A film as poetic and esoteric as its title, “Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day” is a visually rich homage to a young man’s thwarted obsession to revive the defunct Yosemite Valley Railroad. Lustrously shot in black-and-white to pointedly resemble Ansel Adams photographs, this impressively produced micro-budgeter nonetheless hasn’t found the dramatic means to permit the audience to share the protagonist’s passion. Rarefied work could develop a sufficient small cult to take it beyond fests into highly specialized commercial situations, perhaps even more so in Europe and Japan than in the U.S., but impact and tone are too muted for normal arthouse auds.
Writer-director Christopher Munch’s fine 1992 short feature “The Hours and Times,” also in black-and-white, credibly speculated on the friendship between John Lennon and Brian Epstein before the Beatles hit it big. In “Color,” Munch turns away from naturalism in favor of a more impressionistic, borderline metaphysical style for which he shows a certain affinity.
Unfortunately, screenplay is meandering, the dialogue often stilted and the pacing too uneven for his effort to work up any head of narrative steam. Munch seems caught between exalting his leading man’s folie de grandeur, explaining too many mundane facts and working out some of his own private concerns, resulting in an awkward blend.
In Los Angeles at the end of World War II, 23-year-old Chinese-American John Lee (Peter Alexander), who works repairing trolley cars, breaks with his girlfriend and family over his single-minded determination to revive service on the Y.V.R., a 78-mile short line scheduled to be scrapped. With no resources himself, the young train lover manages to secure backing from a financier to run the railroad for a year, a heroic mission inevitably doomed to failure on the verge of the automobile explosion.
Although he receives sympathetic help from a railroad old-timer (Henry Gibson) and a young traffic manager (Michael Stipe), John essentially is forced to carry the banner alone. He never tires of riding inhis train across the glorious terrain (no passengers are ever seen), but his passion to make his dream last prevents him from truly connecting with a smart woman, Nancy (Jeri Arredondo), a Native American Park Service ranger who sporadically manages to break through his distracted remove.
Fact that Lee’s Chinese grandfather came over to lay track gives the young man a personal tie to railway history, although Nancy’s intriguing challenge that Lee’s effort links him to the legacy of the Robber Barons goes unexplored, as do most of the other dramatic possibilities inherent in the material. Film’s greatest assets are its physical qualities. While consciously aping Adams on his home turf, Rob Sweeney’s monochromatic lensing nonetheless achieves a haunting majesty that brings a true exaltation to certain scenes.
Working on minimal resources, Munch, production designer Eric Rosenberg and costume designer Kristen Anacker have succeeded in capturing a mid-’40s atmosphere, an achievement corroborated and complemented by the intermingling of some terrific period archival footage. Production serves as an object lesson in what can be achieved on a tiny budget. Leading players do decent jobs with their erratically written roles, especially Arredondo, who projects a forthright intelligence as Lee’s might-have-been mate. Classical music selections sometimes enhance the action, but the frequently discordant selections more often distance the viewer and push the film onto an obscure siding.