Friday, December 9, 2011

Letters From the Big Man

LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN        B                   
USA  (115 mi)  2011  d:  Christopher Münch

Having recently seen An Unmarried Woman (1978) starring Jill Clayburgh, this movie interestingly stars her daughter, Lily Rabe, as Sarah, an outdoor enthusiast who previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service, but is now leaving the city of Medford, Oregon with the last few personal belongings she’s taking with her following a recent breakup.  She’s hired on with the Forest Service again to do a special survey charting the natural recovery in a wilderness area nearly destroyed by a fire a decade ago, beautifully shot by cinematographer Rob Sweeney almost entirely in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of Southwest Oregon, between Interstate 5 and the coast just north of the California border.  Sarah is seen as a strong-willed woman with an immediate sense of purpose, who wastes little time talking needlessly, who yearns for the solitary comfort of the forest as a means of recovery.  An aerial shot follows her as she winds her way through the narrow canyon roads, eventually discarding the van and then kayaking ahead further before heading alone on foot, making her way deeper into the wilderness until the wordlessness and captivating beauty of the landscape matches her curiously isolated state of mind, where she pulls out a sketchpad to draw what she sees while also jotting down notes on a tiny notepad.  Sarah is the well-trained and more experienced equivalent of the clueless Christopher McCandless character from INTO THE WILD (2007) heading for Alaska on his own searching for an adventure in the wild.  Sarah seems to be a child of privilege, as her rude and abrupt manner with people is typically intended to create space where she doesn’t want to be bothered.  Finally back in her element, accompanied by the Renaissance Madrigal sound of the chamber group Ensemble Galilei, the colors and natural sounds come into play where the audience is treated to a magnificent hiking adventure without ever leaving their seats, as the luscious splendor of the wilderness couldn’t be more stunning to the uninitiated, and to those who have been there before, this landscape beckons for your return. 

Sarah has the sense that someone is following her, where a mythical Sasquatch or Bigfoot creature can continually be seen lurking behind the rocks visible to the audience but remains unseen to Sarah.  While this might seem ridiculous in some films, Münch, the director of the scintillating SLEEPY TIME GAL (2002), uses a clever device of blending the character into the story by keeping the audience wondering if the forest creature is real or imagined, as despite her seemingly healthy physical endurance, this could all be taking place inside her head, as expressed in a dreamlike moment when a giant-sized, sunlight reflection image of Bigfoot appears before her which seems completely imagined, like a hallucination.  When a fellow hiker appears at a clearing, Sean (Jason Butler Harner), Sarah goes into her realist survival mode, investigating him and carefully making sure the hiker is not carrying a gun before sharing a campsite.  Both are ardent outdoor enthusiasts who are probably as comfortable alone in the woods as most would be in the company of their families.  Sarah makes it clear her “serenity” has been interrupted, so Sean’s visit is brief, though it appears they both have much in common when they discuss their mutual appreciation for the area.  In an unexpected, all too sudden time shift, Sarah has returned to civilization where she’s enjoying the Ashland Shakespeare Festival performance of The Tempest, which is seen as a play about art and magic and how it’s easy to confuse the two.  In an amusing gesture, Sarah, something of a fitness freak, is seen on a stationary bike and a jump rope to keep up her conditioning, as the arduous hiking is apparently child’s play to her.  Sarah’s new home is an idyllic cabin set deep in the woods, where she’s by now become used to the strange sounds of her woodland pursuer.  While she was initially suspect of being followed, not sure what to expect, she has now grown safer and more reassured, spending more time worrying about the nagging mosquitoes than this seemingly unknown but still felt presence.

Like something out of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1965), books which actually reflect his own personal journals that he kept one summer when he worked for the Forest Service in the North Cascades of Washington as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, a remote outpost sitting atop a mountain summit, Sasquatch appears to her as if in her dreams, where she starts making vivid sketches in her journal of what she sees, quickly becoming evident that she believes the creature is real.  Meanwhile, Münch cleverly intermixes realist argumentative posturing of local environmental activists (which includes Sean and Karen Black!) with Forest Service executives (which includes the data collected by Sarah), where they’re attempting to mediate their differences with the logging industry, which reflect the actual concerns of anyone living in Oregon, as these battles have been raging for decades.  Using Sean’s romantic interest in Sarah as a substory, the film delves into his radical beliefs, which include the ravings of conspiracy theorists who believe there’s a secret government plot for the military to build a wilderness outpost for the sole purpose of capturing and exploiting the telepathic powers of Bigfoot, who seemingly, according to Indian lore, channels soothing and harmonious beliefs into his friends while sending signals of terror into his more distrustful enemies.  One of the Oregonian relics of the logging industry is Sarah’s friend Barney, Jim Cody Williams, a heavily bearded old geezer who expresses as much love and admiration for the trees as any of the environmentalists, which adds a kind of luster to this idyllic portrait of differing sides coming together in a mutual understanding of just how invaluable the natural world can be if used wisely.  Sarah defines the spirit of those backpackers who continually need to get back into the woods, enchanted by all kinds of mysterious spirits, real and mythical, all of which add more layers of understanding to the human experience.       

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