"If you can keep your creative juices flowing, you can make a lot of money in the arts here," said the cab driver taking me to the airport in Key West, Florida over the weekend.
To anyone who doesn't reside on this sunny island riddled with pleasure-seeking vacationers and complaisant retirees, that statement might come as a surprise, but this cabbie had found his niche: A musician and wedding photographer on the weekends, he fled the growing cultural scene in Austin, Texas 11 years ago and never looked back.
There was a similar element of unexpected artistic contentment found throughout the Key West Film Festival -- and, by extension, the entire region -- which concluded its second edition on Sunday.
For the past decade, Key West has been home to a classy three-screen indie theater, the Tropic Cinema, which has provided an outlet for a much broader range of movies than the local multiplex. The theater was partly founded by writer Jean Carper and retired law professor George Cooper, whose wife is illustrious fiction author Judy Blume. The couple is among the established part-time residents of Key West who populated the festival this year, which also welcomed filmmakers Shane Carruth, Terry George and Paul Haggis as guests.
Ultimately, though, the Key West Film Festival provided a showcase of the fairly robust film scene that, in recent years, has taken hold in neighboring Miami. Kareem Tabsch, a programmer for Miami's independent O Cinema, assembled the festival's "Florida Shorts Program" to exclusively showcase Miami-based productions. The result was an extraordinary range of new cinema that riffs on distinct aspects of the Florida environment.
Each selection illustrates the way young filmmakers have started to riff on the state's history and iconography with fresh approaches that make the region's film community stand out. The most startling of the bunch, "#Postmodem," comes from Miami filmmaking couple Jillian Mayer and Lucas Levya, who run Borscht Corp. -- a collective that produces shorts, installations, and a film festival with the stated goal to "redefine the stereotypically insipid depiction of our city in the mainstream media."
"#Postmodem" certainly does that with memorable results. The 13-minute short, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, playfully and exuberantly probes futurist concepts surrounding the notion of a technological singularity: It opens with the haunting montage of adorable young children on a playground directly addressing the camera about the inevitability of their demise. It then dovetails into a bizarre instructional video about the possibility of uploading one's consciousness to the cloud, which climaxes with an intensely surreal and borderline hypnotic music video ("Mega Mega Upload," below), followed by a seemingly normal woman attempting just that -- by jamming a CD-ROM directly into her cerebral cortex.
That unsettling transition is balanced off by a lyrical interlude in which the woman (Mayer) wanders around a Miami beach in the nude before lifting above the waves in a water jet back -- still in her birthday suit -- providing a strangely triumphant statement on the prospects of self-empowerment in the internet age. The tranquil finale is something of a revelation: The idea of the aforementioned singularity as an empty, colorful swing set that's both touchingly delicate and notably false.
Mayer and Levya, who are currently in the process of preparing their feature film debut, display the kind of formalist invention within the dynamics of the short film that once put director Benh Zeitlin on the map prior to the completion of "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Just as that movie was preceded by Zeitlin's similarly expressionistic fable "Glory at Sea," the Miami filmmakers' shorts suggest that their eventual arrival in the feature realm will catch many more audiences by surprise with an exceptional vision confidently rooted in a unique time and place.