Final cut

Like a snake swallowing its tail, the concluding weekend of the Florida Film Festival began as had its first: with a tribute to Haxan Films' The Blair Witch Project. A Friday-morning seminar at the Enzian Theater saw the film's five-man production team fielding questions about where they had been and where they were going. The omnipresent sound of pagers going off was a neat illustration of the big-money ethos the film's success had visited upon Central Florida, but we couldn't blame the Haxans for the noise; they had thoughtfully turned their own units off before the program began. The jarring rings were instead coming from the audience, as a gaggle of grunged-out directorial hopefuls ignored the aural evidence that pressing business awaited them elsewhere. Someone must have waited a long time for his pizza to be delivered that morning.

The session was fleshed out by the presence of Ben Rock, the sometime collaborator whose work as production designer on "Blair Witch" (including the creation of its omnipresent "stick man" design) made him more deserving of the title "sixth Haxan" than anyone else. Rock also proved to be the funniest and most interesting speaker on the stage, beginning with his declaration, "I think I was brought in because I'm into weird, occult stuff," and continuing with his admission that the film's fictitious but believable backstory had fooled him into fearing for his five pals' safety if they chose to exploit it on the screen. "Oh, you guys are gonna die," he recalled himself warning, suckered in to the sinister saga of witchcraft in the woods.

His natural gift of gab made it wholly appropriate that Rock had been the first of the six to move to California. The remaining five said they would stay in town at least another year; they were pursuing at least three projects they could film here, including a documentary short about the school-bus races held at Orlando Speedworld.

The most salient observation of the morning didn't come until after the seminar had broken up. Outside the theater, the parents of co-producer Mike Monello were glowing with pride, telling me they had particularly appreciated the focus on teamwork that had been a veritable leitmotif of the two-hour discussion.

"We always taught him to share," they beamed.

The era of talkies

The discourse was slightly less amicable at the following morning's "Filmmaker Forum," with grumpy director George Hickenlooper ("The Big Brass Ring") gradually alienating himself from the rest of the panel of auteurs via his overweening cynicism. Hickenlooper didn't score many points with the audience either, admonishing a struggling Orlando actress to move to New York or Los Angeles and get serious about her career -- and opining that she should probably forget it entirely were she older than age 25. Logical on paper, but rude in the telling.

No substantially antisocial vibes, however, radiated from any of the three celebrity guests who appeared between Friday and Saturday afternoon. Though actor Christopher Walken's oft-parodied, space-alien demeanor made it to difficult to determine if he was having a good time or not, he drew some knowing chuckles by beginning his Friday-night showcase with the plaudit, "This is a great way to see a movie" -- the Dennis Hopper testimonial Walken had obviously just memorized from the Enzian's slide-show promos.

Better still was his response to a conspicuously creepy fan in the audience, who asked Walken if he had any tips about playing a "lovable psycho" that the apprentice thespian could use in his own acting jobs.

"Just -- you know. Be yourself," Walken stuttered.

Friday's "Afternoon with Paul Winfield" was less entertaining, despite greater accessibility on the part of its esteemed guest. Winfield broke with festival tradition by sitting in the thick of the crowd throughout the screening of his "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," chortling affectionately at the story's slapstick portrayal of the hazards of interracial relationships as the audience members all around him laughed and applauded indulgently. Personally, I was too intimidated to offer much of a response: Winfield had seated himself at the table right next to mine, eyeing my ever-present notepad and joking to anyone within earshot that he was going to monitor whatever was being written about him.

"Winfield is a smoothly attractive man," I scribbled, just to be on the safe side.

Missing dialogue

The Q&A that followed was something of a sham, with most of the questions going to "Catfish" director Chi Muoi Lo, an unannounced and distracting presence on a stage that should have been reserved for his far more pedigreed star. Saturday guest Illeana Douglas suffered from no such upstaging, having brought along her dog Godfrey in lieu of any spotlight-hogging former employer. A few scattered barks from the back of the room were her traveling companion's sole intrusions on the conversation.

Animal hijinks continued Saturday evening at Universal Studios' Soundstage 33, where the wildlife theme of the festival's awards gala ensured that a live alligator was the guest of honor at my less-than-star-studded table. The Gatorland refugee was decked out in a miniature top hat; affixed to his scaly head by a black band of wraparound fabric, it served the added sartorial purpose of keeping his hungry jaws clamped shut. A similar tactic might have suited the woman on my right, who somehow devoured a full three entrees when she wasn't poring through a soap-opera magazine's story about "Catfish" costar (and "General Hospital" regular) Tyler Christopher.

The award citations ran the gamut from the deserved ("Peep Show" as best Audience Competition Short) to the mystifying (Grand Jury and Audience feature honors for the mediocre "Catfish"). My applause was loudest for "Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the QuickCheck's" win as Best Student Film. Perpetually humble star Mark Lainer made a typically heartfelt acceptance speech on behalf of director Thomas Wade Jackson, renewing my faith that the Florida State University crew is to be marked not only by greatness, but grace as well.

We'll always have Orlando

Sunday's arrival signaled the end of 10 days of films and fun, but not even the constant rain could dampen the enthusiasm that had carried us all through FFF '99's many ups and remarkably few downs. Attendance was still strong in a day that eschewed special events in favor of simple screenings. The soaked diehards chatted excitedly about their plans to squeeze in every possible film that had thus far escaped their purview, scanning the festival schedule and catching carpool rides to secondary venue Colonial Promenade.

As I waited for the Enzian's 4:30 p.m. showing of "International Shorts," I spotted a young woman I knew, who had volunteered as a festival aide to help support the cause -- and to partake of a lot of indie-watching cultural enrichment in the bargain. Though still positively knackered from the previous evening's festivities, she was hopping over to Colonial to view the sweetly funny Canadian feature "Clutch." For the second time.

We chuckled like drowned rats too giddily committed to desert the ship. And then she was gone, taking with her the priceless knowledge that too much of a good thing is never enough.


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