Making movies about where we live: Jay Craven visits Batavia

Posted: Saturday, January 11, 2014 
By Bill Kauffman Special to The Daily News

BATAVIA — Jay Craven, who is screening his latest movie, Northern Borders, at Genesee Community College at 2 p.m. today, is a rarity in the movie world: he is a director with a solid body of feature-film work who lives and makes movies far from bright lights, big cities, or cocaine nose-jobs.

There have been rare filmmakers either based outside the smoggy environs of Los Angeles — think Pittsburgh’s George Romero and his “Night of the Living Dead” zombies — or pursuing regionally themed films: e.g., 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 (and, to a lesser extent, New York City), which largely explains why they have had so little connection to life as it has been lived in Tulsa or Tallahassee or, for that matter, Batavia.

Craven calls his work “place-based, indigenous cinema.” Most of his films are adapted from novels by the acclaimed Howard Frank Mosher, his fellow resident of Vermont’s sparsely populated and transcendently beautiful three-county area known as the Northeast Kingdom. (Mosher visited our area a decade ago as part of the “A Tale for Three Counties” reading program, for which this afternoon’s event is a fundraiser.)

“Vermont stories are worth telling,” insisted Craven when I interviewed him last year at his home base at Vermont’s Marlboro College. “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?”

Why not? “Like every huge industry,” explains Craven, the movies are “concentrated and centralized.” Southern California is the epicenter, from which places like Vermont and Genesee County are invisible.

Yet those of us who live outside the entertainment capitals are not without fault. “Maybe part of it,” says Craven, “is that we accept our own marginalization. That can stop you before you start.” We become inured to the vulgar and witless products of Hollywood, whose message is that unless we are Manhattan surgeons or LA lawyers or icy models or chiseled AK-47-wielding studs our lives are trivial and unworthy.

“People like their regions but they don’t necessarily view them as important in the larger scheme of things,” says Craven. “Particularly when they are exposed to media that comes from a homogenized center.”

Craven’s earlier films — my favorites are W”here the Rivers Flow North” with Rip Torn and “Disappearances” with Kris Kristofferson — had budgets in the $1-$2 million range. 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. Hollywood veterans emoted in Vermont for far below their usual fees, whether because they love Mosher’s books or Craven’s films or they just like to work. (His casts typically mix Vermont players with established figures such as Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, and Carrie Snodgress.)

Craven’s films play in venues beyond the suburban cineplex. Since only 18 of Vermont’s 236 towns and nine cities have theaters, the director takes his movies to Grange halls and high schools throughout New England.

Craven shot “Northern Borders,” which is based on a wonderful Mosher novel, with a crew consisting of 34 college students and recent graduates and twenty production pros. Its cast includes Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold as well as eight Vermont actors.

I haven’t yet seen “Northern Borders,” but I’ll be there this afternoon to watch the movie and hear Jay Craven answer questions afterward. “Place-based cinema”: it’s not for Vermont only, you know. There’s no reason we can’t do it in Western New York.

(Bill Kauffman is the author of 10 books as well as the screenplay for the feature film “Copperhead,” which will be out in DVD in April. This article is drawn from a profile of Jay Craven he wrote for Orion magazine.)

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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