11,000 Minutes

How do you measure a film festival? Frame by frame.

This is from Bill Plympton, creator of Hair High, a Carrie-meets-Grease animated gothic comedy:

"There can never be enough film festivals. It's a great way to meet your audience and travel the world."

Let 'em rip, eh? Roll out the red carpets, invite the movie fanatics in (at $8 a shot), set the projectors in motion, and then hobnob into the night with the production crowd over canapés and distilled spirits. All of this with a free hotel room and an airline ticket. C'est magnifique.

Of course, Plympton speaks from pampered experience. His own recent oeuvre -- including a couple of shorts -- has been booked into 21 festivals between mid-September and late November. Plympton himself is scheduled to make appearances at ten of them, including a ten-day junket in Sitges, Spain, and, on November 8, a cameo for the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

That's right. Fort Lauderdale. Once again, it's Broward County's season of film. FLIFF moves into South Florida like a huge weather front, running from October 14 through November 20, and Plympton and dozens of other filmmakers are coming to town. FLIFF bills itself -- proudly -- as the longest film festival in the world. If you add up the total number of minutes occupied by this year's 200 films, you'll calculate a number well surpassing 11,000. For hearty folks with speed-induced fantasies of screening all of the films end-on-end, that would mean almost eight days of continuous movie-watching, 24 hours a day, and a probable case of terminal cinema fatigue.

Even while your neighborhood CVS restocks post-Halloween shelves with Thanksgiving turkey salt-and-pepper shakers and dancing Santas, FLIFF will still be selling tickets.

Every year, New Times uses words to try to give the sprawling festival a definition that its creators can't. Last year, we said that if the festival keeps growing, "it may blot out the sun." In 2003, we called it "cinematic sprawl."

And still, it keeps growing and growing and growing.

Take heart, though. The folks at FLIFF -- who diligently work year-round planning the festival and other cinematic series with an epicenter at downtown Fort Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso -- seem finally to be coming to their senses. "This may be our biggest effort ever," FLIFF President Gregory Von Hausch says. He also concedes that FLIFF's future may actually look a bit smaller.

Because of minifestivals and year-round programming, Cinema Paradiso may not be available for a month and a half of FLIFF fare.

When it comes to one of the much-acclaimed purposes of a "film festival" -- to create an alternative movie community -- Cinema Paradiso is, of course, already there. With its thick drapes covering stained-glass windows to keep out the sun and keep in the sin, Paradiso is already Lauderdale's church of film and a fine place to put your feet up on fuzzy blue stadium seats as you pray some celluloid prayers. It's also nacho-free, by the way.


FLIFF opens with The Matador, a comedy starring Pierce Brosnan as a former hit man. The closing-night film is Berkeley, a sort of Big Chill prequel about America in 1968, a year that, even though it was a high mark for social turmoil, is one we all wished we had experienced.

Given the length of this year's festival, it may be wise to pick a team just to get by. There are tons of shorts and documentaries, if that's your thing. As for features, you might consider organizing them into handy categories. To help you get started, here are some thematic suggestions:

Crossed Paths: Hawaii, Oslo; What's Bugging Seth; Parnikoviy Effekt

Wacky Funny: Aaltra, Barry Dingle, Dirty Love, Dating Games People Play, Hair High

Road Trips: Bal-Can-Can, Cachimba, Lost in Plainview, Tickets

Lost Loves Found: At Last

Coming of Age: Aurora Borealis, Before the Fall, Krama Mig, Tollbooth

Soccer (what would an international film festival be without football?): Liberated Zone

That's just for starters. As for the seemingly ever-growing transgender film category, there are TransAmerica, Breakfast on Pluto, and Zerophilia. TransAmerica -- starring Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman as a pre-op who's road-tripping the highways with his/her son -- falls into just about every one of the above categories. There probably isn't any soccer in there. But one can hope.


For years now, film festivals have been proliferating like melaleuca trees in the planet's cultural wetlands. Even while FLIFF plugs away, festivals will open and close -- for instance, Australia's Canberra Short Film Festival, Norway's Bergen International Film Festival, and even Boston's Bike Film Festival, which is wisely focused on only two days of cycling films. The list goes on.

Film festivals, in a way, are like the Internet. When it was first designed as the ARPANET back in the 1960s, the Internet was conceived as a noncentralized communications system that, in the case of a nuclear attack destroying major communication hubs, would still allow people to talk to one another (and send porn files, of course). Film festivals, like celluloid nodes around the world, are a noncentralized film-distribution system that will hopefully keep the movie race alive in case, ahem, the major movie studios are destroyed by nuclear attack.

This all started happening in a big way about 15 years ago. "The festival circuit wasn't much of a factor until Sex, Lies and Videotape opened at Sundance," Plympton says. "But that set the format for independent filmmaking since about 1990."

For festivals like Fort Lauderdale's, away from the big media capitals, those much-bruited marketing opportunities are limited for filmmakers. The French film Les Choristes, judged to be FLIFF's best of the festival last year, got some good reviews, but it made barely a ripple at the American box office.

Festival highlights have come to be films that both raise important issues and are the labors of love for the obsessed people who created them. A case in point may be What's Bugging Seth, by writer/director/producer Eli Steele, who will be on hand at FLIFF in November. The film is about a young deaf man intent on letting nothing stop him from going into the insect extermination business. Along the way, he falls in love with a double amputee. It's a rough world.

What's Bugging Seth is at the tail of the film-festival circuit, having won feature awards at eight of them already, including festivals in Fargo and Santa Cruz. Filmmaker Steele was born deaf and in 2000 underwent cochlear implant surgery that has since given him some hearing capability. But he's not interested in thinking of this as a "deaf" movie. "We have chosen to live our lives in the mainstream and compete in the so-called 'normal' world," he told me by telephone from California. "We don't see ourselves as different."

What inspired Steele's filmmaking career? Foreign-language films with subtitles, of course. When he first started going to movies as a kid, he says he just tuned out. "I would fall asleep," he says. "I couldn't understand them." Then, when he was 12, his parents took him to the Swedish kids-dealing-with-a-harsh-world film My Life as a Dog. Subtitles, hallelujah. "That movie woke me up." Steele realized he could combine his love for photography and writing with what he was seeing, but not understanding, on the big screen. Sweet dreams are made of this.

Consider another case of dreams coming true: Tom Anton, writer/director/producer of the love story At Last, who will be around in October for the FLIFF screening of his film. "It's my wife's and my true love story," he explained by telephone from North Carolina, where the couple have their second home. Their first home is in New Orleans, where At Last was filmed in the spring of 2004.

Anton and his wife grew up together in the '60s and were best friends in Michigan until Tom's family moved to levee-town when he was a teen. For years, they wrote letters back and forth. "I would tell her all about the French Quarter." Then the long-distance romance stopped. Thirty years later, Tom's mother sent him a box of letters salvaged from her attic that included letters she had intercepted back and forth between the two in her odd, maternal effort to ruin their romance.

After 30 years apart, after separate mid-life crises, divorces, and grown children, they reconnected, fell in love again, and did what all good Americans do: wrote a screenplay about it. "I've always wanted to do independent films," Anton says. "It was a dream. I have a closet full of screenplays that I've never shown anyone." At Last is especially significant now, a snapshot of New Orleans life, music, and culture, Anton says. "I've lived in the French Quarter for 12 years. About a third of our locations are now gone," he says. "So I have mixed feelings about the film. We were supposed to be the opening film of the New Orleans Film Festival this year. Now we want to show the world why we want to save our city."


Filmmakers Eli Steele and Tom Anton are now both in demand but might not have stood a chance in the totalitarian film-distribution system that deplores risk (again, in the case of nuclear attack on the Oscars, head to Telluride or Toronto). This is where film festivals step in. Movie critic Kenneth Turan notes that new independents want film-loving audiences, film-loving audiences want a diversity of films, and smaller distributors and non-U.S. film companies want a shoehorn into the U.S. market -- and the festival circuit is their opening.

"For while movie fans have not lost their taste for the artistic and noncommercial, theaters are not always willing to risk showing those films," Turan writes.

As good as it is for independent filmmakers to get the word out about the projects they have nurtured like babies, rampant film-festival infestation brings about some difficulties for planners. Like, what if a poor filmmaker is sitting in his squalid Brooklyn editing room/studio apartment with only one print to send to a single festival at a time for competition? Yikes. One film print to send them all, one film print to win them? It happens. "You play the shell game," FLIFF's Von Hausch says. "Sometimes, if they have two prints, it's a luxury." The one-copy rule is generally a problem only for traditional 35mm entries, though. An increasing number of them (900 entries came in this year, Von Hausch says) arrive in other formats, and at Cinema Paradiso, for example, the theater's technology can accommodate 35mm, 16mm, Digi-Beta, Beta SP, DVD, VHS, and DV-Cam.

That's a lot of new technology. What do the folks who keep the show running, the film projectionists, think about film festivals? In a computer-driven field, where opportunities for the click-and-rewind technicians are decreasing, at least it's work, right? Well, maybe not. "Projectionists usually run away because it means they'll have filmmakers in their booths," he says. "Some of the filmmakers are a pain in the ass. They're like rap musicians. They want the volume turned way up."

Dan Milosz, a real live projectionist who has been in the business since 1974 and who, with his Lantana-based company, Cinema Sight and Sound, now spends his hours setting up projection systems for megaplexes throughout the United States and Europe, agrees.

"Yeah, it gets a little bit hairy. They get really uptight," Milosz says of filmmakers in the booth. There's the matter of different projector lenses that can crop out frames in ways auteurs just hate or the nonstandardized sound levels -- all of which drive back-seat-driving future Tarantinos crazy.

Mostly, Milosz says, projectionists work nowadays at older theaters, the romantic throwbacks with just one big screen. There aren't too many of them anymore. Of course, when Milosz started his career in the '70s, it was different. "Back then, it took a single person to run the film. But with equipment being automated, there are fewer and fewer projectionists."

Milosz started his career during a critical transition period for the commercial film industry, as it was evolving from running two projectors -- which required a projectionist to stay in the room to change reels -- to adopting the technological innovation known ominously as "the platter." The platter contains an entire film on a single reel sent directly from a film distributor and, once connected to a projector by anyone with a tiny bit of training, leaves nothing else to do for the duration of the film. If you can operate your car's cassette player, it's a safe bet you're ready for a career with Regal Cinemas running ten movies at a time.

Compare that with Milosz's career in the early 1970s, when he trained for several years as an apprentice. "Back when you had two projectors to run, it was almost like being a prisoner in the room," he says. "You weren't really allowed to leave the booth. Guys would set them up like living quarters. They spent 12 hours there at a time."

Some of us like to think that up there behind us in the projection booth is somebody like Tyler Durden (the Brad Pitt character in The Fight Club) planning the next grappling exhibition while splicing porno into the family film. Most likely, there's nobody there, just a computer run by a kid. What does this mean when considering the film festival? Not too much. But it's cool to know that somewhere out there, real projectionists may be camped out.


For FLIFF's schedules and locations, go to www.fliff.com. In case you're interested in some of the extra-special events, here's a short list:

Friday, October 14: The Opening Night Film and Party. Screening of The Matador at Cinema Paradiso with a party at the Las Olas Art Center.

Saturday, October 15: Luna Fest. Ten shorts circling the female zone in a benefit for the nonprofit Cure Breast Cancer.

Monday and Tuesday, October 17 and 18: The Arthur Penn Film Tribute. Penn's films include Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man.

Monday, October 31: The First Annual Boo-Tacular on Las Olas Boulevard, with Casper and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Once again, there's that transgender theme.

Sunday, November 6: The Chairman's Cruise. Mingle with filmmakers trapped for your pleasure on a three-hour cruise. A three-hour cruise.

Wednesday, November 9: The Fame Party. A tribute to singer Irene Cara. It seems that fame is going to live forever.

Friday, November 11: The FLIFF Beach Party. Marriott Harbor Beach Hotel.

Saturday, November 12: The Closing Night Film. Screening of Berkeley. Despite the "closing night" scheduled for November 12, FLIFF will continue to burn the candle at both ends until November 20.

"The day after the festival is my favorite day of the year," FLIFF President Gregory Von Hausch says. "It goes down from there."

New Times reviewers will give you the scoop, week by week, on FLIFF highlights. Following are reviews of two features from the festival's first week:

The Matador

What's an unemployed former superspy to do? Faced with a midlife career change, suave Pierce Brosnan seems to have chosen wry self-mockery, reinventing himself as a scruffy, fallen James Bond surrogate, sometimes still furnished with a license to kill and a certain gift for cool but far more likely now to stop shaving for three days, have tawdry encounters with teenaged girls, and get sloppy on margaritas at the hotel bar.

With a black comedy of mixed blessings called The Matador, written and directed by newcomer Richard Shepard, Brosnan continues his period of adjustment. In The Thomas Crown Affair and last year's jewel-heist trifle After the Sunset, the actor toyed with the burden of having been Bond. Here he savages it. As the ironically ill-named Julian Noble, he's a globetrotting hit man for unspecified corporate interests -- a "facilitator of fatalities," as he grandly puts it -- beset by neuroses and given to telling outrageous lies in cascades of filthy language. Oh, the guy's pretty good at his job. Even with a screaming hangover, he's got a sharpshooter's eye and a steady trigger finger. But his intermittent loss of nerve is a sorry thing to behold. "I'm a wreck," the anti-Bond laments. "I'm a parody."

Well, yes. High time we got over it too. Instead of slick heroism, the saving grace of The Matador (which was obviously made on something less than a blockbuster budget) lies in the comic interplay between Brosnan's ignoble Noble and the hapless square he picks to serve his purposes. Greg Kinnear's Danny Wright (a surname as carefully chosen as "Noble") is a straitlaced businessman from Denver, married for 14 years, who's had an awful run of bad luck, beginning with the death of his son. Now he finds himself in Mexico City, struggling to close a deal that could mean some long-overdue financial salvation. Julian's also in town on business, and when, partially disabled by tequila, he accosts Danny with equal doses of vulgarity and flattery, the mark is offended. But there's something in Julian's style that Danny covets. You know, opposites attract. Boldness intrigues.

The uneasy relationship that develops is part con game, part creepy seduction, enacted to theme music that suggests Goldfinger or The Spy Who Loved Me. At a bullfight -- thus the title -- Julian playfully shows Danny a few tricks of the assassination trade, preparatory to recruiting him. But anyone who's seen a movie or two suspects there might be a twist in store: Could it be that the roles of user and used are about to get confused? Why, in time, Danny even grows a beat-cop mustache just like Julian's. By act three, these two guys resemble each other no less than the personality-swapping women in Persona.

Meanwhile, The Matador pretends to indulge in a bit of Bondish glamour, leap-frogging to Las Vegas, Moscow, Budapest, and a racetrack in Arizona -- although the terrain and the atmosphere remain suspiciously the same. In other words, forget the international-intrigue element of the movie, which includes a spymaster named Mr. Stick (Philip Baker Hall). It's meant to be salted with humor, but it falls flat: Dueling hit persons Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt hit their marks much better in this regard in the otherwise tepid Mr. and Mrs. Smith. As The Matador unfolds, better to savor the startling scene in which Brosnan's soused misadventurer, cocktail in hand, lurches across a hotel lobby wearing nothing more than a black Speedo and boots. Ian Fleming must be turning in his grave. Or chuckling with appreciation.

"I lie when I need to," Julian announces. "I tell the truth when I can." In that, we are asked to find a sort of tattered dignity. But by the time The Matador moves on, after a post-Mexico gap of six months, to Danny's neat suburban home, it's lost a lot of its comic momentum and whatever moral force it had. When the unhappy hit man shows up, unannounced, on the Wrights' doorstep, Danny's mousy wife, Bean (Hope Davis), is much taken -- not so much by the man as by the chrome .38 strapped to his calf -- and we get the uneasy feeling that a second seduction is about to begin. Not to worry, though. The things that Julian and Danny learned from each other in Mexico City -- although we're never quite sure what they are -- add up to a friendship of sorts. Brosnan's anti-Bond is a bounder, a drunk, and a fool. But there's something so attractively vulnerable about him that he's hard to resist -- even absent an impeccable tuxedo, an Aston-Martin, and a martini straight up, shaken not stirred. As enforced career changes go, Brosnan could be doing a lot worse. -- Bill Gallo

The Matador shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 14, and at 5 p.m. Saturday, October 29, at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-3456.

Prime

With a name like Prime, a movie had better be about something more than an older woman digging on a younger man, much to the disapproval of the younger man's mom. It ought to be about, oh, I dunno, math or something -- like Pior Proofor even Primer, Shane Carruth's dizzying debut of 2004, in which two guys figure out how to travel a few hours into the past to make a little extra cash. Or maybe it could tell the story of Alan Greenspan and his race against time to lower the prime rate before a meteor collides with Earth, or perhaps it might be the story of a slab of prime rib that comes to life to attack unaware diners, or could be there's even a tale to be told of TV executives forced at gunpoint to program prime-time with an endless loop of According to Jim. The possibilities, though admittedly a bit on the awful side (surely a studio exec could do much better, right?), are endless. But all you're going to wind up with is, yes, an older woman digging on a younger man, much to the disapproval of the younger man's mom, which adds up to zero, which, alas, is not a prime number at all.

Just what the title has to do with the movie is of some mystery, one that might be unlocked by those who pay close attention to the movie (and if you are one of those people, you really should see more movies). Perhaps it has something to do with the fact Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman), whose name sounds like something you might order with a side of hummus, is an "older woman" in her sexual prime -- older being her late 30s, and only studio execs would classify this as being older. (No wonder Shirley MacLaine was relegated to the final half of the Cameron Diaz-Toni Collette sisterhood pic In Her Shoes; in movie-studio years, MacLaine's been dead since 1997.)

This would explain why Rafi, just divorced from a man apparently her own age and possessing the libido of a corpse, winds up with a much younger man named David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg) -- much younger being his early 20s, though Greenberg and Thurman look all of nine months apart. Rafi needs a young man to satisfy her needs. Men her own age apparently don't have the stamina to fuck her all night on every surface in her apartment, which is an issue writer-director Ben Younger, already a creaky 31, might need to take up with his therapist or a trainer or a stack of self-help books.

Or perhaps the Primein the title is intended to signify the twosome Rafi and David become against her better judgment and his mother's wishes, his mother being played by Meryl Streep as though she's auditioning for a summer-stock production of Fiddler on the Roof. See, two isa prime number. So there's that. David and Rafi have more than their age difference acting as a barrier between newfound lust and long-lasting love; their religions too are working against then. He's Jewish, she's not, which ain't kosher with David's mom, Lisa, who's either seen noshing on giant corned-beef sandwiches on her apartment rooftop or sitting at the Sabbath dinner table on Friday night, alongside her husband and parents, with whom David also lives. This movie's so Jewish that come the year 2018, it'll have to get bar mitzvahed.

But there is one complication even bigger than the age and religious differences: Lisa is also Rafi's therapist, a fact Younger blessedly doesn't keep concealed from the audience for too long. Lisa figures this out long before Rafi or David, however, which makes her not only a lousy, conniving mom but also perhaps the most unethical therapist in New York City. Lisa is guilt-ridden over the deception, of course, but not enough to stop Rafi from describing the beauty of David's penis during their myriad sessions that devolve into sex chat. Younger, maker of the overheated Boiler Roomsome years back (notable as one of the few movies ever to put Vin Diesel in a tie), throws more roadblocks in front of his lovers than a state trooper.

But the problem with the discrepancies in their age is a cheat; theirs is a June-July romance, at best. Younger might have earned his tension by casting an older actress, but Thurman, at 35, has the mien and temperament (and wardrobe) of someone far younger; and Greenberg, playing a painter of intimate, wide-screen portraitures, carries himself as someone far older. And Lisa is less a concerned mother than a pain in the ass; the woman loses all sympathy and credibility the moment she betrays her son and patient, yet Primedemands we think her caring and loving. Younger, for whatever reason, simply can't abide their happiness, so he destructs the relationship from time to time for no reason, using plot devices that wouldn't have been out of place in episodes of Three's Company. (One involves David's slacker-schmuck pal Morris, played by Boiler Room's Jon Abrahams, hiding in a closet, which angers Rafi... why?) His is just more conventional schmaltz, served on a paper plate. -- Robert Wilonksy

Prime shows at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 15, and 7 p.m. Sunday, October 16, at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-3456. </b

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