Something had apparently gone horribly wrong during the "Women on the Edge" shorts program Thursday night at the Central Florida Film & Video Festival. As I took my seat for the 7:40 p.m. showing of "The Band," a festival emissary was breaking the news to a pair of disappointed attendees that the aborted "Natalie Merchant's Ophelia" would not be rescreened, and that they would be given rain-check tickets instead.
But as soon as the words had left her lips, the extended music video began playing on the Fashion Village screen, causing the excited duo to flick its Bics in mock concert salute. I honestly didn't understand what the fuss was about. Since when has the perennially laid-back queen of VH1 been a woman on the edge of anything, except perhaps narcolepsy?
Twenty-two minutes later, I still had no clue. "Ophelia" was a glorified promotional clip that boasted no filmmaking techniques anywhere beyond the pale of the medium's past accomplishments. Dressed and made up in the guises of seven fictional women of the early 20th century, Merchant displayed none of the chameleonic ability to convincingly take on new identities that once made David Bowie such a pioneer of theatrical pop. She wasn't acting, she was merely play-acting. I was even ready to give her grudging credit for the flawless German dialect she employed in one segment, but when the end credits rolled, it was revealed that the voices of each of her foreign characters had been dubbed by a different actress of the appropriate ethnic background. Meryl Streep she isn't.
We were already running late, so "La Americana," the short used as an intro to "The Band," followed almost immediately. Its concept at first seemed promising, if not entirely unique: Take a camera across America's highways and byways, stopping to record landmarks of kitsch -- oversized dinosaurs, motel units shaped liked teepees -- along the way. But there were too few individual stories to add up to much of a statement, and the producers were intent on imposing a philosophical framework the material couldn't really support. At one point, an off-screen voice asked an interview subject, "What do you think a doughnut shop like this says about America?" Between this film, "Remarkable's" spoon-fed narration and a few conversations I've had in the past week with budding auteurs, I'm beginning to think that the new school of filmmakers is desperately afraid that even the most meager of its insights may go over its audience's head.
I hadn't been too excited about sitting through "The Band," either. What entertainment value could be found in a documentary about a high-school marching band, and one essayed by one of the musicians' proud papas to boot? As a member of the school's football team puts it in the film, when he learns that its focus will not be on his squad but its providers of accompaniment, "What it gonna be? ‘Band Thugs 'n Harmony?'"
Boy, were both of us wrong. "The Band" is simply the most gripping, moving piece of work I've seen since the festival began. In a supreme act of love, director David Zeiger follows his son Danny through his junior year, training the camera on the boy and his friends to capture for posterity the triumphs and tragedies of their complicated adolescence.
All of the archetypes are here: The black kids and the white kids. The horny junior boys and the star-struck freshman girls. The children of divorce. The teens with Attention Deficit Disorder. The anorexia case. It could almost be the cast of an episode of "Geraldo," except that these children aren't sent away in shame after an hour of sensationalistic manipulation. Instead, they're allowed to open up to Zeiger about anything and everything that truly affects them, and their revelations inspire any of us who've had the privilege of living and working with teen-agers to shed tears of proud recognition. Given the opportunity to speak for themselves, they prove more intelligent (and a hell of a lot less frightening) than the roles their society often casts for them would indicate.
If there's any justice, this film will be a monster art-house hit a year from now. National magazines will treat it as the phenomenon it is, debating its implications in their pages. Second-guessing Zeiger's motives will be a key element of the discussion. Did he make the film he did out of a pure need for understanding? Was it a nostalgic stab at recovering his own lost youth? Or was it an attempt to exorcise the ghost of his first son, who we learn died of a stroke at age 9?
To me, the answer is simpler, and revealed in a voice-over early in the film. His son's face filling the screen, Zeiger tries to come to grips with the fleeting nature of their days together. "Danny is 16," he narrates. "A couple of years ago, he was 6."
Adjusting its band uniform and waiting for its drum cue, time fixes its gaze on the football field and does the only thing it knows how to do: It marches on.
Friday on your mind: Family values of a different sort are explored as the festival presents "Stolen Heart" (9:30 p.m. at Fashion Village 8), in which a woman's kidnapping of a young girl turns out to have a deeply personal motivation. In the midnight hour, the mood lightens a bit with "Planet of the Apes," the science-fiction classic that pits astronaut Charlton Heston against a race of simians far more dangerous than Curious George.
For a festival overview, read Steve Schneider's preview story.