TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1996

CLOSELY WATCHED TRAIN

CHRISTOPHER MÜNCH MAKES MOVIES out of a fear of missing the action, which is another way of saying he makes movies about mortality. In his 1992 feature debut The Hours and Times, a fictionalized reconstruction of a 1963 weekend John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Beatle manager Brian Epstein (David Angus) spent holed up in a Barcelona hotel room, Münch imagines a horny pas de deux in which Lennon’s light-as-a-feather ride atop the cresting zeitgeist (the last moment of calm before full-blown Beatlemania) makes the fab lad a ready object of fascination for the worldly and ruminative Epstein, his every mortal anxiety in tow. Münch works the charged situation into an affecting evocation of the melancholy of unconsummated desire, but it’s the Beatle conceit that makes the old story new. By the closing sequence, in which Lennon tenders a nonplussed “okay” to Epstein’s solicited promise that they meet on the same park bench exactly a decade later, it’s clear that it’s the specter of fame of a particular late-century verity and pitch—the life-is-short/pop-is-long redemption embodied in Lennon’s burgeoning celebrity—that haunts the quotidian “hours” Epstein suffers enthralled by the pop-historical mop top (and only partially witting cock tease). As spare as it was resonant (the action’s restricted largely to one suite during a single weekend), Münch’s directorial effort was happily in sync with his bare-bones budget, lifting the film above the flood of well-meaning but forgettable indies and earning him a loyal following among cannier film observers.
 
In Münch’s new feature, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, life’s dependable finitude is once again the esthetic lodestone, but here the house-bound existentialism of Hours gives way to elegy. Shot in a ravishing black and white that recalls the photographs of Ansel Adams and O. Winston Link and that earned cameraman Rob Sweeney the cinematography award at last year’s Sundance, Color ostensibly recounts the counterheroic coming of age of second-generation Chinese-American John Lee (Peter Alexander) via his quest to save the foundering Yosemite Valley railroad line. Lee (whose family came to America to build the transcontinental railroad and prospered as merchants) raises the money to buy the railroad, but his out-of-step endeavor (akin to throwing ’90s venture capital after the typewriter) is doomed from the start. As in Hours, it’s the futility of the gesture—the aborted nature of the central narratives—that opens the local action onto the larger poetry, but in Color Münch trades in Epstein’s personal anxiety over the fleeting nature of his earthly stint for Lee’s perplexity before the passage of an entire way of life. As the railroad becomes the film’s symbolic core of mourning, the Ozymandias effect drives Color’s abiding nostalgia, not only in terms of Lee’s quixotic effort but also in a series of relationships (two intimacies with women, one near intimacy with a man) that become palpable for him only as they evaporate. If the Epstein-Lennon dynamic is refigured here in the overwrought but unrequited attentions that the introverted railroad man Skeeter (played by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe) directs toward the curiously opaque Lee, the film’s overarching romance ultimately revolves around Lee’s relationship to the railroad and his mis-scheduled appointment with destiny, echoed in the sustained visual counterpoint between the white-elephant enormity of the languishing trains and the permanence of the magisterial western landscape (recalling the lyricism of Terence Malick’s farm machinery against the parched Texas panhandle in his 1978 Days of Heaven, a film Münch counts among his favorites).
 
With its quirky subject matter and self-consciously poetic use of language, Color’s appeal may seem less epiphanic than that of Hours, but for those poised to test the first feature’s extraordinary promise, the more ambitious Color will secure Münch’s status as an auteur of particular and decisive vision. As Color makes the festival rounds in anticipation of an early-winter release, I sat down with Münch to ask him about these two movies, which have moved me as much as any others in contemporary cinema.
 
Jack Bankowsky

JACK BANKOWSKY: I just read a review of Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, and I have the feeling that the writer was a bit mystified as to what to make of it. The Hours and Times may have ended up being more accessible because of the John Lennon–Brian Epstein connection, which is something most people can plug into. But to my mind, the films share a lot in terms of thematics and ideas, although the ostensible subject matter of the new film is quirkier.

CHRISTOPHER MÜNCH: Well, I think both came out of a concern for certain types of characters. Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day was difficult to write in the sense that there’s not much of a plot to it; the story emerges from a progression of interactions between the characters. The sister, for instance, was somebody who gave me a strong compass bearing on the protagonist, who was more amorphous and much less concrete for me at the outset. The

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