Hopeful projections 

By all logic, the movie business should have come to a screeching halt last weekend, with cinema buffs busy procuring advance tickets to Wednesday's opening of Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace instead of venturing out to sample any of its less-hyped competitors.

Apparently, the David-and-Goliath scenario didn't frighten Frankie Messina of the Apartment E arts collective, who went ahead and booked last Friday as the debut date of his "Theatro della Luna" film series anyway. The return of the Jedi might send Keanu Reeves scurrying back into whatever Matrix he had crawled out of, but it couldn't make that much of a dent in the viewing habits of Orlando's supporters of independent cinema -- or could it?

Yes and no. "Theatro's" bow at Performance Space Orlando was moderately successful in its attempt to create a new social milieu for the celluloid-obsessed. And if it wasn't everything Messina had either hoped for or advertised, I couldn't fault him for taking a chance on a worthy idea.

Pickup shots

The invitation had trumpeted a loose, low-pressure evening of viewing and mingling, in which patrons were encouraged to arrive fashionably late, adhere to no dress code and "bring a date or leave with one." Even those of us whose shoes could pass muster at Zinc had to be enticed by Messina's gracious effort to facilitate our romantic fumblings. Movies we can watch anytime.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that the very same flier had also promised pony rides. Film people may lie about carnival attractions, I told myself, but they're deadly serious about sex.

No new connections were being formed when I arrived at PSO, but it was still early, and most of the handful of folks who were on hand knew each other already. Messina was cueing up tapes he had raided from the library of the Central Florida Film & Video Festival (whose organizers had co-sponsored the "Theatro" premiere). In another corner stood the tall, extremely young frame of Orlando filmmaker Sam Gaffin, who chatted up his next project: a science-fiction epic with an all-puppet cast. I want to see it, though I'm fairly sure I won't be able to reserve seats through MovieFone.

By the announced start time of "11ish," the room was respectably full -- especially for PSO, where Friday attendance is always a crapshoot. As the crowd ambled through the front door, Messina unexpectedly asked the event staff and his "special guests" to join him for a moment in the back room. That seemed an odd request, and I wondered what was up.

"He's not going to try to sell us Amway, is he?" I probed Gaffin.

Instead, Messina took the occasion to thank us for our support, and to issue a little pep-talk in which he implored us not to be bothered by the (he felt) low turnout.

"Numbers don't matter," he reassured us. "We're going to have a good time."

It was one of those sweetly guileless moments that make living in Orlando in 1999 such a rare privilege. Get 'em while you can.

Loose framework

Messina made good on his intention to maintain a casual atmosphere, inviting everyone in the house to partake of the beer that was being sold in the back of the room at a buck a cup. Acting as his own video jockey, he introduced the films as they were projected onto a screen that hung down along the far wall. Occasionally, he would warn us that an upcoming offering was "a long one," welcoming us to stretch our legs and catch a smoke outside if we weren't up to sitting through a short that clocked in at more than 10 minutes. THIS is the way Sundance should be run.

Though the lineup was said to represent the last six years of the CFFVF, it was heavily weighted toward films from the 1998 edition. Mostly well selected, they began with "I Remember," a compendium of humorous observations on universal bodily functions and inexplicable personal habits that had impressed me to no small degree last October. I was also happy to mark the return of "My Body," a broad but ultimately moving comedy that followed a gay man's gradual acceptance of his identity.

One of the biggest responses, however, was reserved for "TROOPS," a hybrid of "Star Wars" and the Fox network's "COPS" in which imperial stormtroopers took the place of harried peace officers. Even in our little corner of the galaxy, the power of Lucas held sway.

The worst choice was the resurrection of Natalie Merchant's "Ophelia," the fatuous long-form music video that had made 30 minutes of my life a living hell during last year's festival, and again all winter long when it was rescreened as part of Time-Warner Cable's "Ballyhoo!" program. Instead of subjecting myself to it one more time, I opted to join the sizable contingent on the front lawn as we listened to PSO owner Winnie Wenglewick discuss the finer points of her electric bill. And we were all the better for it.

The CFFVF's Brenda Joyner shared some juicy news, telling me that the event would this year be split into four segments between the months of September and February. The wider time frame would allow the staff to segregate the films by genre and format (35mm stock, 16mm, video and the like). The goal, she said, was to minimize the technical difficulties that had plagued the 1998 marathon, which I agreed was a step in the right direction.

The Last Picture Show

The audience numbers had understandably begun to dwindle by about 1 a.m., and the showing of the short "Drive Baby Drive" hammered the final nail into the coffin. In the space of a juvenile few minutes of black-and-white nihilism, the film's embittered hero discovered the infidelity of his woman, then remedied the situation by driving the two of them (and their equally jaded traveling companions) into a fatal car wreck. Wait a minute -- weren't these supposed to be date movies?

Only a handful of diehards remained by that point, putting the kibosh on plans for an afterparty that was to last until 3 a.m. The members of the musical Mad Switch elected not to perform their scheduled set, despite having brought all of their equipment to PSO in a truck. It was too late to play, bassist Jeff Johnson told me, and the crowd was too small. Too much of a hassle. I guess the rush of a live gig can't compete with the thrill of hauling a bunch of Marshall amps across town for no reason.

The final score amounted to some decent (if familiar) films, some enjoyable schmoozing, and a lot of good will on the part of our host. As for the pledged meat-market quotient: The only couples I saw leaving together had arrived together. One had been sucking face long before Messina delivered his opening remarks. I don't know if that should be chalked up as a victory or not, but I'm willing to concede the point if it puts "Theatro della Luna" back into our orbit anytime soon. I'll even bring a boom box, so we can all dance.


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