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First they came for the winters. Then they came for the lifestyle.
“The Last Resort,” an affectionate, thoughtful and hugely entertaining movie opening in South Florida on Friday, is primarily a documentary about the thousands of Jewish snowbirds who began fleeing frigid New York for balmy South Beach in the 1950s and 60s.
As the visitors kept coming, a vibrant community sprouted along the Art Deco hotels of Ocean Drive, where rents were still cheap, the beaches were not crowded and the counter-culture tumult of the late-1960s was mostly a distant din. Eventually, the retirees — many of them Holocaust survivors — moved here full-time.
By the 1970s, South Beach had become home to the largest group of Jewish retirees in the U.S. — a “shtetl under the sun,” as one person in the film describes it. The retirees practiced their faith openly and led modest, comfortable lives. Yiddish became as commonplace in the neighborhood as Spanish is today.
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The paradisaical setting rejuvenated the senior citizens, too. They may have been in their 80s, but they partied like they were 21. On a typical New Year’s Eve, there could be as many as 50 parties going on at the same time.
“In New York, all you think about is your death,” one plucky woman tells an interviewer in a vintage news snippet as she heads for the beach. “You live here.”
Through interviews with locals and experts (including historian Susan Gladstone, former Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and Books & Books founder Mitchell Kaplan), “The Last Resort” nimbly recounts the fascinating story of this community, now lost to time and gentrification.
The movie, co-directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch, also touches on key moments in Miami Beach’s history: Joe’s Stone Crab, which was opened in 1913 by a Hungarian Jew; the coded antisemitism (“Restricted clientele”) that barred Jews from certain hotels and restaurants; the arrival of a glorious new invention known as air-conditioning; the glamorous Fontainebleau, the playground of 1950s Hollywood royalty; Jackie Gleason’s stint in the 1960s as Miami Beach’s most famous and devoted resident.
But there’s a separate narrative track in “The Last Resort” that propels the movie beyond fascinating history into something more complex and haunting: The professional relationship between photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe, two Miami Beach natives who returned home from college in 1977 to document the old-world Jewish community that had taken hold in their hometown.
Their resulting work — a 10-year endeavor that would be called “The Miami Beach Photography Project” — is a study in contrasts. Sweet’s photos blaze with color, humor and spontaneity — eye-candy with an empathetic sensibility. Monroe’s striking black-and-white photos are more carefully composed and considered — journalism with an artistic slant.
“The Last Resort” liberally uses those photos pictures as illustrations for its tale of a vanished community. Ironically, the movie was originally conceived as a portrait of the photographers, not the people whose lives they were capturing.
Scholl, the CEO of ArtCenter South Florida and former VP of Arts at the Knight Foundation, and Tabsch, co-founder of O Cinema, are longtime friends who had directed films on their own, but yearned to collaborate on a project.
Each had contemplated a documentary on the Miami Beach Photography Project. Scholl, a veteran art collector, has known Monroe for decades. Tabsch knew about Sweet’s work and tragic death from stories in the Washington Post and the Miami New Times.
“I thought Andy’s story was right up my alley,” Tabsch said. “I started poking around and found out Dennis had been doing the same thing on his own. We talked about it over dinner and we both came to the same conclusion: We had to make this movie.”
The collaboration between the two directors reaped an unexpected benefit: It changed the focus of the movie they originally had in mind.
“I went into this film thinking it was going to be 80 percent about Gary and Andy and 20 percent about the community,” said Scholl, whose previous films (“Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound,” “Queen of Thursdays”) were documentary portraits of Miami artists. “But when Kareem and I started working together, we realized something organically: We had to make a hard pivot and make the community and the photographs the stars of the film.”
“The Last Resort” still devotes a lot of time to the complicated relationship between the two photographers. The film touches on the competitive nature of collaboration, their different approaches to their work and, most importantly, the unexpectedly dark turn the story takes after the dramatic spike in crime that swept Miami in the early 1980s.
With so many story elements in play, the brisk pace of “The Last Resort” is a rarity in this era of bloated, overlong movies. The documentary packs so much into its 70 minutes, it becomes the rare kind of film that leaves you wanting more.
“Making a film about so many different subjects is a rhythm and a dance,” Tabsch said. “Any one of these story components can take you down a rabbit hole. How far do you take the movie in one direction before you go the other way? We were very cognizant of striking the right balance.”
Tabsch, who also edited the film, said getting “The Last Resort” down to its final state was grueling work — there were at least 20 different cuts of the movie — and credits Miami Jewish Film Festival executive director Igor Shteyrenberg with giving him a hard deadline that forced the filmmakers to wrap up their work.
“We sent Igor a link of a rough cut and he said ‘We would love to have it in the festival, but you need to make a commitment you will have it ready in time,’” Tabsch recalls. “It was hard letting someone outside our little circle see the movie. You always feel an urge to go back and keep tweaking it.”
“The Last Resort” made its world premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival in January 2018, where a number of distributors immediately expressed interest. The filmmakers ultimately went with Kino Lorber, a boutique outfit specializing in hands-on releases of art films and documentaries.
“It was evident from the first rough cut we saw that the film was going to be something of a revelation,” said Shteyrenberg. “This was an amazing tale told with consuming curiosity for its subject — one that lived and breathed with so much spirited tribute. What at first seemed to be a portrait documentary about rediscovering a unique American artist revealed itself to be something much more complex and challenging.”
In December, Kino Lorber opened “The Last Resort” at the prestigious Quad Cinema in New York City for a one-week run. But the audience response was so strong, the film was held over for three weeks.
Scholl said the New York experience was surreal, but he’s more excited by the movie’s theatrical run in South Florida, where it will play at a total of seven theaters, including four in Palm Beach County.
“As an exhibitor, it’s always a pleasure to play a movie that has local relevance to Miami audiences,” said Nat Chediak, director of programming at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. “But when that film — and this is rare indeed, also happens to be homemade, it’s a special treat. This movie starts in a familiar place and goes to so many unexpected places, it feels like a joy ride.”
For the directors, the wide embrace of their movie has been as surprising as any of the plentiful twists in the film.
“The acceptance of ‘The Last Resort’ says something about Miami’s film community and how it’s beginning to evolve,” Scholl said. “We’re all trying to elevate our production values and tell great stories. To get this little documentary into seven screens is pretty magical. We’re still pinching ourselves.”
IF YOU GO
“The Last Resort” opens in South Florida theaters on Friday Feb. 15. Directors Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch will participate in an audience Q&A at the Friday 8 p.m. showing at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71 Street. The filmmakers will also attend a red carpet ceremony at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Avenue. The movie opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 1.