Butterfly

A still photo from the locally produced film Butterfly Town USA.

There's something about film (and cameras) that adds a layer of excitement to a subject. Maybe it's because a film directs us to look at something with more intent. Or maybe it gives ordinary objects the aura of meaning, like Duchamp's urinal. Or maybe because it reminds us of magic.

The storytelling aptitude of film applied to one's own homescape is a powerful lure. Just yesterday, Doug Lumsden gave a presentation at Sunset Center's Carpenter Hall for the Carmel Public Library Foundation's Local History Lecture series, about films shot locally, which include National Velvet starring a young Elizabeth, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and East of Eden.

Locally-produced film festivals that show locally produced films double down on the self-reflection. The two-day, third annual Monarch Film Festival is set to begin this evening, more than 30 films projected onto four screens at Lighthouse Cinemas in Pacific Grove 4:15-10pm today and 5-10pm tomorrow (if a movie theater is still standing after the coming wind storm). A Weekly print story arrives on the streets tomorrow about the festival, with comments by festival co-founder Cristiana DiPietro.

But as a preview, here is a review of one of the films, a locally produced 30-minute short called Butterfly Town, USA by Dorothy Fadiman and Marlo McKenzie. It's about, appropriately, the monarch butterflies that come to overwinter each year in Pacific Grove—just down the street from the theater in which the film will be shown 8:35pm today and 7pm Thursday.

"This is the story of one man's vision of protecting the monarch butterfly sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California," the smooth-voiced narrator tells us. That's an indication of where the film's loyalties reside, but that bias is mitigated by some of Bob's detractors. This is a well-balanced meal of a film: a little starch, a lean cut of meat, lots of healthful vegetables and a little dessert of entertainment value.

The film is clean and simple, sitting aesthetically between elegant and workmanlike. It's not flashy enough to marvel at, but it's not so amateur that it mars the story. The storyline, which has also been chronicled by the Weekly, follows a few years—with a historical jump back in time—in the saga of the management and the recent tug-of-war over Pacific Grove's monarch butterfly sanctuary, starring local butterfly samaritan Bob Pacelli.

A few years ago, the city hired arborists to prune tree in the sanctuary in order to avoid falling branches (in 2004, a woman in the sanctuary was killed in that manner, which cost the city $1 million), but the consensus was that too much of the butterfly's tree sanctuary was trimmed. The butterfly overwintering population dropped from 17,000 before the pruning to "less than 800" afterwards, according to the film. That's when Bob and a contingent of volunteers, backed by their own scientist, took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps in the small grove of trees with potted trees.

That was a controversial enough move, but one that was ultimately approved of by most parties. But then contention flared over whether to plant those trees. And that's the flashpoint in the conflict between Bob, the citizen operating independently out of apparent care for the butterflies, and the city, which has to move through a bureaucracy and consider secondary factors like cost and liability.

This is not an action film. Police get involved, but not in the way that they've been "involved" in the lives of citizens of late. There is good coverage of the arguments on both sides (Bob's more than the city's), but it doesn't rise any louder than Bob and another man trying to interrupt each other on a nature walk.

There is a surprising aside to video footage Bob himself shot that speaks to his zeal and to this thing he says: "There's refugees, there's monarchs, there's trees, there's flowers. They're all alive. If you don't do what needs to be done, they'll all be dead. All you can do is try to keep as many things alive as you can."

Many voices are represented, from two P.G. mayors to two PhD scientists (one for each side) to concerned citizens to sanctuary commissioners to a Tibetan monk. Shots of talking heads are interspersed with shots of people planting, or butterflies mating and congregating on trees. It's such a polite discourse. It's very P.G. (Get it? Like the rating?)

It is efficient storytelling. At one point it seems like the story could wind down because the filmmakers have downloaded so much into your brain already, but it's only halfway through. There's more to come. But it comes in a reasoned and measured way that keeps all the arguments and chain of events in an easy-to-follow configuration.

It's not sophisticated. But It is self-contained. Although the issues are not resolved yet, the film articulately brings the viewer up to speed on events as timely as a couple months ago. That's about the best praise that a film like this can earn: that it did, admirably, what it set out to do. You maybe wouldn't be surprised to know how many films don't achieve that.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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