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Documentary follows Wolfe in, around Miami

Reporter guides, films satirist as he gets to know city for book

- Associated Press - Monday, May 28, 2012

MIAMI — Oscar Corral thought someone was yanking his chain the day the phone rang at the Miami Herald newsroom and a soft-spoken voice with just a hint of southern drawl said: "Oscar Corral, this is Tom Wolfe."

That would be master journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe.

For decades Mr. Wolfe had traversed the country in his trademark white suit and fedora, sending up the idiosyncrasies of rich and poor in novels like the New York City-based "The Bonfire of the Vanities," and "A Man in Full," set in Atlanta. Now the satirist had his sights on Miami, and he wanted then-reporter Corral's help.

Over the course of several years beginning in 2008, Mr. Corral became a tour guide and translator for Mr. Wolfe, taking the author from Miami's raucous Columbus Day Regatta to Little Haiti's Santeria shops. With Mr. Wolfe's approval, Mr. Corral began filming their escapades. The result is the documentary "Blood Lines," which follows Mr. Wolfe as he researches his latest novel, to be released this October.

Mr. Wolfe told the Associated Press he came to Miami to write a book about immigration: "Not how people get in, but how they get along with one another, and sometimes how they don't."

The book, "Back to Blood," promises to be a "Bonfire"-type take on Miami, with Mr. Wolfe's familiar themes of class, race, family, corruption and, of course, sex. Among the characters are a Cuban-American nurse and cop, a randy sex doctor and a journalist on the trail of a Russian-mob-comes-to-Miami story.

The documentary — Mr. Corral's first — is both an ode to the reclusive literary giant and a voyage through the best and worst of wacky Miami.

Jazz great Federico Britos and the group Afrobeta provide the music.

"It was like hanging out with Yoda," said Mr. Corral of accompanying Mr. Wolfe on more than half a dozen trips to Miami.

"After the first trip, I thought to myself, 'I am watching literary history unfold,' " he said. "Tom Wolfe is pounding the pavement as he has throughout his career ... and it's a great story for anyone about how good writing comes to life."

The film captures rare, candid moments with Mr. Wolfe. He is soaked during the regatta as bikini-clad revelers boat-hop across Biscayne Bay. He checks out white suits at thrift shops, visits new immigrant homes and rubs elbows with Miami's elite. The film, which Mr. Corral wrote, directed and produced, also features interviews from Mr. Wolfe's longtime friend, former New York and Miami Police Chief John Timoney.

Describing Mr. Wolfe's latest choice in settings, Mr. Timoney jokes in the film: "New York is all about money. Washington is all about power. L.A. is all about fame, and Miami is all about sex."

Florida-based writer Carl Hiaasen, of whom Mr. Wolfe is a fan, also frequently takes aim at the city's peculiarities, once claiming certain events were so impossible to believe, they were, "beyond Tom Wolfe."

Mr. Wolfe calls the city and its surroundings remarkable.

"Miami is the only city in the world where people from another country and another culture have taken over though the ballot box. And it's all happened in slightly over one generation," he said.

He said Mr. Corral introduced him to areas he had no idea about.

"Oscar will go anywhere and ask anybody anything, which is one of the main keys of being a good reporter," he said, adding Mr. Corral also instinctively knew when to turn off the camera so as not to interfere with an interview.

When Mr. Wolfe first arrived in Miami, he knew little about the grittier aspects of life in the Magic City, or about how Cuban immigrants no longer came to Little Havana but now flocked to the suburbs of Hialeah, which plays a major role in the book. Once famous for its racetrack, the city is now a mix of minimansions on undersized lots and one-bedroom, concrete homes where newly arrived Cubans cram together.

Mr. Corral said he had long thought Miami would be the ideal setting for a book by Mr. Wolfe, whose past work includes nonfiction like "The Right Stuff" and "The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test."

"It's almost unreal to outsiders. It might seem preposterous, but it's real," he said.

Mr. Corral, who is a Cuban-American, should know. He received death threats, and his family was forced to leave their home for two months after he wrote a 2006 expose about fellow reporters who were also getting paid by the federal government for their work for the U.S.-backed Marti broadcasts. The broadcasts are beamed into Cuba and often take aim at the Cuban government.

When Mr. Corral heard about Mr. Wolfe's desire to write about Miami, he took a chance and wrote him a letter, including the experience. That led to the phone call.

Mr. Corral said it wasn't easy filming the sometimes elusive Mr. Wolfe, who would pop into town at a moment's notice or fly in and not call at all. He hopes some of Mr. Wolfe's techniques come through in the film.

"He's a journalist at heart. He listens. He wants to know your position, and why you take it. He is the master at getting people to reveal themselves," Mr. Corral said.

Mr. Corral plans to release the film, now in post-production, in time for the book's expected October release date. He aims to provide a new glimpse into his beloved hometown, and he hopes to attract a new generation of multimedia enthusiasts to his literary idol.

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