Finding “Voices from Sandover”

September 11, 2010

David Rodes introduced me to James Merrill in 1989. I was to provide a music soundtrack to a live reading of “Voices from Sandover”–a condensed version of the epic poem, “Changing Light at Sandover.” During that time, James and I became good friends, as well as his partner, Peter Hooten, who was also in the cast. This version of the work was premiered in Los Angeles and well received.

Later, James and Peter got the idea to make the show a film and they asked me to provide the score for it. Not your typical film: it was a realization of the many experiences he and his life partner, David Jackson, had at their beloved Ouija board. It was a lovely experience.

Although Peter and I got along just fine, it later became clear that not everyone was fond of him. I can only assume that, like after many separations, friends side with one or the other person of the couple. Having not known David, I didn’t have to make that choice.

During the post-production phase I heard that there was a certain amount of drama that I wasn’t privy to, and as time went on, it turned out that the film was never released. I had heard from a friend that Princeton University had picked it up (do they have a film production arm??)

This morning as I drank my coffee, enjoying my last day of vacation before going back to work, I thought to myself “What ever happened to ‘Voices from Sandover’?”

I found copies of the book available from a few used book dealers (it is now included in the new edition of “Changing Light of Sandover”), I found the film listed in the bios of the various actors and crew, I found a few VHS copies at the libraries of Northeastern, Northwestern and the Guggenheim museum where Merrill had screened the film after its completion, but nowhere could I find any news about the film’s release or whereabouts. I felt fortunate to have two archival VHS copies in my possession (which I digitized this summer).

Then I stumbled upon a blog called “My Life and Prophecies” (by Ed Halter) who provided a rather bitchy recollection of the film:

Late in their relationship, Merrill and Jackson began having affairs with younger men on the side. Merrill became entranced with one Peter Hooten, an actor from with poetical aspirations. Somehow Hooten finagled Merrill to spend some $800,000+ on producing a video-theatre version of Sandover, retitled “Voices from Sandover”, which would star–surprise–Hooten. (Hooten by this time had insinuated himself into Merrill’s life to such a point that he would participate in the poet’s live readings, having adopted his mannerisms and voice.)

Oh dear! The blogger mentions a book by Alison Lurie that goes into vivid detail about a private showing for some close friends and notables:

The video lasted two hours, and seemed to last longer. There were moments of relief, notably when Jimmy appeared on screen to read his own lines, and (as always) read them brilliantly. There were also moments of pretentious silliness, as when David and Jimmy’s first supernatural contact, Ephraim, appeared in the shape of a blond pussycat-plump young man classically draped in a white sheet, reclining on top of what was obviously a nineteenth-century dining room sideboard. He was a professional actor, as was everyone in the video with the exception of Jimmy. Peter, perhaps appropriately, played Mirabell, who had first been described as a black bat and later been transformed into a peacock. On screen, however, his face emerged from a starburst of lighting effects, suggesting that he was a divine being, and he spoke in echoing elocutionary tones. […]

When the program was over, everyone was polite, even congratulatory, though I couldn’t manage a more positive adjective than Jimmy’s trademark ‘remarkable.’ I thought that the video of Sandover was both boring and embarrassing, that it had turned an intermittently fine poem into pretentious New Age nonsense.

Oh dear, again! A colleague told me that James left the film to Peter in his will and it never went any further. I checked Peter’s IMDB credits and see that he is working again as an actor, but not a peep about “Voices from Sandover.”

I will now assume the film is dead. If anyone knows anything more, please let me know (Peter, are you out there?). Otherwise, if anyone wishes to see the film, contact me and we’ll sit and watch the film some night over a bottle or two of wine.

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