Southern Gothic

For Miami filmmaker Tag Purvis, completing his first full-length movie wasn't just a matter of going home. He also had to stay alive.

The drive from Miami to Meridian, Mississippi, takes fourteen hours, but Tag Purvis doesn't mind. He likes to make the trip to his hometown behind the wheel of the baby-blue Lincoln he has on long-term loan from his father. When he passes the Alabama border into Mississippi, a place he describes as "so quiet it hurts your ears," he pops a Jimmie Rodgers cassette into the car stereo. The familiar yodel of the Meridian-born country bluesman makes a perfect soundtrack for a drive through the pastoral Southern landscape, where clapboard churches mark the miles, spectral kudzu vines drape wooded hills, and the earth showing between roadside train tracks is colored a rusty red.

Last summer Purvis directed his first feature film in Meridian. The making of the movie marked the culmination of an odyssey for the fledgling independent filmmaker, both because he actually got that far on a $500,000 budget and because it brought him home again. (He has lived in South Florida for a decade.) A cast and crew of 40, including sloe-eyed actress Karen Black and ten University of Miami motion-picture department interns, spent more than eight weeks on location. Most of them camped out at the home of Purvis's father, Guy Purvis. Outdoor scenes were shot on his brother David's farm. The catering was Southern home cooking supplied by two elderly women named Annie and Rose, who toted huge loads of fried chicken and butter beans to the set.

The movie was the first to be made in the industrial-era railroad town of 46,000 -- briefly the capital of Mississippi during the Civil War -- and it was big enough news to receive continuous coverage in the daily Meridian Star.

"This is a sleepy place. We're not used to so much excitement around here," confirms Johnny Booker, the obliging owner of a ramshackle antiques shop in neighboring Whynot. The sprawling store is stuffed with wood furniture, mismatched china, and Elvis albums, and is so dark that regular customers come prepared to shop with flashlights. Some scenes in the movie were filmed in a rundown cottage on Booker's property. "It was a hot summer," Booker drawls. "Having them here sure helped get me through it."

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, Tag Purvis is greeted familiarly by the half-dozen people drinking beer and playing pool at the Echo Lounge, a downtown Meridian bar. "How y'all doin'?" the bar's husband-and-wife owners ask Purvis.

Then they recognize the filmmaker and effusively beckon him to a seat at the bar. A soft-spoken 36-year-old with short brown hair, chiseled cheekbones, and a muscular physique, clad in baggy jeans and an old sweater, he exchanges pleasantries over a Budweiser and answers their insistent questions about the status of the film, which is in postproduction in Miami Beach and nearing completion. A stocky young man with a mullet haircut enters the bar. "Oh sure, I read about that movie," he says authoritatively, "Mississippi Mud."

Actually the name of the movie is Red Dirt. It is an intimate film, a character-driven family drama sure to draw comparisons to Tennessee Williams's Southern domestic tragedies. Purvis wrote the script, and he describes it as the story of "a young man's connection to a place and to his family, and his search to belong."

The film's Miami-based editor, Nikko Tsiotsias, who like Purvis studied at UM's film department, has come to think of Red Dirt as a cross between Kiss of the Spider Woman and The English Patient. "It's a classic love story," Tsiotsias explains. "Except it's two guys who kiss at the end."

Purvis is best known in Miami as the creator of a short film featuring two men kissing. Shot in sixteen-millimeter, America the Beautiful shows the couple locked in an embrace under soft light, accompanied by a recording of "God Bless America."

Purvis completed America the Beautiful over a few weeks in late 1994, and decided to project the film in the window of the storefront studio he rented at the time on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, across from the Van Dyke Cafe. The three-minute movie ran as a loop, showing the couple kissing over and over. Responding to complaints from some customers and citing the presence of young children, the restaurant's management demanded that he stop projecting the image. Purvis refused. To protest the affront to his freedom of expression, some of Purvis's friends organized a Friday-night "kiss-in" in front of the restaurant. The protest made the evening news and spawned a sidewalk debate about censorship among passersby on Lincoln Road. A wall of shrubbery appeared in front of the Van Dyke soon after, blocking the view to the filmmaker's studio.

A year and a half later, after Purvis won a prestigious South Florida Cultural Consortium grant, the film was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. To the filmmaker's dismay museum officials hung black curtains around the portion of the wall where the film was projected and posted a sign outside warning of its "homoerotic imagery." In response Purvis distributed a pamphlet to museumgoers that included an essay on homophobia written by his older brother, Warren, a psychiatrist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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