Balancing the scales 

Before the shark started grabbing all of his press, the alligator was Florida's favorite misunderstood man-muncher. The fear of the mighty-jawed reptile -- and conservationists' fears for him -- get a fresh airing in "Gator Wild," a segment of the "National Geographic Explorer" series to be broadcast at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 6, on the MSNBC TV network.

Written and produced by accomplished photographer and filmmaker (and Daytona Beach Community College professor) Eric Breitenbach, the 30-minute "Gator Wild" is a brief but fun rundown of the concerns that inevitably crop up when the habitats of humans and potentially dangerous creatures overlap. The program uses interview segments, live-action hunting footage and re-enactments of harrowing man-on-beast encounters to examine the dynamics of a fragile interspecies relationship. Neither an animal-rights tract nor an advertisement for the luggage industry, the documentary enumerates the factors -- from drought to development -- that bring our species into contact with theirs. It's all done in the hope that a slick piece of edutainment can help the Floridian and the gator coexist as friends. (Wait a minute ... isn't that the plot of "Oklahoma?")

"My take on the alligator is that it's a leftover dinosaur that nobody really knows what to do with," Breitenbach says. "It's amazing to me to see the ways in which different people approach and handle them."

Consider Bobby Collins, an alligator trapper shown in "Gator Wild," who has found a full-time job in assuaging the anguish that comes with scaly home invasion. When a belly-crawler comes too close to the human population for comfort, the call goes out for Collins, who either removes the critter or (more often) placates the complainants with gentle, gators-don't-bother-ya-none wisdom.

Breitenbach and his cinematographer, the locally based, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Ben Van Hook, have captured some exemplary close-up footage of the animals in action. One ground-level shot of an alligator jumping straight at the camera will have your insides bouncing around like raw chickens during feeding time at Gatorland -- which is where the "Gator Wild" creative staff turned for reptilian talent and animal-wrangling services.

The program is a high-speed montage of material shot in a variety of formats, from digital video to Super 8 film. (Tape the episode if you can; the filmmaking technique is so far up front that you may need a second viewing to fully ingest the content.) The quick-cutting approach, Breitenbach says, is an appeal to the sensibilities of the MTV generation; on a personal level, it's a chance to update the thrust of "The ALLIGATOR Book," a similarly themed, 16 mm doc he made that was broadcast on WMFE-TV Channel 24 in 1994.

"It's a pretty lame film in some ways," Breitenbach says of "Book." "I like the story, but it's not much to look at."

That self-financed project took five years to complete; "Gator Wild" was finished in nine weeks, thanks to a "National Geographic"-provided crew of photographers and filmmakers Breitenbach hails as among the best in the world.

Breitenbach was recommended for the project by one of his former students, now a producer at "Explorer." He says he would like to do more work for the series -- even if the current product doesn't totally convey his own ideology.

"If I had to end up on one side, it would probably be with the anti-hunting people," he reveals. "We could have been much more political, but it's not the "National Geographic" way."

A cut above

Before Breitenbach and Van Hook took the "Explorer" assignment, they shot the "Bigfoot" episode of Haxan Films' never-aired "In Search Of" TV series. They were so impressed by the work of their editor on that episode, Michael Cronin, that they directed their "Gator Wild" editor, Cindy Kuhn, to cut the show in Cronin's style.

Cronin also edited "My Father's Son," the feature documentary Breitenbach and Van Hook have been working on for the last few years. The film, an affecting portrait of one of Orlando's homeless-by-choice citizens, was shown as a work-in-progress at the 2000 Florida Film Festival at Enzian Theater. The full, finished version is a contender to debut at this year's festival (June 7 through 16) -- should the selections gods so decree.

The big Oops

What kind of week was it for the upcoming Orlando International Fringe Festival? "Bad" doesn't even begin to cover it. First, the economically embattled festival lost a veritable warehouse of its belongings in a freak fire that consumed the Bryan Hotel on West Church Street, where the Fringe had stored goods since 1998. Gone are the festival's master schedule, podiums, air tubes, cash registers, cash trays and a collection of other items that wouldn't have brought much money on the resale market but won't be cheap to replace.

A few days later, the OOPS! Guys comedy troupe -- always a big draw at the Fringe -- announced that they were dropping out of this year's lineup. Writer/ actors Fiely Matias and Dennis T. Giacino explained that they needed more time to prepare their next show, "Now That's What I Call Exploitation!," for performances later this year in Australia and (perhaps) Palm Springs. The new revue, they decided, just wouldn't be ready for its announced Orlando debut, and they didn't feel it would be fair to reprise one of their previous extravaganzas in its place.

The dropout came as quite the shock, especially as the OOPSters had finally secured performance space this year at SAK Comedy Lab, the largest and most desirable of the festival's venues. Chris Gibson, the festival's executive producer, expresses disappointment tempered with admiration.

"You've got to respect a company that won't put a product out that isn't up to their own standards," he says.

At press time, Gibson planned to fill the now-empty SAK spot by holding a reprise of the public lottery that put the OOPS Guys in the venue in the first place. The twin setbacks, he says, do not threaten to scuttle this year's festival outright, but they cast a further pall over an event he says is "desperate" for funds and having "a miserable time" securing cash sponsorships.

Concerned parties have been calling Gibson to volunteer their services and/or make small monetary donations. To get on the bandwagon, phone (407) 648-0077.

Giacino and Matias say they will be back for Fringe 2003. I don't mind waiting a bit longer for my "Exploitation," but I bet they could work miracles with the title/ concept "The OOPS Guys Pull Out!"

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