A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. Screens at RIIFF

Karen Allen was barely into her 20s when she first read the short story, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., by Carson McCullers, but the words continued to resonate throughout her life. They eventually inspired a film that was to become her directorial debut. This delicately wrought tale of the chance encounter between a young boy and an old man at a roadside cafe goes deeper than a story of age meets youth; it is a story about the science of love.

Shot in color, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. was converted to black and white, and the treatment brings an ethereal, nearly crystalline, quality to the images of nature that open the film. Allen felt that color would be a distraction from the characters, and her instincts were right. As the movie progresses, it is the subtle expression and luminous quality of the faces that dominate audiences’ eyes throughout.

The young protagonist, played by Jackson Smith, exudes a depth of feeling unusual in a first-time performance. He inhabits the role as believably as if it were his own story, his natural ability blending seamlessly with Allen’s deft direction. Already a respected name for her work in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the actress  seems to have just begun to show the full range of her abilities as a filmmaker.

We have all become so accustomed to the drama, special effects and over-the-top plot lines of Hollywood blockbusters that it takes both courage and conviction to offer such a quiet and subtly hewed film as this to a desensitized public. But it is these very qualities that draw us in. The nature of each character builds with every gesture until, just as the young boy is held in the spell of the old man’s story, so is the audience hypnotized by his words, “There were these beautiful feelings and loose little pleasures inside me. And this woman was something like an assembly line for my soul. I run these little pieces of myself through her and I come out complete.” Somehow, Karen Allen succeeded in running the sensitive snippets and flavors of McCullers’ story through a camera and they came out complete. It is a rare achievement.

A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. has been making the rounds of festivals this year and it is proving to be the little film that could. It has screened at events across the globe, from Cannes to LA. It recently took home the New England Director’s Award Grand Prize from the RI International Film Festival and Jackson Smith, young star of the film, snared the Newcomer Award at the U.S.A. Film Festival in Dallas, Texas. Other wins include Best International Narrative Short at the Manchester Film Festival in England; and the festival season has just gotten started.

I think that one of the reasons this movie resonates with such a wide audience is that it strikes a chord of memory in all of us; yet, at the same time it evokes a sense of loss. The old man’s rambling explanations brought a sad truth to me: As we live and learn, too many of us have forgotten how to love. Can you remember being a child, when the whole world was still a mystery, when the simple objects that come within your touch were things of wonder? Have you watched the smile bloom on a baby’s face as they reach for a first bright flower? It is love that you see there. Pure, unquestioning love. It is a feeling that seems to slip away as life wears us down.

It would be nice if there really was a Science of Love, as the old gentleman in the film proclaimed to have found. Perhaps then we could learn to let go of our attachments, our need to control and our fear of losing. We could make a decision to forgo greed and look upon each other with simple compassion. Or maybe not. The world was not a safe or forgiving place, even in 1943 when this story took place. The cynicism on the face of the cafe owner, Leo, is too natural to be an expression of artifice. We can’t go back in time to a place where a young paper boy carefully replaces a tossed paper that has missed its mark, and listens as an old man speaks of the philosophy of love in a roadside cafe at dawn. But I think that anyone who sees this film will know that here, at least, it is reverently remembered.

Director // Karen Allen; Writers // Carson McCullers, Adapted by Karen Allen; Producers // Diane Pearlman, Brian Long; Cast // Jeffery DeMunn, James McMenamin, Jackson Smith, William Gallatis, Terry Holland, Chip Rybak, Billy Baraw, Andrew Plimpton, Karen Beaumont & Kale Browne; atreearockacloudthefilm.com 
















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