The Miami Beach Cinematheque: A Love Story
It's an amazing time to be a cinephile in South Florida. What was once an all-but-ignored town for anything that wasn't coming out of Hollywood now boasts a robust art house cinema scene of five theaters dedicated to indie, foreign and art films- each with a distinct character, audience, and programming. Yet, while the Bill Cosford Cinema, Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema and Tower Theater each have made enormous contributions to the city's cinematic renaissance, there's another amongst the group that deserves recognition for its role in helping to start the movement 20 years prior.
With its well-appointed décor, architectural flourishes, and historic structure, the Miami Beach Cinematheque is a haven from the noise of Washington Avenue. It's an escape that offers serenity and civility amidst the rowdiness of South Beach. Yet, while its grand new digs offer a sublime slice of European sophistication in the American Riviera, this wasn't always the case.
When Dana Keith moved to South Beach in 1993, he brought with him a
lifelong passion for cinema that was constantly renewed through his
decade living in Europe while working as a model. When he wasn't on the
runway or in a photo shoot, he was discovering movie palaces and cinema
houses throughout the continent -- all the while amassing an enviable
collection of movie memorabilia that spans the invention of cinema
through the present day. Yet for all its palm trees and bohemian vibe of the
early 90's, South Beach was missing the spectacle and art of cinema, and
Keith was determined to bring that to the 33139. It started with roving
events at hotels around the island, including an Esther Williams film
festival with Esther present and introducing at some of the very same
hotels her legendary aquatic films were shot, and an annual viewing party
for the Oscars which eventually led to the only sanctioned event by the
Academy in Miami. The Miami Beach Film Society was making waves, but it
soon became evident that it needed a home to do all it wanted.
Cinematheque's original theater was an intimate, converted storefront
on Española Way, a cozy environment that seated 50 surrounded by a vast library of books on the arts and artists of film.
What it lacked in space, however, it made up for in what it offered: an
unfetted access to the canons of the worlds greatest filmmakers. The
type of films you'd only be fortunate enough to discover at museums or
film school were now being shown in the sun and and fun capital. Works
by Godard, Bresson, Antonioni, and Fellini were the norm not the exception.
Each introduced and contextualized by Keith, offering his insight and
opinions as a film historian. The chairs sucked but the movies rocked.
the advent of new digital technology, the Cinematheque began to
incorporate a mixture of first-run films along with its repertory
offerings. When in 2011 it moved to its new facility inside the
historical City Hall Building, built by Carl Fisher in 1926, it managed to
do the impossible -- create a new theater inside a protected structure in
the bureaucratic nightmare that is the City of Miami Beach. The fact
that its as stunning and lovely as it is just underscores Keith's vision and persistence. That you can see films like Once Upon a
Time in Anatola or Chaplin's Modern Times on the same night underscores
its uniqueness and importance in our cultural landscape. The new chairs
are comfy and the movies still rock!
When I'm not writing my
weekly column for the Miami New Times or watching Golden Girls reruns, I
moonlight as the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema, an indie art
house movie theater in Wynwood. When my partner Vivian Marthell and I
set out to open the theater, our goal was to create a space that was
eclectic -- a living canvas for visual art and motion pictures with a
strong Miami sensibility. We happily describe ourselves as the funkiest
theater in town, but we're quick to point out that the Miami Beach
Cinematheque is undoubtedly the most elegant. It's like our older sister who
traded in her Pumas for pumps, but is still very cool.
to be a time when Miamians would pick up the New York Times and lament all the films that were playing in Manhattan but that would never see
the light of day in the Magic City. Those days are gone now, thanks to the
five indie theaters the city now enjoys. But it's important to remember
that for a very long time, the Miami Beach Cinematheque was practically
the only one filling the void. While there's a cinematic cornucopia in
the 305 these days, let's not forget about the one who was serving it up
solo and consistently for the longest. Viva the Cinematheque!
Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.
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