Gods and monsters

I wasn't surprised that "WADD" director Cass Paley and I arrived at the Enzian Theater at almost exactly the same moment Tuesday night. Less than halfway into Florida Film Festival, I realized, I was already thinking of him as some sort of fixture. George Bailey had his Clarence the Angel as a spiritual companion; I had a pornography expert. What was that old saying about water seeking its own level?

Striding up the theater's front walk clad in an extremely loud Hawaiian shirt, Paley was met with the news that ticket sales for the evening's showing of his magnum opus had been brisk, if clandestine. A festival staffer told him that some 70 eager but embarrassed customers had called in their requests for seating at the sophomore engagement of "that movie ... you know."

Yes, ma'am. Two tickets to "The First of May," coming right up.

His film wouldn't be shown for another two-and-a-half hours, so Paley opted to catch a ride to Colonial Promenade, where he was interested in checking out "Shorts #3: Red Eyes & Raw Nerves."

"No matter what you do, you're always looking at someone's shorts," I chided.

Another old/new acquaintance was on hand for the 7 p.m. screening of the documentary "American Hollow." It was actor Rich Williams, who had a personal interest in the film's portrayal of life in the Appalachian mountains. As he had told me at Sunday's student filmmaker party, Williams himself hailed from Kentucky and was hopeful that the movie would render the land of his birth with accuracy.

"I'm liable to see some cousins here," Williams chuckled as he scanned the rapidly filling room. So much for busting stereotypes.

They walk among us

I don't think that even Williams was ready for the family profiled in "American Hollow," a multigenerational clan of the working poor that represented just about the bottom rung on the socioeconomic ladder. He certainly wasn't prepared for the sight of a corpulent cousin -- all beard and beer gut -- whose hillbilly visage suddenly filled the screen.

"Good God, look at that missing link," he drew back, aghast.

What followed was more tragic than comic, however, as the hopeless strivings of an all-but-abandoned people symbolized everything that's both right and extremely wrong with our America. There was an unmistakable dignity to these folk, an ability to find meaning in the humblest of personal achievements that was profoundly moving and revealing. Not that all the trappings of modernity had escaped them: Though running water was at a premium, one member of the brood was dependent on Prozac that was mailed to him from the nearest pharmaceutical facility miles away.

I made a note to take back everything I had implied in a previous column about the imposition of poverty being a white-on-black offensive. Watching "American Hollow" reminded me that anyone can find himself shortchanged by Uncle Sam, regardless of color, age or origin. One of the film's characters was well aware of the crisis, drawing on his own experiences as a recipient of public assistance to deliver a stinging rebuke of the efforts to "reform" (read: eliminate) the welfare system.

"They can't starve everybody to death," he sermonized, "and they can't put everybody to work."

I hear that President Bubba is a big fan of the movies. Maybe we should send him a copy of this one.

Ghosts of the past

After "Hollow" was over, a festival liaison graciously introduced me to George Reyes, the young filmmaker whose short "Cradle" had preceded the feature. His work had been a brief but elegiac ode to elderly Catholic sisters, a black-and-white glimpse into the nuns' day-to-day existence that relied on economical editing and long stretches of silence for its power.

Reyes told me that his eight-minute time limit (and the black-and-white format) had been stipulations of the New York University film school, for whom "Cradle" had been crafted as part of a class assignment. He was justifiably proud of the finished product, as it had given him the chance to pay tribute to two of his old Catholic-school teachers (now the stars of the film), with whom he was able to renew contact after years of absence. He said that he had again leaned on them for support when word came down a few days into the shoot that his mother had suffered an aneurysm. It had all turned out so much better than following his alternate plan: shooting a documentary about a New Jersey condom factory.

That revelation lightened the mood of the evening and provided an appropriate transition into the subsequent "WADD." A diverse audience of thrill-seeking punks and the just plain curious packed the Enzian's rafters for the 9:30 p.m. show, including a mom-and-daughter duo who seated themselves at my table shortly before showtime. Harmless family outings are always so much fun.

Killer clowns

The crowd was clearly primed for a feast of outrageous kitsch, yukking it up at every one of the doc's numerous double entendres and eventually responding to even the straight dialogue as if it was licentiously suggestive. The laughter was so loud and perpetual that a disparaging cry of "Settle down, Beavis" would not only have been ignored, but unheard.

Still, my patience was taxed a bit by the repeated, winking references to the length of star John Holmes' penis that interrupted Paley's otherwise engaging narrative. I knew that the porn king's endowment was central to his story, but 10 minutes of testimonials was a bit much. (Boy, is it difficult for a guy to write something like that without sounding as if he's motivated by simple envy.)

The laughs rightly subsided as the Holmes bio took its inevitable turn toward murder, drug addiction and AIDS-related death. There was nothing funny about what "Johnny Wadd" did to himself and everyone close to him in his later years, and the strength of the film was its illustration of the gradual slide into oblivion that ultimately made Holmes unrecognizable to those who thought they knew him best. How could he have alternately been so many things to so many people -- loving husband, valued friend, feared tormentor and irredeemable turncoat? I think that snorting up half of Peru and taking 50 Valiums a day might have had something to do with it.

No once could accuse Paley of bad habits. As he left the theater, I heard him mention that he'd be taking an obscenely early flight out of Orlando the following morning, off to promote his endeavors in another town. I was suddenly in the market for a new guardian angel. Maybe Reyes knew a nice nun he could introduce me to.

Wednesday's top picks take us to Colonial Promenade for the wonderful Japanese eulogy "After Life" (7 p.m.) and the can't-believe-my-eyes horrorama "The Item" (9:30 p.m.), already a festival cult hit. If you're feeling social, the filmmaker party at the Kit Kat Club gets the schmooze moving at 7:30 p.m.


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