"Don't fence me in" 

The seventh annual Florida Film Festival got off to a deceptively mannered start last Friday night, as a crowd of well-heeled patrons and other supporters of the arts braved the sweltering heat to attend an opening-night gala and screening of the film "A Merry War" at Maitland's Enzian Cinema.

Skewing considerably older and more upscale than the foreseen audiences at future Festival events, the crowd milled about expectantly before the showing, sharing personal highlights from last year (including meetings with guest Peter Fonda and other near-life experiences). At least two gentlemen (one of them sideshow performer Johnny Meah, the evening's entertainment) arrived in shiny silver suit jackets that must have made them feel like human baked potatoes in the oppressive, late-afternoon sun.

"A Merry War" was a smart, safe choice for the evening's feature (no "Whipped" for this crew). A witty but unthreatening period piece, "War" received enthusiastic applause from a crowd that appeared to identify all too well with its portrait of fiscal responsibility winning out over artistic idealism. When indigent poet Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant) lauded onscreen the pleasures of upper-class living, noting, "I can see why you keep it your yourselves," the line got the heartiest laugh of the night.

Afterward, audience members and newer arrivals mingled on the Enzian's front veranda, helping themselves to the buffet while discussing the meaning of the film. An informal poll revealed a fascinating diversity of opinion: Some found it a reinforcement of traditional values, while others considered it a paean to the stick-to-your-guns philosophy of living. The reaction to future, infinitely more controversial Festival offerings should be an interesting barometer of Orlando's cultural temperature.

Among those making the scene: Pam Langford, grande dame of the Langford Resort Hotel; Shayni Howen, flame-haired ambassador of the Sapphire Supper Club; and Obliterati guitarist/vocalist Steve Garnett, taking in the action with Crealdé School of Art instructor Kim Moreland.

More diversity

A more diverse crowd turned out for Day Two's showing of "Slums of Beverly Hills," a very funny and poignant coming-of-age story set in the California of 1976. Highlights included another terrific performance from the always-reliable Alan Arkin; the lowlight was another overdone turn by the quickly sinking Marisa Tomei, demonstrating that "My Cousin Vinny" was the first and last word in her ability to do comedy (or much of anything else, for that matter).

The biggest moment of squirm, however, came when the film's teen heroine was shown experiencing the trauma of her first menstrual period. The scene was handled nicely, but an audience member to our left unfortunately became so carried away in the moment that she turned to her table of total strangers and brightly volunteered, "I was 14 when I got my first! I was in school, and I was terrified!" To their credit, her newfound confidants went right on eating their chicken wings.

One of them, a theater owner from North Carolina, had told me he was using the Festival program to help him make booking selections for his own three venues back home. Despite my urgings, I don't think he stuck around for the 9:30 pm showing of "SlamNation." If he didn't, he missed not only a top-notch documentary about a winner-take-all bout of spoken-word-poetry, but a surprise appearance by featured poet Beau Sia, who performed a new piece and took questions from the audience.

Later Sia admitted to me that he had never seen the film before this night and was surprised at the amount of screen time he had received. (He was clearly one of the audience favorites, even though most had no idea he was waiting in the wings while they were watching the feature.) Soon, he told me, he'll be seen again in the drama "Slam," in a first-time acting job that has him playing not a poet but a "coked-out dickhead."

Sia's quietly humble offstage mien is a direct contrast to his performed rages. When I asked what his girlfriend makes of his routines, which mostly revolve around his humiliations in all things romantic, he looked sideways at his blonde companion and sheepishly confessed, "She's not my girlfriend, she's just a friend." He should have been at my table, where some female viewers were so taken in by the vulnerability behind his professional hysteria that they would gladly have taken him home and fed him soup.

Check Beau out Wednesday night at Java Jabbers Coffeehouse, where he'll headline a spoken-word showcase that'll also feature Orlando poetry impresario Patrick Scott Barnes (who was spotted among the Saturday night crowd). And don't miss the repeat showing of "SlamNation," 2 p.m. Thursday at Enzian. If he hasn't been adopted by any Winter Park sugar mommas, Beau will probably show up for that event, too. Sia there.

Moving pictures

Come Day Three, the good folks from Starbucks had finally come up with their own method of curbing the heat wave, handing out complimentary frappuccinos to ticket holders arriving at the Enzian. (Although, to borrow a joke from Denis Leary, shouldn't they have been renamed "AlPacinos" in honor of the event?) As we waited for the afternoon screening of "A Letter Without Words," a lone TV-13 reporter scanned the crowd for subjects willing to offer their opinions of the proceedings. "Is anybody here a real film buff?" she called out. Somehow, I resisted the urge to volunteer, knowing that my planned sound bite -- "It's an important event for this town. Read all about it in the Orlando Weekly!" -- would most likely have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

The holocaust-era memoir "Letter" moved me even more in an audience setting than when I had viewed it alone in advance of the Festival. The privilege of seeing the deceased Ella Lewenz's home movies of prewar Germany was an experience meant to be shared, not hoarded. If you missed the debut of this stirring film, a trip to Colonial Promenade for the 4:15 p.m. Friday replay is heartily recommended.

In between shows, representatives from Clearwater's Wild Heart Studios schmoozed the attending bigwigs, giving advance notice of their own upcoming feature. Just submitted for consideration in the 1998 Central Florida Film & Video Festival, it's the story of a family of inbreds, they promised. Just what Florida needs: another documentary.

Then it was back into the theater for the evening's program, a viewing of "Chicago Cab" and a Q&A with co-director Mary Cybulski. "Cab" turned out to be an extremely S-L-O-W day-in-the-life drama about a Windy City hack forced to contend with a motley crew of passengers, while attempting to keep his own, kind-hearted values intact. The tender, final 30 minutes was an unexpectedly sweet payoff to a film that had previously seemed to be driving in as many circles as its hero.

The Cybulski session got off on a boisterous note, as a gentleman to our rear puffed himself up to bark, "I'll ask the first question. What kind of stock did you use?"

" I have no idea," the director meekly but quickly responded. "Something fast. It changes all the time."

The smugness level eradicated, we were free to listen to an unpretentious litany of the usual financing queries and salutes to "wonderful" co-stars. One anecdote, however, stood out: It seems that two real-life cab drivers working in the same neighborhood as the location crew had been killed in the course of only one evening of filming. An unexpected chill ran through my body as I called for my own taxi to take me home.

See you Monday night at Enzian, where we'll find out if Michael Frank's buddy drama "Cadillac" is a cruiser or a lemon, and where I'll be watching your dates eye you suspiciously during "Unmade Beds," an almost-documentary that'll make us all think twice about ever answering another personal ad.

For a complete listing of Florida Film Festival events, search the Calendar

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There's even more at the official website.

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