Filmmaker uses local color in independent oeuvre

by Christine Huggins | 11/8/04 6:00am

Dartmouth's own Nora Jacobson '74 personally screened her third feature-length film at Loew Auditorium on Nov. 5. Jacobson, who studied anthropology at Dartmouth but went on to study experimental film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is independently distributing this latest effort, "Nothing Like Dreaming," and has returned to her alma matter for the film's regional debut.

In "Nothing Like Dreaming" Jacobson uses the camera lens to examine pertinent social issues. The film paints an understanding portrait of both teenagers and the mentally ill and their comparative places in modern society. In doing so, Jacobson introduces us to amazingly complex characters who present themselves as marginalized figures on the edge of society, but at the same time remain people to whom everyone can relate.

Frankly, this movie is not like anything you've ever seen. This individuality is best represented by one of the movie's main "characters," a giant fire organ. This is a huge contraption made of different round metal pipes. When blow torches are placed under the organ, the metal and heat interact to create otherworldly sounds that harken back to a pagan time (think whale calls and shrill shrieks).

This strange instrument has an equally quirky supporting cast. The film's protagonist, Emma (Morgan Bicknell), is a brilliant high-school student who has been accepted to Yale and is the sunshine of her family. It's not too hard to be the "sunshine" in Emma's family, though, as they are a rather dark lot. Her mother (Rachel Bissex) is combating severe depression and there is a role reversal as Emma is the one who cares for her mother. Emma's father, Sen. Jess Ericksen (John Griesemer), is likeable and tries to be supportive, but he is at times domineering and his character comes into question because he is cheating on Emma's mother.

In all this, Emma has one best friend, Lara (Siri Baruc), a crazy-fun girl who aspires to be a dancer in New York City. The movie picks up with Emma, Lara, and their friends partying, drinking and smoking dope, but their fun ends tragically when Lara drives away and dies in a car accident. Emma's interest in life fades after that.

This is when Sonny (George Woodard), a Boo Radley-like character, enters the picture. He hears voices, speaks to gods, has seen the past and knows people before he meets them; in other words, he probably could be legally labeled insane. But Sonny appeals to our desire to understand the untapped mysteries of the unknown. When he tells Emma about his experiences, the voices and all that he senses, she typically responds, "Maybe you were dreaming." Sonny answers that what he's experienced is "nothing like dreaming." In fact, this movie kind of sums up the whole craziness of life, which could be an unreal wild dream, but in fact is nothing like dreaming.

The half-sage, half-crazy Sonny helps Emma cope with her grief by drafting her to build a giant fire organ. Fire in the movie comes to represent the tenuous power of life as well as death. It is engulfing, it is beautiful, but it is never controllable. It is only with the searing power of fire that Emma comes to terms with the searing pain of life and accepts Lara's death. In the process of helping Emma cope, Sonny unconsciously becomes a dangerous threat to the stability of Emma's family life.

Morgan Bicknell does an excellent job portraying Emma. By staying true to the character, Bicknell keeps Emma from becoming a cliched "troubled adolescent." This is an especially impressive performance since this is Bicknell's debut in feature film. George Woodard plays Sonny with the necessary sensitivity to evoke empathy, not fear from the audience.

Furthermore, the film's uniqueness is accentuated by the fact that it was independently produced. Shot entirely on digital video and funded outside the studio system, Jacobson wrote, directed and edited the film so as to give it an intimate feel. The actors are all locals and the locations all familiar (the teenagers in the film hang around outside Norwich's Dan and Whit's in one essential scene), which gives the film a sense of intimacy and character.

Although the film is a bit disturbing to watch at times, it is to Jacobson's credit that she has created a movie that challenged accepted notions.

In only 95 short minutes she portrays a mother-daughter relationship in which the child cares for the mother, noting that age doesn't guarantee maturity or understanding, and presents the idea that "coping" comes in many forms, even building giant instruments that are played by blow torches. By combining harsh reality tempered with humor and sensitivity, Jacobson presents us with a film that is truly a dream.