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.

America the Beautiful gained a different kind of notoriety outside Miami. Purvis was invited to show it at more than 40 international film festivals. It was purchased by CANAL+, the cultural cable channel, and broadcast in Europe and Australia.

Today Purvis remains as surprised by the positive attention America the Beautiful received at the festivals as by the controversy it caused in Miami. "I was simply trying to put out some of the same images seen in heterosexual advertising, but with a gay couple," he says. "It was a comment on the media's representation of what's acceptable in society."

Subsequently Purvis explored young gay men and women's images of themselves in a film installation he showed locally at the Ambrosino Gallery in 1995. That piece featured excerpts from Purvis's interviews with students at Harvey Milk High School, a public school for gay teenagers in New York City, where he spent a week filming. "That was such a positive experience," he says admiringly. "They really are from another generation than mine."

Purvis's room in his family home in Meridian remains as it was when he was in high school. The walls are covered with bamboo mats; cheerful Chinese paper lanterns bob over the single bed; a fur throw covers a rattan chaise in one corner; a large box overflowing with rubber monster masks sits under a desk.

"I was always a bit different," Purvis acknowledges with a laugh. "I always felt I was on the outside, which wasn't to say I felt a lot of discrimination growing up. I was just queer, was what I was."

Rooting around in his old desk, Purvis discovers a junior high school diary and reads an entry about his first kiss, a dry account of playing spin-the-bottle with nine girls. Much more passionate is his description elsewhere of his best male friend, whom he worshipfully deems "a Seventies Fonz."

"I was silly, and gay, obviously," Purvis says, shaking his head and snapping the diary shut. "Somebody really should have told me."

Purvis was voted "most spirited" in high school. He excelled in creative writing and got involved in theater. When he graduated he went to Europe with Up With People, the inspirational performing troupe that promotes international harmony. While on tour he befriended another boy in the group who was also from the South. The two teens shared a room, and gradually their intense friendship grew into a romantic relationship. "I was immediately very comfortable with it," Purvis recalls. "I think my subconscious fear had been that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if that ever happened."

Purvis allows that Red Dirt contains at least a shadow of autobiography. The film centers around Griffith Burns, a young man who lives with his agoraphobic aunt Summer (Karen Black) in the fictional rural town of Pine Apple, Mississippi. Griffith, played by 29-year-old-actor Dan Montgomery, feels suffocated by the constraints of caring for his eccentric aunt and by the small town's isolation. Then a stranger arrives in Pine Apple, bringing light into Griffith's life and leading him to revelations about himself.

"The film explores the ambiguity people have in relationships," Purvis notes. "It's about defining and understanding what love is. The two guys in the film mirror relationships I had when I was growing up. I was very, very close with a few guys. There wasn't sex involved, but there was that line. What's the difference? If I care for this person as much as I care for anyone else, does that make this love or does the fact that Griffith has feelings for Lee make him gay?

"Red Dirt is about a guy's search to belong, more than about his sexuality," he continues. "I don't think of this as a gay story. The only important thing is to make a great film."

An editing table dominates Purvis's studio in an Art Center/South Florida building on Pennsylvania Avenue just off Lincoln Road. Nikko Tsiotsias sits peering at a small monitor, pushing buttons, cutting and splicing the 35-millimeter film, bobbing his head to music by Beck coming from a boom box in the corner. Boxes of Marlboro Lights are stacked on the monitor, and a bottle of sugary iced tea Purvis brought from home sits waiting on a table, near a green Schwinn bicycle and an old Radio Flyer red wagon parked haphazardly on one side of the sun-filled room. Heather Rafferty, an intern assisting with the postproduction, glides through the door on Rollerblades.

Purvis has worked in this studio for three years. Here he has created several art installations incorporating film for exhibitions at the Art Center, the Ambrosino Gallery, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, and the prestigious alternative gallery Thread Waxing Space in New York City. But the space has been gradually transformed from a lone artist's studio into a busy film-production office, the headquarters of Purvis's film company, Sweet Tea Productions. Purvis wrote his script here, for months laying out the scenes on index cards on the floor. Last year the room was full of stacks of audition tapes from actors around the country.

For the past six months Tsiotsias and Purvis have been editing the film, which was shot entirely in Meridian. Rows of white boxes containing the 127,000 feet of film fill shelves along a wall. Returning from his daily workout at a gym up the street, Purvis plops down in a chair and fidgets while Tsiotsias works on a scene they discussed earlier. The director looks at the wall of film boxes and sighs. "I knew making a film would be hard, but I don't think I realized how much energy it would take," he says. "When you're making an independent film, you have to keep everyone inspired with the vision that what they're doing is important. And that it's worth doing for nothing, basically."

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