Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Film Review #108: Where the Rivers Flow North
1993
Director: Jay Craven
Cast: Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, Michael J. Fox

When you think about it, the storyline of Vermont-based indie filmmaker Jay Craven’s Where The Rivers Flow North (1993) is very American – something told and re-told in a land populated by descendants who still nurse the sting of remembered dispossession, eviction and removal. How many movies are there where somebody – the railroad, the cattle barons, the bankers – wants this old codger off his scrap of land and he answers with a shotgun? It’s not always an old codger (after all, there’s Scarlett O’Hara), and every place has some local history that adds special resonance (say, an interstate through the heart of town or a gargantuan mall project).

This film is the first of Craven’s “Vermont frontier trilogy,” all based on the novels of his old friend, Central New York native Howard Frank Mosher. It’s 1927 and the Boston-based Northern Power Company’s hydro-electric project is going to flood 10,000 acres of the Kingdom River’s cedar-forested watershed. Cigar-chomping, mustachioed executive Farnsworth (Michael J. Fox), sadistic enforcer “New York Money” (Mark Margolis), and opportunistic, brogue-accented company agent Wayne Quinn (the marvelous and versatile Bill Raymond, a Craven regular) represent the forces of progress.

Old logger Noel Lord (Rip Torn), who ekes out a living distilling cedar oil from a shack overlooking a cold, marshy part of the river, is the last hold-out. Despite escalating offers to buy out his life-time lease and declining cedar oil prices – he survives a carnival’s brutal “chain fight” to win the cash he needs for his annual lease payment – Lord resists, holding up the whole project. Lord’s ace up the sleeve is a secret, deluded plan to light out for another frontier – Oregon.

Besides resulting in his own downfall, Lord’s stubbornness, temper and schemes create a serious rift with his Native American “house-keeper,” Bangor (Tantoo Cardinal of Smoke Signals in an incandescent performance). Lord’s nick-name for her combines a lewd pun with the city where he found her working as a stripper. Though real tenderness between them emerges, this detail is part of the film’s well-developed, sometimes biting portrayal of deeply ingrained prejudice against such unions as well as the harsh desperation that poor, rural women faced as the US sank into the Great Depression. Though beautifully shot, these forests are often brooding, wet and cold, and snow flies as Bangor does Lord a last favor.

The trilogy’s second film, A Stranger in the Kingdom (1999), about the racism an African American minister and his son face in this same Vermont town circa 1952, contains an even darker, more raw depiction of relations between the races and sexes in the bleak fate of mail-order bride Claire LaRiviere.

Howard Frank Mosher is a graduate of Cato-Meridian High School and Syracuse University who moved to Vermont in 1964 with his wife Phillis. Her work as a teacher supported his early writing. They still live in the town of Irasburg in Vermont’s “northeast kingdom,” a corner comprising the three counties of Essex, Orleans and Caledonia. Mosher has written ten novels, starting with Disappearances (1977). His latest, On Kingdom Mountain, comes out next month, coinciding with the DVD release of Craven’s 2006 screen version of Disappearances. This 1932 tale of cross-border whiskey smuggling completes Craven’s Vermont trilogy and stars Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, and William Sanderson (Deadwood) as Muskrat Kinneson.

Where the Rivers Flow North is part of this larger saga. For example, various Kinneson clan members appear throughout the Mosher novels, set in fictional Kingdom County. This recalls William Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, with its web of associations, memory, family allusions, betrayals and undertow of racial mingling and conflict stretching over generations and a string of novels. The Kingdom County tales occur amidst cross-border lawlessness and privation that also replicate a kind of Wild West frontier that is not so remote, in either circumstances or mindset, as we sometimes think. In adapting Mosher’s novels, Craven is not making Green Acres knock-offs. And even in specifying their New England regionalism both subtly echo other American myths.

Craven teaches film at tiny Marlboro College, runs a summer camp for teen filmmakers, and his indie company, Kingdom County Productions, commemorates Mosher’s imagined territory. Familiar, well-regarded actors – Gary Farmer, Martin Sheen, Ernie Hudson, Carrie Snodgrass, Henry Gibson, Martin Mull, Luis Guzm├ín, to name some more – routinely work with Craven, who road-tests his movies before national theatrical release with Vermont-wide summer screenings in church basements, school cafeterias and Grange halls. American film-making for American stories.

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This review appears in the 6/21/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not have a regular theatrical run in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.