Review: ‘The Last Resort’

When Miami Beach was a sunny paradise for Jewish porch-sitters

7 mins read

The Last Resort
(USA, 70 min.)
Dir. Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

Beaches, bikinis, parties and Art Deco architecture in vibrant colours make up Andy Sweet’s photographs of 1970s South Beach, Miami. It’s not that far removed from today’s South Beach—only in Sweet’s photographs, everybody is over 70, and overwhelmingly Jewish. They are a part of Sweet’s ambitious 10-year endeavour, alongside photographer Gary Monroe, to document their hometown’s Jewish retirement community living in the sunny paradise of 1970’s Miami Beach, a now-bygone era in the city’s past.

In The Last Resort, filmmakers Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch present an evocative portrait of this forgotten neighbourhood and time in Miami Beach as initially documented and illuminated through the photographs of Sweet and Monroe. The film is at once a tale of two artists and a tale of a community at one point in time, both dynamic and unsustainable.

Miami Beach was largely undeveloped until the end of the Second World War when it began and continues to thrive as a vacation area. People escaped the cities for Miami’s beaches, air conditioning, low-cost living and fancy hotels like the Fontainebleau where stars like Frank Sinatra and Liberace performed. By the 60s and early 70s, as the rest of the country was experiencing political turbulence, Miami Beach remained a sunny, quiet haven. Throughout the 1970s, these former city escapees, many of them Jewish and now in their elderly years, were turning from seasonal visitors to year-round residents there to spend the end of their days in the sun. “Imagine South Beach today but instead of everybody being between 18-28, think of 80 and 82,” Monroe says of the culture of porch-sitters that emerged.

Born in the 1950s, both Monroe and Sweet grew up in that serene environment, rooted in the strong Jewish environment. It was after they graduated from the MFA program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1977, that they returned home and embarked on their photographic journey. Many of their subsequent pictures feature porch-sitters, beach-goers and deck-chair loungers. Monroe says in the film, “We saw something that I soon realized was a precious legacy that was being forgotten, that was vanishing.” Sweet and Monroe, with divergent styles, took thousands of images of the residents. Monroe took black and white images and employed a more formal approach while Sweet favoured a more unmediated and immediate response, taking beachball coloured images that prioritise the human behind the camera. Although drastically different, Monroe described their work as synergistic, each depicting a different reality of the same event or people, both sharing a seed of genuine interest in the subject matter.

While the sunny haven and happiness of the retiree-centric world drew Sweet and Monroe in, as they continued to work, they were forced to grapple with a shifting Miami Beach, one that was no longer a safe, albeit sunny, paradise for the dwindling older population. As the 1980s rolled around, Miami was no longer a place to be. It started with the Mariel boatlift, when thousands of Cubans entered the city. Although most of the Cuban immigrant population enlivened and added flavour to Miami’s culture and food, Fidel Castro released criminals from jail to make the journey, as well. Crime rates began to increase, which were only amplified and made more brutal with the infiltration of Colombian drug lords and the cocaine trade. The elderly Jewish residents felt that they had lost their community, and they became easy prey in the criminalized environment. In archival footage shown in The Last Resort, one of the older residents says, “We can’t go out after 6pm.” As drugs and crime began to dominate the city, and the elderly population was decreasing as they passed away, the vibrant Miami Beach of the good old days gradually faded away.

Sweet also fell victim to the city’s emerging violence and in 1982, at the age of 28, he was found stabbed to death in his apartment by none other than Monroe. Sweet’s legacy however, is far from dead—although it was close to being lost when his sister, Ellen Sweet Moss, moved his work into a Fine Art Storage facility which lost his archive. Unidentified, they were offered at $ 5 a box, for five boxes of great photos. For quite a while it seemed that Sweet’s artistry was lost as well as his life.

It was only years later that Moss’s partner, Stan Hughes, found Sweet’s old contact sheets and took it upon himself to digitally restore each and every photo in accordance to Sweet’s sensibilities. What he thought would take a few months, became a decade long endeavour. As he worked to pull colour out of faded photographs, he asked Monroe about Sweet’s colour palette. Monroe simply responded with, “saturated, think beach ball!” And so, Sweet’s lost treasure was found again.

Featuring interviews with Pulitzer prize winner Edna Buchanan, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, Jewish Museum of Florida Executive Director Susan Gladstone and photographer Gary Monroe, The Last Resort encapsulates a short-lived vibrant community and era that is all gone now. Scholl and Tabsch’s film shows that the old South Beach lives on through Sweet and Monroe’s images, in the hearts of those that experienced it and now in this colourful charming documentary, which like Miami itself, has a little bit of everything.

The Last Resort opens in Toronto Feb. 1 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema


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