To some, the sun-drenched, tourist-magnet city of Maitland, Florida may seem like an odd place for an art-house movie theater and film festival. Disney World is right around the corner, so who wants to go sit in a dark room and watch a John Cassavettes film?
But, contrary to these misconception, Maitland does have a thriving movie-loving community: a thirsty, film-savvy coterie. The Enzian, the quirky single-screen theater in which the Florida Film Festival is rooted, and around which the local community has grown and thrived, acts as a sort of Mecca for Central Florida filmgoers. And this isn't a group of old people wearing flower-pattern shirts and flip flops with socks, to usurp another bias. A couple hundred people showed up at 11am to hear indie filmmaker Shawn Christensen talk about how he expanded his Oscar-winning short "Curfew," which played the Florida Film Festival in 2012, into a full-length feature, "Before I Disappear." ("I'm not a morning person," Christensen said, "So I applaud anyone who can wake before noon to come to a movie.")
Earlier in the week, Giancarlo Esposito gave an enlightening 90-minute talk following the still-relevant "Do the Right Thing," and later, on a warm, rainless Friday night, Susan Sarandon was in attendance for a showing of her Oscar-winning film "Dead Man Walking" followed by an interview. The line to see Sarandon snaked around the outside of the theater. People stood outside the doors for up to four hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the icon, who discussed, among other things, the tricky definition of "feminism" and her voiceover work for social activist documentaries. Earlier that day, Paul Sorvino showed up for his new film "Last I Heard," and the next day he was back for "Goodfellas," shown on glorious 35mm. Sorvino recited poetry, sang a bit of opera, and sought to "dispel notions that [he is] a slow-moving, lead-footed Mafioso." Notion dispelled, Paul.
Oh, and the Enzian's film-savvy faithful would like you to know that Disney World is 35 miles away. There are no Mickey Mouse ears in sight here.
The Enzian, established in 1985, is at once a familiar place for moviegoers, and an altogether different kind of entity: you'll find that all-enveloping darkness unique to movie theaters — the kind of darkness through which you can still make out the silhouettes of the backs of heads, and just barely see the butter gleaming on the mound of popcorn harbored in waxy paper bags, and watch the harmonious swirling of dust caught in the swath of light spilling out of the projection booth and washing over the screen in 24 frames of luminous chaos per second.
But you'll also find a selection of beer, from Miller to craft favorites Terrapin and local brew Swamp Head; you'll hear the feint clatter of silverware, and smell the distinct aroma of fried chicken, and sit in a thickly-cushioned seat with ample room on either side of you. They could easily fit another couple-hundred seats here, but then you wouldn't have the beer, the fried chicken, the thickly-cushioned seats with ample room. Someone accustomed to the dingy confines of tiny, sometimes squalid (but lovably squalid) New York art-houses may find it jarring sit in such absurd comfort while watching, say, Bergman's "The Silence."
There's a kind of tranquility to the whole endeavor, like catching a matinee on your off day. And the lack of journalists descending en masse upon the stars, trying desperately to grab a quick pic, or catch a headline-making quote, is a pleasant change. (More than one person, from Susan Sarandon to passersby having a drink after a screening with some of the filmmakers, made fleeting comments on the manipulative nature of journalists, sentiments echoed by the scary cult-leader in Ti West's "The Sacrament," which played at the Florida Film Festival this year.)
So, at a time when myriad film festivals offer myriad ways in which a film fan can consume myriad films of high quality, what purpose does the Florida Film Festival, which doesn’t offer many world premieres or that deluge of super stars and parties affixed to New York and LA, serve? Why does the Florida Film Festival exist?