The Cameo Cinema is a small but beloved theatre in St. Helena, Napa County. The fine old building recently celebrated its Centennial Celebration this past May, attracting the valley’s finest to come out and express their appreciation for the historic landmark. For this special evening the theatre’s impresario, Cathy Buck arranged for several esteemed wineries along with The Culinary Institute of America to cater the event, and included a film historian who praised the incredible milestone the Cameo shares with few other movie palaces. It was clear that the Cameo is a deeply cherished part of the community for the people who call Napa their home. What better time or place to premier a brand new documentary celebrating the virtues and mysticism of that home. The evening in fact culminated with the very first screening of, Napa Valley Dreams, a documentary short produced and shot entirely in the Napa Valley. The film cinematically ties the thoughts and dreams of the area’s people with its beautiful landscape, capturing the unabashed adoration the locals have for their highly esteemed land. Director Rodney Vance masterfully combines captivating imagery, enthralling sound, and remarkable personalities to create a poetic film both ethereal and effervescent in its tribute to the truly special relationship between Napa and its people.
Unlike most films devoted to the local, Napa Valley Dreams does not focus on the famous agriculture byproduct of the area (wine). Instead, the film does a fair amount of work introducing the audience to the diversity of characters that inhabit the region. For instance, featured in the film is a humorous southern landowner presented in front of his geyser, as well as a solemn army veteran shown at his rehabilitation home. The two men are very different, yet both have reasons to be tied to the valley. Vineyard owners and master chefs speak of their craft, what it means to them and how Napa is the right place for them to lay roots. Thrill enthusiasts zoom along zip lines and jump through the lush forests on mountain bikes, enjoying the marvelous geography the valley offers. Children play in the vegetation while gardeners plant new seeds in the nourishing soil. Artists off all kinds, from dancers to glassblowers, find their inspiration in Napa’s vibrant colors and natural wonder. Even the late, great Ray Manzarek is seen (in one of his final recorded interviews) detailing his journey from UCLA, to being a member of the iconic rock group The Doors, to his home in Napa Valley. The various stories connect together to form one collective idea – that there is an inherent connection between the valley and its people. And this is what is at the heart of Napa Valley Dreams.
The stories are laced together through stunning cinematography, courtesy of John Tagamolila and Christopher Rusin. Napa Valley Dreams varies heavily between intimate close-ups and sweeping landscapes. Some images are heavy on texture and other complexities, playing with focus and planes of action, such as when the chocolatier smashes her latest delicacy with a wooden spoon. Other images are as simple as a glass swirling rich red wine, with nothing but grey sky filling in the background. Rusin, a time-lapse photographer and himself a subject of the documentary, displays his talents by capturing the transformation of the valley over time from various gorgeous vantage points, presenting no a scene that is less than enticing, paying just homage to the beauty of Napa.
But visuals alone are not the only source of entertainment in this film. A sensory experience like Napa Valley Dreams demands an equally evocative score, and composer Scott Greer provides just that. With organic sounds that subtly heighten the emotions, Greer masterfully complements every image and storyline with the appropriate tones. An equally important factor in an excellent composition is to know when to let the moment speak solely for itself. The film is an excellent example of this on multiple occasions, notably when a climber scales a mountainside. Here the score helps the audience get involved with the struggle, yet allows the intensity of the climb to stand-alone. Once the climber reaches the top and stretches his arms out victoriously it is at that moment that the score swells, leading us into the next sequence. It is these nuances within the Greer’s score that adds richness to the film with its harmonious, meditative subtlety.
The glue between the various components in filmmaking is the editing, and Napa Valley Dreams required a substantial amount. As the editors, Robert Schafer and John Tagamolila intertwined and interlocked a variety of stories and images together, artfully confectioning a whole. They wisely paced the film, allowing the viewer to soak in every image as they slowly move from one to another. On a rare instance they craftily deviate from this relaxed pace, such as when a bicyclist crashes into the screen. We cut sharply to black on the collision, fade back in and the leisurely progression resumes. The overall story, or path of the film is laced together with stream-of-conscious speeches. This is a method that normally doesn’t translate well to film, but the sparse distribution of the voices allows the viewer to focus on the image and allows the words to supplement the mise-en-scene. The film is edited to entrance; it is not an edge-of-your-seat film but a back-of-your-seat, eyes-wide-open one.
I came in to the theatre that night in May with the understanding that Napa Valley Dreams is a highly atmospheric film about the Napa Valley, a region with which I am admittedly not at all familiar. Essentially I knew the area has many vineyards and nothing else. I had even less of an idea as to who the people of Napa are or why they live in the region. I am furthermore not the kind of viewer to be necessarily swept into the personal appeal of watching the film in Napa on its debut. Yet Napa Valley Dreams did manage to sweep me in many ways. It not only opened my eyes to the valley and its people, it offered an understanding to how Napa stirs a multitude of sentiments in the locals and allows them to bloom.
Many documentaries make their appeal to the audience with heavy logos. Napa Valley Dreams is pure pathos, and unapologetically so. Not does it need to be apologetic; the film wears its heart on its sleeve and that’s what makes even someone as unfamiliar and unconnected with the content as myself amazed. On the other hand, I knew going in the film was airy and minimalist with speech. To someone expecting orthodox filmmaking the film may be abstruse. Vance’s approach is not traditional, but it works for this film and even more importantly, I feel nothing else would. The married elements of the film give a sense of wonder, something great filmmaking should aspire to; Napa Valley Dreams, like the Napa Valley to its people, provides that experience.