Screen Savor: SoBe it

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Courtesy of Andy Sweet Photo Legacy.

Co-filmmakers Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch strike a sunny and satisfying balance between presenting an homage to a bygone era in Miami Beach and a tribute to the late photographer Andy Sweet, whose work documented said time period, in their affectionate documentary “The Last Resort”. The co-directors incorporate marvelous period film footage, both amateur and professional. Additionally, interviews with Sweet’s friend, classmate and fellow photographer Gary Monroe, Jewish historian Susan Gladstone, crime writer and novelist Edna Buchanan (who first came to Miami Beach in the early ‘60s), Sweet’s sister Ellen Sweet Moss and his brother-in-law Stan Hughes, Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, filmmaker and Miami native Kelly Reichardt, and gallerist Denise Bibro, add to the spirit of the documentary.

Andy Sweet, described as a “storyteller with the camera”, was known for taking photos of the “real face of Miami” and leaving a legacy of “seeing people the way they really were”, while documenting and illuminating a lost culture. That culture, the old world Jewish community in South Beach, became the subject of Sweet and Monroe’s Miami Beach Photographic Project.

Before it was the youthful hot spot it is today, Miami Beach thrived as a vacation destination post-World War II. Soldiers who had been stationed in Miami Beach loved it there and wanted to come back.

Hotels offering air conditioning, entertainment, dancing and fun were being built. Famous faces in show business, including Sophie Tucker, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, were among the performers. The Fontainbleu Hotel was the glamourous heart of nightlife. Beautiful mansions were being constructed near the gentle surf.

Anti-Semitism was rampant in Miami Beach, but following the 1949 passage of an anti-discrimination law, Miami Beach became like a shtetl. A tough, immigrant, senior citizen generation of New Yorkers populated Miami Beach.

Remarkably, Miami Beach was untouched by the upheaval taking place in the U.S. during the 1960s. It became like a small town for people who lived there year-round; everyone knew each other.

During the 1960s and 1970s more retirees, known as “porch sitters” were arriving. They enjoyed the active social life in the hotels’ communities. Jewish delis, such as Wolfie’s, Rascal House and Pumpernik’s, were social hangouts. The old folks were patriotic and formed a voting-block in Miami Beach. Many were Holocaust survivors and Miami Beach became a kind of “last resort”, a place where they could practice camaraderie, religious traditions and mores, without outside influence, in the sunshine.

Andy Sweet’s rapport with the seniors – he’s described as being “like their curly-haired grandson” gave him entrée into their world and allowed him to capture their natural selves on film. Sweet, who began taking pictures while at summer camp, built himself a darkroom in his parents’ home. As a student at USF in Tampa, his picture-taking evolved. The honesty and frankness in Andy’s color photography leads gallerist Bibro to compare his work to Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, William Eggleston. He also shot drag shows at the Eden Roc and Fontainbleau hotels.

The changes in Miami Beach in the late `70s and early `80s, would have a negative impact on Sweet, as well as the community he was documenting. The vibrancy was dissipating as the older population were getting sick and dying. The hotels were in various states of disrepair, leaving the elderly to live in hovels where they paid outrageous rents. Social halls, no longer necessary, were converted into makeshift synagogues.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift also contributed, in part, to the decline, as a “criminal element” settled on Miami Beach due to the affordable housing. Police openly blamed the Cuban refugees for the increase in violent crime, as the aging population became easy prey, and the murder rate rose. The so-called “cocaine wars” and the McDuffie riots in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood contributed to the regions reputation as the “crime capitol of the world”.

At the same time, Andy was going through a dark period. He was photographing less. Hanging out with “seedy” people, as well as doing drugs. He also began to explore the possibility that he might be gay. Whatever was actually happening in Sweet’s life will never be known because he was brutally murdered in October of 1982.

As we all know, South Beach underwent a transformational renaissance in the 1980s, due in large part to presence and contributions of the gay community. The art deco hotels were renovated and the area became even more popular than it had previously been.

Renewed interest in Sweet’s work and legacy, via a combination of encouragement from Monroe, as well as Hughes’ discovery of a box of Andy’s “work prints” and contact sheets (which were thought to have been lost), also led to a restoration of his photos, resulting in a 2017 History Museum Miami exhibit of Sweet and Monroe’s work. Like the photos themselves, “The Last Resort” is a “beautiful slice of history”. Rating: B+ 

[“The Last Resort” screens at part of the 21st annual Miami Jewish Film Festival on Jan. 23 at Regal Cinemas South Beach - http://miamijewishfilmfestival.org/films/2018/.]


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