The pictures got big

First, the bad news: Attempts to infuse the second and last weekend of this year's Florida Film Festival with celebrity star power were pretty much of a botch. Now for the good news: It didn't make one whit of difference.

Yes, disappointment ran deep that actor Robert Loggia pulled out of his engagement as Thursday's special guest, only to be replaced by ... well, no one. And the following night's tête-à-tête with indie-cinema mainstay Rosanna Arquette was, frankly, uneventful. But by the time staffers took the stage Sunday at Maitland's Enzian Theater, heralding the festival-closing "Sunset Boulevard" with a chorus of popping champagne corks, it was obvious that the FFF has come into its own as a self-sufficient showcase of good movies and the people who love them.

Box-office numbers remained robust throughout the three-day wrap-up, making the Arquette session merely one among many popular programs. As a sample of her work, the actress brought along a copy of "I'm Losing You," a little-seen 1998 drama written and directed by "Wild Palms" creator Bruce Wagner. A choppily plotted but incisive portrait of Hollywood society, the film was far more illuminating than the Q&A that followed.

Maybe Arquette was tired (she was simultaneously shooting a new Alison Anders picture in Cocoa Beach). Maybe interviewer Rich Grula's conversational approach left insufficient room for her to break free of her naturally reserved demeanor. Or perhaps, as another actress once said, there was just no "there" there.

To her credit, Arquette was admirably patient with an overexcited fan who kept shouting out unsolicited non sequiturs. "I saw your father on 'Hollywood Squares!'" he enthused, unaware that he was actually referring to her grandfather, Charley Weaver. Later, he posed an absolutely impenetrable question that had something to do with the Dragoncon science-fiction convention, the "Lost in Space" TV series and the pitfalls of working with monkeys.

"I hear ya," Arquette indulged him, restraining herself from eyeing the exits.

Speak no evil

If she left the Enzian suspecting that Orlando is overrun with unhinged primatologists, Arquette didn't show it the next evening, when she arrived at Universal Studios' Soundstage 33 for the festival's awards gala. As she waited to receive an Artistic Achievement Award in Acting, Arquette lauded the Florida festival as a "very nice, very low-key" affair.

Lord only knows what she made of the ceremony itself, in which mismatched co-hosts Peter Rocchio and Anne Deason traded woefully awkward, occasionally suggestive banter that made the assembled filmmakers and patrons squirm in their seats. But it was worth the discomfort to see director Arlene Donnelly win an Audience Award for her terrific documentary, "Naked States." Donnelly had been my new hero since Thursday, when she told an Enzian audience that she had barred her film's controversial central character, photographer Spencer Tunick, from the editing room while she was assembling her final cut. In retaining total responsibility for her work, Donnelly resisted a disturbing trend at this year's festival, in which at least two documentaries ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles") were marred by their creators' willingness to share the reins of control with their subjects.

"If you don't maintain objectivity, it's not a documentary," Donnelly said shortly after the ceremony ended. "I showed the good, the bad and the ugly."

Mechanically inclined

The most invigorating presentation of the weekend, however, came neither from a visiting silver-screen star nor an award-winning auteur. Shortly before noon on Saturday, a panel of forward-thinking media theorists (including Haxan Films' Michael Monello and New York writer/moviemaker Amy Talkington) convened at Enzian for a preview of Joe's Garage, a locally based Internet domain that will push the boundaries of interactive storytelling. Talkington screened "The New Arrival," a short of hers that's currently featured at Able to be viewed from any angle within a complete 360-degree spectrum, the film allows web surfers unprecedented command of their visual stimulus. (Think of it as a cyberspace cousin to Walt Disney World's old Circlevision 360, but with mouse clicks in the place of stiff necks.)

That milestone, we were told, is the sort of user-friendly fodder that will be available at Joe's Garage. Though the collaborative project is steeped in esoterica at the moment, those who turned out for the think-tank rap session may have stumbled onto an undertaking that will soon do for hard drives what "The Blair Witch Project" did for the video lens.

In the meantime, good old celluloid has nothing to fear. Sunday's final festivities at Enzian saw sell-out or near-sell-out crowds lining up for repeat showings of the international and animated shorts programs, the Christopher Walken vehicle "The Opportunists" and the aforementioned "Sunset Boulevard." Without an Arquette or a Loggia in sight, the faithful showed no hesitation in throwing their dollars behind the festival's longstanding credo, "Film is Art." As Nancy Olson's Betty says in Sunset, "What's wrong with being on the other side of the cameras? It's really more fun."

More fun, in fact, than a barrel of monkeys.

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