Among other charms, Miami has very little in common with the rest of the U.S. It's a Disney World devoted to decadence and twisted family values, a festering tank town hacked out of the swamps and overrun by psychotics, crooks, and visionary hustlers. In this tropical gulag of American exile, a Devil's Island for the world's excrescence, the dime-store dichotomy of cheap reality and that old black magic of illusion can be found anywhere. We're exotic and all that, but Miami does share one quality with other cities: The citizens can be divided into two rough groups -- those who like to go out at night and those who don't.

Of course, this being Miami, both strata of residents are obliged to pursue their particular viewpoints to an excessive degree. Those who avoid most nocturnal interactions assume, erroneously, that the mere act of remaining at home confers some sort of exalted moral stature. Staying in the house can be a limiting experience and it's nothing to brag about, unless you've earned the right to be totally over everything -- as was the case with Halston and Noel Coward A or you're blessed with enough juice to import society, like Louis XIV, Hugh Hefner, or Bill Clinton.

Party people, people who need people, remain engaged in life, although too much social engagement steadily chips away at the soul, puts you in an abyss where things are hollow and stupendously insignificant. Even in the void, though, the professionals are cooler than the fools they suffer, and they learn a few things along the way. When you go out and use the city, flail against the ramparts, the very nature of Miami -- wild-eyed, absurd, rough, and rewarding -- stays in your face and you become one with the city. Eventually you learn to embrace the chaos, with all other places paling by comparison. If you're not going to go out, you might as well live in Ocala.

For thirteen years the opening-night gala for the Miami Film Festival has served as a social litmus test for the city. It's that rare arena in which rank amateurs -- comped losers of limited usefulness, corporate yahoos on the big night out, rubes and wanna-be glamourpusses -- mingle with the veterans, who cling to memories of the grand affairs at Vizcaya. A decade ago the film festival was the only celebrity action in town. And over the years there have been some personal high points: a triumphant Divine at the Hairspray premiere, shortly before he passed into drag queen heaven, and an illuminating discussion with Susan Sontag in a buffet line, during which I desperately tried to follow a conversation about dialectical materialism, the nature of photography, and the metaphors of cancer.

Lately the festival has been a series of diminishing social returns interspersed with some interesting movies, although it may be a bit too partial to Peruvian tone poems for my taste. The vibe before opening night, given last year's disaster at the Hotel Inter-Continental for Miami Rhapsody, suggested a pass on the festivities. But then the opening movie this time around was Two Much, shot in Miami and featuring Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, the most overhyped movieland couple since Liz Taylor and Richard Burton got together on the Cleopatra set. As Miami becomes an extension of the lifestyle hell that is Los Angeles, with filmmakers chewing on every scrap of fabulized and trivialized real estate, there's a pop historical imperative afoot in town. We're all nothing but extras on a floating movie set now, although the real essence of Miami -- considering bizarre monstrosities such as The Perez Family -- seems to defy Hollywood: Scarface might forever remain the definitive portrait of our civic character.

The Two Much premiere at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts followed the usual ritualized pageantry. Despite having covered the festival every single year, I once again found myself in the New Jersey section of the balcony, the usual stringers from the Des Moines Gazette and Bosnia Today granted prestige seats on Fifth Avenue. A local prophet without honor -- or pride, for that matter -- I went downstairs and corrected the protocol oversight. Thankfully, a kindly usherette extended her benevolence, and while ensconced in the power section I encountered Two Much coproducer Ted Field, who provided a high-L.A. sound bite: "You'll be at the party, right? We'll talk."

Showtime, the endless "whereas . . . whereas" talk and proclamations sweeping over the stupefied audience. Finally Danny Aiello and director Fernando Trueba of Two Much were introduced; Trueba debuted the wonderful Belle Epoque in Miami two years ago and proved that opening-night films don't have to be bad. In Spanish, Trueba saluted artistic integrity and his muy caliente stars, Banderas and Griffith: "I hope you have as much fun with the movie as they did." The couple walked onstage holding hands, Banderas A the hardest working hunk in the business A kicking off public relations duty: "Four times I come to Miami for the festival and I just love it. In this movie Miami is another character, and Two Much is dedicated to Miami to make the people happy." Griffith, looking sharp in a black velvet pantsuit, channeled a little Liz and Gracie Allen into her brief remarks: "I'm very bad at this, but I hope you like Two Much as much as I did -- it changed my life."

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