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FILM REVIEW: Disappearances

Setting the Western Back East: A deep sense of place inspired Jay Craven's Disappearances

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Disappearances
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Nov. 2, 8 p.m.
Free
Simons Center for the Arts, Room 309
54 St. Philips St.
(843) 953-5680
www.halsey.cofc.edu

Some time ago, filmmaker Jay Craven decided to make a Western, the kind of story that typically features characters whose epic struggle unfolds in a land devoid of law, tradition, religion, and culture.

In this mythical world, men settle their disputes with guns and guts. Everything seems to happen for the first time. There's no past, there's no future. Only with time comes a sense of loss and regret, a recognition that a way of life, and the people who lived it, are vanishing.

Such are the conventions of the Western genre, but Craven wanted to do something different: What if this Western took place in New England, where culture and tradition were firmly rooted, where characters were aware of the consequences of their actions, but were forced to pursue a dark path partly driven by human desire and folly, partly driven by fate?

The setting of Craven's Disappearances, to be screened at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, as part of its 2007-2008 Southern Circuit Film Series, is set in the Prohibition Era in a part of the Vermont north country called the Kingdom.

There we find Quebec Bill Bonhomme (played by Kris Kristofferson), a former bootlegger-cum-family man whose barn is destroyed by a lightning strike. Also lost is an entire winter's worth of hay. Now there's no way to feed the family's herd of cattle.

To save their livelihoods, Bill embarks with his young son, Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), on one last whiskey run across the Canadian border. Hence the set-up for an epic story chock full of mythical characters (like "whiskey pirates"), suspense, and danger. It's a Western, but it's not a Western. The film's values and character are unmistakably Northeastern.

"Bill is a dreamer and a schemer," Craven said from his office at Vermont's Marlboro College, where he teaches film studies. "His sister, Cordelia, warns against taking the risk. There's a sense of timelessness and a streak of magical realism expressed by Cordelia."

In fact, Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold) is one half of the ideological pairing that influences Bill's son. While Quebec Bill is the trickster, the risk-taker, the philosopher, the materialist, the adrenaline-junky (a kind of Yankee Odysseus), she is the idealist, the mystic, the bellwether, the Transcendentalist, the palmist with sight beyond sight (a kind of Puritan Cassandra). Such is the groundwork for the film's second story: Wild Bill the boy turning into Wild Bill the man.

Disappearances is the last of a trilogy of dreamy films Craven set in Vermont. The others are Where the Rivers Flow North, the tale of an old-time logger played by Rip Torn and his vanishing way of life, and A Stranger in the Kingdom, starring Ernie Hudson and Martin Sheen, depicting a "notorious racial incident," Craven says, in Vermont's history.

The trilogy's strong sense of place came from Craven's decade-long effort to bring grass-roots arts to small-town Vermont life. He established an art-house cinema in St. Johnsbury, Vt. He played the role of impresario by bringing to town Merce Cunningham's dance companies, the late actor Spalding Gray, and Mabou Mines, a theater group. He even co-founded a traveling road show for kids called Circus Smirkus.

As Craven puts it, he "went totally bonkers."

He eventually transformed into a filmmaker, and his love for New England later served as inspiration for "drawing out stories rooted in a place where I'd spent time building the arts." As for the idea of recasting a Western, that idea might have come from his grandmother, a Texas woman accustomed to hard-scrabble living who reared young Craven on John Wayne and Tennessee Williams.

"Red River and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were my staples," he said.

A sense of place influenced the making of Disappearances, but it also influences the experience of it. Craven has shown the film widely and notes that different cultural reference points color the meaning of the movie, at turns addressing the evils of alcohol, expressing a tale of morality and family, or celebrating the psychological formation on an individual's personality.

"I'm fascinated by how different cultural perspectives are," he says.

Now that he's redefined the Western (draining it of John Wayne swagger), how about taking out Tennessee Williams and redefining the repressed homosexual desire saga?

Maybe Larry Craig is available.

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