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Showing films around New England can be fun

I’m on the road again, this time for our 200-Town New England Tour for “Peter and John,” the film I made through the Movies from Marlboro program, and I’ll be stopping in Middlebury this weekend.
In the Marlboro College program I work with 22 professionals and 32 students for a film-intensive semester every two years to make an ambitious dramatic feature film.
“Peter and John” is set in 1872 Nantucket, Mass., and it’s based on a Guy de Maupassant novel about two brothers whose relationship strains when the younger one receives word of a strange inheritance.
The picture stars Jacqueline Bisset and Emmy-winning Gordon Clapp (“NYPD Blue,” “Return of the Secaucus 7”) who will join me for a Q&A after our Vermont tour debut at the Middlebury Town Hall Theater this Friday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m.
I have had many adventures, crisscrossing New England with my films during these past 30 years. During my 2007 “Disappearances” Vermont tour, my 1998 Subaru Outback was doing fine until a shiny red 4×4 pickup came careening straight at me as I climbed Route 4 headed to Rutland. I pegged a hard right to avoid a huge crash but careened into a deep culvert that tore off my muffler and punctured my gas tank. From then on, I could only fill the tank to about 60 percent. The headaches I got from the fumes didn’t respond to aspirin. Soft ice cream was the only decent antidote I found.
At my Irasburg screening that summer, I was nervous because it was my longtime collaborator Howard Mosher’s hometown and I knew he’d be there. And, as I unloaded the equipment and carried it upstairs into the big main room, I noticed two huge stacks of heavy wooden chairs, four seats ganged to a unit. “I’ll worry about these later,” I told the building manager who watched as I worked.
I set up the projector and tested the sound. Then I turned to the seven-foot stacks and wrestled chairs off the pile and into makeshift rows, four chairs at a time. Sweating hard in the 90-degree upstairs heat, I felt my back straining so I lay on the floor. The floor felt good. Ori, a Wesleyan freshman I’d hired to sell tickets, called from downstairs. “Are we ready to let people in?”
“Just a minute,” I say, getting back on my feet. In fact, I was nowhere near ready. I still needed to set up 100 chairs. But people were lined up around the block and I re-tackled the stack, bending my knees slightly like I’d seen pictured on wall posters at warehouses. The only problem was that you can’t bend your knees when you’re trying to reach up and across a seven-foot pile of chairs to grapple the top unit free. So I just hefted the stubborn buggers loose, many of them interlocked with the ones below. These chairs had a will of their own — to resist.
Howard Mosher walked up from the ground floor. “Come, Jay, let me introduce you to Maurice.” Howard pointed out the window to a skinny older fellow with a startled look on his face. He had long, yellow-white hair and a beard that he later confirmed hadn’t been cut for 35 years. “He wants to know if it’s OK to drink beer during the show. He’s got stomach cancer and says beer’s the only medicine that works. He threw all his pills down the toilet. Come meet him.”
“I’d like to, Howard,” I say. “But I don’t have time right now. But he can drink the beer if he wants to.” I could see that Maurice was fast becoming a candidate for a character in Howard’s next book, but I didn’t have time for him. Plus, dark afternoon clouds had lifted and I became obsessed about the light streaming through the windows. “I’ve got to darken the room,” I told Howard. “But I forgot my black cloth and there’s no ladder.”
Howard looked at the windows. “I see what you mean.” The Irasburg writer helped me move a few more chairs off the pile as audience members climbed the stairs. “Never thought I’d see you do real work,” said one audience member to Howard.
“It will be the last time I do. I promise you that,” says Howard.
I ran to Ray’s Market and came back with black garbage bags to tape to the windows. Meanwhile, Howard kept setting up chairs. Back in the hall, progress on the chairs had stopped when Howard was commandeered by another local fellow. I catch a snippet of their conversation. “These guys said they were Nazis but they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” said the man in his 40s. “And their stories are unbelievable.” I’m sure they were.
I convinced myself that we’ve set up enough chairs but the crowd keeps coming up the stairs so I take one more run at the tangled stack. Twenty minutes later, the show is rolling and I checked out the situation downstairs, where Howard’s new friend, Maurice, had stepped out for a cigarette and some conversation with Ori. “Thanks for letting me drink the beer,” he said. “I ain’t rowdy or nothing. I just need it. Only thing that works.”
Maurice said he was 71 and had just gotten engaged. “Hell, I can drink a 24-pack of beer and its like nothing at all,” he says. “That’s what my girlfriend likes about me. She’ll be my third wife. First one dropped dead at 34. I’d grown my beard and was all set to play Santa at the local grange hall. Driving over to it, she just dropped dead in the car. I ain’t shaved since.”
The show goes well and audience members offer gracious comments as they leave. Ori and I pack up the equipment and haul it out to my car. This prompts a feeling of relief. It’s 10:15 p.m.
“What about the chairs?” I said.
“Maybe they’d like to keep them set up,” said Ori.
“That may be wishful thinking,” I replied.
Exhausted, we trudged back up the stairs to fold, carry, and re-stack the heavy wooden chairs. It was better with two people and we were done in 45 minutes. It was 11 p.m. I was worried that all this work would prove too much for young Ori. But she remained game.
“It’s good to get the worst date out of the way early in the tour,” she said.
“Yes. But it may not be the worst date,” I replied. Then, wanting to keep her spirits up, I added, “But it might be. You just never know.”
Jay Craven, the artistic director for the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, is an award-winning director, writer and producer whose narrative films include “A Stranger in the Kingdom” (1997). He also created several documentaries and an Emmy Award-winning television comedy series.

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