Screen Gems

Under the direction of rocker Bill Orcutt, the Alliance for Media Arts keeps the faith for Miami's cinema aficionados

On a sunny afternoon in the middle of the Lincoln Road Mall a man wearing a pair of plastic milk crates on his feet jumps rope and sings. Handlettered signs affixed to the plastic crates identify the performer as "The Mighty Wailin Burnin Berry." The Mighty Wailin guy stops singing and assumes a series of poses -- the Discus Thrower, the Thinker, Winged Mercury. Patrons at the nearby Lincoln Road Cafe react with a mixture of indifference and consternation. One of them, a young woman with a winsome smile who has been paying more attention to the act than her older male dinner companion, launches into a soliloquy on the nature of what is hip on SoBe.

Cut to the editing room of the Alliance Co-op months later. Paul "The Mighty Wailin Burnin" Berry looks up from the above-mentioned scene playing on a monitor in the editing room of the Alliance's three-month-old film and video co-op. "What do you think of it?" he asks me after I've wandered into the editing room. The question puts me in an awkward position. Berry is obviously a novice filmmaker; he readily admits as much. There would be no point in criticizing his work as if it were a Hollywood feature. Still, it wouldn't be truthful to praise it either. Luckily, thankfully, Mark Boswell, one of the co-op's two directors, intercedes before I have to render an opinion.

"Paul's probably been the most energetic of our members," Boswell explains, making it clear through both tone and inflection that energy, not expertise, is what the co-op values most. Boswell, a muscular, goateed avant-garde filmmaker from Tallahassee with the no-bullshit air of a military man, is seated in an old wheelchair co-op members frequently use as a makeshift camera dolly. "He [Berry] just walked in off the street wanting to document his street performances. His first short was wearing this white paper jumpsuit and reading the Gettysburg Address while standing on his head. Now it's this film, getting longer every day."

As Boswell is talking a young woman arrives at the co-op's open door. "Oh my god!" she shrieks, eyes wide at the sight of Boswell in the wheelchair. "What happened to you?"

"Nothing. This is just a dolly," Boswell laughs, standing momentarily to prove he is still ambulatory.

It's like that at the co-op. Wheelchairs for dollies. People popping in and out. Several conversations going on at once. A street entertainer like Berry editing a video of one of his performances.

There's a small sign affixed to the co-op's door: "It's easy to make movies, you just shoot and everything comes out right." The quote is attributed to Andy Warhol. While intended to be humorous, the statement provides some insight into co-op directors Mark Boswell and William Keddell's view of their mission.

"Anyone can make a film. The technical side is not really that difficult," asserts Keddell, who supported his initial forays into alternative films by directing music videos in his native New Zealand. The co-op's emphasis (at least for now) is on helping inexperienced filmmakers make the transition from wanna-be's to celluloid pros. Whether hobbyists or careerists, as long as their project is not commercial, there's room for it at the co-op. "Of course, by the time we're through with it, we intend it to be anything but amateur," Keddell asserts

Orcutt, who takes a hands-off managerial approach to the co-op that allows Boswell and Keddell lots of leeway, has similar aims. "I'm hoping the co-op will develop avant-garde filmmaking," says Orcutt, noting that such films got short shrift when the cinema shifted to showing more popular narrative films.

"Bill's arms are tied," says Boswell. "He has to show feature films. There are strict rules to follow when you deal with the different distributors, and the distributors don't demand that avant-garde films get shown, so they don't get shown, except at festivals. Or in garages."

Or at the co-op itself, where regular screenings of underground films are an important function. "We're trying to fill that gap," adds Keddell.

Unlike Paul Berry, who has no pretensions to Bunuel's throne -- yet -- most members take themselves, and their filmmaking, very seriously. Julian Martin, a pensive young MDCC student, read about the co-op's opening party in October and was one of the first to sign up for Boswell's inaugural super-8 production class. Martin hopes to someday make a go of it as a filmmaker and describes his body of work to this point as "practice."

Mark Holt is far more experienced. Holt, whose deliberately trashy work owes an obvious debt to John Waters, has been working in video for several years and is making the transition to super-8 and 16mm film under Boswell and Keddell's tutelage. Bad taste is his metier. Two of Holt's earliest videos, Nightmare at Karioke (sic) and Gigantic Bitch, feature local visual artist Craig Coleman's popular drag alter ego, Varla. Nightmare follows Varla through a drunken, disastrous debut at Semper's karaoke night ( the club is now defunct). The film is only sporadically funny, but retains some value as a pseudo-documentary of a particularly colorful moment in the Beach's rush to fabulousness. Gigantic Bitch is far more tasteless, (highlights include a hungover Varla having a noisy bowel movement and vomiting in bed) but is at least partially redeemed by a hilarious takeoff on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Two more recent Holt works, Barbie's Dream Vacation and Big-Boned Bad Girls, screened at this year's inaugural Queer Flickering Light film festival, another Alliance innovation. The latter film is a campy Fifties drive-in movie spoof about four bad girls -- drag queens, of course -- who drop out of high school and beat people up for kicks.

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