Borscht Belt

Nick Pinkerton at the 9th Borscht Film Festival

Bleeding Palm, Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, 2012, animation, color, sound, 11 minutes.

AMONG GROUPS OF BACKYARD, amateur filmmakers, it is common practice to create your own “studio,” an entity in name alone that serves as a password, an ego-bolstering sense of identity, a communally bonding inside joke. When I was making movies with friends in Cincinnati we used the name Technetium Enterprises. I have a friend who started his own BS company, Creatively Bankrupt, when he was at university. And around a decade ago, some kids in Miami, many of them graduates or current students at the New World School of the Arts, a magnet high school downtown, formed Borscht Corp.

I was thinking about this while walking along Biscayne Boulevard toward the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, whose external LED lights had been programmed to flash the Borscht Corp. logo (a kind of Ouroboros circle, but with two heads, a snake and an alligator), along with scrolling texts (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”) reminiscent of the THE WORLD IS YOURS blimp text in that most seminal of Miami movies, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). If not the world, than Borscht today have a decent claim on owning Miami—it turns out that if you keep working at your inside-joke fake studio thing for ten years, you can fool everyone else into believing it’s real as well.

The LED display and installations in the Intercontinental lobby were among the many site-specific elements of the event that is the raison d’être of Borscht Corp., the Borscht Film Festival. Now in its ninth semiannual appearance—2013 was a year off—this year’s festival was five days of screenings and associated events, with a program of shorts commissioned and produced by what their website describes as an “open source collaborative” as the centerpiece. Among the attractions: a screening of Scarface, interspersed with janky homemade, crowdsourced clips submitted by friends and fans, at the incongruously lavish Mansion Nightclub on Miami Beach; musical performances, replete with 3-D light shows, at the planetarium of the soon-to-be-shuttered Miami Museum of Science; a twentieth anniversary outdoor screening of the Miami-set Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).

A film whose plot hinges on the kidnapping of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, Ace Ventura is actually relevant to the Borscht Corp. mission, for much of their practice has to do with creating a mythology for the Miamian scene and its indigenous celebrities, a neon Tolkien kind of thing. Coral Morphologic, a group whose multimedia works reference the coral reefs of the city’s urban waterways, are frequent Borscht collaborators, while one of the most widely seen shorts made under their auspices is Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, which was passed around on the Internet quite a bit last year. (Borscht works are designed as much for the laptop as the theater, as attuned to new media as to any traditional idea of cinema.) Attributed to “a Miami based mystic organization founded by Ronnie Rivera” called Bleeding Palm, Christopher Bosh has it that the Miami Heat power forward is in fact a deposed “twelve-dimensional God” from another galaxy, and it imagines the circumstances of the 2012 “Miami cannibal attack” as part of a skirmish in a battle for humanity’s survival.

A Christopher Bosh sequel was announced as missing in action on the eve of its premiere, or “on Miami time,” as the evening’s emcee had it, before he led the crowd in a chant of “MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!” While the Fest would appear to be sponsored up and well funded—the shorts showcase was at the 2,200-seat Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Borscht Corp. has been the recipient of a handsome grant from the Miami-based Knight Foundation—it retains an air of by-the-seat-of-the-pants amateurishness in its improvised form (fun) and not-infrequent A/V gaffes (less so). This amateurishness extends to Borscht’s dedication to the short-film form—not as a stepping-stone to making that first feature, but as a perfectly legitimate medium in and of itself.

Scanning the credits on the Borscht films, one finds the same names popping up time and again—musician Otto Von Schirach, the standard-bearer of the classic 808-driven booty bass sound, who performed one night at local bar–screening venue Gramps, or Julian Yuri Rodriguez, whose short Lake Mahar, described as “a nightmare of caucasian emasculation on Flagler Street,” was a convulsively funny work of caricatured typage. (A cartooned aesthetic prevails at Borscht—short Biscayne World combines smuggled vignettes from Miami city buses with animated drawings by regular rider Ahol Sniffs Glue.)

Most ubiquitous of all were the names Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, who collaborate as Mayer\Leyva—they cowrote Bosh, and one or the other has a hand in nearly everything at the fest. This year’s Mayer\Leyva debut was Cool as Ice 2, which offers the purest distillation of the Borscht Corp. ethos, combining regional boosterism (“MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!”) and cosmic remove (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”). Like their 2012 The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a sci-fi “biopic” of 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell, Cool as Ice 2 plays fast and loose with the legend of a Miami hip-hop star, this time Robert van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. Where Uncle Luke was made with the participation of its subject, Cool as Ice 2 pirates Ice’s image, projecting his face onto that of a performer wearing a mask/screen. The film follows Ice through his youth, rise to fame, downfall, and beyond—a despondent Ice’s suicide jump is foiled when the sun expands into a red giant during his free-fall, leaving him as humanity’s lone survivor, drifting the cold cosmos in conversation with another exploded star. While Uncle Luke was billed as “Based on La Jetée by Chris Marker,” Cool as Ice 2 references texts by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Frank O’Hara, as well as Ice’s own manufactured backstory. (“The world I built around myself, same way you build your world around yourself.”) Mayer\Leyva approach their high-low culture mash-ups as though they’re the most natural thing in the world, so they’re never coy or cutesy, and Cool as Ice 2 proves them boundlessly resourceful artists, getting a maximum of coup de théâtre effect from a minimum of resources. It gets across more cinematic awe, feeling, unexpected humor, and take-home ideas than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in one-eighth the time and God knows what fraction of the budget.

Mayer\Leyva, Cool as Ice 2, 2014, color, sound.

Outside of the shorts showcase, Borscht Fest screened work by affiliated artists working in longer formats. New York–based dancer-slash-choreographer-slash-everything Celia Rowlson-Hall presented her dialogue-free feature MA, in which she stars as a modern Virgin Mary wandering the Death Valley desert, first appearing under a faded towel-cowl which evokes a Nan Goldin Madonna. (The version screened was a work in progress—more the rule than the exception here—so I will limit myself to saying that it’s chockablock with uncanny images.) Also on hand was a forty-five-odd-minute whatsit called Hector.LA, from Miami-raised, Los Angeles–based Nick Corirossi. Corirossi is on staff at the Web comedy site Funny or Die, but he has a sideline in creating unclassifiable Internet objects like his Miami 1996 (2012), a video that appeared without further explanation on a website made to look like a Geocities-era memorial, and which played out as a found-footage snuff film simulacra of a house party thrown during the heyday of booty bass, which ends in a brawl and a death.

Hector.LA is another period piece of a sort, taking place in 1993, 2014, 2022, and in the thirty-second century—loosely chronologically, though striated throughout with flashbacks and visions of the future(s), edited as though by a half-dozen different people with entirely different intentions, or one nut job desperate to appeal to a half-dozen different audiences. It may loosely be described as a movie about the making of a movie, in which Corirossi plays “Nick Corirossi,” a balding lecher and fraud director whose messianic delusions turn out to be true. The film-within-a-film is something billed as Henry Jaglom’s The 5th Belief, though there’s no clinical distance between it and Hector.LA, both full of clunky acting and gratuitous nudity, less a parody of the spirit of cinematically illiterate, casually misogynistic vanity projects of the Neil Breen/The Room/Eric Schaeffer school than a full embodiment of it. I can’t say if Corirossi takes himself seriously as an artist—essential to the success of Miami 1996 and Hector.LA is the fact that they don’t break character—but I certainly do.

Hector.LA begins in hotel conference rooms and antiseptic chain restaurants, largely shot in surreptitious stalker-POV, and ends imagining a future in which The 5th Belief is the only remaining artifact to represent the cultural achievements of preapocalyptic humanity. It has been given the appearance of a text which has, through the centuries, become covered in palimpsests—crass gags undermining authorial intention and Arabic subtitles. Like Cool as Ice 2, it’s a work that imagines what will happen once we have disappeared, leaving only our plastic culture behind, a wry fatalism that exists beyond Poptimism, and which now belongs to Miami as much as Uncle Luke’s 808s.

The 9th Borscht Film Festival took place December 17–21, 2014 in Miami.