As a film critic and journalist, I often catch some cinematic diamonds in the rough before the public sees them. Last week, I got a sneak peek at the latest from underground film messiah Burke Roberts. His “Legend of the Widower Colby Wallace” proved to be a unique meditation on where the mind’s eye may wander amidst the epic isolation of the American wilderness.
The poster for the film boasts ‘Before it was called the Wild West, the West was truly wild.’ Set against the rich texture of the Rocky Mountains in 1826, the landscape has as much presence as the stoic fur trapping mountain men who rove its domain. This largely unknown era has received scant cinematic depiction with the notable exception of “Jeremiah Johnson” starring Robert Redford.
Writer-director Burke Roberts has just added another fascinating piece to this largely unfinished historical puzzle. “Legend of The Widower Colby Wallace” takes an almost Ozu-like approach to its subject matter. The cinematography possesses a de-saturated stillness – something like ancient, water-stained postcards found in the basement of a Yellowstone Park gift shop. Dialogue is minimal and the story appears deceptively simple. Then an unexpected twist of darkness yins the yang of the film’s placid rural surroundings.
Since this short work (a feature version goes into production next Spring) has yet to hit the festival circuit, I’ll let Mister Roberts reveal only as much as he cares to in our interview.
Describe your film in three words.
…is “yourself” a word? What kind of question is that? Off to a good start here, as usual…
Now describe it in thirty.
In 1826 French trapper Francois Le Fey descended the Rocky Mountains en route to trade beaver pelts at the first annual Rendezvous of Mountain Man. When he came upon Colby Wallace and his Squaw bride, Francois had not seen another living man in over a year. He had not seen a living woman in far longer.
I don’t know if that’s 30 words. I have dyscalculia.
How did you get interested in mountain men?
Although my flicks tend to be very different stylistically, the one “through line” seems to be my fascination with the human condition under extreme circumstances. The situation of these men, alone for years at a time, is ripe for emotional, psychological and ethical speculation. The very reason they were out there was because of an insatiable wanderlust that was not unlike a drug addiction.
Plus, I’m really into all those wilderness survival shows on cable. Have you seen “Dual Survival”?
Tell us more about your forthcoming feature.
The feature is actually the prequel to the short you saw. It is far more complex: following half a dozen characters and their descent into madness while traveling through this awe-inspiring place. Fairly acrobatic in its story structure, the film will examine how right and wrong, good and evil become entirely subjective in the absence of civilization. Who can say what is insane when there is no one to judge but the wind in the trees?
It also will feature a bit about the early cutthroat politics of the first American multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor – who made his fortune on the backs of fur trappers and later became the real estate baron who developed New York City.
Your short displays a distinct aesthetic in its economy of dialogue and hard cuts. Did any particular film influence your direction?
Not directly. It will undoubtedly endure some comparisons to “Dead Man,” simply because it is one of the only frames of reference people have for psychedelic rock’n’roll scoring in this kind of setting. But it has been pointed out to me that although very much Americana, its vibe is relatable to some of the early 60’s Japanese Samurai films. I’ll take that. Flattering.
You’ve been making films for awhile. Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m really just a control freak who can’t play guitar. I look at my films as composing an album or at their best – a symphony.
I started DIY-ing guerrilla films about 15 years ago. Back before every kid with a Canon 5D and Final Cut could make a film, we would beg, borrow and steal to shoot on 35mm and Super 16. Hi-def equipment has introduced a power to the people element that I employ as much as resent. Truly a double-edged sword. I was fortunate enough to be embraced on the European underground film circuit first and would thus tour like a band yearly with my works. This gained me enough of a cult fan base to continue making micro-budget films where I am able to maintain 100% creative control. Which is all that matters to me. I learned early on that if a film is received well the producers take the credit and if it is received poorly the director takes the blame. It’s too much work to take the rap for a film made by committee.
Although I have an expensive imagination I’ve been able to learn my craft through pushing these small budgets farther than most could fathom is possible. And I’m lucky they keep finding their audiences.
It’s really just therapy. I have this s**t in my head. I find a way to exorcise it on to the screen. Then I can walk away and let it be the audience’s problem.
A lot of your previous work has been informed by a punk or countercultural sensibility. Do you think mountain men were the first American outsider subculture?
That question sounds a bit rhetorical. Yes. Obviously, I agree. And, interestingly, although these men spanned the gamut of age, race, class and level of education, very commonly they had previously been pirates who were released from prison and chose to go into the vast mountains rather then re-join society.
As is the case for anyone who tells a story, I can really relate to these characters. The romance of their lifestyle burns in my angry loins… Or maybe I should just go to the clinic. Wah wah wah wah.
Thank you. Come again.