General 10-17-2004

Passionate Film: Two Harbors

Jakki Spicer talks to James Vculek about his new film "Two Harbors." Junk stores and space aliens people a quirky and resonant text.


In 1982, James Vculek read a four-paragraph story in the New York Times about two people found on the Gunflint Trail, one dead, one “semiconscious.” The two had apparently met their fate during a six-week vigil awaiting alien contact. Twenty-one years later, Vculek started writing a screenplay loosely based on this incident. Last month he held an advance screening of the finished film, Two Harbors, at Oak Street Cinema.

Vculek has written other screenplays, including Horicon, which takes place in Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, as well as writing and directing the stage play Shtick and Its Relation to the Unconscious, which debuted at the 2003 Fringe Festival here. He is currently working on another film, A Yellow Hat, which begins rehearsals this month. Vculek spent many years working in Los Angeles, but returned to the Twin Cities area five years ago, with, he admits, some relief. “It is such a generous atmosphere here,” he says, praising the general attitude of the actors in the area. The level of support for the arts, and the supportive communities of actors, directors, and writers, he claims, make working here far more pleasure than pain. The level of funding, even for such a dense field, and even in the Pawlenty era, makes a huge difference, too, but Vculek was quick to point out that contemporary technologies mitigate the need for deep pockets to fund film production.

Since the film hasn’t had an official premier yet (it is currently being submitted to film festivals), this review can’t actually be too much of a review, and is thus restricted to a more general musing on the production of a local independent film. I can say this, though: Philip Geller, Vculek’s executive producer, calls Two Harbors “an anti-Spielberg science fiction film, although it’s not really science fiction and it’s not completely fiction, either. It defies genre shorthand. Ultimately, Two Harbors is a darkly comic love story about two unusual people.” To call it a love story also requires a certain mutilation of the genre as it is generally understood. The two main characters circle around each other with certain affection, but do not fight, consummate, fall in love, or break up. The story is perhaps best understood as a character study (including some sharply funny cameos from the likes of Richard Ooms, veteran of the Guthrie), focusing on the caustic, cynical Vic (Alex Cole) and the naïve, fragile Cassie (Catherine E. Johnson), both of whom have booths in Two Harbors’s antique mall. When Vic is not upbraiding other dealers or customers for their general stupidity and ineptitude, he is obsessively searching for signs of extra-terrestrial life on his delicately calibrated antenna. He eventually draws Cassie into this search; while Vic seeks evidence of alien intelligence, Cassie quietly seeks human communication.

Thus Vculek turns a sketchy newspaper story into a tale of two richly drawn characters, giving them and their circumstances new meaning and new value. Indeed, not only the coming into being of the film but also its content operates on the principle of recycling: Vic and Cassie are both dealers in old things, merchants in resale, redistribution. The question of value plays strongly in this film—how we value objects, what they’re worth, how we send them into circulation. Like the peddlers of junk that populate the film, the process poses questions about the traditional circuits of capital, and about the value given to the objects swept up in its flow.

Just as that old adage tells us that when someone is wielding a hammer everything looks like a nail, within the strict logic of capital, everything looks like a dollar. Any liberal arts professor can tell you this: who hasn’t come across the student who demands to know what reading Flaubert or Foucault will do to boost his or her earning potential? The logic equally holds for the “antique” dealers that people Two Harbors. They understand every old toy, dinner plate, and magazine as a potential cash cow. Certainly the film industry is no different in its crassest incarnation, as any cursory perusal of Variety will demonstrate; what counts is what pays.

And yet, particularly with the advent of ever-cheaper new technologies—the mini-DV format being a prime example—the possibility of filmmaking motivated by a desire for something other than a hefty profit seems limitless. People who want to make a film now need less and less to cover their expenses. While this doesn’t remove them from the world of capital, it certainly makes them less dependent on it, or opens the possibility of setting their own scale of value within it. When filmmaking is not about box office returns, or even covering the expenses of production (Vculek avers a film can be made for $100 using the DV-mini format), those green-colored glasses give way to a whole rainbow of potential visions. With the all-powerful dollar out of the way, a film can be worth whatever you want it to be worth, whatever you’re willing to give up for it.

This logic is perhaps best seen in a scene between Vic and Cassie. Vic, a dealer in second-hand “outer space action figures” (do not call them “space toys”) asks Cassie about the pricing scheme for her handmade dolls (it should be noted that the dolls are more or less identical, button-eyed and yarn haired, slightly eerie renditions of what you might find yourself making as a second-grade Brownie, or as part of a vocational program held in your mental institution). Cassie’s dolls do not have price tags, and for her Vic’s question has no easy answer. “I would need to know how much you wanted it before I could decide on a price,” she says. When Vic, relieved, assumes Cassie is advocating the age-old capitalist rule of cashing in on someone’s desire (the “demand” half of that well-worn supply-and-demand equation), she disappoints him thoroughly by stating exactly the inverse. If someone really wanted the doll, she says, really loved it, well, she would just give it to them. Desire for something doesn’t inflate its cost; the dollar price only compensates for the lack of desire.

Still, this is not a call to become starry-eyed utopians marveling at the vast landscape of possibilities inexpensive digital video affords us–there are always dark sides to every sunny potential. When Vic is approached by someone inquiring about the price of a Dr. Spock™ action figure, he merely points to the $65 price tag. “I’ll give you $50 for it,” the potential buyer (Ari Hoptman) says. Vic’s response is not only to raise the price, but to berate his customer for not being a little more cowed by the vagaries of the market, in which any price might double at any time. Seventy-five dollars later, the exasperated consumer walks away, Dr. Spock™ in hand.

The increased possibilities for filmmaking don’t mean the end of hard-sell marketing, inflated value, or the necessity of browbeating festivals into showing your film, which will be flooded with mediocre movies, regardless. Indeed, the number of festivals—and the number of entries they get—has exploded in the last several years. And certainly the hope that your film might get picked up by Miramax is an appetizing lure; if there’s a market for it, you must be able to convince someone to pay you the big bucks to give it to them. Even if things can be otherwise, it doesn’t mean they will be. In Two Harbors, when Vic thinks he’s finally received a communiqué from aliens, he excitedly tells Cassie, “We’ll have one hell of a story to tell—we could get famous!” But Cassie’s response is decidedly less profit-driven: “One thing for sure, we’ll never forget this day.” Whether the stories one tells on film are motivated by thoughts of fame and fortune, or by the desire to communicate something worth remembering, the desire for cash or the desire for connection, the possibility provided by cheap materials allows for the promise of infinite circulation, and infinite shifts in value.

Two Harbors does have its moral lesson; Vic suffers the loss of something he didn’t even realize he valued, and the final scene leaves him recycling Cassie’s beloved dolls as a sad, lonely beacon, and replaying a misguided hope, one that monstrously misunderstood the possibilities for communication in the first place.