Screen Gems

His wardrobe runs to flannel shirts and weathered jeans, and his threadbare Chuck Taylor high-tops are so far gone that his wife Adris is only half-kidding when she says she likes them because she can nibble on her husband's toes without taking his shoes off. No, Bill Orcutt does not look much like the executive director of any institution, let alone one so vital to the cultural vigor of a region as the Alliance for Media Arts is to Miami. And as unassuming as he looks, Orcutt acts even less like a big shot. He thinks nothing of hopping into his trusty '86 Subaru to deliver a press kit or a videotape preview of an upcoming release to a local newspaper, or waiting patiently at the quaint little theater on Lincoln Road for movie critics running late for screenings.

But that's the thing about Orcutt. Yes, he's polite and soft-spoken and he smiles easily. He comports himself more like a graduate student in philosophy than the top dog at the only theater devoted to cutting-edge foreign and independent cinema in Dade County. With his low-key manner, Orcutt also indirectly oversees that theater's new offshoot, a film and video co-op dedicated to helping small, noncommercial local filmmakers. Yet to look at him you'd never guess that he's the lead singer-songwriter-guitarist (Adris plays drums) for a noise-rock band called Harry Pussy, or that he once duked it out with a snotty French screenwriter over a dame.

The quest of men like Bill Orcutt and Don Chauncey (the Alliance founder and chairman of the board, as well as head film librarian for the Dade public library system) verges on the quixotic. They are the last of a dying breed, the windmill-tilters. They are Miami's independent film exhibitors, fighting to bring obscure quality films to an often unappreciative community. These days even a middling Hollywood film needs to gross millions of dollars in its first weekend of release to have a shot at turning a profit. Videotape rental stores, pay-per-view, and cable TV make even marginal films available in the home within six to eight months of their theatrical release. Competition for the discretionary entertainment buck has never been tougher.

The Alliance has, by default, inherited the mantle of being Dade County's premier alternative movie house. In the late Eighties, Nat Chediak's Cinematheque, Arcadia, and Grove Harbour theaters and the "Fabulous Flying Fendelman Brothers'" Grove Art Cinema all closed. Today, AMC's CocoWalk and Fashion Island multiplexes deserve credit for consistently dedicating screens to adventuresome programming like The Summer House, Tous les matins du monde, Orlando, Like Water for Chocolate, and Amongst Friends. Their successes with those films have prompted the chain to go a step further and create a program called Gourmet Cinema, which will offer membership cards and discounts to what they label "discriminating viewers." But the Alliance, where the seat count is lower than that of CocoWalk's smallest auditorium, specializes in less commercially viable features, like the exquisite but obscure Mongolian delight Close to Eden and the appropriately titled Tokyo Decadence. Yet it also has enough prestige to snare such eagerly anticipated independent features as Mike Leigh's Naked (scheduled to open here in the last week of February). Currently the Alliance is the only first-run movie theater on South Beach -- as well as the only cinema in Dade County -- willing to host a controversial documentary like The Panama Deception or such gay films as Luna or Okoge.

Alliance membership has grown over the years to the current level of 150 supporters who pay $35 per year (plus another $25 if they want to make use of the filmmaking co-op; approximately 60 are members of both). The public is welcome at the theater, where standard ticket prices for members are $4, non-members $6. Orcutt, who started out as a volunteer projectionist in 1989, became the full-time executive director in 1991. You can find him there most days making sure there's plenty of change in the cashbox, returning phone calls, and faxing out promotional materials. The board of directors has remained virtually unchanged since 1988, but today they serve in more of an advisory capacity than as active participants in the organization's daily operations. It's basically Orcutt's baby.

And it's winning high praise. "The Alliance is South Florida's finest alternative cinema," says Dick Morris, founder of the Sarasota Film Society and a programmer who specializes in booking "art films" -- low budget, independently produced, often foreign -- into roughly two dozen alternative movie houses (including the Alliance) around the country. "It's very important to the cultural health of the community. They put on 50 films a year that the community would otherwise not get to see. Bill Orcutt and the Alliance's board of directors deserve applause and gratitude."

Morris offers a few numbers to back up his claims. It's Orcutt's third year as head honcho of the not-for-profit organization; during his reign average weekly attendance has grown from 100 paid admissions per week to more than 500. That's about half the number a small Hollywood film needs to draw to break even, but a strong showing for an art-house. The theater's most recent offering, Spanish director Bigas Luna's dark comedy Jam centsn Jam centsn, drew 2000 viewers its first week.

"That's a huge accomplishment," asserts Morris. "They've been great getting the word out and doing all the legwork. There's less of an audience for small films now than there was ten or fifteen years ago. You need an intellectually curious audience, and you don't have much of that in this country. There's a huge market for the bigger stuff, like The Crying Game or The Piano or even Remains of the Day, but to mobilize people to see Inside Monkey Zetterland or Romper Stomper is much more difficult." Small films often have a limited number of prints in circulation, so the Alliance may not receive the film they're opening on a Friday evening until Friday afternoon. It's hard, if not downright impossible, to do long-range planning or promotion with logistics like that.

Rem Cabrera, the Grants and Programs Administrator for the Metro-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, seconds Morris's assessment of the Alliance's value -- and his council has backed it up by awarding the Alliance several grants for renovations and equipment upgrades. "They're a phenomenal organization," Cabrera enthuses. "They pull off miraculous feats on a shoestring budget. They're always looking for new ways to serve the community, like the production co-op or the gay and lesbian film festival. I don't think the community appreciates how much the resurgence of vitality on South Beach is due to the influence of arts groups like the Alliance that went there first."

A timid viewing public and the caprices of small film distributors are just two of the obstacles Orcutt has had to face. Every year he hears rumors that a new multiplex will open in the area and put the Alliance out of business. But Orcutt believes that even if one of the big chains were to move in -- AMC, Wometco, and New York-based Angelika Film Centers have reportedly expressed interest in the area -- the presence of a mainstream cinema would have little or no effect on the Alliance's alternative audience.

Ironically, no one is more surprised by the Alliance's success than the equable supervisor during whose tenure the growth has occurred.

"To tell you the truth, I wasn't real keen on the theater's chances when I came on. It was more like, 'How many bills can we pay before we close?'" Orcutt admits.

He's had to make compromises to keep the cinema going. The Alliance's executive director regrets that under his aegis the Alliance has, in order to attract a wider audience, been forced to steer away from truly innovative filmmaking in favor of more accessible (and therefore popular) features like Jam centsn Jam centsn. As a quick listen to Harry Pussy's (the name was lifted from a Yoko Ono song) anti-melodic, high-decibel aural assault confirms, Orcutt is not a man who lives in fear of pushing the envelope. The band's live shows are rare, thanks in no small part to the Alliance's demands on Orcutt's time. The name would probably be a bigger issue if the band tried to play out more often or to promote itself in the local media. But, true to their underground nature, the band members have little interest in mainstream publicity. But they've still managed to release two seven-inch singles, one of which was picked up for national distribution by the prestigious Matador label. Their incendiary tune "Brown" is a highlight of enigmatic local rock oracle Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra's Live at Churchill's CD; Falestra, the front man for Scraping Teeth (named the worst band in America by Spin magazine in 1993) was an early Harry Pussy booster and remains an ardent fan.

As if managing the theater, hobnobbing with the representatives of funding agencies, and leading the band weren't enough to keep him occupied, Orcutt is also an accomplished experimental filmmaker himself. He hasn't had much time to pursue that muse since he took over at the Alliance in 1991, but before then Orcutt showed a great deal of promise. MTV, that paragon of popular culture, purchased one of his shorts for $5000 in 1990; it was a stark twenty-second black-and-white clip of an elderly woman with her face contorted into a scream A but with no sound save for the amplified whoosh of an oscillating wire-framed fan whirring in the background.

Orcutt, however, didn't start out to be a filmmaker. He graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in English in 1984, then took a master's in the subject from UM two years later. It was during his undergraduate years as a Gator that he developed an interest in unconventional cinema after attending a seminar taught by one of his idols, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script for 1961's innovative classic Last Year at Marienbad. Years after taking that course, while Orcutt was conducting an interview with the Frenchman for La bete arts magazine, Robbe-Grillet began insulting his respectful inquisitor to impress the attractive female interpreter who was translating for them. Orcutt, stung by the French master's criticism, returned fire in English. The interview ended with Robbe-Grillet punching the American and storming out in a huff. The fact that this incident did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for cutting-edge cinema is testimony to the depth of Orcutt's commitment to the art form.

Orcutt taught English composition as an adjunct professor at UM for three years and made short films as a hobby until a substantial grant from the South Florida Cultural Consortium convinced the ersatz English teacher to try to make a go of it as a filmmaker. He quit teaching in 1989 and began making films full-time, showing his work at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive in 1990. Orcutt got to know Don Chauncey when the Alliance founder bought a couple of Orcutt's short works for the Miami-Dade Public Library's collection, and he began working at the new Miami Beach theater as a volunteer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Orcutt and Chauncey's noble battle to promote progressive cinema is part of a colorful twenty-year tradition. Long before the recent South Beach revival, Coral Gables and Coconut Grove were the center of the universe for film-loving Miamians whose palates were not sated by commercial Hollywood fare. The Gables was the home of Nat Chediak's Cinematheque (almost as famous for its original chairs -- reclining seats salvaged from a 727 and donated by Eastern Airlines -- as it was for its diverse celluloid offerings) and Arcadia theaters, as well as UM's Beaumont Cinema. Coconut Grove was home to Richard and James Fendelman's Grove Art Cinema, which opened at about the same time as the Cinematheque (in 1973) and, much later, to Chediak's short-lived Grove Harbour theater. The Grove Art Cinema is probably best remembered for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which played there every weekend for more than ten years and subsidized many of the Cinema's more esoteric offerings.

Those were the salad days for the local art-house scene, and no single event better crystallized the mindset of that time than the notorious bidding war that broke out in 1983 between Chediak and the Fendelmans for the exclusive right to exhibit Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo. At a time when their average film cost about $2500, the Fendelmans paid $26,500 for Fitzcarraldo, plus a percentage of the profits. The brothers won that battle but nearly lost the war when they had to feature the film for four months and charge the unheard of price (remember, this was 1982) of six bucks a ticket to recoup their investment. All that one needs to know about the differences between that bygone era and today's cinema marketplace is neatly summed up in that image: two competing movie theaters willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of showing a Werner Herzog movie.

Donald Chauncey, the Alliance co-founder, didn't set out to fill Chediak's and the Fendelmans' shoes when he moved to Miami in 1983. In fact, he quickly became a regular patron of Beaumont Cinema and the Cinematheque, along with fellow cinema buffs Scott Shelley and Victor Velt. But neither theater was devoting much energy to the category of films Chauncey and his compatriots were most interested in: experimental cinema. So the trio started holding monthly screenings and special programs on their own at Coral Gables locations such as Books & Books and the local branch of the Dade County Library.

"We became known as the black-plastic people," recalls Chauncey. "We'd go into Books & Books and set up folding chairs and drape black plastic over the windows [to block out light]. It was very makeshift, to say the least."

But their audience, which ranged between 40 and 70 patrons, didn't seem to mind. (It was standing-room-only when ex-adult-film star Veronica Vera showed clips of non-sexist porno, but that was the exception.) As both attendance and screening dates became more regular, the three film buffs incorporated the Alliance for Media Arts as a not-for-profit corporation in 1984 and appointed themselves to the first board of directors. After four years both Shelley and Velt left the area, and were replaced by new board members. Finally, in 1989, the Alliance moved into its own theater in the Sterling building in the Lincoln Road Mall. The familiar black plastic adorned some of the walls, covering up holes in the plaster, and the first seats were white Rubbermaid lawn chairs.

The move to the Beach proved fortuitous. As the Nineties began, both Chediak's and the Fendelmans' once-fashionable independent-film showcases in the Gables and the Grove had closed. Beaumont Cinema in the Gables shut its doors for renovations, lost momentum, and has yet to return to form. Only the Astor Cinema, on the site of Chediak's Arcadia theater in the Gables design district, remains in business today as a home for second-run foreign films. That leaves the Alliance standing alone as the hub of new independent film exhibition in Dade County.

But the theater's survival and burgeoning popularity have not come without a price. While much of the Alliance's menu is daring and innovative compared to the offerings at mainstream cinemas, in order to maintain that popular growth the theater has been forced to show more accessible films than the unorthodox movies it was originally supposed to be an outlet for. Neither Orcutt nor Chauncey has been particularly thrilled by this development. But, true to their progressive roots, the two have come up with a novel solution.

On a sunny afternoon in the middle of the Lincoln Road Mall a man wearing a pair of plastic milk crates on his feet jumps rope and sings. Handlettered signs affixed to the plastic crates identify the performer as "The Mighty Wailin Burnin Berry." The Mighty Wailin guy stops singing and assumes a series of poses -- the Discus Thrower, the Thinker, Winged Mercury. Patrons at the nearby Lincoln Road Cafe react with a mixture of indifference and consternation. One of them, a young woman with a winsome smile who has been paying more attention to the act than her older male dinner companion, launches into a soliloquy on the nature of what is hip on SoBe.

Cut to the editing room of the Alliance Co-op months later. Paul "The Mighty Wailin Burnin" Berry looks up from the above-mentioned scene playing on a monitor in the editing room of the Alliance's three-month-old film and video co-op. "What do you think of it?" he asks me after I've wandered into the editing room. The question puts me in an awkward position. Berry is obviously a novice filmmaker; he readily admits as much. There would be no point in criticizing his work as if it were a Hollywood feature. Still, it wouldn't be truthful to praise it either. Luckily, thankfully, Mark Boswell, one of the co-op's two directors, intercedes before I have to render an opinion.

"Paul's probably been the most energetic of our members," Boswell explains, making it clear through both tone and inflection that energy, not expertise, is what the co-op values most. Boswell, a muscular, goateed avant-garde filmmaker from Tallahassee with the no-bullshit air of a military man, is seated in an old wheelchair co-op members frequently use as a makeshift camera dolly. "He [Berry] just walked in off the street wanting to document his street performances. His first short was wearing this white paper jumpsuit and reading the Gettysburg Address while standing on his head. Now it's this film, getting longer every day."

As Boswell is talking a young woman arrives at the co-op's open door. "Oh my god!" she shrieks, eyes wide at the sight of Boswell in the wheelchair. "What happened to you?"

"Nothing. This is just a dolly," Boswell laughs, standing momentarily to prove he is still ambulatory.

It's like that at the co-op. Wheelchairs for dollies. People popping in and out. Several conversations going on at once. A street entertainer like Berry editing a video of one of his performances.

There's a small sign affixed to the co-op's door: "It's easy to make movies, you just shoot and everything comes out right." The quote is attributed to Andy Warhol. While intended to be humorous, the statement provides some insight into co-op directors Mark Boswell and William Keddell's view of their mission.

"Anyone can make a film. The technical side is not really that difficult," asserts Keddell, who supported his initial forays into alternative films by directing music videos in his native New Zealand. The co-op's emphasis (at least for now) is on helping inexperienced filmmakers make the transition from wanna-be's to celluloid pros. Whether hobbyists or careerists, as long as their project is not commercial, there's room for it at the co-op. "Of course, by the time we're through with it, we intend it to be anything but amateur," Keddell asserts

Orcutt, who takes a hands-off managerial approach to the co-op that allows Boswell and Keddell lots of leeway, has similar aims. "I'm hoping the co-op will develop avant-garde filmmaking," says Orcutt, noting that such films got short shrift when the cinema shifted to showing more popular narrative films.

"Bill's arms are tied," says Boswell. "He has to show feature films. There are strict rules to follow when you deal with the different distributors, and the distributors don't demand that avant-garde films get shown, so they don't get shown, except at festivals. Or in garages."

Or at the co-op itself, where regular screenings of underground films are an important function. "We're trying to fill that gap," adds Keddell.

Unlike Paul Berry, who has no pretensions to Bunuel's throne -- yet -- most members take themselves, and their filmmaking, very seriously. Julian Martin, a pensive young MDCC student, read about the co-op's opening party in October and was one of the first to sign up for Boswell's inaugural super-8 production class. Martin hopes to someday make a go of it as a filmmaker and describes his body of work to this point as "practice."

Mark Holt is far more experienced. Holt, whose deliberately trashy work owes an obvious debt to John Waters, has been working in video for several years and is making the transition to super-8 and 16mm film under Boswell and Keddell's tutelage. Bad taste is his metier. Two of Holt's earliest videos, Nightmare at Karioke (sic) and Gigantic Bitch, feature local visual artist Craig Coleman's popular drag alter ego, Varla. Nightmare follows Varla through a drunken, disastrous debut at Semper's karaoke night ( the club is now defunct). The film is only sporadically funny, but retains some value as a pseudo-documentary of a particularly colorful moment in the Beach's rush to fabulousness. Gigantic Bitch is far more tasteless, (highlights include a hungover Varla having a noisy bowel movement and vomiting in bed) but is at least partially redeemed by a hilarious takeoff on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Two more recent Holt works, Barbie's Dream Vacation and Big-Boned Bad Girls, screened at this year's inaugural Queer Flickering Light film festival, another Alliance innovation. The latter film is a campy Fifties drive-in movie spoof about four bad girls -- drag queens, of course -- who drop out of high school and beat people up for kicks.

Holt's interest in filmmaking ebbed when Semper's nightclub, where he shot Nightmare at Karioke and often showed his work, closed in 1992. But the opening of the co-op rekindled his interest. "You can work your ass off with no equipment and get decent results, but it's a lot better to work your ass off the same amount with good equipment and get great results," he reasons.

It's a sentiment Keddell, whose interest in filmmaking dates back to his days as an art student in London in the mid-Seventies, can relate to. Joining a co-op, he recalls, "was the only way you could afford to make a film. What film schools offered was less [important] than being amongst motivated filmmakers and helping each other out."

Tony Allegro, Alliance board member, tenured UM film faculty member, and accomplished filmmaker, understands the benefits of both having good equipment and working with other motivated artists. "I've had my own equipment for years," he says, "but most young filmmakers aren't that lucky. Experimental filmmakers are notorious for not being able to afford batteries, and for forgetting to charge them when they do get them. Let alone having $2000 for a good video camera or $1500 for a used Bolex. The co-op will be a big help to them.

"It's another important cultural resource for South Florida," he continues. "New York has the Millenium; L.A. has the Film Forum. Our history has yet to be written. It's a blank page."

Allegro foresees the co-op becoming a focal point for South Florida's small but lively underground film community. "The co-op is a developing program," explains the director of Toxic Syndrome, a one-and-a-half-hour, three-part, two-screen documentary of the arts scene in South Florida from 1983 to 1986. Late Herald film critic Bill Cosford called Allegro's opus "an important work" and "like some of the best avant-garde films, it has a cumulative intensity that builds beyond the apparent sum of its images."

Despite their best intentions, however, the majority of the co-op's members have a long way to go before they can legitimately hope to receive such lavish praise. The emphasis here is on passion more than perfection. Boswell cites the example of Charles Scott, a forklift operator who rides the bus for more than an hour each way from his home in North Miami to attend classes and workshops at the mini-complex on Miami Beach. Scott, whose interest in filmmaking only slightly predates the opening of the co-op, took Keddell's inaugural 16mm production class and has yet to shoot his first frame of film, but the co-op's directors have no doubt about his intention to do so, and soon. "Here's a guy who watches films, studies a lot, reads books on film while he rides the bus a couple hours each time. Works in a warehouse, just bought a Russian 16mm camera. That desire is what impresses me," Boswell says.

Some students have already started making films after taking classes there. Greg Aunapu, a Miami free-lance journalist who aspires to become a professional filmmaker, began working on a short feature this year after taking a 16mm class in the fall. "I knew nothing about the technical aspects of filming when I started," he says. "It was a good basics program." Aunapu plans to submit his twelve-minute comic short about a Hemingwayesque writer to the South Beach Film Festival and other independent film festivals, hoping that it will help him win backing for future projects.

Providing such opportunities to fledgling filmmakers requires a little money, though, and that's about all that the co-op has. Thirty thousand dollars in county grants and private donations obtained by Orcutt and the Alliance launched the co-op in the fall of 1993. The money was used to purchase sound, lighting, and editing equipment, as well as an array of 16mm, Super-8, and Super VHS cameras. Memberships and equipment rentals cover operating expenses like rent and utilities. Neither Boswell nor Keddell draws a salary from the Alliance. Their only compensation comes from the classes they teach and workshops they lead. (In addition to the $60 annual membership fee, classes cost $100 and participants can expect to pony up another $20 or so for film processing and materials.)

"We began with grant money, but I envision us becoming self-sustaining eventually," says the transplanted Keddell. Based on initial response, as well as the pressing need for reasonably priced equipment rental and a gathering place for the budding Kenneth Angers in Miami, Keddell's aspirations appear to be well-founded. While the co-op is not exactly a cash cow, income from memberships and equipment rentals is enough to cover overhead.

"Of course, that doesn't mean we don't want any more grant money," he's quick to add with a smile. "Grants equal equipment. But a lot of people don't even know we exist yet. And a lot of people don't understand what we do. We get a lot of calls from crazies, actually. People who think we're here to help them make commercials for free, things like that."

"A lot of people call with a script thinking the co-op will make the film for them," adds Boswell, clearly vexed by the thought. But the co-op can't be co-opted. "We got a call today. Versace's party. Mickey Rourke's gonna be there. They wanted us to film it. What a bunch of shit."

Their impulses are determinedly anti-elitist. For its grand opening in mid-October, the co-op bought a keg of beer and held an open screening. Any and all local filmmakers were invited to bring their work with them; more than twenty locally produced short films were screened continuously throughout the evening. The 50 or so chairs set up in the co-op classroom filled in a flash. People continued to stream in, quickly overcrowding the classroom and spilling into the hallway. "First the seating was gone, then the standing room, then the beer," recalls Boswell.

Boswell estimates that 250 people attended the festivities. People were hanging out wherever they could find space A in the office, in the hall, along the stairwell. The dramatic highlight of the evening occurred when local actor Ski Zawaski posed as Hollywood mogul "Toni Botafucci" and taunted the crowd, insulting the "artsy-fartsy shit" they were watching. A plant in the crowd stood up, pointed a gun at the faux producer, and fired. A blood squib was detonated and the Hollywood hotshot went down. Although the wires to Toni's blood pack were clearly visible, many in the audience were startled. This is, after all, Miami.

The three first-semester classes -- super-8, 16mm, and super-VHS production -- were all filled to capacity. (Classes are small by design, limited to a dozen or so students each.) A monthly filmmaker showcase that debuted in November featured Cuban exile writer-director Lorenzo Regalado screening three films he smuggled out of Castro's Cuba A and played to a packed house. Cinema Vortex, a weekly screening devoted to groundbreaking films by masters of the form such as Bu*uel, Richter, and Duchamp bowed on January 9. Tom Downs, a Miami-based video poet with a growing national reputation, delivered the co-op's second filmmaker showcase on January 12th, and Tony Allegro is scheduled to present one on February 9th.

"Gauging from the opening and the response to the classes, I think there's a real demand for what we're doing, and it can only increase as more people find out about us," concludes Keddell. If the enthusiasm so far is any guide, his optimism is certainly justified.

Meanwhile Bill Orcutt, the man who pushed for the co-op's formation and whose stewardship of the Alliance theater has been largely responsible for its surging popularity, still trundles about in his decomposing sneakers, arranging screenings for those perpetually tardy movie reviewers, setting up the projector, and motoring about in his trusty Subaru dropping off photographs for upcoming releases. But this young man who makes the Alliance run, the one responsible for bringing filmmaking within the reach of anyone with the time and the enthusiasm regardless of budget, has no time to pursue the art form that brought him to the Alliance in the first place.

Orcutt compares his plight to that of the drug addicts profiled in William Burroughs's Junky; they took turns being the dealer for the group out of a spirit of community even though none of them really wanted to risk getting busted. "It's basically a thankless job, but someone's got to do it," Orcutt says with a resigned sigh.


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