Movies in a Barn and Medical Emergencies

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The Free Range Film Fest movie barn in Wrenshall, Minn.

Not far from Duluth out on a farm, a large barn is home to the annual Free Range Film Fest. The weekend fest features “any film, video or kinescope nurtured without the use of pesticides, growth hormones or a distribution deal from a fancy-pants Hollywood studio.”

This is the thirteenth year for the festival run by local artsy types with good hearts. The films are simulcast on three screens – two in the lower level of the barn, and in the hayloft on a 24-foot-wide screen. The barn is a hundred years old this year.

This was my first time attending the Free Range Film Fest. I went with some friends and our car trip to and from the barn provided a classic slice of small-town Minnesota. We got delayed on the way there by a running race in the town of Carlton, which was celebrating “Carlton Daze.” On the way back, we got delayed in Carlton again, but this time for a train that seemed to blow its horn more often than necessary.

Once we arrived and paid the $10 free-will entrance fee, we quickly made our way up into the hayloft for the prime viewing experience. We only had time to view eight of the films, but even so, we left with sated senses. Our favorites were “Bacon & God’s Wrath,” which documented the first time a ninety-year-old Jewish woman tried bacon. Directed by Sol Friedman, a Toronto-based filmmaker and animator, the film delves into the woman’s thinking surrounding her faith more than it does on her gustatory reaction to the bacon. She blamed her newfound mind- and soul-expansion on the internet. Needless to say, God did not strike her down for eating bacon. “It was a good breakfast,” she said.

Another fave was “Pickle,” which featured a well-meaning couple who rescue animals, which all seem to die from weird conditions.  From all the energy they put into their animals, I can only assume they don’t have children.

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The 100-year-old barn at night.

Then there was “They Crawl Amongst Us,” a stop-motion documentary about life in New York City as told by flies, cockroaches, pigeons and other creepy crawlies.  Although the stories are from the perspective of bugs, the viewpoints are suspiciously human.

Although the temperature in the hayloft was comfortable, apparently it was just stuffy enough to cause one of the patrons to faint in the middle of a film director Q & A after one of the movies. We were too far away to see what was happening, but the shuffling of chairs and a shout to “Call 9-1-1!” alerted us.

A man a few rows away from us made the call. As he was talking to the dispatcher, another voice from the crowd said, “He’s declining.”

We thought that meant the person’s situation (whatever it was) was getting worse, and so did the caller, so he kept on giving the dispatcher information. But shortly afterward came the clarification that the person didn’t want medical assistance. He was able to stand and leave the barn, sweaty, but under his own power.

We were glad to see that his free-range experience caused no lasting damage.

Floors Castle and Crying During Movies: Adventures in Scotland, Part 9

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Floors Castle, Kelso, Scotland

My story about Floors Castle starts, not in Kelso, but a few months ago back on my couch in the U.S. (Yes, I’m doing it again – starting a story about Kelso someplace else.) This was before I knew about the newspaper story detailing my ancestor Isabella’s childhood in the castle and before I was convinced of my family’s ties to the castle.

I knew of rumors of the ties, so I was digging through the castle’s website when I noticed a movie had been filmed at Floors Castle, called “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1983).

I actually saw this movie when it came out since I am something of a Tarzan fan. (I watched way too many Johnny Weismuller Tarzan shows after school while growing up.) Plus, if you’ve read my novels, you know I have a thing for animal/human communication. But the movie was rather fuzzy in my brain since I saw it so long ago.

I decided to buy the movie for a look at the castle in preparation for my trip. When I eventually watched it (sitting on my couch), I recalled why it got panned orginally. Much of the first part of the movie features Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) grunting at apes. The critics didn’t like the lack of dialog, but hey, what are you going to do? It’s a movie about apes! Nonetheless, the movie did end up receiving three Academy Award nominations. It didn’t win any, though.

The last half of the movie is set in Scotland at Floors. My dear blogging audience, because I have no pride left, I will share my reaction to the movie with you. In short, I bawled like a baby. When the castle first appears in the opening credits and the duke and his doomed son (Tarzan’s father) race toward it on horseback, tears were coursing down my face and I didn’t know why. It’s not usual for me to burst into spontaneous copious tears at movies. I’m more of a leaky-tear-wipe-away person. And the castle scenes weren’t particularly emotional, either.

But once the movie was over, I realized the tears were from an overwhelming feeling that my ancestors loved the place and their time there.

A few months later, I found the newspaper story about how my great-great grandfather worked at the castle for over fifty years, and I decided that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. I mean, why would he work somewhere so long if he didn’t at least like the place and the people in it?

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The castle gate.

My Bed and Breakfast was close enough that I could walk to Floors Castle. When I reached the gate, I asked the attendant if walkers got a reduced entrance fee, but she wasn’t buying it. 🙂

I meandered up the castle driveway with some trepidation. After all, if a movie could affect me so strongly, I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing the real thing. This was after a search for my great-great grandfather’s gravestone at the Kelso Abbey that morning, which proved unfruitful. But I was told of another cemetery in town that I hoped to check on my next, and last day in Kelso.

058The driveway was long and lined with tall trees and rhododendrons. It wound through fields and afforded views of the castle and the River Tweed in the distance. Set on a hill above the river, the castle appears to grow directly out of the lawn. I knew from my research that, in addition to the castle tour, Floors features a gift shop and two cafes (one with an outdoor terrace), plus a walled garden. It was still early in the day and I wasn’t hungry, so I planned to tour the castle first and eat later.

Built in 1721 for the First Duke of Roxburghe, Floors Castle is still home to the Roxburghe family and the Tenth Duke of Roxburghe. It is the largest inhabited castle in Scotland but parts of it are open to the public.

As I approached, I became confused about where to enter for the castle tour. It seemed as if the signs were pointing to the castle’s front door. Surely that couldn’t be right. Tourists entering through the impressive massive intimidatingly wealthy front door? What if I was mistaken and I walked in the front door and everyone turned to look at me in horror?

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The front door. Intimidating, much?

I decided it was safer to enter the gift shop around the side of the castle first. I browsed the Floors Castle Christmas ornaments, Floors Castle honey, and Floors Castle dish towels, then asked the clerk where the entrance for the castle tours was. “The front door,” she said.

When I explained I couldn’t believe they’d let tourists in the front door she just laughed and said, “Of course, why not?”

Buoyed by newfound certainty, I walked to the front door. I did not get yelled at as I entered. Instead, the docent gave introductory remarks to the small group of us gathered in the entry, then he set us loose upon the castle. The tour is self-guided, although docents are in some of the rooms to answer questions and to ensure that nobody walks off with a priceless vase.

I wandered amid the tapestries, paintings and porcelain. There was even a room full of stuffed birds. Apparently one or two of the dukes were ornithologically inclined. One of the duchesses collected a few Matisse paintings. When I got to the dining room (which was originally a billiards room) I encountered a particularly friendly and knowledgeable docent named David.

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The dining room where David and I talked. Image courtesy of Floors Castle.

I told him about my ancestral connections to the castle, and he was intrigued. He had a list of dates when the various dukes reigned, and we figured out my great-great grandfather must have worked for the sixth and seventh dukes of Roxburghe. David said a lot of building was going on during the reign of the sixth duke and that perhaps my grandfather was instrumental in it. The castle isn’t the only business on the estate, there’s also forests, fields, horses, wind farms and the like. It’s a huge operation.

086We also got to talking about the Tarzan movie. He told me he was in the movie – he played a cleric. He said the rainy scenes at the castle were shot with the help of the local fire department up on the roof, spraying “rain” with their hoses. He also mentioned that the film directors were sticklers for historical accuracy. All the television antennas on the roof had to be hidden during the day, and were put back out in the evening so the residents could watch TV.

David promised to look into some things for me. I gave him my card. As yet, I haven’t heard anything from him, but who knows? So, although I didn’t get to totally “vindicate” my ancestors’ role with the castle estate office, at least David knows about him, and my family, and all of you!

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My bird friend.

By now I was hungry. Thankful that I didn’t burst into tears during my castle tour, I made my way to the terrace café. I sat outside and indulged my sweet tooth in chocolate eclairs and meringues. A friendly (and hungry) bird kept me company – reminiscent of the Kelso Welcome Swan.

Sated and peaceful, I toured the walled gardens. But I must confess the flowers that truly impressed me were rhododendrons growing in the forest on the trail to the gardens (see photo below). After another visit to the gift shop to buy mementos, it was time to go.

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As I left the castle and walked down the drive, I couldn’t help but stop and turn back to look longingly at the castle several times. It was like the ancestors inside me didn’t want to leave just yet. I indulged them for a while, but then it was time for the next adventure.

Songs that Should be in Movies

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Bob Dylan

Duluth is gearing up for Dylan Fest this coming week. For those unaware, singer Bob Dylan was born here and lived in northern Minnesota through his high school days. Although some local controversy exists about Dylan’s perceived slights of his hometown, many people here like his music and I expect the events will be full.

Not long ago on the radio I heard Dylan performing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” Hearing him sing it in his nasally voice was funny and sort of surreal. It made me pull off the road and start a list of “Songs that Should be in Movies.” Who knows, such a list could come in handy if movies are ever made from my novels. (Grin.) I can see Dylan’s song accompanying a slow dance scene.

Other songs I’ve heard since then that I’ve added to my list are:

Running with the Wolves,” by Cloud Cult. This would make a good road trip song.

From a Payphone in the Rain” and “Me, You & the Universe,” by Teague Alexy. The payphone song is so heart-wrenching, it made me glad that Teague doesn’t record such songs very often. (Just stab me in the heart with a pencil and twist it, why don’t you?!) These songs are stories in themselves – maybe too specific for a movie soundtrack — but they’d make for good closing credits songs; ones to hear while you’re feeling the after-effects of a movie and you want to prolong the agony (or ecstasy) of the story and chill out before you stand up and go out into the real world.

That’s it for my list so far, but I’m still adding to it. Any suggestions?

Revisiting 9/11

Presque Isle Beach in Erie, Penn.

Presque Isle Beach in Erie, Penn.

This week, I travelled back to the place I was thirteen years ago when 9/11 happened. I didn’t have much of a choice – the travel was for a work conference – the same event I was attending on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a regional conference held in Erie, Penn. At least we are at a different hotel. Even so, the idea of going back there made me irrationally worried that a similar disaster would happen.

Back on 9/11, we were in the middle of our three-day conference when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center building. The organizers stopped the meeting. Some of us watched news reports in the hotel bar and lobby. Others went to their rooms. Several colleagues from New York made frantic calls to their loved ones back home.

I was in my room with my roommate watching TV when the second plane hit the second tower. After the horror subsided and our brains started functioning, we thought about the implications. Not having loved ones in New York, our worries revolved around “How are we going to fly home tomorrow?” Realizing that flying was going to be impossible, I got on the phone to see if we could rent a vehicle. They were already all reserved.

We had five people from Minnesota who needed to get home. I had young sons and a husband who needed me. Intermixed in the newscasts was the report of the Pentagon plane crash. Then came the news of the downed plane in Stonycreek Township, Penn., only 200 miles south of us. That made us much more nervous – the site was so near. The moment I heard about it, something clicked in my head, and I told my roommate that the passengers must have heard what had happened to the other planes. They weren’t going to let the hijackers crash their plane into some significant national site. Turns out, that’s indeed what happened.

Like everyone else, we ran through a lot of feelings in the next few days: incredible heaviness of heart, fear, and a sense of desperation mixed with the desire to help others and make it through. (I find myself shaking just writing this.) We made it home the next day, with the help of some colleagues from Ohio who drove us to Cleveland, where a rental van was available. Then came the long haul home (15 hours? 17?)

During those first few days after 9/11, I felt like I was living in an apocalyptic Stephen King novel – no planes in the sky, gas at a premium, uncertainty running rampant among the populace. It’s not fun living in a Stephen King novel. Things eventually got back to “normal,” but of course, we and the rest of the country were changed. But here I was, thirteen years later, going back to Erie for a conference again.

It didn’t help that I watched the movie “Gravity,” the night before leaving for Erie this time. If I had known beforehand about the sense of desperation and peril that pervades that movie, I would not have watched it. A woman alone, trying to make it back “home,” hit too close to home. (Pun intended.)

Things went well at the conference, and I thought the new events were erasing the 9/11 strangeness until it came time to go back home. Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” it took me several tries and different modes of transportation to compete the feat, which put me right back into those 9/11 feelings. However, unlike Bullock, at least I had a breathable atmosphere.

The weirdness started after the conference when a group of us decided to spend several free hours at a nearby beach on Presque Isle. A friend and I separated from the rest of the group to hike to a bird observation platform. The hike through the woods was hot and muddy. Once reaching the platform, we decided to return to the others by walking on the beach. We soon discovered that Lake Erie beaches are not like the beaches we are used to in Minnesota, where you can often walk unimpeded. This beach was eroded in many spots. Fallen trees and brush blocked our path, which necessitated inland bushwhacking forays — sometimes following deer trails, sometimes left to our own devices. The bushes had thorns, and our progress was slow.

We began to worry that we wouldn’t make it back to the others by the appointed time to leave. Having no map, we weren’t exactly sure how far we had to go or where we were in relationship to any civilized outposts. We started second-guessing our decisions, but that subsided once we saw familiar landmarks. Bramble-scratched, we made it back to the group in time to head for our respective planes.

The group dropped me off at the Erie Airport and went their merry way to Cleveland to catch their plane. As I stood in the ticketing line and looked at the flight departure schedule, I noticed the word “CANCELLED” next to my flight. Not good.

The ticketing agent explained the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather. They couldn’t get me out that day or the next from Erie, but if I could make it to Cleveland, I could take a flight tomorrow. I called my colleagues who turned around and rescued me from being stranded in Erie. With four of us smooshed in the back seat, we made the 100-mile journey to Cleveland.

Dropped off at the Cleveland Airport, my next goal was to find a place to stay the night. Because my flight was cancelled due to weather, the airlines said they were not required to pay for my extra night’s stay, so I was on my own. Like Sandra Bullock, trying to reach the Chinese space station on the radio, I desperately called different numbers, trying to find a hotel. No luck. The city was booked for the night (if one can believe the five places I reached).

By this time, it was 7:30 p.m. I was tired and hungry, having only an apple to eat since breakfast. Unable to reach my home office for help with a reservation due to tornados knocking out the phone system, and with my cell phone battery dying, I made a reservation with a place about 40 miles away in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

After a $90 cab ride, I sank into a soft bed and ordered room service. I awoke at 4:15 a.m. to catch a cab back to Cleveland. My flight left with no problems, until we got to Minneapolis. Lightning strikes kept us from taxiing to the gateway for about 20 minutes – the very time my connecting flight home was supposed to leave. After sprint through the airport (okay, more like a computer-and-book-laden trot), I discovered my home flight was still at the gate, also delayed by the storm.

I made it home, and better yet, so did my baggage. Will I ever return to Erie again? Did Sandra Bullock’s character ever go into space again? I don’t think so.

Watching Philomena

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

Actor Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee speak at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

I gave into the temptation to hibernate from the cold this weekend by going into the cave of a movie theater and watching “Philomena.” The lure was too strong – the movie stars one of my favorite actresses, Dame Judith Dench (think “M” from the James Bond movies), the setting is Ireland, and the story involves journalism, Catholicism, and a mother’s search for her child.

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I will try to refrain from spoilers, but I feel it’s only fair to warn you that the movie is not about what the trailer would lead one to expect. The trailer conjures thoughts of the mother finding her child, and a happily-ever-after future for all. This is not exactly the case. But that makes the story stronger and more real. Since the movie is based on reality, this is a good thing!

I had tried to see the movie three times with other people, but each fell through for one reason or another, so I ended up going alone before it could disappear from the theater. I was especially intrigued to see it after watching the woman the story is about when she appeared on the Golden Globes.

The acting is wonderful, the story is true, and thus, I give the movie my highest rating of 5 Kleenexes. This is the number of tissues that would be required during the movie if I were brave enough to actually take them out of my purse and use them. As it was, I just let the tears run down my face and surreptitiously wiped them off in casual gestures.

You won’t be sorry if you see this movie, but, unless you are as heartless as the nuns in the story, you may cry. Remember to bring Kleenexes. And don’t be afraid to use them.

Pride & Prejudice & Snickering

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An empty chair awaits readers of the Duluth, Minn., public rendition of Pride and Prejudice.

Last weekend, I took part in a marathon public reading of “Pride and Prejudice,” by Jane Austen. The event, hosted by a local writers group, was a celebration of the novel’s publication two-hundred years ago. The reading began on a Friday evening, stopped for the night, and spanned the next day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The sanctuary of a local church provided a great venue for the event.

The sanctuary of a local church provided a great venue for the event.

You might think that the atmosphere would have been staid, literary, and slightly pompous, but there was actually a lot of snickering – at least when I read. While that could have been the result of my poor attempts at voicing characters with English accents, I’d like to think it was from the subtle humor employed by Austen two centuries ago, which still resonates today.

The sanctuary of a quaint stone church served as an atmospheric venue. For those requiring refreshment, tea and cucumber sandwiches were served in the basement. About twenty-five readers each took turns reading aloud for twenty-five to thirty-five minutes. They were a diverse group — ranging from the Mayor of Duluth, actresses, poets, English teachers, Jane Austen-lovers, and me – who had never read the book, but I’d seen the movie.

I hadn’t read aloud from someone else’s writing in many years – since reading bedtime stories to my sons. And I was amazed at just how funny Austen’s writing is. It didn’t strike me that way when I read my section silently. But when I practiced it aloud at home, the irony of the passages was clear. It made me wonder if Austen wrote the book to be read aloud as entertainment on long evenings before the invention of television.

A respectable crowd gathered for the reading.

A respectable crowd gathered for the reading.

The section I read featured a clergyman who had originally wanted to marry Elizabeth — the narrator of the story (played by Winona Ryder in the movie version). Elizabeth visits him and his new wife, who was Elizabeth’s best friend, and who won the minister by “default” after Elizabeth turned him down. The scenes are set in their home and then move to the mansion where the minister’s patroness, the condescending and imposing (to everyone but Elizabeth), Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Judith Dench).

I was heartened that the irony of Austen’s portrayal of the clergyman and Lady de Bourgh was not lost on the small audience gathered to listen. My reading was punctuated by quiet laughter in several appropriate places. It just goes to show that although many years have passed and our lives are very different from those who lived when the story was written, human nature is similar enough that we can still relate.

Me reading (amid snickers).

Me reading (amid snickers).

Movie Madness

Thanks to the Duluth Superior Film Fest, Duluth was awash in independent films last week. The event offered an interesting slice of culture and some trips down memory lane. I skipped the much-lauded reunion for the Disney movie “Iron Will,” which was shot in the region 20 years ago. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet (!) and I had other things going on during the screening. But I did attend screenings for two other movies.

Fifty Lakes, One Island,” by Chicago-based filmmaker, George Desort, is about one of my favorite places on Earth: Isle Royale National Park. In a quest to visit each lake on this wilderness island, which is itself in the middle of a big lake (Lake Superior), Desort spent 80 nights on Isle Royale. The movie is not so much a lake-bagging countdown as it is an exploration of external and internal wilderness terrain.

Of course, the external wilderness is the island itself. Desort bushwhacked to many of the lakes, a feat complicated by wetlands and the rugged landscape, which he often negotiated carrying his kayak, camera equipment and food. The trip was made further challenging by the island’s mercurial weather and penchant for stealing things (like water shoes) strapped to the outside of packs.

Exploration of the internal wilderness comes with the isolation and lack of distractions. As the film’s Vimeo website states: “Desort’s breathtaking footage is paired with his personal, unvarnished story-telling.” He introduces this in the very first scene, in which he’s kayaking and reminiscing about how the tent he is using ties him to his sister and father. The personal narrative continues through to the end of the film where, punctuated by loon calls, Desort talks about feeling as if the island is about to unveil a great secret. Does he learn the secret? You’ll have to watch the movie to see!

The other screening was for a work-in-progress called “In Winter.” In a freewheeling discussion, local director Alex Gutterman described the process of making the movie and showed trailers and clips. Set against the starkness of a northern winter, the movie deals with the themes of class, culture, and relationships.

One of my friends is an extra and supporter of the film and it was fun to hear his experiences being involved in the production. It’s certainly not glamorous. But I think that makes a person appreciate the finishing and polishing that goes into the final product all the more. This movie is expected to make its debut in November 2013.

My claim to fame is that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper. “Older Than America” was shot in nearby Cloquet, Minn., about six years ago, back before Cooper became famous for his roles in “The Hangover” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and as “People” magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. I never did see Mr. Cooper on set (sigh) but in my role as an extra I did get to work with the talented Tantoo Cardinal of “Dances with Wolves” fame. I had the privilege of touching her arm as I led her from a hospital room where we were “electroshocking” her niece.

English: Bradley Cooper at the 2009 Tribeca Fi...

Bradley Cooper. Credit – Wikipedia.

But enough name-dropping. The independent film deals with the fall-out from the common past practice of sending Native American children to boarding schools to acculturate them. I got to play a nurse who was assisting with the electroshocking of the aforementioned Native American lady. Although the role was not one I would have chosen, I jumped at the chance to be involved and learn more about the workings of movie production.

I suspect I got the part because I was the only one who could fit into the period nurse uniform they had. Even so, a button popped off when I put it on, and the staff seamstress had to sew it on before I could go on set. The button situation was holding up production, and the seamstress was so stressed, I thought she would stab me with her needle as she sewed while I stood there wearing the uniform. I escaped unscathed.

I learned that movie production is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” and repetition. We must have done that electroshocking scene 15 times. I felt so sorry for the actress who was writhing on the table. She expended a lot of energy! There were also some psychologists on hand who coached the actress about how a patient being electroshocked with 1950s equipment would behave.

I also learned that once you’ve served your purpose, filmmakers tend to forget you. My name does not appear in the credits and I got no notification about the local screening. I heard about it by accident and snuck in unticketed (shhhsh) in a move of stealth I’m still proud of even today. But I get to brag that I was in a movie with Bradley Cooper and I appear in the movie trailer (and the movie). Seems like payment enough.