New film evokes New Hampshire's White Mountains through words and music
New Hampshire based author Howard Mansfield stands on stage reading passages from one of his books. He talks about the White Mountains and how depictions from 19th century painters created the region's tourism industry.
Meanwhile, old images of the White Mountains play across the screen mixed in with clips of modern tourism hotspots, while local musician Ben Cosgrove accompanies Mansfield on a keyboard.
This performance forms the basis of Elizabeth Myer's film, A Journey to the White Mountains in Words and Music. It's the latest entry in the 18th season of Vermont Public's "Made Here" series, airing 8 p.m. Thursday on our main TV channel.
Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Myer and Cosgrove about their work on the film. Their conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: In the introduction, I sort of described the format of the film. Can you describe how the idea for the project came together? What were those early planning stages looking like? And does the film look like how you envisioned it early on?
Elizabeth Myer: Yeah, well, we know Howard Mansfield, and I read his Journey to the White Mountains, and it is such a visual piece of writing. And that just sets off a filmmaker's brain.
And so I heard that they were doing this sort of taking the essay on the road with Ben Cosgrove, sort of exploring landscape together to experience it through word and visuals, and then music — it just seems undeniable.
You know, each film has its own sort of grammar and pace and visual ideas. But this one turned out different than I had imagined in my head, which is so fun when it comes out in an unexpected way.
Can you describe the role of each of the components that that we're seeing as viewers in the film? Like there's the images of the 19th century landscape paintings, and also a lot of footage of modern tourism. And then there's a music component too. How did you decide to integrate all of these things?
We stumbled across all this archival research of this sort of tourist technology of the stereoscope picture for your left eye and your right eye. And when you look at it through this, I don't know, I guess that's actually called the stereoscope, it becomes 3D.
It's such an amazing technology. At the time, it was a tourist tchotchke, but it's also sort of the deep heart of I think what Howard is trying to say — is that there is wonder. There is natural beauty. There is tourism. There is the line of cars that goes on forever. And then there are these quiet, mossy moments of wonder.
And so that became kind of the visual grammar I was trying to evoke. It's both of these things together. And if both eyes are wide open to the dread and the awe, then we can see sort of more more depth we can see in 3D.
I think it definitely hits those. I love that phrase you just used. I wrote it down:
"quiet, mossy moments of wonder." And trying to evoke that plus the rush of tourism. Do you have any thoughts of what the future of a place like the White Mountains or those other small northeast towns that sort of rely on having majestic beauty, but also tourism — what might their futures look like?
Yeah, I mean the mossy moments of wonder often happen when we're traveling or when we're tourists and who's to say that you can't have a moment of awe for wanting to protect the place while in an inflatable inner tube going down the river? You know what I mean? It's the sort of wonder of a place that will get you anytime. Maybe the tourism can be redeemed, because the place evokes wonder in a human being and then they tread softer.
And Ben Cosgrove joins me now to talk more about his music in this film. Welcome, Ben!
Ben Cosgrove: Hello, good to be here.
You're no stranger to writing music that evokes landscape. How can you do that? How can you conjure up the White Mountains through your music?
Most of these songs are written about different subjects. They're all kind of preexisting compositions of mine. So some of them are about, like, highways and one's about Kansas. And what they're all really kind of fundamentally about is trying to figure out what a place might mean to us.
Like, all that music kind of uses landscape as a way to explain why you feel disoriented in the middle of open field, right? Or why you feel kind of exhilarated on a mountaintop.
And it's just a perfect metaphor, I think, for me to wrestle with where those feelings come from. And it makes me kind of pay closer attention to the world. So doing this thing with Howard was neat, because I had to kind of go back into my catalogue and remember what drew me to write about, you know, Kansas, or Minnesota or Vermont, and apply it to the story about the White Mountains.
Related to the film, Elizabeth was talking about how, you know, the 19th century painters are painting these incredible images. And then that creates the tourism industry, then suddenly, more and more people are coming. And, of course, that changes a town and that changes the landscape. Are they looking for the painting image? And Howard is mentioning that in his writings, are they coming to experience the drive up Mount Washington so they can get the bumper sticker? Neither of those are the wrong answer — course you can have both of those things.
Yeah, there is something interesting, I think about how you change something by painting it, or writing about it, or like, the way that you frame a landscape.
Or a place can have such kind of unknowable consequences for what happens to the future. And one of the most interesting things about Howard's essay is the part of the beginning where it talks about before these, you know, Hudson River School painters went up there and made these really dramatic paintings how what a glorious place it was. Everyone thought of the wilderness as just terrifying!
It wasn't a place to be. Like, it wasn't this sort of exalted, glorious, you know, thing to seek out. It was, you know, where danger was. And in the fact that it has kind of wound up being, as you say, you collect your bumper sticker, then that led from one thing to the other. It's so unexpected and strange. It's always interesting to try and track.
"A Journey to the White Mountains in Words and Music" premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5.