IRS sufferers, do you wish reminding of being slashed and burned with a film called Tax Day? Not that the title is inaccurate: the Providence-set narrative takes place on an ignominious April 15, and the protagonists are surely, prior to their adventures, on their way to file. Still, calling her movie Tax Day was perhaps a miscalculation, an unfortunate reason why Laura Colella's wondrous 1999 feature (screened April 29 at RISD Auditorium at 8 pm with the filmmaker present) hasn't been widely seen, even after acclaimed showings at museums and film festivals. Absurd! This shining work by a RISD filmmaking teacher is hands-down one of the best independent features ever made in New England.
Tax Day takes the filmmaker's private Providence through the looking glass and into a gentle surrealist realm, where it glistens and glows like an MGM emerald city. Colella's premise is so startlingly simple and so amazingly effective: two fortyish women, Irene (Kathleen Monteleone) and Paula (Donna Sorbella), spend a long, ripe, seemingly endless day in doing nothing, nothing at all, but strolling about through the Providence streets, or climbing on busses to wherever, or canoing down an idyllic river, or being beckoned into an apartment house, or listening to rock music in a town square, or eavesdropping on random conversations and yard sales, or conversing with odd strangers.
Magical! Their balloon-and-ice cream day is the one we frenzied workaholics can't bother to have, when we'd dare SLOW DOWN. There's a carnival around us, a multicolored street fair, in the corner of our vision. If only we paid heed! Colella makes this soul-life palpable, and in the most appealingly continental way. The surrealist cinema of Raul Ruiz, a Chilean living in Paris, swims through the film; and Colella's early early Providence morning opening is, I believe, an homage to the Parisian wee dawn of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 Bob le Flambeur.
More European sensibility: Colella makes do without backstory. Her heroines are not hampered in their feather-light day with Stanislavski psychologizing, with speeches about who they are and were, with bogged-down, realist lives. They exist on celluloid, period. One is sleeping with a guy, and one isn't. That's all we know about Irene and Paula, or need to know. Hail Tax Day!
Collela, 30, is a local, a graduate of Classical High School, and her excellent pre-Tax Day short, Statuary, was also shot in the Providence streets. And even her student films while attending Harvard were shot in Providence. However, her point-of-view as a junior with a camera was already non-USA, influenced by the Eastern European movies shown at the Harvard Film Archive, and by her filmmaking professors, veteran Hungarian director, Miklos Jancso, and the aforementioned, Raul Ruiz.
"I loved Ruiz's class," Collela recalled, in a telephone interview. "He was a brilliant, good person, and he brought all these abtract ideas from analytic philosophy, how to structure films so that they are like games and puzzles....Ruiz's book, Poetics of Cinema, spells out his attack against the Hollywood idea of the 'central conflict,' and the Aristotelean idea that drama must be about a central protagonist who goes through changes. For Ruiz, those things makes films predictable...such a formula."
Collela's films are free-flowing and non-linear in a Ruiz vein, far from the "plot points" and three-act structure demanded in get-rich-in-Hollywood screenwriting manuals. They defy the Hollywood reliance on "well-developed" characters, with the actors playing them often obsessed about knowing, and living out psychologically on screen, these characters' complete-from-childhood biographies.
"I'm not really interested in the psychological," Collela said. "I definitely make characters who are to be taken moment to moment, in the present. The actors should be pretty natural, low-key, in my films. There are no big dramatic scenes, no big freak-outs. There's not really acting involved!" The Tax Day leads were stage-trained thespians from the Boston area. "They came from the theater, big eyes and stuff! They wanted to act, and I didn't want them to! In the end, they came off well, I think, and audiences seem to like them."
Tax Day has been picked for a December Southern Exposure tour, for which Collela will travel with her movie to various Southern cities. Her new screenplay, provocatively entitled Stay Until Tomorrow, is one of eight selected to be workshopped at the prestigious Sundance Institute this June. It concerns a woman who, after having traveled the world taking short-term jobs, drops in on a male friend in a college town much like Providence.
Meanwhile, she's contentedly completing the winter session of her Film Explorations course at RISD. "I like very much that RISD filmmaking isn't industry-oriented," Collela said. "There's no huge pressure to make your film a calling card. You are not obliged to storm Hollywood."