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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Disappearances

With any luck Disappearances won’t disappear from the Essex Cinemas this week and you will still have an opportunity to see this latest motion picture from Vermont writer, producer and director Jay Craven in the coming days. It’s fantastic, and I have to admit it surprised me. I was not familiar with Mr. Craven’s work except through the media, and I tended to take the excessive praise heaped on him with a grain of salt. I figured it was a “local-boy-makes good” sort of thing, combined with the usual star struck gaga reaction people seem to respond to when they are anywhere near someone connected with show biz, but in this case I have been proven wrong. Craven is the real deal, an insightful, skilled writer and director, with an eye for the camera, a talent for story-telling and dialogue, and a terrific intuition in knowing how to pick exactly the right actors to breathe life into the characters of his production.

Disappearances doesn’t sound like the most appealing of premises, at least not in a two or three sentence summation. The story of a boy and his father running whiskey from Canada into Vermont during Prohibition in 1932 reads more like a second-rate Burt Reynolds action/comedy movie circa 1975 than as a stirring spiritual journey than connects generations of the French Canadian Bonhomme family amid a reckless and dangerous mission with the noble goal of ultimately saving the family farm and its’ starving livestock.

The night I attended a screening of Disappearances Jay Craven was present to introduce the film and then later take questions from an eager audience when the movie had ended. His insights into the film-making process and anecdotes about the cast and crew involved in the production added a bonus to the experience. Charlie McDermott, for instance, a teenager from the Philadelphia metro area, stars alongside veteran Kris Kristofferson (Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story) as his son, Wild Bill. Although Craven had worked with Charlie before on the tv series “Windy Acres”, he was skeptical that the boy had the right stuff to play this particular young man, born and bred in the 1930s backwoods of the Northeast Kingdom. To prove his mettle, in the midst of six auditions for the taskmaster director, McDermott abandoned his tv, computer, and iPod, then had his parents drive him blindfolded into the woods and leave him there on his own, unattended, to fend for himself overnight. He even took to cutting down the trees around his neighborhood in order to learn to use a hatchet as Wild Bill would be required to do on-screen. Obviously this training paid off because McDermott spent his fifteenth birthday filming his first scenes on the movie, and he is a presence that more than holds his own with pros like Kristofferson and Geneviève Bujold (Finding Home), who plays his prescient Aunt Cordelia.

The story itself is so more complicated than simply one about stealing whiskey, but it is driven less on the intricacies of the plan to get the booze from Quebec to Vermont than it is on the complexities of the remarkable characters, drawn from the novel by Howard Frank Mosher. Each is richly acted and adds so much to the canvas of this beautiful landscape. Gary Farmer (Evergreen), as Quebec Bill’s brother-in-law, Henry Coville, is deliciously comic and grimly serious in his role as Bill’s reluctantly nagging conscience, especially since he is the one who brought the scheme to smuggle the liquor past the border in the first place. His love of “White Lightening”, his 1932 white Cadillac, is second only to his concern for his nephew, Wild Bill, who he repeatedly wants to protect from the ominous threat of the hooch’s “original” owner, Carcajou (French Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau; Desolation Sound), who seemingly will not die no matter how many times the two Bills try to dispatch him. Also along for the adventure is Rat Kinneson (William Sanderson; tv’s “Deadwood”), an “escaped convict” according to Cordelia, though he seems almost too timid to imagine him being brazen enough to escape from anything without a lot of help.

Vermont’s Luis Guzmán (School For Scoundrels) and New Hampshire’s John Griesemer (of Craven’s tv series “Windy Acres”) playfully add comic relief as a pair of not-too-honest monks, Brother St. Hilaire (or “Hilarious” as Quebec Bill calls him) and Brother St. Paul respectively. Their appearances, far too short, guarantee laughs and these two characters could easily support an entire movie of their own; they are just that charismatic and quirky, the perfect combination for a comedy duo. Heather Rae (Christmas in the Clouds) seems a tad overwhelmed in her small role as Wild Bill’s mother, Evangeline, but when she is competing for Kristofferson’s attentions while his enigmatic sister Bujold is also onscreen it is almost impossible to take one’s eyes off the iconic Bujold, who still casts a striking figure some 52 years after her film debut. And finally, there is Craven staple Rusty DeWees (Nothing Like Dreaming) as Froggy LaMundy, a typical, albeit cranky, Northeast Kingdom farmer who shows in his all-too-brief cameo that even in an age before three dollar per gallon gas, cell phones in movie theaters, and a public more interested in voting for an American Idol than for an American President, there were still people who could be schmucks to their neighbors in need just because they are “different.”

Okay, so yes, the Bonhommes are definitely different, but to share too much about
those differences would spoil a great many of the magical moments of this tall tale (as Craven himself described the film during his après screening discussion). For me, the movie’s real magic is in its’ willingness to let the viewer construe many of the conclusions to be had for themselves, rather than have Craven spoon feed them to the audience as so many mainstream directors are dictated to do by “the suits” in the big studios’ executive offices, where the general consensus is that no movie-goer can think or understand any concept that has not been thoroughly dissected on “Sesame Street.” Craven obviously respects his audience and believes that their interpretations of his images are theirs for the interpreting. He seemed to almost relish hearing of these theories in the open discussion forum on the night of the screening, encouraging people to let their imaginations take them where they will.

In a world where movies routinely cost anywhere between $50 - $200 million these days, it is nearly impossible to envision how a picture with a $1.5 million budget could come close to looking like anything more than a glorified home movie. When it
first played for one night only last Spring at the Essex Cinemas I bowed out of manager Dale Chapman’s invitation to attend because, frankly, I thought it would most likely be some grainy abomination like those first movies made by Baltimore’s “King of Bad Taste” John Waters back in the 1980s, before he went ‘Hollywood’ with his bigger budgeted successes like Hairspray and Serial Mom. Well, I could not have been more wrong. Miraculously, Craven has created a lush and stunningly beautiful valentine to his own rural Vermont and to a way of life full of extended family, along with its’ traditions, folk-tales, music, and caring. This movie, as Quebec Bill says about his adventure on the road with his son, is “spectacular.”

I can’t think of a film I’ve seen in a very long time that deserves a wide release and a
chance for audiences everywhere to get a chance to enjoy something this special. Fortunately for you, we have that opportunity now before the rest of the world, and it’s as close as the Essex Cinemas.

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