War stories

A table full of bleary-eyed directors outside the Enzian Theater was the surest sign that Thursday's Florida Film Festival events would adhere to a conservative pace. The previous night's filmmaker party had lasted into the wee hours, reportedly shifting from the Kit Kat Club to Winter Park's Langford Resort Hotel and eventually culminating at collegiate watering hole Fiddler's Green. With that much of a commitment made to overtime carousing, I was surprised to hear that Krystal burgers hadn't been the final stop.

At least the audience was wide awake. Familiar faces were in abundance at the 2 p.m. screening of "Return with Honor," renewing my fascination with the obviously malleable schedules of hard-core FFF supporters. One of them was a lawyer I had met before, a terminally excited cinema buff who seemed intent on taking in every film on the roster. Now I knew why: She told me she had used up a week's worth of vacation time to devote her full energies to the festival. A woman sitting in front of us acknowledged that she had done the same thing.

Avoiding the draft

They were more enthusiastic than I was about viewing "Return with Honor," a Vietnam-era documentary I had been all but coerced into seeing. Its word-of-mouth was irresistible, but war films of any stripe are generally not my taste. And I had been put off by the involvement of Tom Hanks as the film's leading proponent and "presenter." Hanks is a fine actor, but his recent penchant for attaching his name to any project that concerned itself with soldiers or astronauts had struck me as a case of a grown man playing G.I. Joe.

"Return" was no Smilin' Jack vehicle, relying instead on the testimonials of former POWs to provide a firsthand account of the nightmare of captivity. Actual footage shot by the Viet Cong reinforced their tales of torture and humiliation, drawing a stark contrast between the walking-dead prisoners they had once been and the healthy but still haunted older men they had become.

Though promotional materials had trumpeted the film's "unbiased" view of the Vietnam conflict, what I saw still betrayed uncomfortable traces of a right-wing agenda. There's no such thing as a completely objective film -- not even a documentary -- and "Honor" was craftily subtle in its attempts to discredit the antiwar protesters of the 1960s and tout the moral superiority of U.S. military initiatives. It wasn't all over the screen, but it was there nonetheless.

The doc was more genuinely affecting when it focused on the brutalities the men had endured, decimating the stereotype of the unbreakable Yank who volunteers nothing more than his name, rank and serial number. All of the vets appeared to agree that terror tactics work not because some victims eventually crack, but because every one will if pushed far enough. Where on the curve that point rests, they said, depended entirely on the individual.

"Pain may cleanse," one of the tougher interviewees philosophized, "but by God, it also hurts."

Court martialed

Torture of another breed was the subject of "Nothing But the Truth," the documentary about the O.J. Simpson civil trial that was to follow. Maybe it was the fearsome rainstorm outside, but the turnout for "Truth" was lighter than any I had seen all week. "People are sick of O.J." was the explanation I was offered, but that wasn't the reason I elected to skip the screening myself. As one of the only United States citizens still not fed up with the Simpson story, I should have been first in line.

But I had made the mistake of watching the film two weeks earlier and had been turned off by its flippant tone and opportunistic air. Director Mark Steven Shepherd had secured some interesting footage from his daily vantage point outside the courtroom, where a parade of misguided crusaders and plain old vultures had engaged in regular (and fruitless) debate about the football hero's guilt or innocence. Too bad, then, that Shepherd couldn't refrain from injecting himself into the story, prefacing the film with an obnoxious biographical montage in which he crowed about his own proximity to the civil proceedings. To me, he was just as much of a ghoul as any of the placard-holding ideologues he sought to expose.

Instead of watching the substandard "Truth" one more time, I sat down with Bette Gordon, director of the competition feature "Luminous Motion." Gordon had arrived in Orlando to find her work the target of serious controversy, nominated for the festival's Kodak Cinematography Award but denigrated by some viewers and reviewers (though not this one) for its supposedly bleak content.

Gordon was mostly unfazed by the charges, bemoaning the saturation of the independent market with films that were "obviously not challenging" and admitting that she had "always been a bit of an anarchist." We agreed that most of the objections had been focused on the young mother depicted in "Luminous Motion," a prostitute and thief who took her prepubescent son along on her cross-country spree in order to keep him out of the clutches of the boy's control-obsessed father. It was a single-mom story too atypical for many to accept, and the brickbats struck both of us as pretty reactionary for an allegedly progressive indie audience.

"I call it 'an amoral tale for the end of the millennium,'" Gordon grandly intoned, as her own daughter curled up next to her to go to sleep.

Roll call

The rain didn't let up, but also didn't stop a huge crowd of mostly older patrons from arriving for the 7 p.m. appearance by legendary actress Gena Rowlands. Led to the Enzian stage to introduce a representative sample of her work -- 1996's "Unhook the Stars" -- Rowlands looked relaxed and in good humor.

"I hope you like it," she said of the drama. "You can throw shoes if you don't. I can take it." I had seen "Gloria"; I knew she could take it. Written and directed by her son Nick Cassavetes, "Unhook the Stars" was a serviceable showcase for Rowlands' talents. In it, she played a widow forced to choose between the needs of her grown children and a blossoming awareness of her potential for self-actualization. The dialogue was only intermittently clever, the acting inconsistent. Rowlands' performance was by far the highlight, striking funny and poignant notes with typical ease. I have to admire anyone who can best a script that subjects her to the twin punishments of sharing scenes with Marisa Tomei and kissing Gerard Depardieu.


The Q&A that followed was brief but satisfying, with the star responding to some highly informed (and a few less informed) queries. Listening to her crack off-the-cuff witticisms and occasionally break out into a hearty, throaty cackle, I was happy to learn that Gena Rowlands is ... well, Gena Rowlands.

The best question came from a middle-aged guy who, inspired by the film's message of spiritual rebirth, requested some advice from the stage that might get him through his own times of upheaval. At first, no one in the room could quite figure out what he was getting at. "I'm just asking you for the secret of life, that's all," he finally dead-panned.

Everyone laughed, but Rowlands wasn't joking. "Sometimes life is thrillingly easy," she carefully instructed, "and sometimes you just have to stand there and take it."

Rowlands was headed for the adjoining Nicole St. Pierre restaurant as I made my way out to the parking lot. Afforded a short introduction, I merely thanked her -- on behalf of anyone who ever stood there and took it.

Friday at Enzian, the closing weekend of the Florida Film festival gets underway with the program everyone's waiting for: the 6:45 p.m. appearance of actor Christopher Walken. In related news, a mysterious "special guest" has been announced for the 5 p.m. "Twilight Zone Happy Hour" at the Langford Resort Hotel. The smart money says it's Walken; get there early, just in case.

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