New Cine on the Block

Fortunately somebody's trying to bring us underground film again

Modern-day Miami Beach, where condo canyons stretch skyward, slick shops expand along Lincoln Road Mall (emphasis on "mall"), and overstuffed SUVs jockey for position on overcrowded causeways. Not an ideal milieu for going small and artsy.

But bucking the trend for the ever bigger and, uh, bigger, is the newly opened Miami Beach Cinematheque. Tucked away in a storefront space at the western end of historic Española Way, the last fading remnant of South Beach bohemianism, the Cinematheque flies in the face of convention and the steamroller of progress currently charging through wide swaths of Miami-Dade. Compared with the steroid-enhanced Regal Cinemas just up the road, with its eighteen screens and towering façade, the Miami Beach Cinematheque is downright puny. Too small for 35mm prints, it's got seating for just around 50, in canvas director's chairs, and only one screen. Well, actually, no screen. Films are for now projected onto a wall, with a new donated screen coming sometime soon.

But this is no reason to dampen the enthusiasm of the Cinematheque's director, Dana Keith. In fact except for the tweaking and upgrades still to be made, the place couldn't be in a better situation, according to Keith, founder of the ten-year-old Miami Beach Film Society that's behind the project. "The character of the space is in keeping with the whole Miami Beach Film Society vibe, because of its character and history, and it represents part of Miami Beach," says Keith of the architectural significance of Española Way. "And it's attractive to tourists and locals because it's away from the insanity of Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road."

Old and new, experimental and foreign, the latest indie cinema promises to fill a gap
art credit Here
Old and new, experimental and foreign, the latest indie cinema promises to fill a gap

One of the many goals of the Cinematheque is to create a space that's more art-film-gallery than cinema, with ongoing still photography exhibits and memorabilia displays, and an informal setting that encourages discussions about film. Keith precedes each film with a short introduction and is on hand afterward for comments and questions, calling on his extensive knowledge of virtually every genre and era in film history.

"I'm just passionate about all types of cinema in general," says Keith, who studied cinema at the University of California, once worked in the art department at Paramount Studios, and regularly travels to major film festivals like Cannes and Venice. "And the main point of this is to give people the awareness of what's out there, and what's been out there in the past."

One thing that's out there, sometimes way out there, is the Independent Exposure series that's currently scheduled every Thursday night. The experimental shorts are put together by Microcinema International in San Francisco, with themes like Edition Français and Sizzling Summer Edition, and distributed to art houses around the world. Innovative and provocative, the series has garnered a following in other cities around the country, an audience that Keith is attempting to build in Miami. And Microcinema has even asked Keith to develop a Miami edition from the work of local filmmakers. "I've already seen some really nice experimental work right here, locally produced, that I think would be great," says Keith. "But what I'd like to see is a real Miami slant, to show how different the mindset is down here."

Keith won't have far to go to find independent filmmakers, since his Saturday-night features are currently reserved for the works of local directors. So far director Rob Goodman has screened his feature 531, Bill Grefe his Hooked Generation from 1968, and Brian Frankel curated an evening of short films and videos from the Miami Independent League of Filmmakers. Except for various local film fests that run every year, there are few opportunities for local filmmakers to consistently show their work. "They're ecstatic with that because there's just no place for them to sit and talk intimately with a group," says Keith. "Other organizations like IFP [Independent Feature Project] do a great program, but it's meant for the directors to kind of network themselves. This is more directly for the audience to see the local work that they normally won't be able to see."

But there's more to the Cinematheque than indies and experimental shorts. A weekly bill of foreign films screens on Friday, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour and 8 1/2, followed by classic Hollywood films on Sunday afternoons, like Bringing Up Baby and Spellbound, which for the time being are tied to the recent passing of Hollywood legends Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

But the ambitious Keith doesn't stop there. Together with his partner and chairwoman of the Film Society, Barbara Permagament, he is working with nearly all the local film festivals to provide them a venue space for small screenings and discussion panels during their run. And then there are big plans to have their own Festival of Film Festivals, a greatest-hits of the best films from the top film festivals around the world. The Cinematheque will also embrace the old and nearly extinct 16mm film format along with cutting-edge digital projection.

It's a lot to take on for a two-person organization, but Keith and Permagament have persevered for more than a year to get their Cinematheque in working order, applying for grants and soliciting donations. And while Keith's former model days come through in his art director's flair for aesthetic details around the boutiquelike Cinematheque, superfluous for most cinephiles there to watch films, it may be an added hook to get the underinitiated through the door. "It's hard to get their attention," Keith says of local residents' attitudes toward noncommercial film. "That's why I create these themes that people can relate to."

With the consolidation of theaters into megaplexes, and the endangered nature of art and independent film houses, any new venue like the Cinematheque is a welcome sight and a hopeful sign that an audience is emerging to support it. "I'm glad he's doing it, I wish him the best. It's a struggle," says Baron Sherer, current director of Cinema Vortex and formerly of the Alliance Cinema on Lincoln Road. "The Alliance struggled for years to get things going."

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