Sunday, June 08, 2008

Flint-bred Indie Film Maker Mike Ramsdell shows "Montclair"

Mike Ramsdell said he didn't pick Flint, his hometown, as the setting for his first movie because it has a stigma. He wanted an "Every Town," and so he picked and named the movie "Montclair," for Montclair, New Jersey, where several of his actors and his co-producer live.

He's right, I think. Despite whatever universal yearnings and life cycles we all pursue in Buick City, thanks to that other Mike -- Moore -- our town for the foreseeable future will trigger particular images in most people's minds: rabbits for "pets or food," our elaborate mourning dance with GM, evictions, homicides and empty storefronts. And his movie is about people in their twenties and thirties -- there doesn't seem to be a single character in the film who's older than 40, except one -- and we all know that's the crowd that usually leaves Flint to raise their kids elsewhere.

But it's too bad, in a way, since Ramsdell is the son of Betty and Dick Ramsdell, two people who have played and are playing a huge role in the attempts to revitalize Flint and change its image. His father Dick, a former high school teacher, is the energetic manager of the Flint Farmers Market, one of the most vital and promising spots in town.

So, it was good that Ramsdell brought the film to the Flint Institute of Arts for three showings this weekend. He appeared at two of the showings to introduce the 90-minute ensemble movie, in the tradition of the Big Chill, and to answer questions from the audience. The showings were part of the FOMA series coordinated by Ed Bradley, a former Flint Journal reporter among the many who took the recent buy-out.

I was just getting involved in the affecting story, intertwining the struggles and joys of five or six main characters, when the DVD screwed up, and we all sat in the FIA auditorium while Ramsdell and the FIA crew tried to straighten it out. The lights came up, the audience of about 50 murmured restlessly, and then the movie came back on again, only to screw up again. After a few more minutes, whatever caused the problem got fixed and there were no more missteps.

It's not a perfect cinematic experience. Several of the plot threads are unconnected and leave the reader wondering. A recurring "Greek chorus" bit from a balloon salesman, whom Ramsdell said is not an actor, but an actual Montclair balloon entrepreneur, was amusing but grew a bit old. The sound was muddy at times and the soft focus in many scenes, while effective in some circumstances, made some sequences too dark and murky. I didn't understand several plot twists and wished for more resolution. Ramsdell's answer to an audience question about loose ends -- "we had to cut a lot out of the original script -- maybe if you read that you'd understand it more," -- was less than satisfying.

Still, I found the plots touching and absorbing. The thirty-somethings struggling with professional and personal hopes and disappointments were believable and well-developed with warmth and humor, especially Bruce, the overweight aspiring comedian trying to get started on a new life after his wife divorced him. He's helped by a kind landlady and a yoga tape; the scenes capturing his initial despairing lethargy and later, his tentative and finally exuberant efforts to start again are among the best parts of the story.

It's worth noting, too, that the women characters in the story are presented with particular empathy and depth -- a refreshing change from the recent rash of Judd Apatow films which address some of the same issues but sometimes fall short of understanding real women. As Ramsdell's father said with a smile, "He grew up with four sisters. He knows a lot about strong women."

Overall, it was sweet having one of Flint's own return to the beautiful FIA to show and talk about his work. I hope his new film, a documentary about global hate, does well.


Mitch said...

It's good that Flint is not an "every town" or else the country would be in real trouble. Flint would make a great setting for an urban ghost story. On the positive side, traffic isn't that bad.

Macy Swain said...

Ha ha! Yeah, we are blessed with "rush minutes." That's about it.
Ghost story, indeed -- have you been to "Chevy in the Hole" lately? The brownfields are really haunting. I'm writing my next EVM column on them. Thanks for the comment, Mitch.

greg rappleye said...

Wish I had been there for this one.

What in the world is "Chevy in the Hole"?