This year's Wisconsin Film Festival, held weeks later than it has been in the past, still feels pretty much the same. Maybe that has to do with the slushy streets and freezing temperatures endured by patrons as they hurry up and down State St. to get in line for their next screening.
Inside the Orpheum's Stage Door, just prior to the 6:15 p.m. showing of Toots, festival director Meg Hamel greets those already in their seats by asking for a show of hands from those who will see eight or more films over the weekend.
"The rest of you," she admonishes, "we need to talk."
Toots is the ideal appetizer for the multi-course meal that is the fest. It's a straightforward documentary about a colorful figure, legendary New York saloonkeeper Toots Shor. Shor's bar and restaurant in Midtown Manhattan entertained writers, athletes and movie stars for decades and his granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson, tells his story largely through interviews with his friends and customers.
The patrons are pulled in by the images of Shor with Jackie Gleason, Joe DiMaggio and other New York celebrities almost immediately and respond enthusiastically, as is the case with most film fest crowds. Many of the people appearing in the film refer to the Shor era in New York as a "simpler time," although legendary boxing writer Bert Sugar cautions it wasn't a more innocent time.
The same might be said for the fest itself. Snacks cost what they did in the early-'90s and there's little fanfare before the films begin. But the offerings themselves are often challenging and, in some cases, pretty rough around the edges. Simple, if not innocent.