Carrying through 

It would have been a lot easier for me to approach the Central Florida Film & Video Festival's Friday's midnight screening of "Planet of the Apes" as mindless fun if I hadn't just learned that its costar, Roddy McDowall, was afflicted with terminal cancer. A few months earlier, I had attended a photo-lecture by McDowall at Melbourne's King Center for the Performing Arts. He had been everything I had ever expected or wanted a movie star to be: funny, dignified, self-effacing and resolute in his belief that enjoying life was a nobler pursuit than subjecting oneself to needless suffering in the name of "art." I guess we don't always have a choice of how much pain we're going to endure.

I was glad, then, that the Friday-night audience wasn't in the mood for a wake. It lifted my spirits a bit to hear them shouting famous lines from the sci-fi opus at the screen ("Get your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"). At any other time, the display might have annoyed me, but I was in sore need of a communal experience. Besides, most of the ringleaders were there at my invitation anyway.

Still, it gave me pause to realize that "Apes" has apparently passed over into the pantheon of kitsch. True, Charlton Heston's existentialist posturing looks even sillier now than it did then. But this picture once enjoyed a somewhat serious reputation as a cautionary tale about the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. If we've lost that focus, is it because a generation that grew up in the shadow of that terror is now so innately nihilistic that the vision of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand seems not only quaintly familiar, but inevitable? Terminal cancer is by definition incurable; fatalism is not.

Carried away

Saturday afternoon left science fiction behind to concentrate on more earthbound issues. The short "Letter to Maya" documented the process by which a lesbian couple came to adopt an orphaned Chinese infant. It was sweet but innocuous, a cross-pollination of "Three Men and a Baby" and "Heather Has Two Mommies." The saccharin in my mouth turned to bile, however, when the more eager of the two new mamas related her long-standing dream of adopting eight or nine children, all of different nationalities. The more someone begins to sound like Mia Farrow, the quicker I tune out. And after witnessing the genuinely sympathetic parenting that informs every frame of The Band, it's harder than ever to put up with the yuppified, BMW-liberal conception of children as lifestyle accessories, things to be collected and displayed like pretty porcelain trinkets picked up on trips abroad.

"It's Elementary," the full-length doc that followed, wallowed in the controversy "Letter" assiduously avoided. A timely depiction of the gay- and lesbian-education programs some elementary and high schools have made part of their curricula, it showed students, parents and teachers alike wrestling with the pervasiveness of homophobia. Not everyone appeared to agree that it was fit fodder for classroom study, and I would have been interested to hear more from the parents who were dead-set against the project. But at least the students' attitudes were well represented. Particularly shocking was one girl's automatic, unthinking reference to "gays, lesbians and faggots" in her reading of a self-written essay. Forget school; it's what she's learning at home that I worry about.

As the showing of his "Jesse's Girl/Toilet Paper Tales" drew nearer, co-writer and co-star Christopher Stringfield stood outside Fashion Village 8, handing passerby complimentary tickets that, he assured, also afforded free entry to the evening's afterparties. I have a hunch he's going to go far in this business.

Having spent some time conversing with him at Wednesday's Blue Room party, I can safely report that his film was just like Stringfield himself: colorful, talky and earnestly reaching for a wisdom just beyond its grasp. Its script about two ideologically opposed cousins allowed Stringfield to provide the sensitive-guy yin to the hedonistic yang of director and co-star Mel Mel Stewart. As they endlessly debated life's thorniest topic -- babes and how to handle them -- one had the feeling of eavesdropping on the internal conflicts of a single, frat-boy brain. When Stringfield took the mike for the followup Q&A, the revelation that he and Stewart had met as brothers in the same Midwestern fraternity came as no big surprise.

Carrying on

Later in the evening, it was the Orlando arts fraternity's turn to shine, as the Illuminati's "Illumination" party took over Wall Street Plaza with a multimedia assault of sound and vision. Guests staggered from the Go Lounge, blinded by the bright, flashing lights of the in-your-face presentation. Retreating to the comparatively sedate environs of Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar, they ran in to some of the artists featured in the film version of "Illumination," who were busy creating fresh works on canvas.

Madman of Muzak Bing Futch preceded his musical performance with an impassioned salute to his fellow iconoclasts in the hometown avant garde. "(Expletive) L.A.!" he railed. "(Expletive) New York! (Expletive) Athens! (Expletive) Seattle!"

Behind me, painter Carl Knickerbocker burst out in delighted laughter. "He's doing a city council thing!" Knickerbocker howled.

The mood remained one of celebration and support up to the very end, with the artists and their fans exchanging bear hugs and warm pats on the back. Even the underage festival volunteers who had been denied access to the adults-only soiree appeared to be having a good time as they cooled their heels in the overflowing plaza. (Expletive) the curfew.

When I finally made it home, some of my neighbors broke the news to me that McDowall had died earlier in the day. I was happy that I had just come from somewhere where art had been paramount, but no one had appeared to be doing any suffering.

Carrying off

The festival rolled to a close with Sunday's showing of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which I'm embarrassed to admit I had never seen all the way through. I wish it had been screened earlier in the week; all I came away with was the realization that Audrey Hepburn's skeletal Holly Golightly was every inch the embodiment of the unattainable beauty myth that "The Ad and the Ego" had in part sought to deflate.

Down the road at the 4th Fighter Group, a wrap party and awards ceremony put the final coda on the 10-day marathon. I suppose it's unavoidable in these cases, but the judges' final say struck me as rather scattershot. The wholly undeserving "Remarkable" was named the winner in the "Florida Films" category (meaning that audiences in Melbourne, Tampa and Gainesville will get to see how clumsily self-congratulatory we Orlandoans can be), and "The Ad and the Ego" was relegated to the humbling status of second runner-up in "Documentary Shorts." But the scales were balanced when "The Band" took home awards for "Best Documentary Feature" and the overall "Best of Show." Apparently, more than one judge had recognized a work of ferocious, look-into-the-red-eye-of-your-God power when he saw it.

In the final analysis, a night of contradictions was an appropriate end to the festival. In a little over a week, we had been presented with brilliant films and putrid ones, with full and empty houses, and with an organization that expertly juggled a complicated schedule while still being regularly bested by machinery.

This event takes chances. When it falls, it plummets, but when it flies, it soars. I can think of no better tribute than to acknowledge that the CFFVF, like the works it spotlights, will never be able to be accused of playing it safe.

For a festival overview, read Steve Schneider's preview story.


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