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Films
by Kathi Maio

Imaginative Moviemaking, on Pennies a Day

Coming of age, I used to hate hearing older people bemoan the advent of television, fancy toys, and game electronics. "When I was young, " they'd say, "We didn't have any of these fancy dodads. We had to use our imagination when we played together." "Yeah. Right," I'd (mentally) reply. "And you had to walk ten miles in the snow to get to school." Yadda, yadda, yadda. Blah, blah, blah. Their complaints sounded like reactionary nonsense to me.

And then, I briefly student-taught a children's improvisational workshop, and I began to see the point of my elders' laments . My job was to help the participants learn to develop their mental muscles and get in touch with their creative impulses through instantaneous, improvisational performance. It was a struggle for some. Some kids of ten or eleven had already handed over their imaginations to external forces. They were dependent on media and props to tell---or enjoy---a story.

Bit by bit, they rediscovered those skills. By the end of the workshop, almost all of the students exhibited a tremendous ability to convey ideas and emotions and plot with just their physical and mental "instrument." They could convey a situation so vividly that, watching them, I believed in it, too.

The alchemy of storytelling---the melding of the imagination of the performer with their audience---is heady stuff. When it works.

I continue to look for that same rush from every written story I read, and from every movie I watch. And, most of the time, as my frequent kvetching in these pages indicates, I am sorely disappointed.

So, now, let me sound (again?) like the old fogey reactionary. Modern filmmakers are just far too caught up in their electronic toys and their expensive CGI visuals to the detriment of visceral, believable storytelling. Imagination, emotion, coherent characters all seem to play second fiddle to "effects."

Too much money (and not enough intelligence) is thrown up on the screen. Peel back all the doodads, I say. Let Steven Spielberg remake A.I. on $3 million or less. If he did, it might be a better film. It might even pack the kind of wallop that Sugarland Express and Jaws did!

Fat chance, on that score.

So I just have to comfort myself with the pleasures of watching the work of lesser known directors, doing imaginative work on extremely limited budgets. With that in mind, it was indeed a pleasure, at the end of a Summer full of empty movies bloated with dazzle, to see two films by Brad Anderson, back to back.

Released within a couple of weeks of one another, both films are unusual genre films, with practically no special effects. Both nonetheless deliver a good deal of entertainment value for those who can still appreciate a character-driven movie with a distinctive vibe, but practically no bells and whistles.

First up was Session 9,= an old-fashioned horror film. No beginning-to-end slasher gore. No foul-mouthed adolescents spoofing, goofing, and dying. Session 9 is a highly atmospheric suspense yarn with a strong sense of place. In fact, Anderson has admitted that he had the setting for his film before he had a screenplay.

For almost a decade, the filmmaker lived in the Boston area, making documentaries and filming his two debut features, the seldom seen The Darien Gap (1995), and the only slightly less obscure romantic comedy, Next Stop Wonderland (1998). At one point, driving north of Boston, he spotted the old Danvers State Hospital, a massive Victorian, 500 acre, state-run insane asylum. Although the hospital was shut down in 1985, its decaying splendor is only matched by the more than 100 years of anguish that seems to permeate its walls and grounds. An illegal foray into the estate with a group of "urban spelunkers" convinced Anderson, and his friend and co-writer, the actor Stephen Gevedon, that this would be the perfect setting for a horror flick.

So, the two wrote a screenplay, got modest funding of under 2 million, put together a cast and crew, and headed to Danvers for a 21 day, guerilla-style shoot, using a brand-new Sony 24P high-definition video camera (put in the capable hands of cinematographer Uta Briesewitz). The resulting film is stylish and visually evocative, even if it was shot quickly, on the cheap.

The Danvers Hospital is certainly a character in its own right. And in the great tradition of old haunted house flicks, it's a complex and tortured one at that. But the human characters are equally interesting. Gordon (Peter Mullen), a Scots immigrant, is the grizzled, stoical owner of a struggling hazmat abatement company. It's been a while since he and his foreman, Phil (David Caruso), have made the winning bid on a job. And Gordo has a wife and new baby to support.

Quietly desperate for a lucrative contract, Gordon promises to remove the asbestos from the old Danvers Hospital in one week, even though it's easily a three week job. So, the pressure is on as the two managers and their crew tackle their difficult and dangerous task. It doesn't help that the place is spooky as hell; full of reminders of the troubled souls who lived and died there; "patients" who met with "treatments" that included cold immersion baths, prefrontal lobotomies, and long stints in isolation cells.

The work crew seems a bit dysfunctional, too. Gordon is starting to show wear and tear from sleep deprivation. His new baby wails through the night. Phil has a simmering feud with a co-worker, Hank (Josh Lucas). Hank stole Phil's girlfriend, possibly just to get his goat, and seems less interested in romance than a foolproof "exit plan" from his unpleasant job. Mike King (co-writer Gevedon) is a law-school dropout from a well-to-do family, who takes frequent "breaks" to explore the hospital's abandoned rooms. And Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) appears to be nothing more than an agreeable, if somewhat aimless, teen, temporarily joining the crew to help out his Uncle. Unfortunately, he's not the brightest penny in the piggybank, and is petrified of the dark, to boot.

I loved how well Anderson expresses the blue-collar milieu of his characters. Despite the fact that they are doing dangerous work, these men are completely matter-of-fact about it. They are (seemingly) less concerned with the risks of getting life-threatening fibers in their lungs than in deciding whose turn it is to go out and get their fast-food lunch of the day.

Still, the tension builds as the men's relations become more strained, and the deadline for completion looms. The general gloom and eerie artifacts of the hospital compound the pressure. Mike has discovered old tapes from the therapy sessions of an inmate with multiple personality disorder. And as the taped sessions play out, they seem to mirror the mounting apprehension at the work site.

I suspect that most people will have little patience for this kind horror flick today. There's little gore (until the very end), and nothing supernatural about the proceedings to speak of. The suspense here is even more naturalistic than that of The Blair Witch Project;= a fact that may seem especially odd to anyone who realizes that the hospital stands on the same real estate as old Salem Village, the locale of the Salem Witch Trials.

But Anderson is trying build dread, not Halloween hokum, here. His aim is to show how the human mind can unravel with shocking consequences. Those hoping to see a physical manifestation of Mephistopheles stalk these crumbling halls, should give this movie a pass. Anderson does leave us, finally, with the idea that there might be a universal evil entity that preys on human weakness. If you want to believe it, he gives you full permission.

But Brad Anderson's view is both more prosaic and more chilling: Every soul has a breaking point. And when that comes, the human consequences can be horrific.

Within a couple of weeks of the limited release of Session 9,= another feature written and directed by Brad Anderson hit art houses. It was an equally unusual film, a romantic dramedy with science fiction flourishes. That film is called Happy Accidents= and it stars Vincent D'Onofrio---one of my all-time favorite actors---and the seriously underrated Marisa Tomei.

The setting, at least, is more conventional this time. This is the New York of "Sex and the City," only grittier and more believable (and with a much more modest wardrobe budget). Ms. Tomei plays Ruby, a classic enabler who's trying to change her relationship ways. She and her women friends have a shoebox full of photographs that they call the "Ex-Files." Ruby doesn't want to add another snapshot to the collection of losers. So, she is in therapy and trying to take a break from men.

Then Ruby meets Sam (D'Onofrio), a hospice worker with an innocent smile and a loopy enthusiasm for life . . . and her. Like many New Yorkers, Ruby considers anyone from the middle hinterlands of America to be an unsophisticated hayseed. Therefore, when Sam says he's from Dubuque, she thinks that explains his enthusiasm for polka music and his complete lack of knowledge about red wines and liquor.

Foolhardy or not, she lets herself fall head over heels. And, within a week, she invites him to move in with her.

But soon, Sam's idiosyncrasies become increasingly bizarre. First of all, he seems to fall into a trance at the oddest times. Still, as long as he doesn't space out during sex, her girlfriend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani) tells her, there's nothing to worry about. Or maybe there is. Sam is also evasive about his background and murmurs strange phrases about things like "breaking the causal chain" in his sleep. To top it off, he's frightened to death of miniature dogs.

Is Sam a nut? It's beginning to look like it. When pressed, Sam decides to break down, violate protocol, and tell his lady-love the truth. He really is from Dubuque. Only it's the Atlantic coastal city of Dubuque, circa 2470.

All this happens fairly early in the film. And the rest of the movie consists of Sam's elaborate (and ever-shifting) descriptions of the future, his family, and how he came to seek out Ruby, juxtaposed with Ruby's roller coaster reactions to her lover's "kinky role-playing." Could he possibly be telling the truth? Or is he just a fruit loop of the first order, the ultimate in men she won't be able to fix?

The science fiction aspects of the Sam's narrative are certainly entertaining. (This includes the most erotic explanation of time travel that you will likely ever see in a film.) But, like Ruby, the audience is kept guessing if Sam is one of the last great romantics, back from the future to win, and possibly save, his one true love, or if he is, instead, a deranged fellow in need of an updated Danvers Hospital.

Whether Sam is crazy or not, Mr. Anderson believes that romantic love is, most certainly, lunacy. Still, it's the madness of relationships, he seems to be saying, that gives them their spark. Just ask Ruby's mother (Tovah Feldshuh), whose passionate marriage mysteriously died once her husband gave up his drunken ways and she her co-dependence.

In the long run, it doesn't matter whether Sam's elaborate stories about the future are true. It only matters whether Ruby believes him---believes in him. Sam would say it has something to do with Cheeseman's scientific theory of something or other. Fine. And I have my own theories, which lead me to believe that a film as quirky and charming as Happy Accidents is no accident.

Here's my theory: To make an exhilarating movie, a filmmaker should play with a genre, but not in the same old ways. S/he should strip away the flourishes and FX, and get back to the essentials of believable characters living through an involving story. This something Brad Anderson can do with pennies to Steven Spielberg's dollars.

I don't mean to sell Mr. Spielberg short. I say we send Steven out there with a couple of mil---pocket change to him---and see what he can do. I think he might just make one hell of a movie.

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