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Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Oscar Goes to…Ed’s Barn!

Prize winning barn

This time of year the whole world’s agog over the Academy Awards. I’m sure even those planets with life intelligent or otherwise will be watching from deep space, as well. Granted the“Oscars” are the most watched awards show on commercial television, but in my opinion it’s just another awards show, and an awards show is a network’s way of saying: “We can’t come up with any creative—or decent—programming at the moment, so let’s gather together a bunch of people who glitter when they smile and sing, tell them they may have an award coming and then parade them in front of a camera and watch them hope they win one!”

And when the evening of the Big Night looms, inevitably this lament from my wife: “This year we haven’t seen a single movie up for an Academy Award!”(We’ve seen one of the nominees this season, so the tune’s in a slightly different key: “We’ve only seen ONE movie up for this year’s Oscars!”)

By now you’ve gathered I’m not much for movies. When I was a boy growing up in a small town in north central Washington, our little movie theatre was the social hub of the town when the weekend rolled around. Those days I could sit through the newsreel, two cartoons, and two full-length feature movies without a single yawn. Must have been all that sugar in those Jujubes. But even then, if memory serves me, I was more entertained by the activity in the lobby than the action on the silver screen. When I sit in front of the watch a film these days, soon after MGM’s regal lion roars and bares his fangs, I’m directing dream movies myself, only to awake when the credits scroll down the screen or when someone yells, “I can’t hear the movie with you running that chain saw full throttle over there!”

But I watched a movie the other night, sat for nearly two hours and didn’t nod once. And the movie was hardly Academy Award caliber either. I can’t imagine its title ever crossed the lips of a single member of the Academy when they selected the 1991 nominees.

When the machine gun fire in the microwave ceased, I served up two big bowls of Orville’s “Theatre Style Buttered,” and we queued up the movie. Tonight’s feature attraction, Past Midnight. The DVD case said: “PAST PASSION! PAST TERROR! PAST MURDER!” Yeah, come on! Light my fire! Scare me! Terrify me!…just keep me awake.

The female lead was Natasha Richardson. My wife, who knows such things, tells me Natasha was the daughter of British actress Vanessa Redgrave (“She smiles just like her mother” whenever she smiled…and she smiled a lot) and wife of actor Liam Neeson. Natasha died as a result of a freak skiing accident, my wife reminds me, while taking lessons at a ski resort in Quebec in March of ‘09. The forty-five year old actress sustained severe brain trauma when she fell and struck her head during a lesson. She died hours later in a New York City hospital. Neither my wife nor I had heard of Rutger Hauer who played the male lead. Hauer had a Teutonic look about him--that blue-eyed German thing--would have seemed right at home in a German SS uniform, sitting behind a clunky desk beneath one stark light bulb conducting a steely-eyed interrogation of some hapless WWII POW soon to be doomed to death.

Here’s the rather feeble storyline. Ben Jordan (Hauer) has been released from prison where he served a fifteen year sentence for murdering his pregnant wife. Laura (Richardson) is the social worker assigned to his case, help Ben transition to life beyond prison walls. Ben maintains his innocence, claims he was framed, and Laura, who sees something truthful in those piercing blue eyes, sets out to prove to herself he is. Laura’s ex-boyfriend--now just friend--Steve, thinks otherwise and warns her not to trust her client. But Laura has that woman’s intuition thing going…and besides, Ben is soooo handsome. The predictable happens: soon she’s romantically involved. And then there’s Ben’s intellect. “I’ve been reading through your history,” Laura tells him. “You have an IQ of 146.” Ben reflects a moment, fixes Laura with those shifty eyes, and replies: “Ted Bundy had an IQ of 150.” Whooooa! Now the audience is on Steve’s side! And it doesn’t help that Jordan frequently shows up at Laura’s home unannounced. (Is the creep stalking her?) After a string of terrifying incidents, Laura reconsiders her intuition.

Before you go in search of your heart medicine, I’ll leave you to wonder about the lives, loves, and lustings of Ben and Laura and get on with this post’s real purpose.

Past Midnight was filmed locally. Riding tandem with the storyline were shots of downtown Snohomish, the Ave. D Bridge over the Snohomish River,…Ben and Laura rendezvous in a Snohomish tavern (The Oxford Tavern?). And there’s the spring rain, too, lots of it, dripping relentlessly from moss draped alders. Steve (on Laura’s behalf, of course) lands Ben a job at Wheeler’s meat packing house on Maple Street. (Reader board in the parking lot announces the deals of the week.) And wait…what’s that building across the street? Is that the old Snohomish Junior High? Certainly is…and shouldn’t I know…I taught in that building for at least ten years….)

But now Laura leaves her Snohomish office (which looks suspiciously set somewhere in Seattle’s Pioneer Square) and travels to Ellensburg where fifteen years ago Ben not only stabbed his pregnant wife, but recorded the gruesome act with a Super 8 movie camera. Laura wants to interview some of the folks who knew Ben, hear their side of the story. Ben’s father-in-law, a crusty old metal worker, tells Laura to “get off my property” as soon as he learns her mission. Visibly shaken by his inhospitality, Laura next heads to a farm owned by Ben’s best friend Todd Canipe who, with the help of his younger, “mentally challenged” brother Larry runs the place. She wants to interrogate Larry who had been called upon to testify at the murder trial.

Back on the road with Laura. The camera follows her old Jeep down a country road. But just a minute, here…those are not alfalfa fields…aren’t those rows of…raspberries! What? This isn’t Ellensburg: it’s the Tualco Valley! And to our delight the camera follows Laura’s Jeep down Tualco Loop Road until it slows and turns into Tony Broers’ driveway, drives past that familiar white farmhouse with the red trim, past those primeval poplar trees….The next shot is inside a lofty barn, a bovine cathedral, its vaulted roof a work of intricate carpentry. Shafts of light stream from two windows and spotlight Laura as she caresses the nose of a solitary horse. On location She speaks a few horse endearments to the sorrel pony and then questions Larry, the “slow” brother, who haltingly puts into words what he remembers from his testimony at the murder trial all those years ago.

Next shot: Laura and Larry’s elder brother Todd stroll up Tony’s driveway talking about…well, who cares, really. We’re looking for Valley landmarks. “There’s Swiss Hall! That’s Werkhovens’ farm! There are the dairy barns and calf pens!” Camera shot north: “Van Hulles’ barns and dairy!” Camera shot south: “Is that Martys’ house? Don’t ever remember that blue paint.”At this point local color upstages the storyline; we don’t hear a word Laura and Todd exchange (“Hey, that’s Tony’s old green farm truck!”) as they saunter up the driveway.Farm truckWe have to replay the segment. Laura and Mr. Canipe say their goodbyes (not to spoil the ending, but they will meet again). Barn shedShe climbs into her Jeep. Mr. C. heads toward Tony’s tractor, tiller attached, apparently to do some cultivating of the berry rows.

Twenty years have wrought changes to the movie set. Gone is the white paint and red trim on the old farmhouse. The house has a new look now: white, still, but with a muted gray trim. And new owners: Ginnifer and Ed bought the house and farm from Tony. The front porch and second story gable have had a makeover. Ed's HouseA new metal roof replaced the old hand split cedar shakes. The towering poplars that guarded the driveway disappeared some years ago. Ed tired of the shock and awe coming from his new roof every time a windstorm roared through the Valley, stripping limbs from the aging tops, sending them plummeting down on the roof. So the trees had to go. The big dairy barn remains pretty much the same. 

The big expansive hayloft now provides storage space for stacks of berry flats. No trace of the small stall that housed Laura’s pony. The filmmakers took artistic liberties with the barn, selecting the hayloft for the shoot because of its open rafters and vaulted ceiling.Lofty Barn The lighting effect from two south facing windows was an important consideration, too. Hay mows are for hay, so the lonely little horse had to be hoisted to the loft for the shoot (after all, what’s a barn without a horse?”).

I’d rate Past Midnight a PYE for “plug your ears” because of the occasional strong language. Also when Ben and Laura start grappling in her parlor, you might want to send the kiddos to the kitchen to refresh the popcorn bowl. That should allow just enough time for the bedclothes to settle down.

Other than the fact Richardson is a treat for the eyes, the movie has little else to recommend it. A second rate “slasher” movie at best: mediocre acting, jaded storyline—some of it poorly developed—an uncreative screenplay…hardly Oscar material. Although the Valley and that picturesque old barn made only cameo appearances, they both stayed true to character. And the barn never muffed a single line.Ed's BarnA special thanks to Ginnifer Broers for braving a very cold morning to show me the barn and allow me to take a few candid shots of that stately—but drafty--old building.Barn, front view

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