The Block Island Times

A fictional battle from the Civil War

By J.V. Houlihan, Jr. | Oct 19, 2013

Wendy Jo Cohen is a filmmaker from New York City. Her mom and dad sailed aboard the sloop Clearwater, which was spearheaded by the folksinger and activist Pete Seeger. The mission of the Clearwater was to bring environmental awareness regarding the condition of the Hudson River in the early 1960s. I got wind of Wendy Jo from a sailor I met while working in the stand-by lot in Point Judith last summer. This guy crewed aboard the Clearwater with Wendy Jo’s mom and dad.

“My parents spoke with Pete after he mentioned Clearwater at a gig he was doing, and it became their life’s work,” said Wendy Jo. She also worked aboard the sloop over the years. Furthermore, the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, as well as Seeger, are still active keeping the river clear.

Wendy Jo studied film at SUNY at Purchase, and began her career working in the Art Department for an independent horror film. “When I was 11, I saw the movie “The Man who Would Be King” (adapted from a short story by Rudyard Kipling) and it changed my life. I knew after I saw this movie that I wanted to work in film.” From doing props for films, Wendy Jo continued working and learning all aspects of the film process. She worked her way to be assistant director on the films: “Manny and Lo,” “Parallel Sun” and “Judy Berlin.”

“I felt that in order for me to produce my own films, it was important for me to learn every step of the process from the bottom up,” Wendy Jo said. (In merchant marine parlance, this means coming up from the “hawse pipe,” which is the bottom of the food chain aboard a ship.)

In 2010, Wendy Jo Cohen wrote, directed, produced and edited a film entitled “The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek.” This was an ambitious and audacious project. In the tradition of Ken Burn’s PBS documentary, “Civil War,” Wendy Jo constructed a 92-minute satirical film about a little known battle of the Civil War. “I wanted to tell a fictional story, about characters who may have existed, using the same film style as Ken Burns,” said Wendy Jo.

She created a few forgotten Civil War heroes: an opium-addicted, gay Colonel, an elderly Chinese launderer, and a nerdy escaped slave. Now, you may be wondering, if Ken Burns would be too precious regarding this type of film? Well, he wasn’t. In fact, a blurb written by Burns on the DVD cover calls it “An incredibly wonderful and funny film.”

“I spoke with Ken Burns for a half hour about the film, and he liked it, a lot,” said Wendy Jo.

The original manuscript was 200 pages and was crunched down to a screenplay in one year. “I had to do an amazing amount of research about the war, to learn the history and get things in perspective,” said Wendy Jo. I asked how long it took to make the film, and she said, “About the same amount of time it took to fight the war, about three-and-a-half to 4 years.” The film’s press kit calls this effort, “Ken Burns meets Spinal Tap.” Moreover, Andy Webster of The New York Times says the film has, “So many ideas and so much imaginative play... the movie can barely contain them.”

The pace of the narrative and the talking heads in the film kept this viewer on his toes. “The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek” opened well at the Quad in New York City. It was also very well received at the Atlanta Film Festival. “The people of Atlanta really got the humor and absurdity,” said Wendy Jo. The craftily constructed Rhode Island Thirteenth Regiment is totally fictitious, and this is where the fun begins. Voltaire said, “There are three rules for writing fiction, and no one knows what they are.” Steven King said about writing, “Put your protagonist in a situation and then write him out of it.”

Wendy Jo dumped the rules no one knows and also followed King’s idea. What she ended up with is a swirling, complex and very satirical story of a very dark part of our nation’s history.

David McCullough narrated the Civil War. The narrator in The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek has the same authoritative tone as McCullough ― with tongue firmly planted in cheek; all of the (well-credentialed) talking heads do as well. After three viewings of this film, I was still finding hilarious moments. This is a testament to Cohen’s writing. “I had concerns about how I handled slavery, there was some language I had concerns about,” she said. The whole period of our history was offensive; the humor of the film heightens the truth of this bad time; however, Cohen handled the writing of slavery with a sense of sadness and humor. Comedy is a way to keep people off balance; she succeeded. The writing just cranks the narrative on the quick.

One night in the Old Block Island Inn, in 1971, I met a guy who sailed aboard the Sloop Clearwater. Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi had her built in the Harvey Gamage yard in Maine. She was commissioned in 1969 and her maiden voyage was from Bristol, Maine to the South Street Seaport in New York City. (While writing this column, I wondered if this could’ve been Wendy Jo’s dad.) Finally, Wendy Jo mentioned a memory of sailing down to Washington D.C. for a rally. “I remember the rail being down and awash, along with torn sails; she wasn’t really designed for heavy air offshore, ya know, she was a Hudson River Sloop.” It sounds like Seeger was a pretty ambitious and audacious guy, as was his teenage crew, Wendy Jo Cohen.

“The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek” is available on iTunes and Amazon. Passion River Films will release and distribute the DVD this November.

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