Posted by: floridanature | September 28, 2008

Laudonniere Meets the Shrimp Lady at the Film Fest

I-95 swept me away again this weekend, carrying me upstream to Fernandina Beach, just south of Georgia. The reason was the Inaugural Amelia Island Film Festival, a place where our “Marjorie” doc would be screened, and maybe discussed.

It wasn’t Cannes or Sundance, or even the Jacksonville Fest, but it was their first time out of the chute and, after all, I always enjoy myself up on this old island with the delightfully peculiar history. Bob, my co-founder in the film biz, went up early Friday for a panel and showing and I meet him and some others there early Saturday morning. The town is awash with colorful stories—including the odd truth that more flags flew over it than anywhere else in the country. The Florida shrimping biz was said to be birthed here; there’s still a fleet of raw, working trawlers berthed downtown. And the Palace Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in the state.

Once in town, I park near the docks.  It’s a superb day here on the edge of the Atlantic, easy breeze pushing in off the sea, and the little Victorian downtown a study in a sort of retro glory. The tide is low now and I figure when it returns the nearby spartina marsh will in flood and great for kayaking. I suck in a good breath of salt air and then go inside a building for a panel on filmmaking.

The panel goes okay, some non-movie folks there like the mayor of Fernandina, who—befitting of a town that has an annual “Pirates Ball”—wears a real black patch over his bad right eye. We all introduce ourselves, a motley mix of filmmakers, film students, visitors, and some guy who recites a long list of all of his Emmys. (Bob later calls it the “penis resume.”) The one-eyed mayor then describes himself as a “rogue hillbilly”, which I really like, and says he recently campaigned with the slogan “Vote for Malcolm: He has His Eye Out For You.”

The panel begins to devolve and I leave, along with Teri, an attorney who’s on the board of our filmmaking non-profit, then Bob, and his friend Camille. We walk across a grassy lot to another street and the courtyard of the Bodega restaurant, Teri bringing her dog Ginger on a leash. It’s pleasant here, and we feast on Cuban sandwiches and wraps, a waitress bringing Ginger a plastic bowl of water to slurp from. We talk about Florida’s recent tropical storm, and what it did to the rivers we used to know. On the way out, Bob notices the brick fountain in the courtyard is full of tadpoles, a little world within a world, and we get a kick of that.

Outside, we dawdle a bit, finally meeting up at a neat old school building that, during segregation, once housed black students; now, it’s a sort of community center. There will be three films shown here this afternoon, “Marjorie”, and two shorts. One short is “Abigail’s Spring”, a love-lost sort of thing filmed up on a couple of real springs off the Suwannee in North Florida; the other is about a guy who is a human cannon ball. Both are nicely done, in different ways. I liked the way the guy flew out of the giant cannon, and liked Scott and Megan, who convincingly played the couple, also called “Scott” and “Megan”, in the first film.

Jen Chase comes in midway through with her kids and her unpretentious Euro-gypsy cool, which I always enjoy since it’s such an antidote to our lock-step world. With the movies over, we all go to a reception for filmmakers at the “Historic Bailey House.” It is deep in the historic district, across the street from a fine old mansion made entirely of tabby, an archaic style that once mixed local seashell and limedust and water into a sort of Florida-Victorian concrete. The Bailey house has a gracious wide verandah around it, its railing studded every so often with antique horses from some long-ago carousel.

Inside, Teri introduces me to an older woman who is the president of the “Florida Women’s Shrimping Association.” She’s wired, finely lined from the sun, and wearing a silver belt buckle of a giant shrimp, which looks a bit like a WWF Championship Belt. I graze on the munchies, fresh steamed shrimp, and salmon (molded to look like a salmon), and run into Scott, the guy who played “Scott”, in the hallway.

Scott compliments me on the “Marjorie” film, really nice fellow who seems to be a lot like the guy he also pretended to be on film— all of which confuses me a bit. I think of the Cuban author Carpentier: The Furniture is growing larger. And American songwriter Tom Waits: The piano is drinking. As a writer sorting through Florida mythology, I sometimes have trouble with shifting reality,  and moments like this don’t help.

They especially don’t help when I’m in a town that has a “Pirates Club” formed to capitalize on the alleged pirate history of the island. All of which was wonderfully satirized with the rest of Florida in “Sunshine State”, a film by John Sayles. In it, actor Mary Steenburgen—distraught over threats her fictional pirate fest faces—delivers the classic Florida line: “People just don’t understand how hard it is to create a legend”. Which sort of epitomizes what Florida has done, for so long: When the “facts” of a story are scarce or suspect, they are simply rearranged for convenience into fairy tales: Jose Gaspar becomes a real pirate; Ponce De Leon really searches for “Fountain of Youth” instead of gold, and elected officials really do care about growth management.

At the Bailey House, Jen and I sit on the railing of the verandah with our cold drinks, and talk about the French Huguenots who were first in Florida over 500 years ago, Laudonniere, Ribault, and the rest—of how they saw the Timucua, and how the Timucua saw them. Artist LeMoyne rendered the first images of them in great detail, and I’ve always figured the French understood these original Floridians a lot better than the Spanish.

A cool, light breeze moves in from the sea. Jen, a brilliant playwright and musician fluent in several languages, explains an idea to do a musical play about the early Florida French-Indian stuff, soliciting my input on it. I tell her about a rare dictionary of the Timucua language that ought to help a lot, and she seems excited by this. I remember one Timucuan phrase which asks a profound question. I pronounce the phrase outloud, pause, and then add the translation: Why is it so ?.

We think about that some, and the party ebbs and flows. Cicadas hum like static from the live oaks a few yards away, background music to the living montage of humans and late twilight and carousel horses, a swash of the truly make-believe and the truly real, no easy way to distinguish one from the other.

And then the night falls completely, the stars glowing way up overhead like tiny laser dots, and on the verandah railing, I shrug, as if to nudge the very last part of the linear wold away.

I wonder vaguely when the tide will be high, and where, if I look hard enough, I might find a black eye patch.

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