Reeling in the Year

Miami definitely is not among the top picks for flicks

This was a lousy year to be a film buff in Miami. Not that there weren't plenty of great movies released. Just that Miami was one of the worst cities in the nation in which to see them. Reissued classics such as the vintage noir Rififi, Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, a traveling collection of the rarely seen Sixties Soviet New Wave, and acclaimed foreign films such as Edward Yang's Yi-Yiwere all screened in theaters across the American heartland -- but not in South Florida. If you were intrigued by the glowing reviews that hailed David Gordon Green's George Washington as the directorial debut of 2000, you had to hit I-95. George Washington's sole (semi-) local appearance was at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, where it fought for attention amid an onslaught of pictures that had gone straight to video (most deservedly so) before the fest had even opened.

Industry executives are just as frustrated as Kulchur. Speaking to the Herald's Rene Rodriguez in November, Sony Pictures Classics copresident Tom Bernard said of Ang Lee's highly anticipated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: "Ten years ago we probably would have opened [it] in Miami day and date with New York. But Miami is one of the most disappointing markets in the country for us now. It's on a par with Nashville or Raleigh-Durham." Lions Gate Films Releasing's Tom Ortenberg echoed that sentiment. "In terms of population, South Florida is number 16 out of 211 markets in the entire country," he explained. "But with art films it's usually down somewhere between 25 and 30."

In conversations with Kulchur, several local art-house figures sought to put the blame for this situation on a lack of audience interest in quality cinema. It's an old trope: Sunny weather does not make for an intellectual climate; the bodies just aren't here to support truly adventurous film, or avant-garde arts period.

That contention would come as a surprise to anyone who was among the crowds that packed the Gusman Center for the most recent FIU-Miami Film Festival to see Orphansand Judy Berlin, two indie films without any local buzz or built-in ethnic draw. Moreover how does one explain the full house that greeted an event like the Wolfsonian's exhibition of Czech revolutionary socialist Karel Teige's prewar art? The subject matter hardly is an easy sell in Miami (and a decade ago would have been more apt to draw a bomb threat than an enthusiastic cocktail-sipping crowd).

What this city's film biz suffers from more than anything is an identity crisis. Miami art-house operators simply have yet to grasp that it's now 2001. There was a time when the film business was a much easier beast to pin down. Small independent distributors released art films to small independent art houses. And then there were Hollywood blockbusters that roared into blockbuster-size multiplexes at the mall.

For better or worse the Nineties changed all that. Indie auteurs became marketable, many independent distributors became the "boutique" divisions of major studio outfits, and most transforming for Miami, the AMC and Regal multiplexes that dot the local landscape began showing indie fare.

The resulting confusion is perfectly encapsulated by the flap that erupted early last year when the South Beach Regal opened its doors only a few blocks from Lincoln Road's venerable (ancient by Beach standards of longevity) Alliance Cinema. One of the Regal's initial offerings was Edge of Seventeen, a coming-of-age tale that, while gay-themed, was undeniably nothing more than pleasant fluff.

It certainly seemed to be a win-win situation for audiences. The Regal would show the more formulaic gay pictures that came down the pike, freeing up the Alliance to screen films (gay or straight) that pushed the envelope. Yet rather than seize this new aesthetic opportunity, Alliance executive director Joanne Butcher cried foul. She charged the Regal with "stealing" a film she'd previously booked, thereby threatening the Alliance's very future.

Even while conceding to Kulchur that Edge of Seventeenwas hardly a great film, Butcher seemed unable to definitively put the Alliance on a new course, one that saw the Regal not as competition but as a chance to dig deeper and show precisely the movies the Regal wouldn't. Instead the Alliance wavered, alternating forgettable mainstream pics with inspired choices like Trans, the chilling documentary Black Tar Heroin, the reissue of the Rolling Stones' denouement Gimme Shelter, and a look at the work of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (A former Alliance staffer sheepishly admitted that these last choices came more by default than conscious plan; the films' smaller distributors reportedly were the only ones willing to extend credit to the cash-strapped theater.)

By the fall the Alliance claimed economic insolvency and went dark, leaving for endless debate who was at fault for its demise. Certainly the Alliance's own unreliable air-conditioning, miniscule screen, chaotic scheduling changes, and projectionists who often had a very liberal definition of the wordfocus should share some of the blame. One thing is certain: Miami is left with even fewer viewing options. (In a final note of irony, the Regal chain announced last week that bankruptcy proceedings were imminent; several Regal theater closings appear on the horizon for Miami-Dade County.)

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