The players' club 

The stereotypical film school is an incubator for hatchling Kurosawas, amateur directors desperate to make grand statements before the realities of the business force them into turning out commercial works to pay their bills. At Valencia Community College, they've cut directly to the chase, cultivating a production program that's unabashed in its intent to prepare its students for the high-budget, high-pressure world of the studio system.

That agenda shone through every frame of last weekend's fourth annual Valencia Film Celebration, a three-night retrospective that bestowed a mixed bag of past and current projects upon the school's East Campus Performing Arts Center. Each evening began with the same in-house trailer, an unrepentantly "inside" piece that saw program director Ralph Clemente playing a movie-industry Jedi out to tutor an apprentice production assistant in the ways of "Da Schmooze." As Obi-Wan Clemente bequeathed his precious cigar to the junior mogul, it was obvious that VCC is as interested in grooming a new generation of power players as it is in birthing artistes.

Clemente's presence was ubiquitous throughout the festival; he's clearly at the center of the curriculum's cult of personality. Each night, he strode to the podium to offer a warm welcome in his honeyed dialect and to issue breathless testimonials to the VCC film division's continued vitality. On Thursday, his half-unbuttoned dress shirt allowed the spotlight to glint on his tanned skin, injecting his innate Louis Jordan vibe with more than a hint of George Hamilton. Devoted students addressed him lovingly as "Ralph" during question-and-answer sessions, and they didn't seem to mind that he monopolized the Friday chat with "Night Orchid" director Mark Atkins, grabbing the mike from the young filmmaker to offer one of his own observations and then almost not returning it. Clemente even received a joking namecheck in the latter film, as its main character ordered a pack of "Clemente cigarettes" to screams of approving laughter from the assembled. Any notions that a teacher's identity should take a back seat to the emerging personas of his proteges were patently outmoded hogwash to these kids.

Maven events

The three features showcased in this year's festival were as polished as Clemente's personal style. The best by far was Thursday's "Blowfish," an expanded reedit of the school's watershed 1997 dramedy. Being unfamiliar with the previous version, I can't say if the new cut is an improvement; it did seem to run rather long, however, and its subtler passages were nearly crucified by a terrible audio setup and a murky video-projection system that rendered its indoor sequences almost impenetrable. Some scenes were so dark that they made "Touch of Evil" look like "Toy Story" in comparison.

Still, the film's poetic soul emerged unscathed, as did its hilariously accurate vision of the culture shock its Brooklynite heroes encountered as they navigated the alien terrain of a Christmas trailer park. You have to be from the Northeast (or know someone who is) to fully appreciate "Blowfish's" on-the-money portrayals of the Joe Goomba approach to life, but it's better still if you've also spent some time in the vast wasteland that begins at the Bithlo city limits. As the picture's twin protagonists wrestled with the limited dining options of a redneck restaurant, I couldn't help but think of the East Colonial Drive eatery I had visited earlier that very evening, where asking for blue cheese with your chicken wings was considered an outré demand and the menu advertised "Sandwiches and burgers available on request." Such experiences make a viewing of "Blowfish" sheer cinema verité.

Friday's aforementioned "Night Orchid" was likewise well-crafted, although its story of a clairvoyant drifter's love affair with a mystery woman was closer to an unusually strong Stephen King adaptation than an indie art-fest. Despite its picturesque visuals and engaging narrative, the film sputtered out in a climactic unmasking that was pure "Scooby Doo." I was also disheartened by Clemente's stated opinion that "Orchid" was somehow emblematic of the "non-Hollywood" brand of films students should be allowed to lens in their early years. Everyone has the right to make "Ghost" if he or she wants to -- just don't expect me to confuse it with "The Seventh Seal."

The commercial quotient was in the red zone for Saturday's "The First of May," a newly completed, $1.2 million opus that starred the great Julie Harris (a history steeped in commercial sponsorships and government grant monies ensures that VCC's directors don't have to give leading roles to the girls who live two dorm rooms down from them). A "Family Channel"-type weeper about a neglected foster child's escape to the circus, "May" didn't tug but yank at every available heartstring, and the remarkable performance of Dan Byrd as the central waif barely rescued the production from drowning in its own treacle. The storyline's mounting implausibilities caused my date to perform a sarcastic "stretching" motion with her hands halfway through the film, but she was a ball of sobs throughout the last 30 minutes. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Small-time operators

There was nothing particularly stirring about the short subjects on offer at the festival. Daniel Springen's "The Reel" has already been the subject of much local hype, but its portrayal of a futuristic world devoid of artistic expression struck me as more cute than brilliant. Thursday's HIV drama "The Last Game" was shallowly acted given its subject matter, and Friday's "The Buoy" was a teaser for an in-progress feature about two teens coming to grips with their troubled existence. The latter two films revolved around overbearing-father characters, a Gen-X stereotype that's seriously beginning to get on my nerves. I guess some of the folks in that program still haven't forgiven their dads for only sending them to a community college.

When I spoke with Clemente at Saturday's screenings, he was adamant that the VCC film degree is a technological one, which may explain why the visual craftsmanship on display last weekend so overshadowed any innovative acumen on the storytelling front. The impending addition of a second degree with more of a writing slant may do wonders to correct the balance, and a forthcoming documentary about the homeless currently residing in Orlando's wooded areas sounds like a welcome side trip into the land of artistic responsibility.

In the meantime, the program's high visibility appears to have made it something of a campus jewel, in the way that sports teams are to other institutions. On Friday, even the school security guards (you know, the guys who ride around in the little golf carts) were excitedly discussing the new cut of "Blowfish." It was a scene straight out of the dreams of every film-studies geek who's ever wished that the world could momentarily be turned upside-down so he could sit on top for a change. In one miracle moment that all of the corporate funding in the world couldn't buy, I really believed that VCC's film unit was Orlando's dream team, with Clemente its cigar-chomping "Bear" Bryant. And if they put a few more great writers out on the field, you can count on me to be first in line for homecoming.


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