Documentary built around photos and film of Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch. Opens Friday at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. 70 minutes. G
For those of us trapped in Toronto during this recent, miserable cold snap, just looking at footage of Miami Beach and its denizens warms the heart a bit even as it fills the soul with envy. The Last Resort is built around those images but accomplishes something more — it builds a yearning to visit a vibrant, chromatic place in time that’s 40 years gone.
Immediately after the Second World War, South Florida first became a popular tourist destination for frostbitten northerners, and soon some of them were coming to stay. As seen in this documentary, which draws upon the photography from the period by Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe, Miami Beach became a hub for older Jews in particular, and The Last Resort’s directors Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch paint a divertingly attractive picture of their contented, almost giddy lives.
Though there are many Holocaust survivors in their numbers, the mood in the photos and old film footage is not just gratitude but outright celebration: we see energetic seniors, with their bright ’60s and ’70s clothing, at dance parties and open-air card games on folding tables in the park or on the beach. It’s “like being in heaven,” one resident says, sounding remarkably even-keeled. Says another: “You live here. In New York, all you do is just think of your death: Tomorrow I’m gonna die.”
In life or in a movie, an Eden-ish mood like that probably won’t last. Years pass and these are no longer the young old, these are the old old, isolated and gradually impoverished — financially and culturally — by deaths in their community and changing economic fortunes. And then, just after the film’s halfway point, comes the Mariel boatlift, the wave of immigrants from Cuba that transforms Miami.
What we get next is, briefly, a kind of documentary companion to 1983’s Scarface, giving this community’s perspective on the social impacts as displaced Cubans now live next to them and sometimes — the various talking heads in the film agree — prey upon them. After that, South Beach gets saved, restored and thoroughly prettied up by investment; the vivid, even garish hues from the glory days return, and the art deco buildings look better than ever, but the Jewish community’s delicious moment in the sun is long gone.
The Last Resort attempts to tell the story not just of that community but of Andy Sweet, a photographer capturing the period marvellously before drifting into trouble and being murdered. Despite all of his family and friends’ anecdotes, the filmmakers fail to bring him to life — or maybe it’s just that, as a subject, he’s outclassed by the colourful tribe that caught his eye and held it for years.