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Monday, April 30, 2007

Panglossian Werestofferson: Jay Craven's Disappearances

On Friday, M spied an event representing the union of three things that, in combination, I defy anyone to resist: Bootlegging, cheese, and Kris Kristofferson. As it happened, we didn't get any sweet, sweet cheese from the evening's sponsor (I should have known: Cabot is, after all, the official cheese of the Soul Hole [in fairness, it's really the official cheese of the Soul Hole's friend J who, weird ideas about Sartre and couches aside, was not a bad sort]), but I am 99.9% certain that we did get to see Saul Rubinek (he sat in front of us) and a pretty interesting independent film called Disappearences. Furthermore, we got to be nerdy smartypants at the very interesting Q&A afterward. Of course our nerdy smartypants are the default.

Like so many fine cinematic things in Chicago, the movie was at the Gene Siskel Film Center. And like many fine cinematic things at the Siskel Center, one never has any idea how difficult it might be to get tickets. We did not want to find ourselves in the bathroom with an extremely intriguing Q&A from the first showing going on, so we paid the usurious Ticketmaster fees and still didn't get the coveted cheese of the first 300 (even though the theater was nowhere near full). But hey, Saul Rubinek. Probably.

The Cabot Cheese connection became clear almost immediately. Jay Craven (who, really, looks nothing at all like a demented cross between Jane Goodall and Dr. Phlox; I cannot imagine what happened with that picture) is a Vermont Filmmaker, caps required. His films are set almost exclusively in Vermont, and the funding for his not-for-profit production company, Kingdom County Productions, comes largely from Vermonters (Vermontians? Vermountaineers?). He calls his approach to making and marketing his films as "regional independent film," which means that rather than shooting for screenings at festivals and the odd gig like that at the Siskel Center, he and his gang of committed (and possibly committable—trust me, this is the text of experience you're reading) folk go Kroger Babbing (Why, yes, I am going to keep referring to King Babb, David Friedman, and the like until you buy and read A Youth in Babylon! Why do you ask?) it around New England to get the films as much exposure as possible.

Craven introduced the film after being introduced himself by (I think) the Siskel Center's Associate Director of Programming, Marty Rubin. He spoke briefly about Howard Frank Mosher, the author of the novel on which Disappearances is based as well as the novels on which two of Craven's other films are based. Making three films based on a man's novel gives a guy hopefully gives a guy some street cred when he claims to know what's on an author's mind. In this case, that's boosted by the fact that Mosher claims Craven as a friend as well as their mutual reverence for Vermont and the "northern frontier" landscape. Craven noted that Mosher's Vermont is generally a place of magical realism, and in the case of Disappearances, Mosher had Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez very much on his mind. (Ok the link to the book in Spanish is in part smartypants nerdiness [as it happens, I read it in Spanish on my first trip to Perú and I have very strong positive memories of the experience] and part horror at the fact that one has to go three links deep into the English-language version, past three versions that proudly proclaim it to be an Oprah book club selection, to get to one that has a cover advertising the fact that it won the Nobel Fucking Prize.)

I was just about to type that Disappearances is an odd little film (and now I guess I just did type that). It is "little" in the sense that it cost $1.7 million to make (that's just under 25% of the budget of Hot Fuzz, 50% of the budget of Shaun of the Dead, and about 1/10 of the budget [in 1989 $$] for Dances with Wolves). It's "little" in the sense that Willie Nelson ribbed Kris Kristofferson about his $9000 salary in light of the fact that his benefit concerts for the film raised $70,000: "So, Kris, it's come to this then." But there's not a single other way in which it's little.

I don't supposed it's especially difficult to make Vermont look beautiful. It's pre-nature!pr0ned for your convenience. But it is difficult to capture the inhabited, occupied, owned, contested character of it. It's important that scars of humans be visible on the land and that the humans be visibly weathered by nature. Also, nature abhors a film shoot, and there is nothing easy about making a film that is shot almost entirely within bitch-slapping range of cranky old mother nature, particularly when cash and the resource, human and otherwise, that it can command are in such short supply. Visually, Disappearances makes it all look easy. Craven gave substantial and well-derved kudos to second unit DP Brad Heck (credited in the film as James Bradford Morgan Heck), who happened to be in the audience that night, for many of the nature shots (it's really a crime to call them establishing shots, given that Vermont itself is really a main character in the film).

Not a single one of the actors in the film seems to have gotten the memo that this was a "little" film, either. I imagine that one either seeks out Kris Kristofferson or avoids him like the plague. I fall into the former category (he was the only redeeming thing about Blade), but even if you fall in to the latter, this might be the Kristofferson film for you. Quebec Bill is very much the French-Canadian, mythohistoric, Prohibition-Era Dr. Pangloss (+nose, -tertiary syphilis), and Kristofferson has the delivery to pull off earthy, blunt, let's-try-plan-b, well-grounded-all-things-considered optimism that the character demands. Very much Jonas Quinn "You're a Very Up Person" optimism, not Pollyanna "I'm pathological, please paralyze me to test my optimism" optimism.

Even if one has a vulgar, low opinion of Kris Kristofferson I'm sure everyone would agree that any 15-year-old acting opposite him still has his work cut out for him. The first question at the Q&A with Craven afterward was about how he found Charlie McDermott. He'd worked with McDermott on a short television series, which is how he stayed in the running despite a badly overprepared first audition. Intent on getting the role, McDermott took a job on a farm where he cut down some possibly nonexistent pine trees for firewood. If they were pine trees, Craven pointed out to him, they were likely the last two in the area, so he was looking at some time in the Big House for crimes against nature. Ashamed after being forced to admit to Craven that he'd never really been scared (if the character of "Wild Bill" were to make it through the events of the movie with clean shorts, I'd start looking for his on/off switch), he had his father take him, blindfolded, out to the woods and leave him there. This led M to wonder whether they'd actually killed his mother first or merely disabled her. I merely smelled parent/manager. In any case, McDermott more than earned the role and definitely came to inhabit it. Early one, I was a little uncertain about some of his specific mannerisms and his use of his voice (he seemed to me to be playing Wild Bill too young), but taken as a whole, it's clear those were deliberately chosen ways to convey the amount of growth and aging that Wild Bill undergoes. Again, I was about to call him a fine young actor, but there are those troublesome diminutives again. He's a fine actor who happens to be young.

Gary Farmer? I just loves me some Gary Farmer, and I have never really forgiven Forever Knight unceremoniously ditching Captain Joe Stonetree for Captain Amanda Cohen (not that I had anything against her, as she was far more than an affirmative action twofer) and then for Captain Joe Reese (again, nothing against him, I just missed my Stonetree). Making Quebec Bill's brother-in-law Henry Native American was one of the changes Craven made from the book, both because including Native Americans in the cast is a signature of his and, presumably, because he realized that Gary Farmer was uniquely qualified to be as deadpan as necessary to play off Kristofferson, to sell Henry's romantic attachment to White Lightning (the automotive representation of the bootlegging life he'd been trying to leave behind), and to be the uncle that no one knows they need until he's there at the crucial moment.

At dinner afterward, M and I were discussing the fact that William Sanderson really only plays one character. You might think of that character as J. F. Sebastian, or you might think of that character as Larry of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (hmmm . . . more Vermont pr0n). You'd be wrong, of course, because that character is E. B. Farnum, who just also happens to be Rat Kinnison (and, really, Rat is J. F., too; I leave aside the question of who or what Larry is, deep down). I've no doubt that Sanderson could play many different roles if the movie and television business were more tolerant of a little more character and a little less conventionality in the face, voice, and . . . well . . . a little more character period. I've no idea what the man is really like, of course, but he conveys the feeling that he's an exceptionally honest actor, one that uncovers something of his own experience and lets it through, rather than someone who constructs it from the ground up (not that one approach or the other is good or bad, I just think it helps to explain why his characters are universally kicked and downtrodden). It makes for a character that shows up everywhere and if you've got Sanderson to play it, why reinvent the wheel?

I cannot express my complete and utter shock at learning that Lothaire Bluteau is not only a normal-looking individual, but quite a good- looking man actually. Many of you have probably already guessed that I had to repeatedly inform M that, no, he could not have Carcajou hair or facial hair. I'm intrigued to read the book because I'm interested in the story and the storytelling (it really is evocative of Marquez, and my hat is off to Mosher for that), but also because I'm just fascinated by what Mosher had in mind with this character and how that got translated into Bluteau's performance and thence on to film by Craven. Carcajou is just bizarre, spouting dialogue that is a dizzyingly multicultural, multitemporal, possibly multiversal pastiche. Bluteau was certainly fascinating in his utter, balls-out savagery and mania. I admit that earlier in the film I scoffed at the idea of someone who scared Gary Farmer's Henry, but Carcajou made a believer out of me. I don't even really know what to say about this performance without more data.

Finally, there's Genviève Bujold. What does one say about her? Well, if one is M, one refers to her as "Captain Janeway", but that's neither here nor there. Here, she is Cordelia, Quebec Bill's dour, unassimilated (unassimilated to America, unassimilated to the landscape, unassimilated to life) sister and Wild Bill's oracle, spirit guide, geneaologist, and schoolmarm all rolled into one. Bujold plays her as withered but indomitable; inscrutable, yet bitch-slappingly practical; severe, but brimming with pride and a fierce affection for her family's story. She and McDermott also worked particularly well with one another. I do wish there'd been more direct interaction between her and Quebec Bill, just because I would have liked to see how the two really talked to one another, rather than about one another, but the characters are really on two different planes.

The only actor who seemed even a little out of place in the cast was Heather Rae as "Sweet Evangeline," the wife that keeps Wild Bill in Kingdom County after 30 years of wandering in search of his father. Heather Rae is not without talent, but something in her performance made me think of actors who are gifted on the stage but don't make the transition to film/television all that well. I see she's done a lot of directing and producing, though, so my assessment is probably off the mark. She actually did have nice chemistry with Kristofferson, there was just something about her pacing and delivery that didn't quite blend in seamlessly for me.

As for the odd part of this not-little film, well, yes, it's odd in the extreme, but I hope no one here thinks that's bad. At dinner, M said that he didn't really know what "magical realism" is, even after Craven's pretty extensive commentary on the film. (During which we had our moment of nerdy smartypants vindication—he seemed to think that no one outside of this northern frontier would know the curse of the loup garou. HA! This is not our first nerdlinger barbecue, Mr. Craven.) I said that I thought of it as our world, but revealed and experienced through abilities and powers of perception that are not universal. I'm sticking with that as my working definition, because this strikes me as overly specific, jargonized crap (oh, yes, I do loves me some jargon, but that page is just . . . tedious). So, for example, in Cien Años de Soledad the survival of characters through generations, and the long periods during which they remain in one phase of life, only to age or change swiftly and suddenly, is unremarkable, even though their world is not "magical" in any real sense. Similarly, Woolf's Orlando oozes through morphologies, gender roles, and centuries with ease, but they are still our natural morphologies, constructed gender roles, and historicized centuries. In Disappearances, Cordelia is the most explicitly magical character, appearing to move through time and space at will and to possess knowledge of the unknowable, past and present.

But Kingdom County, the whole frontier, and each step taken by the Bills, Quebec and Wild, are magically infused as well. They are energized by the possibility of the picaresque, which gives Craven the latitude to stop Wild Bill at a seemingly impossible crossing, then resume the journey without showing us the mechanics of his success. They walk the paths of tall tales on which trains disappear into thin air, hay arrives in the nick of time, and Henry, impossibly gets home safe to usher Wild Bill through his life as a young man. And they brave the sheer terrors of fairy tales, where speaking a name can kill the beast, but speaking of a curse curses in turn. It is an odd movie, trust me, but it's hard to describe why given that all Westerns (more appropriately, all stories of frontiers and boundaries) are 3/4 fairy tale anyway. This is just more so and differently so.

All of the Q&A was interesting, from learning how well and truly screwed an independent filmmaker gets by licensing the thing for American television to hearing about how his conception of the book and film are constantly changing. One thing in particular that stuck with M and I all the way through dinner and the drive home was the question of when the text is "done" when it's a film. Craven's answer was basically "never," if you're asking about his internal film, and "when the money's gone (sort of)" if you're asking about the viewable film. He talked about the two things that he couldn't let go and decided to change after the film was "finished." The first was the way Charlie McDermott read a particular line as shocked and questioning, rather than as a realization. He went back and inserted a different take on the line (audio only, I think, and I wonder if the issue was that the shot needed visually had the unfortunate audio). He was appropriately self-mocking about the extent to which that. one. line. kept him up nights.

The second case, though, was an interesting insight into the question of when direction is too directive. After the first audiences saw the film, Craven realized that many of them didn't realize that after Quebec Bill falls from Wild Bill's arms, his body is missing in the next long shot (because, you know, he's DISAPPEARED). So he spent $12,500 on a very spiffy FX sequence that has Quebec Bill gradually fading from his son's grasp. It was extremely well done (I really did note that it was a lovely sequence before I heard this story). Now y'all know that I'm a giant po-mo whore and, really, no one can tell me what I saw, and given my experiences with no-budget, please-kill-me-now filmmaking, I should be wagging the resource-responsible finger of postmodernism at Craven for this. But damned if that wouldn't bug the shit out of me knowing that people though QB's body was just lying out there on the hill.

So both M and I were firmly in the camp of Michael Wilmington regarding Disappearances.We also scorn Jonathan Rosenbaum as a general rule (for the record, Craven declared his respect for Rosenbaum, despite the negative not-really-a-review) and particularly in this case. It's a worthy film, a pretty film, an entertaining film, and an engaging story. And it's not all that likely that it'll be coming to a city near you, unfortunately, so if you want to support the kind of movie that, apparently, we all hate (haven't you heard? It's our fault that movies and TV suck), buy a copy.

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