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By Gerry Boyle '78
With cartons of exposed film and tape stacked all around him, James Coleman '70 peered at the slow-motion images on the screen of the flatbed film editing table. He feathered the controls and the images inched forward and back until the picture and audio-in this case a man alongside a canoe and a barely audible growl-matched exactly. "It's an arduous form in that you have two disparate elements and you have to synchronize them," he said.Welcome to the real world of filmmaking, the iceberg whose tip surfaces on screen only after years of planning, filming, editing and splicing. It's been Coleman's world for more than 30 years, since his introduction by then-Professor of Art C. Abbott Meader to Bergman and a host of French surrealists. "They opened my eyes to all the possibilities," he said. "And then Abbott said, 'Well, we have this camera.'"
Coleman has been toting a movie camera ever since. In the early 1970s film was his avocation. In the mid-1970s the National Endowment for the Arts instituted an artists-in-the-schools program, and Coleman went to work. For more than 20 years he has been artist in residence at schools in Maine and New Hampshire, where he is known simply as Huey, a nickname dating to his first year at Colby. "Except my ESL (English as a Second Language) kids," he said. "They're very proper. They call me Mr. Huey."
An independent filmmaker when he is not in the classroom, Coleman's subjects have included Grace DeCarlton Ross-a dancer whose career spanned more than 70 years, Franco-American musicians and the renowned American photographer Todd Webb. That film, Honest Vision, A Portrait of Todd Webb, was screened at film festivals across the country, from Taos to Denver to Ft. Lauderdale, and won a silver plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival. Yet for all the acclaim, Coleman said his reward is knowing he has made a portrait that otherwise would have been lost. "He would be gone," he said. "We'd have his photographs, but he would be gone."
Coleman said he is drawn to subjects like Webb whose lives embodied their art. But his current subject is neither artist nor person-it is Maine's Mt. Katahdin. Begun three years ago and still a year from completion, Wilderness and Spirit, A Mountain Called Katahdin is an attempt to portray the subject in all its facets. "My wife says Katahdin is my oldest subject to date," Coleman said.
The film explores the mountain itself and those who have been influenced by its beauty and majesty, from members of the Penobscot tribe to Henry David Thoreau to Maine Gov. Percival Baxter, who preserved the mountain and its surroundings in their natural state. Coleman said he has spent time on and around Katahdin for many years but three years ago decided the mountain was his next project. He had come to know many Penobscots through his work at the school on Indian Island and had long admired Thoreau's writings. "All these things started falling in place," he said. "Finally you kind of go, 'Something is going on here.'"
Subsequent goings-on have included pre-dawn hikes with Meader, associate producer for the film, and others to the mountain's summit. The crew climbs with heavy camera equipment, and there have been brushes with heat exhaustion and hypothermia. Not to mention the ongoing and perhaps more challenging hunt for financial backers.
In May, Coleman was to make another foray to the mountain, knowing he'd notice something new. "It's constantly revealing itself," he said. "It's a very spiritual but very mysterious and ever-changing thing."
But for all its mystery, the mountain must be reduced to a 90-minute documentary from the more than 20 hours of film already shot. In a recent interview Coleman was mulling whether a scholar or an actor should read Thoreau's words. Work on the Katahdin film still was being juggled with Coleman's work on grant proposals. Some funding already has been provided by the Maine Humanities Council, the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation and others. "Everything I do," Coleman said, "is somehow related to film."
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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