Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Recently read Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits, her brutal memoir of couple James Merrill and David Jackson, on the suggestion of T----. Not a pretty picture. Even less pretty are these pictures from the video disasterpiece Voices from Sandover. Let me explain.

Lurie's account centers around the creation of Merrill's epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, which chronicles and draws its language from a 25-year obsession the couple had with contacting spirits through the ouija board (including those of Auden and others they knew).

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 B-movies 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.)

Lurie's description of the video's premiere at the couple's home in Key West, to a small crowd of close 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.

There's deeper pathos to this story that I'm not describing here. I highly suggest picking up the book.

Of course, I had to search the webnet to see if the video had surfaced somewhere. No luck, but did find this set of video captures on a fine vintage site hosted by James Morrison, whom I assume is the actor Lurie describes as "pussycat-plump."

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