14 March 2003

Florida Film Fest Diary - Entry #5

Tuesday was the day when it all kind of collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. Instead of being a conscientious Film Reporter, I stayed up all night working on this blog and other projects, then collapsed into bed early in the morning and slept right through the Student Workshops. I felt bad about this, but only a little -- I've attended a number of them over the years and to be frank, the work shown is almost universally lousy. Much of it is comprised of truly terrible stuff largely being made by the Full Sail students whose parents paid waaaaaay too much money to get them out of their hair. Too many of these students look to be killing time and cash and seeking an easy way to get laid. These are the groupie-driven rock stars and casting-couch "producers" of tomorrow, folks.

Sure, there are students at Full Sail who are both talented and serious -- I've met quite a few, particularly in the technical stage and recording-engineer areas. These are people who know that the fields they are getting into are low-paying and unglamourous, and as a result tend to be the ones who are really dedicated to the craft. The rest are mostly just bored rich kids with dreams of easy living pushing mediocre crap on the sheep-like public -- the Jethro Bodines of our generation. Heaven save us from their flood of direct-to-video, soft-porn mush.

The UCF kids aren't much better, for much the same reason -- only minus the rich parents. Their efforts tend to fall into one of two categories: either "I have vision and skill, but lack resources!" or "I have no vision and no talent, but I will hide this with pretty girls and/or editing tricks." Sometimes you get lucky and some aspect of the film stands out -- good acting, clever cinematography, solid editing, stellar sound, competent direction. Rarely does it all come together.

I mention this because I actually did see two student films this year (from FSU in Tallahassee of all places!) where it did all come together: great story, great actors, great technical. The only area they fell down on was an obvious lack of budget, but as a longtime Doctor Who fan I can easily overlook wobbly walls and bad makeup if the story and acting are convincing. The first one, Serial Games, would make a terrific horror feature fleshed out to 75 minutes or so. A near-future "parody" of reality TV, an illegal immigrant with dreams of citizenship signs up for a game show where contestants are dropped into a trap house with a real serial killer and must get out alive to "win." The lack of money was painfully apparent on screen, making it look like Manos: The Hands of Fate, but everyone gave it their all and the sheer amount of heart in this picture (not a gross pun there for once) made a difference.

The second, Virgin, was just a breathtakingly good film in almost every respect. Occasionally a bit of "student acting" crept in, and again the lack of money did make itself felt, but this was a really stylish and well-told coming-of-age flick that would make a lousy feature but makes a great short film. The leads were spectacularly good-looking and sincere -- hard to believe in a student film. Great things coming out of FSU these days, I must say. Now if only somebody would give them some freakin' cash.

Another tragedy that happened on Tuesday was that due to extreme fatigue and Heather's illness we were prevented from seeing The General, the 1927 silent Buster Keaton masterpiece, shown on the big (outdoor) screen in Winter Park's Central Park. Hopefully there is a remastered DVD around somewhere to help make up for this, I'm really kicking myself for missing it (I've seen the film before, but decades ago).

Thus, we only caught two films on Tuesday: the intriguing half-hour short Ferry Tales, and the full-length doc Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story.

Ferry Tales features without a doubt the most unusual subject for a documentary I've yet seen: the ladies room on the Staten Island Ferry. Like most ladies' rooms, this one is a world unto itself -- but even with that criteria the Staten Island Ferry's restroom is unique, with women of all ages, colours and lifestyles joining together to form a very cliquish clique that is equal parts hair, makeup and friendship. The uncommon bond that unites these ladies turns the Ladies' Room into a combination hair salon, confessional and psychic hotline. Outsiders must earn their way in, and the toilets are "just for show. You do not use the toilets."

We were privileged to have the film's instigator and music composer, Cassia, answer questions and even seranade us with her version of the film's closing number, complete with accordion.

The main feature, Cul De Sac, purports to be a documentary about a bizarre 1995 incident where a fellow in San Diego went bananas, stole a tank and for about half an hour rampaged around suburban SD destroying tons of cars and trailers but miraculously hurting nobody other than himself. What the film really is, is a warning like a huge red toxic-chemical sticker: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PEOPLE DON'T MOVE TO SAN DIEGO!! STAY AWAY!! UNCLEAN!!

In a convoluted and overly-complicated attempt to show us what drove Shaun Nelson, an unemployed plumber, ex-Desert Storm soldier and frequent methamphetamine abuser (which is, you will be shocked to discover, roughly the generic description of all males between 30 and 50 in this town) to go beserk, filmmaker Garrett Scott goes back to the founding of San Diego as a dumping ground for returning vets in WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. For a while the plan worked -- cheap housing, good jobs (in the defense industry), great weather. But the traumas of war drove the soldiers to booze, and the plant closings in the 70s were the straw that broke the camel's back. Many men (mostly the Vietnam vets) turned to "crystal meth" -- which many of them had been given by the gov't during the way -- as a way to cope. Freakouts similar to but usually less bizarre than Nelson's are actually rather commonplace in San Diego.

Along the way we meet and fear Nelson's drugged-out, brain-damaged family, friends and neighbours. You haven't seen a group this scary since the 1994 Republican Congress, and these older visions of Beavis and Butthead will put you off the idea of ever visiting San Diego faster than you can say "Duuuuude!"

The backstory supplemented with simply astonishing footage from the local news stations (including a prolonged interview with the burnout loser roommate who shows off the 25-foot mineshaft Nelson had dug in his backyard looking for gold) make for a riveting if hard-to-follow tale. In part this was due to the drugginess of the moron neighbors, who kept saying things like "he said he was gonna steal a tank and destroy stuff, but I didn't believe it", and part because of the incredibly awful sound which made some of the testimonials impossible to understand. In the Q&A following the movie, the filmmaker apologised for the poor sound but didn't make it sound like it was the projection of the film which was at fault, which makes me wonder if the film is broadcastable/sellable as is if the sound is really that bad.

Over the ongoing chant of people saying what a "good man" Nelson was (he was killed by a policeman inside the tank, again shown in a breathtaking climax to the news-station footage), the unfocused and wandering nature of the narrative starts to annoy after a while, but when you have a story this rich and neighbors that make the Osbournes look coherent and erudite, it's hard to go completely wrong. If this plays at a festival near you, go see it -- unless you're in San Diego. Get the hell out of there!!

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