Friday, July 31, 2015

Reverie (2009)

Director: Geoff Stewart                                     Writer: Geoff Stewart
Film Score: Ray Buckley                                  Cinematography: Ray Buckley
Starring: Geoff Stewart, Zach Sanchez, Ronnie Chittim and Shawn O’Brien

Reverie is the first and only feature film directed by Portland-based Geoff Stewart, who also wrote the screenplay and starred as one of its lead actors. Like the works of many of his contemporaries in the last decade, the film is a tremendously impressive achievement and stands as one of the major works coming out of the Rose City in the last few years. As the title suggest, the film is a meditation on many things, nature, friendship, mortality, and forgiveness. But the one thing that comes to the fore is the extreme visual confidence of Geoff Stewart, who on the surface has a deceptively simple style that is actually densely packed with imagery and meaning. I came to Stewart through his work on Justin Koleszar’s 2011 film One Foot in the Gutter. Both he and Zach Sanchez worked as actors on that project and did a great job, with Stewart in the lead and Sanchez in a supporting role. Prior to both of these, Stewart had directed a segment of the film The Experimental Witch, based on the novel The Witch of Portobello by Paul Coelho, which used ten different directors to tell stories about the main character through the eyes of others. Shortly after, both Stewart and Sanchez, along with Ray Buckley, would produce his first feature screenplay.

The film opens with Zach Sanchez in bed waking up alone because his girlfriend has gone out of town for three days. From there the scene shifts to Geoff Stewart at home, a fire going in his wood stove. He is packing up his fishing tackle, then goes out to his truck and takes off. Back at Sanchez’s apartment he is working on his computer and talking to a colleague, sending some architectural drawings to the office. An interesting juxtaposition begins to take place between the two characters, as Stewart is seen heading off into the woods to fish, while Sanchez works out on an exercise machine as his dog looks longingly out the window. While Stewart is fishing in the river, Sanchez takes his dog for a walk, ignoring nature and phoning his girlfriend about the project he and his partner may be commissioned to design. The next morning, as Stewart meditates on the surroundings at the bank of the river, Sanchez drives out to his hometown and when he finds his mother gone, goes to get a permit to cut down a wild Christmas tree for his apartment. He winds up in the same area where Stewart has been fishing, and drives by his truck. Stewart can’t get his truck started, but when Sanchez comes back he drives right by him without stopping. The intersection of the two characters is made more intriguing, however, when Sanchez does stop and backs up.

They know each other, but Stewart doesn’t want to impose on him and Sanchez is glad of it, driving away yet again. Then he stops again and gives Stewart a ride to the highway, accompanied by brief conversation but mostly awkward silence. The conflict is apparently about music. The night before, Sanchez was playing a song on his guitar and then abruptly stopped. When he is picking up the tree license the next day, childhood friend Shawn O’Brien asks if he’s putting the band back together and then acts as if he spoke out of turn. Finally, when Stewart is alone in Sanchez’s old car, he hears the same song on the CD player and as the vocals begin he removes the disc and flings it off the side of the road. When the two are stranded on the mountain after Sanchez’s battery goes dead, it soon becomes apparent that the female voice on the CD may be the real cause of the contention between them. While in some ways the resolution seems clichéd, it’s done in a way that feels incredibly fresh. The key to the ending is actress Ronnie Chittim, who acts as a sage, imparting wisdom without the demand for action on that wisdom. It is for the two principals to decide how they are going to use her knowledge. Both Zach Sanchez and Geoff Stewart are solid actors, able to bring a profound naturalism to their roles. And while their attempts at raw emotion may be less convincing, it’s certainly not to the detriment of the film as a whole.

What really stands out, however, is the photography. Nearly every aspect of the visual imagery is excellent for such a small production like this, especially in the nature scenes. Swift moving clouds presage a rainstorm that dapples the surface of the river and turns to snow while Stewart is fishing. Birds flying through a forest of spruce and fir, and a beautiful shot of the moon at night through the trees create a real visual feel for the Pacific Northwest wilderness. But it’s the flashback sequences that reveal the true brilliance of the director and his cinematographer Ray Buckley, and they are really the heart of the film. As Sanchez tells Chittim the story of his past, when the two men stay the night in her house in the woods, the scene behind them suddenly transforms to his childhood, but it is kept perfectly out of focus, allowing the impression of what he’s talking about to fuse with the story he’s telling, while keeping the specific images from competing with that story. Stewart does the same thing with Chittim’s story of her husband, and with her philosophy of life that she conveys to Stewart’s character. This style of cinematic impressionism is truly spectacular and is well worth the lengthy journey to get there.

If there’s a weakness in the film--and to be fair, it’s a weak spot in so many independent films that it’s almost expected--it’s in the screenplay. The first two thirds of the script are extremely minimalist, and it works incredibly well, allowing the visuals to do the bulk of the communication. Stewart doesn’t even speak until halfway through, and Sanchez only speaks when he’s on the phone. But when Sanchez is telling the story of their falling out his lines become poetry, which destroys the suspension of disbelief. They’re the kind of lines that one would imagine coming from an omniscient narrator in a novel, and just seem out of place spoken by Sanchez. I can see how Stewart might have been going for a narrative impressionism to go along with the visuals, but it seems to distract rather than add to the overall effect. It’s a minor criticism, however, as the rest of the film is so good. The film score by cameraman Ray Buckley is also very good. Not really new age, it is a guitar and keyboard based wash of sounds that underscore the meditative nature of the film without being obtrusive. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming talent in the Portland film community, and Geoff Stewart’s Reverie is no exception. It is a strong, narrative film, visually stunning, that comes highly recommended.

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