Almost famous

Some of its friends and foes alike were heard to comment that this year's Florida Film Festival, which ended last Sunday, was notably light on celebrities. But "celebrity" is a subjective term that has limited cachet in a festival context, anyway. Events like this exist primarily to (1) identify tomorrow's titans and (2) celebrate the careers of industry vets who may not be household names, but whose accomplishments are serious stuff indeed to their rabid fans.

Try convincing a crowd of cult-horror heads, for example, that 76-year-old director Herschell Gordon Lewis isn't a celebrity. Welcomed like a conquering hero to Enzian Theater for a late-Friday screening of his Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, Lewis lived up to everyone's hopes by comporting himself with the utmost charm and gentility. The gregarious gore hound was presented with a cake as the clock struck midnight, heralding the arrival of his birthday. Lewis, in turn, praised us for being his type of people -- "totally nuts." I think he has us pegged.

The following morning's way-early "Coffee with Mike Medavoy" session found the legendary studio exec/agent recapping his career with quiet contemplation -- among other qualities that are hard to fully appreciate when you've stayed up until 2 a.m. with Herschell Gordon Lewis. I had to admire Medavoy's tact, though: At one point, he mentioned that Marlon Brando had showed up on the set of "Apocalypse Now" "a little heavier than usual." A lesser man might have seen that sentence through to its logical conclusion, "a little heavier than is usual for a water buffalo."

New dimensions in candor were explored by Chaille Stovall, the prepubescent director of the election-year documentary Party Animals. In a Q&A that followed his movie's final screening at Colonial Promenade, Stovall responded to more than one business-related query with the detail-phobic dodge, "Ask my Mom" -- which should become a standard interview tactic for filmmakers from Ang Lee on down. Nipping potential rumors in the bud, Stovall also saw fit to declare, "I'm not gay!" (This announcement was made to mitigate his admitted involvement in ballet.) At that moment, the scope of Stovall's accomplishments became clear. When you were his age, was your sexuality an issue to anyone? To you, even?

Shortly thereafter, we realized that Stovall's incessant fidgeting did not denote any public-appearance jitters, but rather that he had to go to the bathroom. We let him.

Acting like a big reel

This year's festival also proved that documentary filmmakers approach the amount of footage they shoot with a pride that laymen reserve for the size of their genitals or SUVs. I was pretty impressed that locals Eric Breitenbach and Ben Van Hook had whittled down a full 60 hours of film into their 80-minute My Father's Son -- until I met director Marlo Poras, whose Mai's America represents the best 72 minutes of a 170-hour image library. Look for this more-is-more philosophy to reach ridiculous proportions in the years to come. ("I racked up 4,000 hours of footage by leaving the camera running at night!" a future guest will no doubt declare. "I figured out how to reverse the space-time continuum so I could begin shooting before I was even born!") New Yorker Alice Elliot told an Enzian audience that she had compiled 50 hours' worth of scenes of her mentally challenged neighbor, Larry Selman, to produce her moving 34-minute short, "The Collector of Bedford Street."

"I would like to see all 50 hours," called out Selman, who had accompanied Elliot to the festival.

"Larry doesn't believe in editing," Elliot joked. (Bollywood, here he comes!)

Network news

The Florida Film Festival is not a seller's market by any stretch of the imagination, but neither were deals unheard of this year. John Sparano secured worldwide distribution for his mockumentary short, "Reality School." And the level of professional camaraderie remained high, as was evidenced by the nascent friendship between directors Paul Hough (The Backyard) and T. Arthur Cottam ("Beer Goggles"). Hough and Cottam had never met before, but came to the festival bearing something in common: Both of their films show human beings setting themselves on fire. I hope they team up to shoot a profile of Buddhist monks in Vietnam -- they've already done the legwork.

The festival's way of doing business won new fans in director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman, whose controversial doc, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was allowed its two scheduled screenings despite a midweek flap over ownership rights. According to Corben, the festival's programming staff never wavered in its dedication to showing the film, affording viewers full exposure to the graphic sights and sounds of an alleged rape at the University of Florida. Apparently, our responses were in some ways purer than the ones the film has drawn from jaded audiences in the filmmakers' home of Miami.

"[They ask], 'Why did you call it Raw Deal?'" Corben said. "'Why didn't you call it Last Thursday?'"

Sin of omission

Ironically, the one guest the festival didn't fully stand behind was its most widely publicized one, actor Graham Greene. After screening his latest film, Skins, and sitting for a highly entertaining Q&A last Thursday at Enzian, Greene learned of a death in his family and was compelled to leave town before Saturday's awards gala at Universal Studios Florida. How did the festival respond? By omitting all mention of him from the gala, even shelving a tribute reel that had been worked up for the occasion. The decision -- which, I'm told, was far from unanimous -- wasn't made out of spite, merely a misplaced concern that the event be free of anticlimactic, "negative" moments. But from the outside, it looked as if a familial tragedy had gotten poor Greene relegated to the status of a nonperson.

Award winners, on the other hand, had their profiles raised several notches. Director Elliot saw her "Collector" nab two trophies, the Florida Forever Filmmaker Award and the Audience Award for Best Short Film. After the gala, Elliot did some collecting of her own, moving from table to table and picking up Florida postcards to serve as mementos. (For a full list of award winners, go to Meanwhile, Julian Kheel and Brett Halsey, the creative partners in the comedy short "Exceed," talked up the virtues of Gatorland, which they had visited that very afternoon. Halsey seemed particularly impressed to have learned that the female reptiles there outnumber the males by a wide margin. That sort of gender ratio, he said, spoke highly of Central Florida.

"I'm movin' in," he announced.

Celebrities take note. When you come to the Florida Film Festival, your luggage is already here.

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