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Focusing on the Lake Placid Film Forum

Flesh-eating zombies are almost certain to beat literati in any battle for the souls of students in a Burlington College course called The Festival Experience. The kids will be able to meet revered director George Romero and watch his 1968 cult masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead, when they travel to the Adirondacks next week for the fourth annual Lake Placid Film Forum.

The event, which runs from June 11 to 15, presents explorations of cinema history, compelling new indies and fascinating invited guests, with a strong emphasis on the written word. Novelist Russell Banks is on the advisory board along with fellow scribes Pete Hamill, Donald Westlake, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates and North-east Kingdom resident Howard Frank Mosher.

But those aren't necessarily the names that thrill young people. Barry Snyder, head of the college's film department, is teaching his festival-focused class for the second consecutive year. He can recall a 2002 Saturday night scene outside the downtown Palace Theater, where people costumed as Troma Studios' schlock horror-movie characters snaked through the crowd: The Toxic Avenger, The Mad Cowboy and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD inspired the ecstatic Vermonters to begin chanting "Tro-ma! Tro-ma! Tro-ma!"

An intoxicating mix of the silly and the sublime, Lake Placid has been forced to tighten its belt this year after losing two major sponsors in the abysmal economic climate. "That was just when the war in Iraq hit and it all felt so pessimistic," explains Kathleen Carroll, the Forum's artistic director. "But the decision was to go on with the show."

The Forum has accomplished that with more streamlined programming at the Palace and in the nearby Hilton Hotel. The Center for the Arts, a venue in previous years, has been dropped, "We have as many, if not more, films but fewer repeat screenings," says Carroll, a Manhattan-based former critic for The Daily News. "Altogether, though, it might create a little more excitement, because you can't help but bump into people."

Those people are an eclectic bunch. Writer-director Alan Rudolph, whose deteriorating-marriage saga The Secret Lives of Dentists is on tap, will receive a special tribute. He'll be interviewed on stage by filmmaker brothers Michael and Mark Polish, phenoms whose Northfork -- about a hydroelectric plant's scheme to flood a small town -- is also in the Lake Placid lineup.

Actors Jennifer Jason Leigh, Debra Winger, Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson and James Tolkan, among others, are slated to attend. So is Joe Morton, who played the delightful Brother From Another Planet in 1984. He'll be at the Forum with his directorial debut, Sunday on the Rocks, about a group of thirtysomething women prone to drinking and soul-searching. It's a world premiere.

"The O'Briens are coming," proclaims Carroll, although she's referring to two Vermonters who are actually unrelated: John O'Brien of Tunbridge and Bess O'Brien of Peacham. His Nosey Parker and her Here Today will be screened at the Forum, which continues to foster close ties with the Green Mountain State.

A crazy quilt of older fare should help fill in any programming gaps. Those with enough stamina for the 48-hour Movie Marathon will be treated to a plethora of "classics," from Barbarella and Psycho to The Matrix -- not yet reloaded.

It's anyone's guess, of course, but some of the schedule's best bets might be: Camp, a sort of Fame-goes-to-the-country tale directed by Tod Graff; The Heart of Me, a romantic triangle with Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams and Paul Bettany; and Happy Here and Now, which centers on a woman who travels to New Orleans to look for her missing sister.

Beautiful Kid, about the Irish-American inhabitants of a Bronx neighborhood, is a real grassroots effort by novice co-directors Colum McCann and Michael Carty. "A local plumber-poet gave them $4500 to get a digital video camera," Carroll says.

From New Zealand, Whale Rider depicts a Maori tribe's reluctance to accept that an adolescent girl should inherit the leadership role that has always gone to males. Valentin, which hails from Argentina, is the story of a 10-year-old boy trying to solve the problems of the dysfunctional adults in his life.

Three films address the issue of incarceration: the narrative Civil Brand, and the documentaries Here Today and What I Want My Words to Do to You. Consequently, they will all feed into Drugs, Prisons and Social Issues, a June 13 panel. "We'll even have a warden from a nearby penitentiary," Carroll notes.

The topics for master classes and discussions will range from acting to casting to scoring soundtracks -- a session that includes composer Carter Burwell, whose music graces quirky pictures such as Being John Malkovich.

Some gatherings seem particularly provocative. On June 13, "Silence of the Lambs: Whatever Happened to Free Speech?" will examine perspectives on the nation's First Amendment-bashing mood from authors Banks (Affliction), Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes) and Hamill, also an acclaimed journalist.

A master class on screenwriting will benefit from the experiences of wordsmiths William Kennedy (Ironweed) and Buck Henry, a man with a resume to die for. Literally. He adapted To Die For in 1995, only one of many stellar achievements in a long, impressive career.

Without Buck Henry, what we think of as "the '60s" might never have happened -- not really, but he's the guy who gave us "plastics," a memorable snippet of dialogue from his script for The Graduate. The pivotal 1967 black comedy offered an early take on the counterculture's rejection of middle-class values. It spoke to a generation, thanks in part to songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on the soundtrack. People went to see the film over and over again.

"I never thought it'd be particularly popular," Henry recalls, during a phone interview from his New York City apartment. "I was in Europe when it came out. When I got home, I went to a movie theater where The Graduate had already been playing for two or three months. The place was full. They were sitting in the aisles. " He was astonished to hear the audience "doing the lines." Coo coo ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson.

Henry, now 72, can look back on numerous triumphs. The son of a silent-screen actress, at age 16 he had a small role in Life With Father, a big Broadway hit. But the budding thespian yearned to be a writer as well, a goal that was nurtured when he attended Dartmouth College as an English major.

After graduation in 1952, Henry was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and served in Germany -- mostly as the ringleader of a repertory company performing a musical comedy he had penned.

"After the military, I slogged on for years," he says of his show-biz aspirations. "I joined The Premise, an improv group. Out of that, I was hired to write sketches for Steve Allen's TV program in L.A. In the early 1960s New York was a hotbed of new talent, but a lot of us went West."

Henry moved back East a short time later for other television gigs: Garry Moore's CBS variety show and "That Was The Week That Was," NBC's satirical review of the news. But Hollywood beckoned once again in 1964 thanks to an opportunity to partner with Mel Brooks on developing a comic detective series. The Emmy-winning "Get Smart" was born.

From that success, Henry's segue to feature films came easily -- perhaps too easily. "After The Graduate, I was spoiled; the next five scripts I wrote were immediately made," he notes, referring to the likes of Catch-22, The Owl and the Pussycat, What's Up, Doc? and The Day of the Dolphin. "Then all that ground to a halt. It took another few years for things to pick up."

Although he continued acting -- as the patent attorney for David Bowie's inventive extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell to Earth, for example -- Henry's screenwriting assignments were suddenly on hiatus. Yet, along with Warren Beatty, he received an Oscar nomination for co-directing Heaven Can Wait in 1978.

Directing wasn't really in Henry's blood, however. "I don't have the ego for it," he says. "And they get up so early. I'm not alive in the morning."

Henry doesn't want to jinx his upcoming projects by talking about them but he admits to being "a lazy writer. It can take me forever to finish something. I use my acting jobs as an excuse."

While he's widely admired as the quintessential "hip" humorist, a designation enhanced by hosting "Saturday Night Live" 10 times, Henry demurs. "I've never been accused of that," he claims.

He also doesn't consider himself a political satirist. "I was always tagged with that, ever since 'That Was The Week That Was,'" Henry acknowledges. "I am a news junkie. Totally. But I'm not overtly political."

And what does he think about rumors that satire is dead in the age of George W. Bush? "Even back in the time of Socrates or Aristotle, current events probably seemed to supercede art," Henry suggests. "But there'll always be new people to make fun of."

Even people who've passed on may be ripe for such skewering. Flesh-eating zombies, beware.

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