Regional cinema in the age of the blockbuster
By Bill Kauffman
IN 1915, the vagabond poet Vachel Lindsay delivered a spectacularly wrong prophecy about the future of film. In his book The Art of the Moving Picture, Lindsay predicted that soon enough, “every community of fifty thousand” would develop its own motion-picture coterie whose films would express the genius and character of its particular place. Topeka, Indianapolis, Denver: each would find itself rendered upon the screen in the fledgling medium of the motion picture.
That didn’t happen, but over the decades there have been rare filmmakers either based outside the smoggy environs of Los Angeles or dedicated to regionally themed film. Think Pittsburgh’s George Romero and his Night of the Living Dead zombies or the Indiana-bred writing-directing team of Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh, who collaborated on Hoosiers and Rudy, two of the best (and certainly most place-specific) sports movies ever made. But overwhelmingly, American movies have been produced, directed, filmed, and financed in Hollywood, which largely explains why they have had so little connection to life as it is lived in Butte or Bangor or Tulsa or Tallahassee.
What if, however, a filmmaker who lived far off the beaten path—say, in Vermont—made a movie based on a book by his region’s most acclaimed novelist? And then he made another. And another. And what if these works looked and sounded, glowered and sang, like their state, like sugar houses and mud seasons and hootenannies? It would almost be enough to raise Vachel Lindsay from the tomb.
FILMAKER JAY CRAVEN is one such rara avis: a director with a solid body of feature-film work who lives and makes movies far from bright lights and big cities. He calls his work “place-based, indigenous cinema,” and his best-known films are based on novels by Howard Frank Mosher, a fellow resident of Vermont’s sparsely populated and transcendently beautiful three-county area known as the Northeast Kingdom. (Mosher is one of the best American novelists writing today; the novelist Richard Russo calls him “the most natural storyteller around.”)
Howard Frank Mosher’s fictive terrain is Kingdom County, where the clock on the courthouse tower ignores daylight savings time, as do its citizens, who refuse to “adjust their clocks forward to accommodate someone else’s notion of the way time ought to be kept.” His Vermonters are stubborn, whimsical, independent, brawling, and not excessively respectful of the law: they are ruggedly individualistic within a community-minded setting. Critics have called Mosher’s novels “Easterns”; Jay Craven praises their mixture of “hardscrabble social reality and larger-than-life characters,” which endow them with “the mythic quality of the Western.”
There are hints of magic, of ghostly intercessions, in Mosher’s tales of moonshiners and hill farmers who are so suffused with the wild pioneer spirit that their material privations neither define nor confine them. Jay Craven has translated three—soon to be four—of these stories to the screen.
His debut, the powerful Where the Rivers Flow North (1993), stars Rip Torn as Noel Lord, a hook-handed logger fighting for the leased land on which his family has lived and loved and felled trees for generations. The ravenous Northern Power Company intends to flood the property to create the largest hydroelectric dam in the United States, as well as a “nature park”—the latter to be scenic, sterile, and stripped of inconvenient Vermonters.
But Lord refuses to budge. The choleric old man rejects an escalating series of monetary offers from the power company, growling, “I won’t be bribed or forced off this land for any reason.” His common-law wife (Native Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal in a bravura performance) urges him to take the money and move into town. But Lord is adamant: “I won’t work for any man. I’ll starve first.”
Where the Rivers Flow North is a fascinating character study. Noel Lord is not a flinty, cartoon, “a-yup” Vermonter hitching up his overalls while dispensing pithily cutting koans to befuddled flatlanders. He is a hard man, very much a product of a topography and a vocation whose stubborn nature is symbolized by the crude prosthetic protruding from his left arm.
Craven’s next film was A Stranger in the Kingdom (1999), featuring Ernie Hudson as a black minister whose arrival in a small Vermont town coincides with a brutal murder. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, the aim was not to preach or demonize rural whites as vicious racists but rather to examine, with honesty and sympathy, small communities ripped apart by conflicting loyalties and prejudices. Seven years later, in 2006, Disappearances debuted, a supernaturally tinged tale set in 1932 about a bootlegger (Kris Kristofferson) who smuggles stolen whiskey from Quebec into the Northeast Kingdom.
Place is essential to each of these films, and is manifested in the climate, flora, accent, pace, and even the faces of the background performers. These films are not only about their places, they are of them. They breathe Vermont: the blazing maples, the rutted roads, the ornery righteousness. Characters drop the regional quasi-curse “Christly” the way heavies in gangster movies spit the f-word. And they live with an astounding awareness of the history of their home ground. In Craven-Mosher films, time is fluid, and the past can flood the present as swiftly as the dam water threatens to overwhelm Noel Lord’s ancestral lands.
“VERMONT STORIES are worth telling,” says Craven. “There is a population here that never sees its own culture, its own history, its own characters, validated in the mainstream cinema. When a Hollywood film uses the region, it tends to caricature or stereotype the region. Why not have stories told from where we are about who we are?”
For one thing, the movie industry is concentrated and centralized. Southern California is, of course, the epicenter, from which Vermont—and Kansas and Mississippi and probably wherever you live—is invisible. But those of us who live beyond the epicenter are not without fault: we become inured to the effluvia of Hollywood, whose message is that unless we are Manhattan surgeons or LA lawyers, fashion models, or chiseled AK-47-wielding heroes, our lives are unworthy of the big screen.
That people appreciate their regions but don’t necessarily view them as worthy material for movies is an old and discouraging story—but the economics of local filmmaking aren’t helpful either. Craven’s early films had budgets in the $1.5 to $2 million range, and he put them together by hook or by crook—decidedly not by the book—from a combination of grants, nonprofit fundraising, bank loans, and investments. Only 18 of Vermont’s 236 towns and 9 cities have theaters, yet Craven toured Disappearances to an even one hundred sites in Vermont (many of them grange halls), up from his usual schedule of sixty to seventy tour stops. He also brought Disappearancesto Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, establishing a northern New England cinema of place. “Where the Rivers Flow North probably outgrossed Men in Black in Vermont,” he laughs.
Outside New England, however, the commercial terrain is more difficult. The film industry is incredibly tough on independents, and it has gotten tougher with time. With Where the Rivers Flow North, Craven was able to schedule showings at independent theaters and art houses. But that is much harder today, as five chains now own more than half of the almost thirty-nine thousand indoor theaters in America.
Yet Jay Craven keeps making films about his place and its people. Though it is simply not feasible at this stage of Green Mountain cinema to fill senior positions with local people, Craven holds Vermont casting calls and, to the extent possible, uses Vermonters in the crew. Such is the case with Northern Borders, Craven’s newest Mosher-inspired film, about a boy who’s sent to live with his grandparents in wild and marvelous Kingdom County.
Under the aegis of Marlboro College, Craven brought thirty-four students and recent graduates from fifteen colleges together for a film-intensive semester to top all film-intensive semesters: after six weeks of reading Vermont stories and literature and taking classes in cinematography, direction, and production design, the group made a movie. Northern Borders began its hopscotch across the movie palaces and town halls of New England in April 2013—if you’re in driving distance of Vermont, you may be able to watch a screening hosted by the director himself.
JAY CRAVEN has come closer than any other filmmaker to realizing Vachel Lindsay’s dream of vital regional cinema that embodies the character and genius of a place in all its mystery, magnificence, and pain. Lindsay foresaw the moving picture seeding an “artistic revolution” in the provinces. It hasn’t happened yet—but then maybe it just has a long gestation period.
Imagine seeing your place—its history, color, idiosyncrasies, secrets, and glories—rendered honestly upon the screen. Imagine your children, and your children’s children, growing up with the understanding that where they live matters, that their stories do not need to be transplanted to Beverly Hills or Manhattan in order to count.
Film, a medium whose message to those of us living far from industry headquarters has long been You do not matter, your lives and your homes are beneath notice, could begin to affirm the value of unacknowledged places—the villages and neighborhoods and human-scale homes in which so many real, live Americans actually love and labor and dream and mourn.
Our places will not flourish unless and until our artists turn their attention homeward and paint on the canvases of their own backyards. Why follow Hollywood’s cynical fashions and monuments to avarice? Myth and drama, tragedy and farce—every story we could ever hope to tell is waiting there on the streets and fields where we live, work, and play.
On July 16, Jay Craven joined Orion for a live discussion of regional filmmaking—listen to a recording here.