Los Angeles Times

Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day

Friday December 5, 1997

     Christopher Munch won international acclaim four years ago with "The Hours and the Times," a 60-minute vignette imagining what might have happened between John Lennon and the Beatles' gay manager Brian Epstein during a weekend they spent together in Barcelona in 1963.
     Munch has now followed it up with a full-length feature, "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day," a film as unusual as its title--taken from an Octavio Paz poem. In its black-and-white cinematography it is easily as beautiful as the earlier work and even more complex.
     World War II has just ended, and a handsome young man, John (Peter Alexander), son of a wealthy Pasadena Chinese American father and a French mother, becomes obsessed with trying to preserve the Yosemite Valley Railroad, a short line connecting Merced with El Portal, the entrance to Yosemite. (John's own grandfather was one of the Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.) To that end, John goes into partnership with its owner, Robinson (Henry Gibson), a man of uncommon civility, who's about to be forced to scrap the enterprise. The railroad is as cherished by John as it is its young traffic manager, Skeeter (Michael Stipe).
     Munch has taken a kernel of a true story and made of it a richly contemplative work. It is a celebration of cinema and of railroads, which when joined, have a unique and romantic capacity for transporting us to a different time and place. In turn, we experience the juxtaposition of nature and technology as images of Yosemite reminiscent of those of Ansel Adams are interwoven with the machine age glories of an old-fashioned working train. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney matches the metallic sheen of the engine's steel and iron with the engraved look of his shots of Yosemite's splendors.
     Against this setting and situation Munch creates an exceedingly subtle portrait of a young man, as exceptional in his way of thinking as in his good looks, who in trying to save the Y.R. has embarked upon a journey of self-discovery, a quest for identity. He's a dreamer who enters a transitory--to use the expression deliberately--affair with a Native American (Jeri Arredondo) but who may have more intense, although unacknowledged, feelings for his lively sister (Diana Larkin) or even, conceivably, Skeeter. "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day" is charged with eroticism and suffused with feelings of longing.
     The film makes use of considerable archival footage, but you may well not notice, so perfectly is it matched with Sweeney's images. Production designer Eric Rosenberg and costume designer Kristen Anacker contribute flawlessly to taking us back to 1945, right down to the last detail. There is a certain self-consciousness in all this, even a certain stiffness, but "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day," which recalls the Taviani Brothers' "Good Morning, Babylon" in its wedding of dreams and technology, is a beguiling, unique reverie.

Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, 1997. Unrated. An Artistic License Films release of a Jim Stark/Antarctic Pictures/Blurco presentation. Writer-director Christopher Munch. Producer Andrea Sperling. Executive producers Ruth Charny, Donald Rosenfeld. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney. Costumes Kristen Anacker. Music selections from Satie, Charles Ives, Scriabin, Bach. Production designer Eric Rosenberg. Art director Jennifer Gentile. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Peter Alexander as John Lee. Jeri Arredondo as Nancy. Henry Gibson as Robinson. Michael Stipe as Skeeter.

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