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It’s an unlikely friendship they share, but what makes the movie so effective (like the rest of writer-director Christopher Munch’s films) is that it imagines the characters so vividly—we’re not inclined to question their behavior. Munch is interested in complicated people doing unusual things for their own reasons. In Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996), Munch’s second feature and the last film of his to receive a national theatrical release before this one, a detached, sexually ambiguous man buys an abandoned railway line in the Yosemite National Forest on a whim. That was another unlikely story, but, remarkably, it was based on true events—further evidence that most movies fail to surpass the imagination of real lives.
Along with Todd Haynes’s Poison and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (both 1991), Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is one of the most ambitious movies to come out of the so-called New Queer Cinema of the 1990s: shot in muted black-and-white and languidly paced to evoke a long-cherished memory, it feels like no other American film of its time. Yet Munch has been largely marginalized while Haynes and Van Sant have enjoyed successful careers: case in point, Letters From the Big Man is the first project he managed to get financed in seven years. One explanation for Munch’s marginalization is that he never developed an attention-grabbing style along the lines of Haynes or Van Sant. His images are visually uncomplicated (though hardly unsophisticated), the better to focus on the films’ stories and characters.
The best place to start is The Sleepy Time Gal (2001), a family drama inspired by Munch’s own life. It concerns a middle-aged woman’s search for the girl she put up for adoption 30 years before. That the woman is also dying of cancer makes the movie sound like a sappy melodrama (which may be why no US distributor was willing to release it theatrically), but Munch generally leaves her crises at the periphery of the film. The woman’s search for her daughter forces her to take stock of the varied careers and romantic liaisons that have shaped her experience; as such, the richness of her life overwhelms the tragedy of her early death. The movie juts forward in a singular manner, with Munch presenting episodes of the woman’s life based on whether they’re interesting rather than whether they advance a proper story. As a result The Sleepy Time Gal can be a little bewildering on first viewing but more comprehensible on second or third, as you fill in the gaps of the story with your knowledge of the characters. But as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his long review for the Reader, Munch also keeps things deliberately mysterious, as in certain sequences that can be read as either the dream of one character or the memory of another.
The Sleepy Time Gal is the best introduction to Munch’s films because it also has the best performances. Jacqueline Bisset (who stars), Martha Plimpton (who plays Munch’s imagined version of his half-sister), and Nick Stahl (who plays an autobiographical stand-in) are so good that they make the literary dialogue sound convincing and heartfelt. When Munch works with less experienced actors—as in Brisk and Leaping or his fourth, most maligned feature, Harry + Max (2004)—his words can sound clunky or misguided. For fans of his work, this is simply something to bypass in appreciating the ideas that the dialogue raises; for skeptics, it can be a deal-breaker. Indeed, this isn’t the only misshapen quality of Munch’s work: his editing can feel amateurish, particularly during long stretches of dialogue, and his complex scripts rarely reconcile all of their ambitions.
To get a sense of this self-styled artist at the height of his indifference to popular taste, check out Harry + Max. That movie depicts the incestuous romance between two brothers, a former teenage pop star now in his 20s and a 16-year-old who’s taking his place in the spotlight. The film is curiously understated about both media stardom and incest: much of the story depicts the boys while they’re alone on a camping trip, trying to forget for a while the codes of normal society. In this context, even sex between teen-idol brothers seems natural—which might explain why few people were willing to take Harry + Max seriously. Yet the film is quite daring in its implications of how sex can transform people; and to my mind it’s far more interesting than a “respectable” art film like Steve McQueen’s upcoming Shame, which is less ambiguous and more puritanical in its morals.
Letters from the Big Man isn’t as moving as The Sleepy Time Gal, nor is it a kamikaze effort like Harry + Max. It is, however, based on an equally idiosyncratic premise: it’s a fairy tale of sorts about the hydrologist’s friendship with a Sasquatch (the big man of the film’s title), yet it reveals its fantastic nature only gradually. In fact, much of the film is a psychological drama about the hydrologist, who responds to her break-up with her fiancé by spending more and more time alone in the middle of the woods. Munch doesn’t present her relationship to nature as unequivocally constructive: as the story progresses, Sara retreats increasingly from the people in her life, raising the question of whether nature might be a diversion from her personal problems (Sara’s determined celibacy is just as curious as the sexual politics in Munch’s other films).
Like Munch’s other work, Letters blends naturalistic and non-naturalistic ideas with a fluidity common to modern literature (the novels of Margaret Atwood might be a good point of comparison) but rarely seen in English-language movies. It realizes the characters with thorough detail in both their work and their emotional lives, then imagines how they’d react if thrown into a fairy tale, a gambit few other filmmakers would wager.