Here’s my third art blog that takes in new thoughts as I look back on 40 years in the arts and film–and prepare to launch a new picture, Peter and John. We’ll send this a couple more times to everyone — if you’d like to keep receiving the blogs, click here and just write BLOG. You could also send a note to greer@KingdomCounty.org or to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll keep you on the list. Feel free to let me know what you think.
KCP–Behind the Scenes
* Winding up the Season
w/Giselle and funny Ethan Lipton
* First peek – Peter and John film trailer.
* Celebrating 40 years in the arts and film.
* Navigating the waters of NY film critics.
Spring is finally in the air-so come out this Thursday to enjoy the beauty of The Russian National Ballet at Lyndon Institute. Showtime is 7pm-for a performance of the popular classic French ballet, Giselle. This troupe is led by veterans of the Kirov and Bolshoi troupes, working with young Russian dancers. Giselle will the last story ballet we’ll offer, for at least the next season or two. We’ve got the fabulous Jessica Lang troupe scheduled for next spring. They’ll perform this summer at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in the Berkshires. We’ve also got our eye on a return date with Momix and their new show, before too long.
Mud Season laughs with Liquid Fun, Boston University’s premiere improve comedy troupe, just back from their popular tour of California colleges – UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and more. Best remembered for last year’s opener for Upright Citizens Brigade. FREE TICKETS. Just come to the door at Ragle Hall, The Serkin Center, Marlboro College.
ETHAN LIPTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA-NO PLACE TO GO
And, on Saturday, May 2nd we’ll stage the sharp and funny satire of Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra performing their Obie Award-wining show, No Place To Go. New York Times lead theater critic Ben Brantley calls the show, “Immensely appealing…one of the ten most galvanizing events of 2014.” I love this show, which tells the tale of a struggling playwright caught in a (permanent) temp job that gets outsourced-to Mars.
I don’t know how to describe it any better than that, except to say that it’s quite funny and entertaining-sort of like Spalding Gray with a jazz trio backing him up. Definitely Spalding’s ironic and absurdist sensibility-delivered in a talking blues style.
I staged Ethan Lipton at Marlboro College last fall. Everybody was knocked out but said they couldn’t tell from my description that it would be so cool. So, I asked them how they’d describe the show. No one had any suggestions. So, I guess you just have to imagine – or check out the video link-but it only provides a snippet.
We’re working around the clock to get our sneak preview tour together for my new film, Peter and John, starring Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt, Truffaut’s Day for Night), Christian Coulson (The Hours, Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets), Diane Guerrero (Orange is the New Black, Jane the Virgin), Shane Patrick Kearns (Blue Collar Boys), and Emmy-winner and Tony nominee, Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue, Glengarry Glen Ross, Matewan).
Peter and John is set in 1872 Nantucket and tells the story of two brothers whose relationship strains when the younger one receives a strange inheritance-and both boys become attracted to the same young woman arrives on their island. The film is based on a novel by 19th century French writer, Guy de Maupassant. Tolstoy and Nabokov cited the novel as an influence, especially for breaking ground in psychological characterization. Vincent van Gogh also wrote, in a letter to his brother Theo, that Maupassant’s vivid evocation of seaside visuals inspired him. Henry James said of the novel, “Mr. Maupassant has never been so clever.”
We’re playing just four Vermont preview dates. Then we’ll make final tweaks, polish the color and sound and prepare for a world premiere in late June on Nantucket. I joke that we’ve spent the last 30 years trying to convince southern New England that northern New England is relevant (and interesting). For Peter and John, I’ll be reversing field, working from southern New England, north.
We’ll talk after each preview screening to see what you think.
7pm, Thurs. April 30 – Bethany Church, 115 Main St., Montpelier. 5:30pm reception at the church.
7pm, Fri. May 1 – Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, Burlington. 5:30pm reception at the Center’s Lake Lobby.
2:30pm and 7pm, Sun. May 3 – Catamount Arts, St. J. 5:30 reception in the gallery.
Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Reception and screening: $25 ($5 for students). Tickets at the door or call 802-748-2600. Or go to www.KingdomCounty.org.
NORTHERN BORDERS– STARTS FRIDAY IN BOSTON
Starting this Friday, April 10th, we’ll also screen our film Northern Borders, with Bruce Dern, Genevieve Bujold, and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick – at the West Newton Cinema. We’ll have two daily screenings-at 1pm and 6pm. And please spread the word to family and friends!
Our busy May 2-3 weekend represents the 40th anniversary of Catamount Arts – which means it’s also my 40th anniversary, since I started Catamount, of working in film and the performing arts here in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It’s been a while. So, first, happy 40th anniversary to Catamount – which held its first event on Friday, May 2, 1975.
I’m in awe of the board and staff that has sustained Catamount for all of these years. This work is not easy. I’m meeting these days with Jody Fried and Jerry Aldredge at Catamount, in hope that we’ll make an announcement at KCP’s upcoming May 2nd and 3rd events -about a new partnership we’re hoping to develop between Kingdom County Productions and Catamount. So, let’s wish Catamount and its board and staff, led by its brave and gracious leader, Jody Fried, a happy anniversary this spring!
It’s easy for me to remember the kick-off for Catamount, back on May 2nd, 1975 with a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s elegiac film, Limelight. We showed all of the Chaplin feature films during our first years-along with many others. Friend and neighbor Reg Ainsworth was there to help on our opening night and he recommended films and pitched in at screenings often, especially during our first several years. Brooksie Stanton also helped-and sold her huge and fabulous chocolate chip cookies at film screenings. There were many adventures along the way. Now that it’s mud season, I’m remembering the night Brooksie and I got marooned in axle-deep mud on a frigid March night along a desolate stretch of Joe’s Brook Road in Passumpsic. We just got mired deep in greasy thick mud and couldn’t move an inch. We were headed back to Greenbanks Hollow after a Saturday night Catamount film screening at the Frank R. Adams School in St. J. We hiked a quarter mile and slipped into a nearby farmer’s barn where we covered ourselves with hay and slept fitfully until the rooster crowed, close to sun-up. We camped out unbeknownst to the farmer who kindly towed us out of the muck the next morning, with his tractor.
For our maiden voyage with Limelight, I didn’t know what to expect. But a crowd of about 175 people streamed into the Twilight Theater at Lyndon State College. Spirits were high, people wanted more-and we were on our way. That summer, we showed Philippe de Broca’s comedic drama, King of Hearts with Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold and Gilo Pontecorvo’s rarely seen film, Burn, starring Marlon Brando. We screened both films at the St. Andrews Episcopal Church basement in St. J-and that fall we started a bi-weekly film schedule in both St. J. and Lyndonville. We announced our regular fall screenings at the St. Johnsbury Armory (later the Rec Center) and the acoustics were bad. So bad that, just an hour before showtime, we scrambled for a quick fix and decided, on the spot, to string clothesline around the most confined seating area we could imagine. Then we hustled into the Armory basement and raided a cache of gray wool National Guard emergency blankets that were stored for use during floods and tornadoes.
Our first audience members arrived as we were still clamping the blankets to the clothesline using clothes pins we bought at Peck Hardware on Railroad Street. Early arrivals were amused as they took their seats, cocooned inside our makeshift wool chamber. I explained that we had to do something to soften the sound bounce off the gym’s hard and boomy surfaces. It didn’t really work-the soundtrack was hard to hear, coming off our re-cycled 16mm projector. And then more people showed up than we had imagined, so some had to part the blankets and sit with them draped across their heads and shoulders, as if they were kids at home playing fort with their siblings.
We were forced to show both M.A.S.H. and Harold and Maude in these less than ideal conditions. Some folks laughed at our plight and sympathized with our best efforts to fix the problem. Then I asked the St. Johnsbury School District to help bail us out and School Superintendent Joe Kasprzak came to the rescue. Joe welcomed us into the Adams School and we stayed there on the corner of Winter and Summer Streets for the next five years, with our constant companion, custodian Oscar Garcia helping us to set up chairs when the crowds swelled to 200 and even more for some films.
More on all of this another time.
Holding on for dear life.
During my 16 years at Catamount, we produced more than 600 film screenings; I taught film to high school students at the arts-based alternative Peacham School; and, starting in our sixth year, we staged more than 200 performing arts events with artists ranging from the Merce Cunningham Dance Theater and the American Repertory Theater’s Moliere/Sganarelle farces to Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, The Nylons, and many more. We established Circus Smirkus as a Catamount project, during the summer of 1987, and rehabilitated St. J’s drooping former post office in the Catamount Arts Center, using elementary school kids to design the layout during a week-long residency with Burlington architect Rolf Kielman, in 1985-86. The old Arts Center now houses Dylan’s Restaurant and, of course, Catamount has moved next door, to their glorious new Arts Center at the site of St. J’s Masonic Temple.
I also made several half-hour films while at Catamount, including the documentary, Gayleen, about outsider Barre artist Gayleen Aiken and the half-hour drama, High Water, based on Howard Mosher’s short story about a teen-aged boy on his way to his first stock car race, across the border in Sherbrooke. We just made our first DVD copies of High Water, in response to schools throughout the area that still use it for classes.
After 16 years at Catamount, Bess O’Brien and I left Catamount in 1991, to set up Kingdom County Productions. Our plan was to make place-based films set in the region. Since then, we’ve made eight feature-length narrative films, eight documentaries, a comedy TV series, and a radio variety show. We have also produced a number of education projects, including Fledgling Films (1998-2006), The Voices Project (2007-2009), and Movies from Marlboro (2012 – present), in partnership with Marlboro College, where, every two years, 22 professionals mentor and collaborate with 32 students from twelve colleges, to make a feature film for national release (info at Movies.Marlboro.edu). Since 2009, we’ve also produced more than 100 music, theater, and dance events.
Of course, Catamount continues to show the best in world cinema and it has developed a fine education and workshop program. The new Catamount Arts Center currently includes two screening rooms along with a fine gallery, box office, staff offices, and a community performance space and kitchen.
A lot has happened since 1975-but I’m glad to still be in the ring for the arts and film. So, it’s probably appropriate that I’ll spend these days during the May 2nd weekend staging Ethan Lipton in a Spalding Gray – type performance, since I loved Spalding and presented him three times during my years at Catamount. And it also stands to reason that we’ll stage a preview screening of my new film, Peter and John – since I set out from Catamount in 1991 to make films rooted in the region.
Speaking of films rooted in the region, we opened Northern Borders in New York this winter. We do this for the reviews that can offer the validation an independent film needs to play dates in other parts of the country-and get TV and video exposure. Of course, this can cut both ways. A film that’s been well-reviewed elsewhere might not fare so well in New York. Writer John Updike once remarked that “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” That can seem to be the case when opening our place-based Vermont movies in the Big Apple. Still, why not take the gamble?
Today, there are many fewer outlets that publish film criticism. Even five years ago, a film that played New York was assured of getting reviews in The New York Times, Village Voice, New York Daily News, New York Post, and Newsday. And maybe even The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and New York Magazine. Today, an independent filmmaker will get a “capsule review” in the New York Times. The problem: a short critique of only three or four paragraphs can’t fully engage a picture, mobilize an audience, or even really support the idea of a serious film critic developing a voice for the long haul. Film critic jobs are shrinking fast–and it’s rare, these days, for an indie film to land a review at all in the Daily News, NY Post, or Newsday, let alone The New Yorker.
I braced for my New York Times review for Northern Borders. It’s the one that traditionally means the most. Times reviewers are tough and opinionated. They can be dismissive. But I guess if I don’t like the review I can always do what my longtime movie partner and mentor Howard Mosher does-he tacks reviews he doesn’t like on the door of his shed and blasts them with his shotgun.
On the night before my Northern Borders reviews were slated to appear, I attended a special Marlboro College event the was staged at actor Chris Noth’s cool nightclub, The Cutting Room. With 100 people in attendance, we talked about the Marlboro College film program and showed clips of new work by outstanding recent Marlboro film alumni who also discussed their time at the college. We also pitched our Movies from Marlboro program where professionals mentor students during a film intensive semester where we make a feature film.
Two alums, Brad Heck and Willow O’Feral, work with me on our Movies from Marlboro program. Brad’s our very gifted cinematographer and Willow wrangles props for the art department and takes terrific production stills. Brad and Willow showed a clip from their stunning work-in-progress documentary, Arming Sisters, about domestic violence against Native American women in North Dakota oil country.
Another recent grad, Jesse Nesser, made a powerful Marlboro student documentary about a Montana ranch that treats kids born with fetal alcohol syndrome. He is now almost finished editing, Walk With Me, a compelling portrait of 92 year-old sitting Detroit federal judge and civil rights pioneer, Damon Keith. And Amanda Wilder showed an excerpt from her free-school documentary, Approaching the Elephant, that was produced by KCP. The film has been taking the indie documentary world by storm, with fabulous press coverage in the Village Voice, NPR, and The New Yorker; a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art; and travel to festivals in Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro, Torino, and others. I also showed our trailer for Peter and John, edited by a student, Hortense Lingjaerde, who worked as script supervisor and assistant editor on the picture.
We enjoyed a warm and fun evening at The Cutting Room. It’s gratifying to see former students emerging so successfully-and in this way, making films that mean something. And to be able to continue collaborating with a number of them, on several fronts.
As I prepared for bed that night at The Roger Hotel, I noticed that the Cinema Village movie theater’s publicist had sent the Times review for Northern Borders and it had landed in my inbox. I decided not to read it, preferring to bask in the glow of that evening’s reverie, where we could all be together to share work and stories. There was no doubt in my mind that the NY Times review could wait.
I slept well-a change from previous nights when I’ve anticipated a Times review. On the February night before we premiered my 1993, picture, Where the Rivers Flow North, we staged a preview screening at the old Angelika 57 Theater in mid-town. Snow was coming down hard but we still managed to fill the 500-seat theater. The Hard Rock Café, next door, donated space for our reception and the independent local Coliseum Bookstore, hosted a book signing with Howard Mosher (today, neither The Angelika, The Hard Rock Café, nor Coliseum Books exist).
The next morning I woke up and immediately went to the street to buy up a copy of every New York daily and weekly newspaper. While still on the icy street, I turned to the New York Times’ Friday arts section where Caryn James’ indifferent review figured prominently. My heart sank. James called the film “as pretty as a postcard and just as flat” and it went downhill from there. We did get one fabulous quote: “Tantoo Cardinal gives Bangor a freshness rarely seen on screen. She is so tough and blunt that when she begins to cry about the children she never had it becomes clear that emotion has been a luxury in her hardscrabble life.” Wow.
But I was perplexed – if Ms. James loves Tantoo, why wasn’t her overall impression of the film more positive? Since Tantoo is arguably the main character? But I saw evidence of something I’ve now seen often from the Times – a “mixed” review that goes from a total negative paragraph to one that’s so positive it seems contradictory. Fair enough. And the job of a filmmaker or any artist is to engage criticism constructively, where you feel it’s right, and let it roll off your back, when you feel the critic just doesn’t get it.
I’m teaching a class on the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, this semester and he remarked in an interview how he frequently felt like a fraud. I get it. And critics remind us (and some even reminded Bergman). Who are we to assume anything at all, embarking, as we do, along this path and presuming to have something to say? But we persist, probably because we can’t not do it.
Back in my cramped room at the downtown Howard Johnson’s, I looked at the other New York reviews and they were all positive. Daily News critic Dave Kehr disagreed with Caryn James directly, saying that the film was “A handsome production shot with an admirable resistance to postcard beauty.”
New York Post critic John Anderson called the picture, “A western set in northern Vermont (that) moves confidently and slowly, like water rising, until you’re up to your chin and don’t want to escape.”
Village Voice critic Devon Jackson called the picture a “treasurable little first-time indie that features a spirited performance of a complex female character courtesy of the transcendent Tantoo Cardinal.” And Interview Magazine’s Henry Cabot Beck wrote that, “Tantoo Cardinal nails her part with such astonishing grace that Oscars should rain from the heavens and fall at her feet.” This quote led us, a year later, to mount a homemade grass-roots Oscar campaign for Tantoo, funded with small donations and winning friends including Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon – but that’s a different (and bizarre) story.
For Northern Borders, it was surely good that I’d had this previous experience-along with one for my film, Disappearances, which got a pretty good – and long -Times review from one of the paper’s lead critics, Stephen Holden. Still, I was not expecting much from the Times and I wasn’t disappointed. I woke up and took my time as I searched online for Neil Genzlinger’s negative capsule review-just four short paragraphs. Genzlinger said Bruce Dern was “fine” but didn’t elaborate. The main item that sticks with me was his comment that the film was “sluggish,” to the extent that he said it unfolded as if in “cosmic slow motion.”
I went to Google to find out what I could learn about the idea of “cosmic slow motion” but the only online reference to it is in Genzlinger’s review of Northern Borders. I did learn something – that supernova explosions in the early universe appear to age more slowly than in today’s super novae, as time itself was running more slowly back then. My filmmaking has been called old fashioned – but this goes back pretty far. I thought about it.
I also learned that Mr. Genzlinger is a big fan of the reality series Duck Dynasty and, having not seen that before, I checked it out. I was surprised by several things-one of which is how fast the Duck Dynasty editing is. I don’t know that I’d go for the show in any case-but it seemed to me to skim the surface for quick laughs or quirky sensations. Then I looked up the term for the opposite of cosmic and it’s “puny” or “teensy-weensy.” Then I stopped looking to the internet to help me make sense of my bad review.
Mr. Genzlinger did say he thought our educational program, where 20 professionals mentor and collaborate with 30 students from 10 colleges-was “almost certainly a premium learning experience” so I felt OK about that.
Before I got out of bed, I surfed the web to see if anyone else reviewed the film. Fortunately, New York Daily News critic Graham Fuller, gave Northern Borders what I felt was a good review. “The stubborn old mule Bruce Dern played in Nebraska was a pussycat compared to the grudging old goat he portrays in Northern Borders,” Fuller wrote. “Dern made the movies back to back and is magnificent in both.” He goes on to call Genevieve Bujold “equally wonderful” and concludes his piece by calling the picture “a gentle humorous drama” and “a charmer with a sense of integrity.” Good enough. And Fuller is a respected writer for Vanity Fair, Film Comment, the London Guardian and…the New York Times.
For the first time, we were ignored by The New York Post and Newsday, but The Hollywood Reporter also weighed in positively, calling Northern Borders, “regional filmmaking at its most authentic” and praising its “expert performances.” OK.
I think I left this round in New York appreciating anyone, including critics, who appreciate what we’re doing-and feeling that our overall strategy, to make these New England place-based films and then immediately take them directly to audiences in every corner of the region-makes sense.
I also felt a renewed flush of camaraderie for the cast and crew, the professionals and students who worked so hard to make a film that can play and get noticed-and the donors who help make these pictures on one-quarter of the budget we’re used to. Our 123 screenings, to date, for Northern Borders, have given us an intimate connection to these audiences, to the film itself, and to the whole process that makes this possible.
And I think of the seeds of all this, in my days 40 years ago at Catamount Arts and the Peacham School–and with new partners at Marlboro College and KCP and the warm welcome from so many people on Nantucket … and, still, Catamount Arts. And I’m grateful for how many hundreds and even thousands of people have joined together make all of this happen — against the odds — these enduring experiences of shared community and culture.
I’m happy. And ready, I guess, to introduce our new film, Peter and John, to the world.