Spiral Stare Case

This year's Cinema Vortex film festival has art in its heart but crime on its mind

When the lights first flickered on for Cinema Vortex back in 1993, it was little more than a cool name with the occasional screenings to go with it. Repertory and experimental art films were its trade, playing to small audiences of mostly hard-core cinephiles. The event chugged along in the same vein for a decade, altering little other than its venue: from a former hole-in-the-wall bar space on South Beach to the old Alliance Cinema on Lincoln Road to, most recently, the Wolfsonian Museum.

The only knock that could be leveled against the series is that its offerings have been too few and far between, dishing up mere hors d'oeuvres of sporadic screenings -- a weekend here or there, without providing a main course. But all of that is changing this year with a full slate of films, nineteen in fact, that stretches over eight weekends from Friday through June 6. You could say Cinema Vortex is starting to resemble a full-fledged film festival, a big change from its early Alliance Cinema days.

Since Barron Sherer took over the film series in 1994 -- minus a few years in the late Nineties when he lived in San Francisco -- Cinema Vortex has been an anticipated and refreshing event on Miami's cinematic landscape. Videos and films that regularly make the rounds at the types of art film festivals foreign to Miami consistently find an outlet locally through the series, like this year's Negative Space (1999) and London Orbital (2002) by Chris Petit, as do rarely screened or out-of-print repertory classics such as Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) or Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman (1961), both showing this year. Sherer has even been able to snag a bootleg print of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) with James Mason, which is on Film Comment magazine's list of the top twenty movies of all time that you can't see on video.

"There was a time when I had the Alliance space that I could do something every weekend for a couple of years," says Sherer, of the films that would typically screen at the not-so-prime-time of noon. "But still it wasn't on this level. I didn't do any publicity. I just rented films and just told everyone what the next week's film would be and hoped they showed up. And then when the cinema closed, every time I could raise $500 I'd do a show. Then I'd be at the Cosford or the Wolfsonian."

Not only is Sherer doing his best to get the word out, but he actually has a team of people helping him for the first time in Cinema Vortex history. He has formed a nonprofit foundation for the film series and has also assembled a board of directors made up of long-time local film activists, including Don Chauncey and Kevin Wynn. Cinema Vortex is even hosting a swanky fundraising party on Ocean Drive that starts at $50 donations per person.

"I've never done anything like this. It was always just me and a projector and a space," says Sherer, who works for the Florida Moving Image Archive in downtown Miami. "I basically got over the notion that I could do everything myself, so I got all these supportive people. And everybody on the board, they bring something good to it."

With a lineup of so many films, there's an opportunity for themes to be put together both on the various weekends and for the overall event. There is an historical element found in nearly all the films in one way or another, which Sherer says coincides with his own interest in such films, especially coming from his background as a film archivist. Otherwise the event's offerings can be broken down into two areas: repertory films from the 1950-1970s, and recent art films and videos that use archival footage.

Maybe the most recognizable film in the festival is Get Carter from 1971, starring Michael Caine as a London gangster investigating his brother's mysterious death in the city of Newcastle's criminal underworld. The feature is part of a themed weekend titled "Crime Wave: The 70s," and also includes Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975), The Outfit (1974) starring Robert Duvall, and The Driver (1978) with Ryan O' Neal.

Tough guy director Walter Hill made The Driver and its many car chases in the dead of night in Los Angeles, without crowd control and a soundtrack, with nothing but the raw sounds of the cars and the street. Hill was influenced by director Jean Pierre Melville, which makes the film, according to Sherer, "kind of arty but it's still like a cheapo action movie."

After the phenomenal success of films such as Dirty Harry, the Hollywood studios were crazy for crime movies, and these were some of the best of that noir-ish wave. And except for Get Carter, which is available on video, it's nearly impossible to view these films since they're all out of print. But despite the rarity of these gems, Sherer is sweating it out this year, what with the higher stakes and Miami's fickle moviegoing public.

"We'll see how it goes. Right now I'm so queasy because I don't know what to expect. I don't know if people are going to support it," says Sherer. "That first weekend is a tough sell. If I could have a conversation with everybody that might be interested in it, I can probably convince them to come, because it's so hot, I can't tell you."

But unlike Cinema Vortex offerings of the past, the films showing during this year's fest are more conventional, which is part of Sherer's design to test the waters before jumping in with more experimental work the next time around. "It's like an experimental season. Are people gonna show up? That's the experiment. That's where all the experimental stuff is on this one," laughs Sherer.

"It's been ten years, I'm just trying to move it up a little bit to see what happens," he adds. "I hope that people just enjoy it. It's so fun to go see rep movies in a cinema. I can't tell you when you see the blacks and the whites in those Fritz Lang movies, it's very exciting. That's just something I'm trying to share with everybody else."

Cinema Vortex opens with The Outfit at 8:00 p.m. and Get Carter at 10:15 p.m. on Friday, April 16; The Driver at 8:00 p.m. and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 17; and Get Carter at 2:00 p.m. and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 18. All showings are at the Shores Performing Arts Theater, 9806 NE 2nd Ave, Miami Shores. Tickets are $8. Call 305-614-5700.

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