Reeling in the Year

This past year saw the Alliance Cinema's flickering projection light go dark for good
Steve Satterwhite

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-Yi were 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 appearancewas 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 Orphans and 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 Seventeen was 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 word focus 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.)

Carrying on in the vein of only hurting the ones you love, over in Coral Gables, the Bill Cosford Cinema continued to be a source of puzzlement. Some of the year's best moviegoing experiences took place at the Cosford courtesy of its director, University of Miami film professor George Capewell: getting sucked up into Krzysztof Kieslowski's first major work, 1984's transcendent No End; listening to legendary documentarian Les Blank introduce his Burden of Dreams, an unintentionally hilarious portrait of Werner Herzog teetering on the brink between artistic genius and insane obsession; the voyeuristic sparkle of 42Up.

All of which only made the months of programming blandness surrounding these highlights that much more glaring: films that had already played at or were en route to the multiplex, films that inexplicably played week after week instead of making way for something new. And to further dramatize matters, the Cosford continued to close not only for the University of Miami's holiday semester break but for the entire summer.

In Capewell's defense his full-time teaching load is an impediment to giving the Cosford the programming attention he agrees it deserves. Which begs the question: Why not hire someone who is willing to do just that? Surely if Miami's politicians can find millions of dollars to throw at boondoggles such as the storied downtown Performing Arts Center or Little Havana's Tower Theater (originally promised as a cutting-edge community art venue, currently featuring the eminently sublime Godzilla 2000 en español), they can scrounge up the $50,000 needed to allow the Cosford to realize its full potential.

The latest entrant into the art-cinema game, Morningside's new Mercury Theater, is unfortunately already showing signs of Alliance-itis. The Mercury currently is featuring You Can Count on Me, and though that film may be one of the year's best, it is simultaneously playing at the South Beach Regal, AMC Cocowalk, AMC Sunset Place, and AMC Aventura theaters. So why go to all the trouble of building a brand-new venue (and applying for nonprofit status to boot) if you're only going to duplicate what's already available at the multiplexes? Down the road the Mercury's owners are planning an Orson Welles retrospective, but first expect to see Before Night Falls and Pollock, both great films but both of which also will be screening everywhere else around town at exactly the same time.

What's so maddening about Miami's film community is that the structures for a better future already are in place. And behind each of these structures are individuals who obviously are passionate about film and the task of presenting it to the public. All that's needed is an enlarged sense of vision.

From a Miami vantage point, it's problematic to assemble a definitive "best of 2000" film list. Several of the year's most highly touted films (Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love) hadn't opened here at press time. Furthermore defining the dividing line between film and television is getting harder. Queer as Folk, the British Channel 4 import (not the domesticated Showtime remake, thank you) may have technically originated as a TV series, but catching it at the Colony Theater as part of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival provided just as much pleasure as any other trip to the big screenthis past year. Meanwhile HBO's Sex and the City and The Sopranos continued to trump the bulk of Hollywood's output, as did 1999's two best broadcast series, Action and Freaks and Geeks, which were rescued from network cancellation and found new homes on cable. Perhaps it's best simply to think about haunting the video-shop aisles for the following ten films: Almost Famous, Beau Travail, Before Night Falls, The Decalogue, Dr. T and the Women, Jesus' Son, Orphans, Trans, Wonder Boys, and You Can Count on Me.

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