The harsh light of reality shines through some of the most notable entries in this year's edition of the Florida Film Festival, betraying a marked emphasis on the documentary approach that speaks volumes about what we expect from film and what we think of ourselves.
It's no surprise that the "you are there" doctrine appears to have taken hold of the imaginations of the new breed of filmmakers. Having been informed by the breakthrough success of such works of 35mm journalism as "Roger and Me" and "The Thin Blue Line," and having witnessed the explosion of "reality television" in the interim, they're all too happy to go on with the Truman Show. At the same time, the traditional narrative has received less than its fair share of their attention (even the Festival's opening-night feature, the undeniably charming A Merry War (7:30 p.m. June 12 at Enzian), isn't a new tale, but an adaptation of George Orwell's 1936 novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying").
What's particularly encouraging, however, is the surfeit of films available to Festival-goers that effectively cross-pollinate fiction with nonfiction. Some of the best employ documentary tools in a narrative context, using the raw elements of "real life" to tell stories as cohesive and illuminating as those of conventional dramas or comedies.
The agenda is obvious in Unmade Beds (9:30 p.m. June 15 at Enzian, 7:15 p.m. June 16 at Colonial Promenade), a faux documentary that follows four fictitious lonely hearts searching for love in the personal ads. The frustrated singles share their tales of romantic woe via simple, talking-head narration, with supporting footage restricted to shots that could only have been obtained under "natural" conditions. The slightly stagy performances are the only clue that what we're watching isn't 100 percent factual, but the resemblance of the characters to our own friends and loved ones makes the story feel immediate and personal.
Director Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 (7 p.m. June 14 at Colonial Promenade) takes the opposite tack, framing the misadventures of a troubled ex-convict and his youthful kidnap victim in a heightened, super-real visual style. Their oddly lit, wide-angle world resembles an eerie fishbowl, with the always mesmerizing Christina Ricci staring, catlike, through the other side. There's even a climactic tableau that attempts to top "Taxi Driver" in its audacity. The otherworldliness of the cinematography, however, is balanced by the true grit of the screenplay, a portrait of suburban angst and family crisis that would be at home as the lead story of any sensationalist local newscast.
At least two more narrative entries rely on timely subject matter, although they eschew stylized imagery in favor of folksy authenticity. Sloppy editing doesn't detract from the British-made Home Town (10 p.m. June 19 at Enzian, 12:30 p.m. June 21 at Colonial Promenade), a thoughtfully structured story of a Northwestern fishing community more scandalized by the devil-may-care promiscuity of a young Dutch transplant than its own racial disharmony. Rural Pennsylvania is the setting for the well-acted Harvest (5 p.m. June 16 at Enzian, 7:30 p.m. June 18 at Colonial Promenade), in which beaten farmers turn to raising marijuana as a last-ditch effort to save their family businesses. The drama plays out with all of the moves of a classic mystery, but the content is pure "Dateline NBC," minus the blacked-out faces and disguised voices.
For a bracing dose of true documentary, don't be put off by the sleazier aspects of Whipped (midnight June 19 at Enzian), a grainy exposé of the seamy underworld of sadomasochism. More of a character study than an exercise in exploitation, director Sasha Waters' film profiles a trio of dominatrixes, who defend theirs as a misunderstood but nonetheless pure way of loving. The striking, fly-on-the-dungeon-wall footage, however, reveals the committed sadists to be every bit the control-obsessed lost souls that any armchair psychologist would surmise.
Another fictive work masquerading as a doc, The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati (2:45 p.m. June 21 at Colonial Promenade), compiles the monologues of British playwright Alan Williams. Williams plays "The Captain," a mysterious resident of Windsor, Ontario, who allows a husband-and-wife team of camcorder-toting, junior Spielbergs to record his acerbic observations of modern life. Dripping with alienation and disillusionment, Williams' rapid-fire sermons recall the best of Spalding Gray, though they replace Gray's trademark introspection and self-doubt with high-octane sarcasm. Midway through the film, the connection is made obvious, as The Captain allows himself to be shot on a set that's a little too reminiscent of the one in Gray's own "Swimming to Cambodia." It's an amusingly inappropriate environment for such an irrepressible gadfly.
The satiric bent is even stronger in who's the caboose? (9:30 p.m. June 18 at Cinemark Movies 12, midnight June 20 at Colonial Promenade), a "This is Spinal Tap" for the television industry. Yet another film crew follows a group of hopeful actors to Hollywood, where "pilot season" holds the promise of lucrative roles in the coming autumn's sitcoms. As the competition becomes more fierce, loyalties disappear overnight, setting the stage for a hilarious indictment of Tinseltown backstabbing. A cast of familiar faces from the worlds of Comedy Central and "VH-1 Stand-up Spotlight" adds an extra level of wit, as the struggles of the nearly famous are lent weight by our dim recognition of the not-quite-stars portraying them.
There's little time for humor in A Letter Without Words (4:30 p.m. June 14 at Enzian, 4:15 p.m. June 19 at Colonial Promenade), an involving pastiche of images of Germany in the years leading up to World War II. Filmmaker Lisa Lewenz shares co-director credit with her late grandmother, Ella, whose home movies of the ascendant Nazi regime are the fulcrum for an inquisition into mob mentality and Jewish identity. Supporting the archival material are newly shot scenes of the Germany of today, a landscape haunted by the ghosts of its banished former tenants.
The stakes are lower but the drama is higher in SlamNation (9:30 p.m. June 13 and 2 p.m. June 18 at Enzian), an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of the surprisingly cutthroat world of spoken-word poetry. Teams of performance artists from cities across the nation converge on Portland, Ore., for the annual "Poetry Slam," pitting locale against locale in a pitched battle for the coveted national title. Director Paul Devlin, a veteran of the ESPN2 sports network, puts his well-honed talents to impressive use, demonstrating the winning fever that makes the supposedly high-minded venture an all-American contest on a par with the Super Bowl or the World Series (any parallel to the concept of the film festival itself is yours to draw). The performed works range from astonishing to pedestrian, but the trade-off between art and self-advancement has seldom been rendered on screen with such assured ferocity.
The real thrill of "SlamNation" is the realization that it plays by all of the rules of the documentary, yet still adheres to the finest traditions of the storyteller's art. At its heart, it's an old-fashioned conflict between protagonists and antagonists, though which of the featured poets fits into which category is up to you. See it any way you choose . . . but see it.
A mere handful of the above offerings is sufficient to renew one's faith in the cinema's Promethean ability to bring animated onscreen life to the clay of daily existence. But even if their contents somehow fail to affect the hardest-hearted Festival attendees, all will be shaken by The Race to Save 100 Years 8:30 p.m. June 21 at Enzian), an eye-opening reminder of the fragility of film as a cultural document. This revelatory feature shows us scratchy, faded clips from epics of the past, then sets them in split-screen with their pristine, newly restored versions, to demonstrate just how much constant care has been required to prevent them from being lost to the mists of time. That salvation, we learn, has not been visited upon as many classics as we might have thought: A heartbreaking list of missing films is flashed before our eyes. The final blow is the almost casual observation that independent productions are the most prone to extinction, as their creators lack the resources to ensure their preservation.
It's a sobering thought to take home from an event that celebrates the viability of film as art. A night of memories lasts only one lifetime, but a good print is our legacy forever..
For a complete listing of Florida Film Festival events, search the Calendar.
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