadly combination which was wonderfully welcomed. For the main course, the lobster enchiladas, gently smothered in a shrimp sauce, gave credence to a wanting stomach without overwhelming the senses.
Bluefies for lunch simply gives the comfort of home with a bit of humor. The Ooey Gooey pasta, rife with roasted chicken and mixed with a creamy gorgonzola sauce, peeks the interest while a unique Pop Rocks Martini, sweet and savory, crusted with the popular 80s candy, crackles in your mouth. Also for lunch in the square, Brocach, an Irish Pub & Restaurant, offers more traditional fare. The Ploughman’s Plate is hearty with its vintage Irish cheddar, summer sausage and liverwurst. Washing it down with a Wisconsin Spotted Cow Draft (from New Glarus) adds more flavor. The Dublin City Burger doesn’t disappoint covered in sauteed mushrooms, onion strings and a thick Guinness sauce, a trick not seen in Ireland. The speciality cocktails ruminated with character most specifically in the inspiring form of The Blackbeard (which mixed Myers Dark Rum, Kahlua and cola with a top head of Guinness).
Early evening in Madison brings a certain coolness. Inside Fresco, atop the art museum, the ambience offers a start off point with a bit of style. The honey and cider martini is smooth while the “Fresco Five” dishes provide a little bit of flair for everyone. From the sashimi tuna and scallops visually mixed with bacon, tart capers and coucous to the energetic sweet pea soup and the tasty lamb sliders, the stomach yearns for more.
Late night brings The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company. The essence of Imperial Pale Ale came into focus as Drunk Guy Day was celebrated. This meant that the entire bar was run by the girls for both shifts so that the male workers could take the day off and drink. This happens once a year. There is also a Drunk Girl Day which works vice versa.
A goblet of the Emerald Isle Stout with the resident female workers sealed the deal as the Great Dane Pub Wings and mint flavored shots blurred the line. One of the bartenders led your faithful narrator to a nearby secret bar which only the locals know of called Natt Spil, which has no phone and no sign. This bar had been mentioned in discussions with all the service people as where they chill with high regard. The special at the secret spot of the night combined Koff Beer with a house whiskey shot eagerly taken as the clock struck 2. The die was cast.
With its undeniable diversity and culinary concoctions, Madison provides an essential backdrop for a multi-racheted film festival where different points of view pepper the sight. From the Bollywood inspired “Ghajini” and the Hong Kong vision of “Man Jeuk” to the Irish beauty of Brocach’s Ploughman’s Plate and the Old Fashioned’s Wisconsin Beer Bomb, life is brewing in Madison.