Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Calle Ocho Education

On Friday, E. and I decided to check out the Tower Cinema, an arts cinema located in the heart of Little Havana. We'd heard they show good foreign films. This weekend's listings included The North Face, a German movie about a 1936 attempt to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. We wound up choosing An Education, the 2009 British film starring Carey Mulligan in a performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

The Tower Cinema, one of Miami's oldest cultural landmarks, was built in 1926 on SW 8th Street. During the 1960s, as Cubans fled the Cuban Revolution, they settled in and around SW 8th Street and the thoroughfare became known as Calle Ocho. Soon, the theater began showing American films with Spanish subtitles and also Spanish language films. The City of Miami purchased the Tower Cinema in 1991 and renovated it in 1997. In 2002, the city turned over management and operations to Miami Dade College. An Education was shown with Spanish subtitles, though I noted that The North Face, in German, was screened with English subtitles.

The ticket prices were reasonable and I was pleasantly surprised that the modern, spacious theater had stadium-style seating. We settled in to watch the film, which I found thoughtful and absorbing. I enjoyed the nuanced performances—Carey Mulligan as Jenny is wonderful playing an intelligent, romantic schoolgirl. Alfred Molina brings surprising credibility to his role as a proper middle-class British father. Then there was the music—not the chamber orchestra performing Ravel in Jenny's first night out with the older man who ultimately seduces her. No, the salsa music.

The Latin rhythms entered my consciousness by stages. At first, I became aware of background noise during an outdoor scene. I thought it might be intended by the filmmaker. Then, as the noise became more insistent, I assumed it was coming from an adjoining theater, perhaps an accompaniment to those climbers in The North Face making their assault on the Eiger. About halfway through the film, though, I couldn't deny that I was hearing salsa music, probably coming from outside the theater. It seemed to intensify as the film progressed. In some of the poignant later scenes, where silence added meaning, my silence was punctuated by Cuban dance rhythms.

As we excited the theater, we discovered the source—an outdoor performance venue directly next to the theater, with a band playing onstage. We found ourselves in the midst of a festival-like atmosphere, almost a small-scale Mardi Gras. Only later did I learn that we had inadvertently chosen to go to the movies on the evening of Viernes Culturales, an arts and music gathering that takes place the fourth Friday of every month on Calle Ocho. The Tower Cinema is right in the center of the action.

With a salsa band performing at fever pitch, aided by speakers all up and down the street, plus performance artists aplenty, and almost everyone speaking Spanish, I felt I could have been on a street in the real Havana. Certainly, the atmosphere was a stark contrast to the London of 1961 depicted in the film I'd just been watching. From now on, I'll plan to catch a movie at the Tower Cinema on any night other than Viernes Culturales. But if I'm in the mood for salsa music and Cuban cigars, I know when and where to go.

For a little taste of Viernes Culturales, check out the YouTube videos below.

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