She Wanted a Boyfriend … She Got Sasquatch

Letters from the Big Man (November 30, 2011*)     3.5/5

Written & Directed by Christopher Munch (Antarctic Pictures)

*Virginia Tech film students got quite a treat two days ago, as independent film director Chris Munch visited campus.  He held a workshop with us in the morning, upon which he talked about his life and work, as well as screened clips from most of his films.  In the evening, we were lucky enough to receive a special screening of his latest picture, Letters from the Big Man, which has been seen only at Sundance and the IFC Center in Manhattan.  The result was an enjoyable day with a quite friendly, interesting man, and a film that did more than emphasize the characteristics of its humble maker.

When somebody mentions “the big man,” it is not often that he or she is referencing sasquatch.  Yet that is the precise subject of the latest film by Christopher Munch, an independent in every sense of the word.  After receiving much critical acclaim for his 1991 feature The Hours and Times, in which he examined the strong friendship between John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, Munch has never left the underground of independent cinema, premiering all of his films at Sundance, and dealing with such mundane topics as homosexuality, adultery, incest, and, well … The Big Man.  If Letters from the Big Man fails at one thing, it is for being comprised of a scattershot of ideas, some of which not explored in the appropriate detail that could’ve supported the others.  Yet it is undeniably a original work, one that not only distinguishes Munch’s talent, but also lends beauty and grace to a subject that has finally been given its due.

Sarah (played with authoritative humanity by Lily Rabe) is an ex-United States Forest Service employee who has not only come off a bad relationship, but is now trying to make it in the art world.  In the meantime, she carries out tasks for her old boss, spends time with a scruffy-looking logger friend, talks to her friend Penny (Fiona Dourif), and tries to maintain a sense of peace by chilling in the woods.  She soon discovers that she is far from alone.  Eventually, she forms a relationship with a sasquatch-looking creature who also likes to hang out amidst the trees.  The Big Man, played by Isaac C. Singleton, Jr., comes and goes when he pleases, and soon develops a psychic-like relationship with Sarah, who soon learns to view the sasquatch as her friend.  But then she meets Sean (Jason Butler Harner), a sweet environmentalist who may have differing views (and come across a little too hard), but seems like a decent match for Sarah.  Then matters become complicated, as underplayed notions of government conspiracy and environmental activism, interesting as they are, muddle the great subject at the center of the film.

Harry and the Hendersons this is not, but Letters certainly has a big heart.  The notion that a woman, lonely as she is, can find solace in a mythical creature in the woods, who most likely feels the same way, is quite endearing; especially when genre films do not often go that route at all.  The big guy himself, in all his glorious hair and makeup, looks fabulous, as well, considering Munch’s limited budget.  The director’s cinematography, shot by director of photography Rob Sweeney, is also beautiful.  Digital filmmaking serves the picture well, as every detail of the forest looks as crisp as screen reality may present it.  The editing techniques Munch utilizes, such as frequent fades and impositions, are also quite interesting.  No, this is not a genre film at all, but one that attempts to ground its fantastical subject matter into a common perception of reality.  This comes with certain risks, namely the fact that some scenes and lines of dialogue cannot help but arouse chuckles.  Yet the film is not without its own intentional, campy humor, allowing the movie to be entertaining without overwhelming its premise in simple ridiculousness.  What may are the many loose ends that lead the viewer in different directions.  Yet that does provide a thought-provoking experience, but if one has not been onboard since that first shot of our hairy friend, it is likely to be a long slog.  For better or worse, the film’s message of open-mindedness requires audience participation.

But maybe it would be better to say open-“heartedness.”  The Big Man conveys to Sarah that humans are not emotionally open with nature, nor other living beings.  In fact, we basically step on everything that comes our way.  Maybe this “sasquatch” species, or imagination itself, can help us.  If we embrace the world around us, maybe we can also heal the tension between our own species.  The Big Man is a source of equilibrium.  He doesn’t smash cars or scare campers.  He helps us find our way.  And as a filmmaker, that is exactly what Chris Munch is doing.  He has yet to be commercially successful, but he simply doesn’t care.  According to Munch, besides film, he spends money on virtually nothing “except food.”  He doesn’t make movies for the money or fame, he makes them because he has to; and in the midst of it all, he is discovering the artistic heart and voice that make him who he is.  The audiences will come.  Trust me.  The Big Man is watching out for this guy.

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