147 Minutes, Documentary, Now Streaming
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In September of 1943, the typescript of a private, unpublished narrative was discovered in Corea, Maine, among the belongings of the American modernist painter and poet Marsden Hartley just a few days after his death. This powerful and poignant elegy, “Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy” – written by Hartley to assuage his grief at the loss of a young man he loved – is now a feature-length film directed by Michael Maglaras and produced by Terri Templeton of 217 Films. The film presents Hartley (played by Maglaras) seated in his makeshift studio in Corea in 1943 where, tired and ill, he recounts to an unseen visitor the tragic story of the fate that befell the Francis Mason family – a family of farmers and fishermen with whom he lived on a remote island in Nova Scotia seven years before. The film uses flashbacks and employs 24 of Hartley’s paintings and drawings. Released in 2005.
Marsden Hartley portrayed by Michael Maglaras.
Executive producer is Terri Templeton.
Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy
By Michael Maglaras
In February 2003, I read the text of Marsden Hartley’s prose poem “Cleophas and His Own” for the first time. Within a day or so, I read it to my wife, Terri Templeton. We decided to make an audio recording of this great work. After the recording of “Cleophas and His Own” was released, although neither of us had ever made a film before, we decided that we had seldom encountered a text that lent itself to the making of a film more than this one.
Terri and I met with the graphic artist Jay Piscopo to lay out storyboards for a film based entirely on this monumental work by one of America’s foremost Expressionist painters. Shortly after the storyboard ideas were laid out, I met, by chance, the videographer Geoffrey Leighton, while I was in Bermuda on business. Leighton, as it turned out, worked in Maine, and invited me to visit him in his studio, just outside Freeport.
In August 2003, we test-filmed the entire narrative in Geoff’s barn. After viewing my performance, I decided to proceed with filming the entire narrative. My original concept was akin to a one-man play idea…tell the story directly to the camera while seated inside a reconstruction of Hartley’s studio…with brief cutaways to paintings by Hartley, and even briefer cutaways to members of the family. I then contacted my friend Louise Young, who had been an intimate of Hartley’s, and who still spent summers in Maine, on the property owned by her parents, who had taken in Hartley as a lodger in 1943 – the last summer of his life.
In September 2003, sections of the opening footage of the film were shot behind Louise’s house using an old brooder house that was identical to the one that Hartley had used in the summer of 1943 as his studio. Further footage was shot that weekend, along the rocky coast of Grindstone, near Corea, and it was from this initial footage that the film began to take shape. Using Hartley’s text as my Bible, and the concepts laid out in the storyboards, I decided to film the entire narrative over two days in a reconstructed version of Hartley’s studio. I hired the prosthetic makeup artist Jimmy Soltis…who made a life cast of my face and from that created a prosthetic nose and chin, which, having been applied and re-applied, became the bane of my existence for the next 16 months. This was in October of 2003.
At the time that we filmed the narrative in its entirety, I had no idea what the film would look like. We had not selected the paintings to be inserted in the film, and had not auditioned any actors. In short, every moment in the narrative sequences was filmed with the idea that it would have to stand on its own. This was a financial as well as an artistic consideration.
Once Terri and I viewed the raw studio footage, the esthetic of the film began to take shape in our minds. It also became clear that the original budget we’d been presented to make this film was, how shall I say it, wildly off the mark, through no fault of anyone’s except my own. We auditioned actors to assume the roles of the Mason family, as well as others mentioned in the narrative.
We had a particular problem casting Cleophas, as we wanted someone who embodied the visceral magnetism of the Hartley painting…but whose strength was tempered by dignity and reserve…and we were extremely fortunate to find Dan Harris.
Once I decided on Dan, magically, the casting for the other family members began to fall into place.
Because I had decided to use a number of Hartley’s paintings interspersed throughout the film – in particular, the paintings that Hartley did of the Mason family – I felt it was important for the actors to be photographed in such a way that only small portions of their faces would be shown, in order to place emphasis on the painted portraits themselves.
However, once I chose Dan Harris for the role of Cleophas, and saw the other actors who would play the members of the family, and began working with them as a director, it became clear to me that I was going to need to show the depth of the humanity and individuality of each member of the family, and that I had found the actors able to portray these people and to suggest their depth and the extent of their influence over Hartley.
I was determined to shoot this film entirely in Maine, and equally determined to use Maine actors and a Maine crew of technical professionals…I achieved both of these objectives, with one exception. Just as I was beginning to despair, after many auditions, of finding an actor who could portray the tempestuous elder son, Adelard (with whom Hartley was in love), I discovered Michael Roberge one day in a diner in Stamford, Connecticut. I walked up to Michael, informed him that he was going to appear in a movie…and the rest speaks for itself in the footage you will see.
The final shots in the film (the cemetery sequence at the very end of the movie) were shot in November 2004, at Peak’s Island, in Portland Harbor. The sequence where Hartley walks through the snow in the Bavarian Alps was shot only a couple of weeks ago. Thus, we progressed from August, 2003 to February, 2005, shooting each sequence independently of the other and completely out of order…the only consistency and continuity being the studio footage filmed in October 2003. I am pleased with the result. We stayed true to Hartley’s text and very true…drawing by drawing…to Jay Piscopo’s story boards…and I think we have told this beautiful story in a way that I hope Hartley would have approved of.
I carefully chose the music for the film: the main theme coming from Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration.” I also decided to use a piece by Charles Ives, as well as the 19th century hymn tune “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” Fans of Schubert will also notice that we use one of his most famous songs set to a text by Goethe.
I am pleased, at last, to be able to say that “Cleophas and His Own” premiered to a sellout audience on June 22, 2005, in Marsden Hartley’s birthplace – Lewiston, Maine – and that it is currently being shown in select theaters and museums around the country.
Marden Hartley in Nova Scotia
The Story of “Cleophas and His Own”
By Townsend Ludington
Early in the fall of 1935 Marsden Hartley met the Francis and Martha Mason family. He had traveled to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, in search of a friend, whom he could not locate. After a short time there, he moved to nearby Blue Rocks, where he met the Masons. In early November he moved to their home on East Point Island, across an inlet from Blue Rocks. He was quickly enthralled by the family, especially by Alton and Donald, the Masons’ sons, who he told a friend “nearly devoured me with affectionate devotion.” For the lonely artist the Masons were “the real thing . . . for a fisherman is more of a ‘thing’ than a shut in farmer-that is a N[ew] E[ngland] one-and it’s so new to me and enveloping.”
Meeting the Mason family marked the beginning of one of the most significant episodes in Hartley’s life. He found a communal love such as he had rarely, if ever, experienced before, and from that point on his art reflected the effect the Masons had on him: a heightened awareness of love, compassion, and of humanity’s frailty in the face of the fierce power of nature.
In June 1936 he returned to East Point Island and for two months enjoyed an idyllic time, poking around the Masons’ house, walking about the island, occasionally sunbathing in solitude along the shore, and even accompanying the Masons on a fishing trip. “There is no hunger,” he wrote in his journal about life with the Masons and their neighbors. “No one is idle – no one will ever need assistance & fail of receiving it -the pulse of the community is full and responsive – no one is surprised – they know each other for generations – no one deceives.” He wrote his close friend, the gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, that he was “all but imbedded” in the Mason family. By this time he had begun to write about his experiences with them, in a letter dated early September, referring to Francis as Cleophas. Then, or soon thereafter, he gave fictitious names to the others: Martha became Marie Saint Esprit; Alty, Adelard; Donny, Etienne; their sister Alice, Madeleine (later to become Marguerite) Felice; and another sister, Ruby, became Jeanne Marthe.
In “Cleophas and His Own”, the piece Hartley wrote about his Nova Scotia experiences before he left in November, he declared that “It had been such a long lyrical summer.” But September came “crashing down upon our hearts and souls like earthquake upon ruin.” On the twenty-third he wrote a friend that “a terrific tragedy has fallen on our house here & the two big lovely boys of the family & their pretty young cousin were drowned Saturday night in the teeth of the gale that swept up from Florida all along the Atlantic seaboard.” Donny, Alty, and their cousin Allen had been drinking a lot in Lunenburg on Saturday night, the nineteenth. Instead of remaining ashore they decided to cross over from Blue Rocks to East Point Island that night during the violent storm. Even though they were excellent seamen, the attempt was utterly foolhardy. The waves were huge; a swift current raced between the island and the mainland, and jagged rocks lined the coastline. Alty’s punt, round-bottomed and hence unstable, in which they tried to cross, was far too small for three people. They made it across to a first island, portaged that, but then perished as they struggled toward home, no more than five minutes from where they died.
When the three did not appear the next morning, clear and bright after the storm, the family immediately began to worry. Everything pointed to the boys having been lost. A few days later the punt was found washed ashore twenty miles away, and six days after the drowning the bodies of Alty and Allen were found on the beach of one of the small islands nearby. Donny’s, mutilated, surfaced three days later.
The Masons’ grief was almost unbearable for Hartley. “O the wrench even to me who had grown to love them dearly & been so proud to know them,” he wrote a friend. “Fool-hardy Alty – so lovable & so terrific-so affectionate – so theatric-dear sweet gentle lyrical Donny who never had a dark thought or an exaggerated one about anything has left his little gold-finch girl in misery as they were heading strong toward marriage & another life. . . . The sea outside the door now might be a quiet little pool in a green meadow it is so calm.” Hartley understood fully the pathos of the situation, but more, the fierce contrariness of man’s relation to the harsh yet beautiful north sea and to the rugged land behind it.
He thought he should leave the island, but Ruby Mason urged him to stay to comfort her parents. He did, all the while sensing that he could not bring himself to return another time. “The place is nothing without them,” he told a friend, adding that he had not felt such despair since the death of a young German, Karl von Freyburg, who was killed early in World War I. Alty had “wanted to build a little shack with me & live in it with me,” he asserted. Never again would he experience as deep a love for someone, and his main outlet was to paint, which he did almost feverishly, rendering more than twenty pictures and numerous drawings before he departed in November. Somber seascapes and such detailed studies as that of two dead ducks caught the pathos and the beauty of life that he felt deeply.
He wrote often, so that by the time he left Nova Scotia he had completed first drafts of two poems, one of which was “Cleophas and His Own”. Not until 1940 did he make his final revisions; it was first published in 1982. The long piece conveyed with great emotion that with the Masons everything had come together to make emphatic what he called “the quality and principle of life itself.” This “everything” consisted of a “life spent in plain beliefs, in despairs, understanding, and with more or less sudden vision accepting experience.” Nova Scotia – the human community, the island, and the ocean -had made his vision more lucid, and finally the deaths of the Mason boys and the responses of the other members of the family had made that vision crystal clear, so that it allowed him to accept life as before he could not.