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Take a powerful journey into a fractured psyche

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000


Margie Thorpe was 17, a naive Georgia girl, when she visited the Whitney Museum in New York and discovered art wasn't for everybody else.

"It was, like, oh, I get this now," Thorpe said, recalling the mixed media on display. "Now, 20 years later, something I did is being exhibited at the Whitney. That's kind of cool."

Thorpe's contribution to Manhattan's famed museum is quite a piece of work. Alma is a powerful, invasive documentary of her mother's fractured psyche and family scars created by the shattering. The Whitney chose to include Alma in its Biennial 2000 exhibit of various mediums.

The only other existing print of this stunning film will be shown at Beach Theater tonight at 8.

Alma hasn't been picked up for theatrical distribution despite high marks at festivals in the Hamptons on Long Island, Austin, Texas, and Amsterdam. Tonight's $10 ticket price includes a catered reception with Thorpe and mental health specialists after the show. Proceeds go to the producers' grass-roots campaign to get a distributor.

Thorpe, who moved to St. Petersburg last year, shares director and producer credits with Ruth Leitman, an experienced filmmaker. Alma was inspired by Thorpe's short stories about her mother, a deranged daughter of the South full of rage, contradictions, lust and perverse rationale for it all.

Alma Thorpe, who still lives in the family home in Atlanta, is a plump woman whose personal demons lash out at everyone else. She can be a bawdy eccentric, describing Goody's powder treatments for her self-professed nymphomania. Most of the time, she wavers between childish behavior and pledging to bash somebody's head with a hammer, her eyes glaring.

At first, Alma is merely amusing or irritating. As the film unfolds, a darker tale of sexual and mental abuse is revealed. Margie Thorpe is the victim then and now, facing the camera and her parents with tidal emotions of fear, loathing, love and longing.

For every scene of Thorpe rebelling against her past, another hints that she isn't totally unlike Alma.

"It's tough to watch the movie, watching myself, my shortcomings, exposed like that," Thorpe admitted. "But I see people affected every time I show the film somewhere. That makes it worthwhile."

Thorpe said she never fully confronted her trauma until reaching "the safety of an editing suite."

There, she and Leitman pieced together video footage, Alma's answering machine rants and, most damning, a series of vintage photographs whose meaning unfolds with sinister precision.

This movie finds horror in the vision of a smiling mother and child, closing with another shot of them older, maybe wiser, sharing a fragile bond.

Thorpe broke away from Atlanta and her parents' psychosis and drive-by visits to pursue an education.

The former leader of a country-western band and bar employee is now studying mass communications at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

"It's a different kind of struggle, but I'm doing it," she said.

The film was completed in 1998, and Alma is still railing against imaginary voices, contradicting her own wild claims of sainthood and sin. A leg was amputated last year due to diabetes.

"She's back at home on one leg, causing just as much trouble as ever," Thorpe cracked.

Witnessing Alma doesn't exactly make that news comforting.

At a glance

Alma, a documentary by Ruth Leitman and Margie Thorpe, will be shown tonight only at Beach Theater, 315 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach. Tickets are $10 including a post-show reception, available at the box office. Grade: A

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