The South Beach Film Festival presents a juried showcase for small independent films (made-in-the-U.S.A. offerings predominate) that would not otherwise see the light of a projector in South Florida. Last year's inaugural SoBe Fest included two outstanding features -- Spare Me and The Making of "...And God Spoke" -- and a passel of intriguing shorts. (Spare Me's Matthew Harrison went on to cop a director's award at Sundance this year for his most recent feature, Rhythm Thief, and has contracted to direct his first multimillion-dollar feature.)
This year's selections run the gamut, from Transrexia, a two-minute animated short in which an imprisoned tyrannosaur contemplates the nature of love and loss, to Tie-Died, an 80-minute documentary that takes the viewer to Las Vegas to commune with Deadheads following Jerry Garcia and company during the band's 1994 summer tour. The latter film celebrates the spirit of community that has characterized this unique subculture for three decades. As you might expect, Tie-Died sympathizes with the Jerry-is-the-Messiah crowd, but by letting dozens of members of the eclectic tribe speak for themselves (only occasionally through a drug-induced stupor), the film offers a surprisingly balanced portrait of the nomadic city of the Dead.
Personally, I can take or leave Grateful Dead music. While I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that many of those who keep on truckin' with the band share my indifference to the group's music, it surprised me to see how many of the Deadheads just trek from parking lot to parking lot without actually scoring tickets and getting into the shows. I was moved by the sense of extended family cited by so many of the younger members of the gathering as their prime reason for being there, and touched by the commitment of older fans who view their participation as a sort of noble alternative to the nine-to-five grind. You don't have to be an idealistic flower child or an aging hippy to find a place on Shakedown Street, but it helps.
While most of Tie-Died is a pleasant enough trip, the film ends with a cautionary segment on draconian mandatory-minimums for drug offenses that is truly alarming. Listen up good, kids: Buy (or sell) your acid before you go to the show, or risk obscenely harsh penalties for possession of incredibly puny quantities.
Like I said, I'm no Deadhead. But my friend Andy is, and he assures me that Tie-Died presents an accurate portrayal of what it's like to be at a Dead show, minus the actual music. I can't think of another concert film that would dare to ignore footage of the actual concert completely, but Tie-Died manages to hold the viewer's interest for most of its 80-minute length without once cutting to a shot of Messrs. Weir, Garcia, and company in action. (A final tip: Don't bother calling the guy who lost his dog and recites his telephone number at the end of the film. After screening Tie-Died, Andy and I tried to phone him to express our sympathies and see if there was anything we could do to help. The number's been disconnected.)
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The protagonist of Irving, a hilarious 25-minute narrative by Jason Bloom that won first place for short fiction film, is a different kind of deadhead: a vampire, to be precise. But if you thought the Brad Pitt character in Interview With the Vampire was a reluctant, guilt-ridden bloodsucker, wait until you meet meek, mild-mannered Irving, a pudgy, balding, 40-ish schlub of an office worker who becomes a night-flyer after defying his overprotective Jewish mother's wishes and stepping out on a blind date with a ravishing shiksa named Christina. ("Little Christ?!" Irving's mother rails upon hearing the girl's name.) Christina's interest in Irving turns out to be more a matter of the veins than of the heart, and before he knows what bit him our sad-sack schlemiel has been initiated into the world of the undead, pursued by both cops and a wooden-stake-wielding vampire killer. But Irving has a card up his sleeve that even Dracula never dreamed of. Hell hath no fury like a Jewish mother whose baby boy is in trouble.
Toll Booth, which closes the festival on Thursday, June 22, is a low-budget feature film shot just down the road in the Florida Keys. The story reeks of South Florida (bugs and roadkill figure prominently) and has echoes of Carl Hiaasen's dark humor and bizarre characters. But the film looks as if it were shot on the cheap, and despite the presence of talented but little-known Fairuza Balk in one leading role and quality support from veteran players such as Louise Fletcher, Seymour Cassell, and Will Patton, Toll Booth never seems to find the correct change. I liked the ideas behind it far more than I enjoyed the on-screen execution of those ideas, although any film that lampoons the Miami Vice theme song as effectively as this one does can't be all bad.
While Tie-Died, Irving, and Toll Booth are but three films from among the festival's nearly four dozen offerings, bear in mind that I've had time to preview only a handful of the works that will screen over the course of the South Beach Film Festival's weeklong run. Among those I haven't had a chance to watch but that promise to be of special interest to South Beach audiences are Cuba va, a look at Cuban issues through the eyes of the island's youth, and The Straight Agenda, a tongue-in-cheek spoof of that notorious piece of right-wing propaganda, "The Gay Agenda.