Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Marsden Hartley film to have CT debut in New Britain

New Britain Museum of American Art
56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257
Film screening: Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy
Mar. 29, 2007, 5 p.m.

Filmmaker and Connecticut resident Michael Maglaras, in the role of American modernist painter Marsden Hartley, sits in a reconstruction of Hartley's studio in Corea, Maine. Speaking directly to the camera, Maglaras is Hartley, reciting from the painter and poet's prose poem Cleophas and His Own. A narrative of great joy and fulfillment has turned dark. Death has shattered Hartley's idyllic residence with a Nova Scotian family in a remote fishing village.

"I learned for the first time that grief could take on an epic character," declares Maglaras/Hartley.

Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877 and died in Ellsworth, Maine in 1943. He was a brilliant colorist who absorbed the successive influences of the Impressionist Cezanne, Picasso, Native American art, the German Expressionists. His creative efforts extended to experimental prose and poetry.

The screenplay of Maglaras' adaptation of Cleophas and His Own is taken verbatim from Hartley's text of the same name. It tells the story of his transformative experience with the Francis Mason family on East Point Island in Nova Scotia. Hartley had gone up to Canada in the summer of 1935 in search of a friend, and to paint and write. He didn't locate his friend but made the acquaintance of the Mason family.

At first merely a boarder with the family—father Francis Mason, his wife Martha, their sons Alty and Donny and their daughters Alice and Ruby—Hartley was embraced with an unconditional affection he had not thereto experienced. Hartley spent that summer with the Masons and returned the next year. As well as being accepted into their household, Hartley fell in love with the robust and virile eldest son, Alty, a desire that, according to Hartley's writings, was reciprocated.

Boarding with the Masons, Hartley—channeled by Maglaras—says, "was to prove the richest experience of my life, the richest in ways that I never would have asked or believed."

Hartley had begun the text of Cleophas and His Own late in the summer of 1936, a paean to the deep-rooted and loving virtues of the family. The tragic turn came on Sept. 19, 1936. With a great hurricane sweeping through the region, Alty, Donny and their cousin Allen foolishly tried to return to their island home from the mainland in a small unstable punt. They drowned. Their bodies were discovered days later.

The sea, source of life and sustenance, was also a dangerous place. Reading from Hartley's text late in the film, after the funerals for Alty and Allen (fictionalized in Hartley's story as Adelard and Allain; Donny is renamed Etienne and father Francis is the Cleophas of the title), Maglaras describes sitting down to eat shortly after Donny's mutilated body has been recovered. "We were shaken, three times shaken, and when the sea was so calm and gentle next day, all I could think to say was—'How could you—how could you?'"

The cinematic approach taken by first time filmmaker Maglaras is spare but effective. In his role as Hartley, Maglaras follows in the tradition of one-person shows such as Hal Holbrook's impersonation of Mark Twain. His scenes are intercut with vignettes of the family, with voiceovers by Maglaras. In addition, 24 of Hartley's paintings from his post-Nova Scotian period—including ones of members of the Mason family—are incorporated into the film, often cross-dissolved with comparable filmed images of the actors. The paintings were shot in color; the rich cinematography by Geoffrey Leighton is in black and white. The entire movie, with the exception of the paintings, was shot in Maine. Through Leighton's lens, we see and understand Hartley's attraction to both the severe virtues of the Nova Scotia locale and the rustic—or, as Hartley puts it, "archaic"—sturdiness of the Mason clan.

Although told wholly from Hartley's perspective, this isn't a movie about the artist, per se. There is no exposition about his creative process, or even about how his relationship with the Masons impacted that creative process. Rather, it is a narrative about rich human relationships sundered by the capricious will of Nature.

Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy gets its first Connecticut screening on Thursday, Mar. 29, at 5 p.m. at the New Britain Museum of American Art. A discussion with director/actor Michael Maglaras will follow.


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