Playing hooky

A good number of Orlando folk must have called in sick for work Wednesday afternoon. I know because I saw them at the Enzian Theater, milling about at the suspiciously early hour of 1 p.m. as they awaited the Florida Film Festival's reprise showing of "Shorts #4: Monsters and Angels."

The attendance was on a par with at least two of last weekend's screenings, and the realization that so many members of the workforce could take leave from their hump-day duties just to go to the movies almost made me fear for our local economy. Then again, I wasn't exactly sitting at home filling out tax returns, either.

Wonder turned to amusement as soon as I was inside. To effect an introduction, the older woman sitting to my left unexpectedly grasped my arm and declared, "I'm dating a mortician. I call him Mort."

These shorts programs draw all kinds. Sidestepping the conversational path she had laid down, I asked what had brought her out to the show, and which of its eight featured films she was most interested in seeing.

I had to suppress my laughter when she replied that she was there to see "The Meeting," whose star, Rich Williams, she counted as a personal friend. Seated at the front of the room, Williams was oblivious to our conversation. I decided not to mention the exchange the next time I spoke with him.

Director Ben Rock was in the audience as well, along with girlfriend Alicia Conway, who had served as art director on the project. Their presence (and the film's sidesplitting satire) resulted in a strong reception for "The Meeting." But the afternoon favorite was "Peep Show," a perfectly tuned piece of sexual parody. In it, an affection-starved young woman spent her last pennies on the distaff version of an adults-only performance. Two hunks behind glass enticed her with promises of cuddling, shared crafts classes and flowers delivered for no reason in particular. The payoff -- the sensitive inquiry "Have you lost weight?" -- provoked a suitably orgasmic reaction.

The spot-on lampoon was a bit lost on my new friend, who turned to me and probed, "Have you ever been to a peep show? Is that what they're like?" She seemed offended when I wasn't ready with a quick reply. Maybe I should have agreed to tell her -- but only if she paid me first.

The school bell rings

The informational flow was smoother later in the afternoon at Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar, where industry expert Mark Stolaroff led a highly successful seminar in the methods and procedures of "ultralow-budget" filmmaking. As a representative of Next Wave Films (an autonomous branch of the Independent Film Channel ), Stolaroff said he spent his time providing finishing funds to worthy producers and directors. His tips for first-timers were useful and well presented, including his admonition to build scripts around available resources. Why lock oneself into expensive, elaborate shoots when it was so much more sensible to write humbly and affordably?

A prime example was "Following," the Next Wave venture that was among the festival's top offerings. According to Stolaroff, director Chris Nolan had only been able to film on weekends, extending the production process over the better part of a year and posing serious problems on the continuity front. In the course of 12 months, actors alter their personal appearances, locations change and it becomes harder to keep small details consistent.

Nolan's solution, Stolaroff said, was a nonlinear script that jumped back in forth in time and thus made minor variations less glaring. That inventive story structure is "Following's" major artistic virtue, and I was impressed to learn it had been born out of necessity, not fancy.

Despite the rain that was falling down outside, every seat was occupied for the invaluable learning session. The attending auteurs seemed to view it as a godsend, listening attentively to every word and posing some similarly thoughtful questions when the lecturer finished his presentation.

Even the T.G.I. Fridays waiter I had met last Saturday night was there, in search of guidance that would help speed his own work to the screen. He had brought along his producing partner, an affable festival volunteer and aspiring actor who had played Ted "Theodore" Logan in the "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" stage show at Universal Studios Florida.

As the confab broke up, I asked the two of them if they had gotten anything out of it.

"We learned a lot," they answered. "We're going to go home and burn the script." I knew they were kidding when they detailed their plan B: an 11th-hour story change that would make room for cameo appearances by "today's hottest bands."

Better act quickly, boys. The Offspring may not have the same haircuts a year down the road.

Prom night

After a 30-minute break, the action shifted next door to the Kit Kat Club, where the official filmmakers' party brought visiting cinematic dignitaries together for a low-pressure evening of socializing and networking. Animator Bill Plympton held court in the leopard-lined back room; a few seats down from him sat John Roy Morgan, the cinematographer whose visually stunning short, "An I Within," had already won the festival's Kodak Award.

It was my first chance to meet with Katya Bankowsky, director of the eminently watchable documentary "Shadow Boxers." Bankowsky knew a thing or two about the women of the ring, having spent some time as a boxer herself before electing to capture their experiences in her full-length filmmaking debut.

Though she now restricted herself to recreational sparring, Bankowsky was still a formidable mass of sinewed muscle and taut skin. Her social graces were equally toned, and we spent a great deal of time discussing her theories of athletic motivation and female empowerment. She was open and pleasant to a fault, and I regarded her all the more highly for displaying not the slightest interest in kicking my ass.

Oh, and Cass Paley was there, too. His pressing meetings in Los Angeles had been canceled, so the director of "WADD" had opted to stay in Orlando another day. That was his story, anyway. I suspected he just didn't want to pass up a good party. Maybe he called in sick like everybody else.

Thursday at Enzian, Gena Rowlands arrives for a screening of her Unhook the Stars and a tete-a-tete with star-struck fans (7 p.m.). Colonial Promenade's schedule is highlighted by the 9:45 pm showing of The Corndog Man, a psychological thriller that'll make you think twice about how much you really need a business phone.


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