COLOR OF A BRISK AND LEAPING DAY (director/writer/editor: Christopher Münch; cinematographer: Rob Sweeney; music: selections from Satie, Charles Ives, Scriabin, Bach; cast: Peter Alexander (John), Bok Yun Chon (Angela), Diana Larkin (Wendy, John’s Sister), Michael Stipe (Skeeter), Henry Gibson (Robinson), Jeri Arredondo (Nancy), John Diehl (Pinchot); Runtime: 87; An Artistic License Films release of a Jim Stark/Antarctic Pictures/Blurco presentation; 1996)
“It was a pleasant and unique film, as pleasant as going through a photo album of someone who really loves what he’s showing you and you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A 23-year-old Chinese-American, John Lee (Peter Alexander), whose Chinese grandfather helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, presents a moving love poem about the Yosemite Valley Railroad. He hopes to buy the railroad and save it from liquidation and preserve its special place in American history. The railroad has a short but scenic route through the mountains from Merced, California to El Porto (the entrance to Yosemite). For revenue the railroad relies more on freight trade than passengers, as John battles his creditors and tries to raise enough money to keep the railroad built in 1907 intact by increasing its passengers.
“Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day” takes its title from a line in an Octavio Paz poem.
Christopher Münch (“The Hours and the Times“) directs a lyrical film that visually succeeds with breathtaking black-and-white shots of the railroad and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately the intense story is not as good as the visual effects, as the story fails to have legs to flesh out the complex relationships our hero has with both his past and present relationships.
At the end of WW 11 John, whose mother is French and whose father is a wealthy Chinese-American who owns a Los Angeles trading company, decides to fulfill his dream of owning the “Y-Vee,” a railroad that the government wants to abandon due to budget cuts and heavy losses. The somewhat strained relationship he has with his father is never pressed further, as he thinks his son is a wastrel who should go into the family business and therefore will not help him financially; nor is his possible incestuous one he has with his sister fully developed; nor is the issue of racial prejudice against Asians during that period brought up except as one passing incident on a bus.
The film rolls forward as a photo gallery of continual photos on display. The obsessed John can concentrate only on the railroad he bought and is only too eager to show any guest a snapshot (a tour of the facility) of it. His love for the railroad is purely a private thing, as I couldn’t find myself loving it as much as he did. Yet I sympathized with his plight and with his Washington battle with the lawmakers for survival of that dream. But I was also wanting more of a story to go with the pretty picture painted.
John’s relationships with those interested in the railroad and working there were positive ones. The kind-hearted railroad superintendent and his partner owner, Mr. Robinson, is treated with awe as an old railroad man and link to the past. While the lonely and gloomy traffic manager and clerk, Skeeter (R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe), whose only companion is a Golden Retriever, remarks to John when there’s a train de-railment: “Don’t worry about that, there’s more important things you have to worry about.” But we never go deeper with them than that conversation, as the taciturn Skeeter has little to say in this film. It’s also not clear if our hero is attracted to Skeeter in a physical way, or just because both share a love for the railroad.
John is so obsessed with the railroad that when he meets a lovely Native American college student, Nancy, working for the summer as a park ranger in Yosemite State Park, he turns her love away by not getting close to her because he’s worried that he’s a failure as a railroad man (his creditor, someone with no feel for the railroad, pulls the plug on it to sell it for scrap). John seems to be hotter for trains than for a lovely woman.
It was a pleasant and unique film, as pleasant as going through a photo album of someone who really loves what he’s showing you and you don’t know what’s coming next. As a coming-of-age story of self-discovery it had its pure moments of honest joy captured amidst all the gloomy hopelessness of the venture; and, the photography, as accomplished by Rob Sweeney, was magnificent in giving the film a rich steel-greyish mood to match the color of the railroads (it also smoothly intercut archival footage without cutting off the flow of the film). And through the lively performance by Peter Alexander, the film had a ring of truth to it. It just seemed the love story was less real than symbolic, as it is more tied to the life and death of the railroad than it was to being a real flesh story.
REVIEWED ON 1/11/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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