When Vanessa Elizabeth Harris relocated from Los Angeles to Burlington last summer, her goal was to develop short films, write feature-length screenplays and find a measure of personal bliss. So far, that plan seems to be on track. "I'm so happy here," says the 28-year-old emigrée. "I didn't know such happiness existed."
Despite this sunny outlook, Harris tends to make movies with rather gloomy subjects. While still in high school, she wrote and directed "Whispers in the Dark," about a woman whose dreams are really a form of mind-control manipulated by her best friend.
Harris created "Samsara" -- "that's the opposite of nirvana," she points out -- in 2000, her senior year as a University of Southern California film and English major. Loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, the psychological thriller concerns a conscience that takes on a life of its own by splitting from the rest of the protagonist's persona. The piece traveled through America, Canada and the United Kingdom with a touring festival of shorts.
"Blue Yonder Ranch," her latest enterprise, unspools at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Middlebury College's Sunderland Hall. It's the 20-minute saga of a young man "with a horrible secret" who meets a beautiful call girl and spends an intense weekend at her brothel on the Arizona-Nevada border. The idea emerged when Harris attended a USC writing class taught by acclaimed author T. Coraghessan Boyle.
Shot on an Orange County soundstage during Memorial Day weekend in 2004, "Blue Yonder" cost about $15,000. "I've only raised $2000," Harris acknowledges with a laugh. (Full disclosure: Harris has a part-time job assisting the Seven Days calendar writer that she hopes will help her retire the debt.)
The decision to move to the Queen City was influenced by Internet research. "I discovered that there's a very active arts scene here," says Harris, whose family once vacationed near Newfane. "I was always enchanted by Vermont."
Every spring for the last decade, Professor Robert Gershon and his Castleton State College colleagues have hosted a festival of videos by high school students from all over Vermont. The 11th annual competitive event, on May 19, will screen four types of projects: narrative fiction, documentary, experimental/animation and public service announcements. The deadline for submissions is April 28.
Although some of the kids craft light-hearted videos, others may reflect the tough, contemporary issues confronting young people. "Three or four years ago, many seemed to deal with teen suicide. Another time, it was partner abuse," says Gershon, who chairs the college's communications department.
"Between 40 and 50 videos are submitted every year," explains Gershon. "We show them all, but the schools of first-place winners in each category are awarded $500 scholarships [for Castleton tuitions]. We don't give the scholarships to individuals because it's often a team effort. The list of credits can be as long as that of The Godfather."
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The University of Vermont Culture Jam Film Festival will present Gobi Women's Song at 8 p.m. on Tuesday in the Campus Theater. Sas Carey of Middlebury made this doc about nomads during the course of three summers in Mongolia.
Government activities with such suspect titles as Clear Skies Initiative or Operation Enduring Freedom might bring to mind George Orwell's opening sentence from 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."
There's nothing underhanded about a title like "Turn the Channel," the name of a new series screening topical fare on the last Thursday of each month at 135 Pearl in Burlington. The gatherings, intended for an 18-and-older crowd, are free. Donations will be welcomed, however.
"I wanted to help change the face of popular media with little-known political and social films," says coordinator Rebecca Rogers, who decided to express her views through this art form after realizing that conventional protest "did not necessarily fit my personality."
Through a Montréal activist friend, she got in touch with Cinema Politica, a Québec nonprofit that sponsors six similar series in Canada and maintains a diverse list of thought-provoking pictures. On the 27th, the Vermont selection will be Surplus, a mockumentary about consumerism partly inspired by President George W. Bush's repeated suggestion that shopping is a good way to defeat terrorism.
Doublespeak and bizarre euphemisms continue. Can you hear those clocks striking 13?