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Animal Rites 

Flick Chick

Published July 9, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

With a name like Philip Herbison, perhaps the 58-year-old filmmaker should concern himself with medicinal plants. But there's much more fauna than flora in Animal Connections, his 1995 exploration of how humans feel about other critters. Even cockroaches.

He narrates the 47-minute documentary that was recently broadcast on Vermont Public Television. Herbison, who is married to a Vermonter and divides his time between a Montreal pied-a-terre and a house outside Stowe, begins the film by considering the infernal insects that had invaded his city kitchen. This bugaboo launches him on a cinematic inquiry in which the Seattle native watches nature programs on TV and asks people at a zoo why they've come there.

He has a deadpan on-camera style. He is nonplussed while attending the Feast of St. Francis at a Manhattan church, where a pastor blesses the beasts -- including pet squirrels, turtles and elephants. At a Canadian moose festival, one avid hunter asks Herbison: "The good Lord put them here on Earth for us to eat, right?"

He looks at pigs, snakes, ducks, raccoons, horses and a rare breed of ancient Celtic cows. But the moment of truth arrives around a campfire, where a "personal totem pole" meditation allows him to get in touch with his animal "spirit guides."

"My films are experiential," Herbison explains during a telephone interview. "I don't use a journalistic approach. I had no idea at the beginning that it would all have such a profound effect on me."

Herbison has just completed The Alice Project. This effort captures a musical version of Alice in Wonderland performed by a group of developmentally disabled adults.

"They have a hard time finding ways to express themselves," Herbison says. "I'm interested in forms of expression that are helpful in redefining your own pathways."

Pathways used by feathered vertebrates are the focus of Winged Migration, an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Jacques Perrin. The Frenchman also produced Microcosmos, a 1996 examination of all things creepy-crawly. This time around, he takes to the skies with 14 cinematographers and 17 pilots to trace the flights of almost 200 bird species in more than 40 countries.

This motion picture lands at the Roxy in Burlington on Friday for five screenings that will benefit the Huntington-based wildlife conservation organization Audubon Vermont. Call 434-3068 for advance tickets.

"I'm a stripper going through a middle-age crisis," Sharon Speer says of her character in Right of the Meridian. "An exhausted stripper."

The actress, who lives in a Boston suburb, was dressed in red shorts and a pink halter-top as she waited last week to perform outside a doublewide trailer in a Colchester mobile-home park. To add a touch of reality, the production designer pinned skimpy underwear to a nearby clothesline.

The independent film, which has been shooting primarily in Barre and Montpelier since June 20, concerns an accidental murder in a small town. Each of the main characters represents one of the seven deadly sins in a script with narration that will be recited as slam poetry.

Meridian is the first feature by director Sean Bradley, who dreamed up the project with co-writer and co-producer Emily Holleran. "Three of us took a 1300-mile drive through New England," he recalls. "We jotted down descriptions of every person we met, but the screenplay is pure fiction."

The 22-year-old Bradley is a senior at Beantown's Emerson College who's planning a move to Los Angeles next winter. He found private investors to fund the "low-but-decent budget."

His original intention was to make the movie entirely in Ireland. During a January visit, however, his team decided the location wasn't suitable. Then Peter Farrelly, one of the brothers who made Me, Myself and Irene in Vermont a few years ago, suggested to Bradley that the Green Mountain State might be just right.

In the blaze of a hot July afternoon, the 27-member crew -- all seemingly quite young -- had to lug the lighting equipment and Super-16 camera around the set. Videographer Tatiana McCabe, 19, was documenting behind-the-scenes activity for the eventual DVD.

The cast includes about 40 minor roles, one of them a speaking part for Brian Pendleton of Lyndonville. He portrays a murder suspect.

Bradley needs 300 extras for a concert sequence at the Barre Opera House on June 19, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Email him at [email protected].

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Susan Green


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