song of the river
WILLIAM DEBUYS PRESENTS THE COLORADO
THE COLORADO, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
In his music for a segment of the new film The
Colorado, John Luther Adams was inspired by the voice of the little canyon wren. In fugue-like recitations, the members of the Roomful of Teeth ensemble repeat the call “too-ree,” each phrase rising upward and the sequence of utterances going down the scale, quite close to a slowed-down version of the wren’s delightful, ethereal song. The music complements a montage on the big screen: historic movie clips of the gorgeous, colorful walls of Glen Canyon and more recent underwater images of the pale canyon, which has been submerged since the 1957-1964 building of the Glen Canyon Dam and the 186-mile Lake Powell reservoir. The construction of the dam was an immense project with huge impacts to the environment, including flooding thousands of Ancestral Pueblo sites, and Roomful of Teeth’s ominous vocals radically transform the sweet sound of the canyon wren. “In my trip to the Grand Canyon, every morning it was the first thing you heard — so beautiful,” said the film’s director, Murat Eyuboglu.
The Colorado, a portrait of the Colorado River from the mountains of Wyoming to its delta in Mexico, premieres in New Mexico with two screenings at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. This is a film of contrasts, but its musical element is not subservient. “This is a film of poetry. You have to be ready for a different kind of narrative style, elevated for music in your attention,” said Santa Fe author and conservationist William deBuys, who co-wrote the text with Eyuboglu. “The trajectory of the narration can be kind of elegiac, but the music is always optimistic, which is an interesting pairing.” DeBuys will introduce the first screening of the film on May 11.
Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler is the project’s musical director and a performer. Glenn Kotche, the Grammy Award-winning percussionist with Wilco, is both composer and performer in the film. The a-cappella octet Roomful of Teeth, which supplies vocals, won a Grammy in 2014. The other composers for the film and for live performances of The Colorado include Adams (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014), William Brittelle, Shara Nova, and Paola Prestini, whose company, VisionIntoArt, produced the film.
The Colorado offers startlingly beautiful videography by Sylvestre Campe of the river’s upper reaches in the Rocky Mountains. We see dizzying aerial shots, awesome electrical storms, watery river-surface views, and majestic winter scenes of bison, all accompanied by operatic vocalizations. Those contrast greatly with black-and-white footage of the construction of the Hoover Dam — the river becoming “a delivery system for liquid property” — and of the Salton Sea disaster. Footage for the latter comes rather bizarrely from the
1926 silent movie The Winning of Barbara Worth. The romance starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky, and Gary Cooper includes film from the 1905 Colorado River flood that compromised an irrigation intake structure, destroyed towns and fields in the Imperial Valley, and created the largest lake in California. The Salton Sea was a fulcrum in the story of the making of The Colorado.
“A few years ago Murat shot a music video near the Salton Sea,” deBuys said. “He was so struck by the landscape, and when he got back to New York he wondered if anyone had written about it. Then he found my book, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in LowDown California, that came out in 1999 and never got much readership. Initially, Murat asked me to be an advisor to the film, to improve their chances at getting the history right. At the point when Murat decided he did want to have a textual voiceover narration, he asked if I would help. So we did the nine passages that [actor] Mark Rylance reads.”
After seeing the Salton, Eyuboglu said he thought that “there were definitely stories to be told, but it also sounded like it would be part of a bigger story, and I found that in Bill’s book. Salt Dreams basically tells the story from the Hoover Dam all the way to the delta, and when we were working together we both decided to include the river all the way to the source.”
The film’s nine segments add up to a multidimensional portrait. There are focus pieces on farmworker Joe R. Hernandez, who almost became an Olympic athlete; on Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, who mapped the region and in 1701 proved erroneous the conventional thinking that California was an island; and on Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, who led a party down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Nova was the composer for this segment, “An Unknown Distance Yet to Run.” As Eyuboglu takes us videographically down the river, male and female voices intone, “One thousand miles, one thousand miles,” “We may conjecture many things,” and “What rocks beset the channel.”
The director described his process of working with Nova and the other composers. “There was a certain amount of back and forth, with me giving them some existing footage so they could understand what it was about, and even literature to read,” he said. “So they worked with materials like that and established their own music, the character and the pacing and so forth. We wanted to have a group of composers and have them choose segments they resonated with the most. Some of them really jumped on that — for instance, Paola Prestini, who grew up in the area where Father Kino evangelized. Glenn Kotche was the last composer to join us and it made sense to assign him the bookends.” Those are the film’s first section, “Beginnings,” and its last, “The Palette of a New Creation.” The film was edited to the music, “more like a music video,” Eyubaglu said, which is a reversal of the usual relationship of film and soundtrack.
In the Grand Canyon section, the director successfully conveys fright in the story of Powell’s first-ever running of the Grand Canyon, during which his nineman crew came out at the end as just “five starving men.” DeBuys said he and the director did the run twice. “On the second trip, one of the participants was Mark Rylance, who was taking a break during the filming of Bridge of Spies. He was under the direction of Steven Spielberg not to get a suntan.” It is virtually impossible not to be affected by sunshine in a small boat when it comes at you from above and also from its reflection off the water, and Rylance did not succeed. “For some of the Grand Canyon shots I was holding on to Murat to keep him from falling out of the boat,” deBuys laughed. “The trip leader on both trips was Christa Sadler, a good friend of mine who is writing the book to accompany the movie.”
Nothing is blatantly said in the film’s text about man-made climate change, although at one point we are informed that climate models tell us that the land of the Colorado River will become hotter and drier. The river basin is no stranger to drought, the narrator says, but new ones will be more severe because the earth will be hotter and there will be more evaporation. Rylance narrates, “The people of the Colorado start with an advantage: they already love the desert. That’s good. There’s going to be a lot more of it.”
“That is one of the themes,” deBuys said, “and one of the reasons it’s so elegiac is there is no contradiction in the sense of elegy and at the same time reveling in the beauty of the land, and celebrating the beauty.”
When the story takes us to the river’s end in the Gulf of California, we hear that there are a few Cocopah Indian elders who remember the delta as a lush wetland. But very little river water ever reaches the gulf anymore because of the Hoover, Glen Canyon, and several other dams, along with the impact of the Salton Sea storage. Eyuboglu here presents the viewer with a stunning sequence of aerial photographs of the delta. The scene is alternately spectral, dazzling, ugly, and phenomenal. While Campe did the film’s aerial shots in Utah and Arizona, the director captured these himself. “It was filmed from a small, fixedwing Cessna and it was actually an entirely simple process: You open the window and take the picture.” The results sometimes look like an abstract painting, deBuys said. “You could hang a series of prints of those in a gallery or a museum and nobody would think it was inappropriate.”
The first live performance of The Colorado was in May 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Soon after speaking with Pasatiempo on April 20, deBuys headed to Palo Alto, California, where Zeigler, Kotche, and Roomful of Teeth would perform the music live with two screenings at Stanford University. DeBuys said he would love to see such an event in Santa Fe, but it could be prohibitively expensive. The next scheduled performance is in March 2018 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“The Colorado” screens at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, only. William deBuys will introduce the film at the 6:30 p.m. showing.
Top, Rocky Mountains where the Colorado River originates, 2015; opposite page, top, Hoover Dam shown during a late phase of its construction, circa 1934, courtesy Imperial Irrigation District; bottom, tidal waters in the delta region of the Colorado River, 2015; photos Murat Eyuboglu
Top left, the Salton Sea, 2015; right, Inocensia Gonzalez Sainz visiting the delta area of the river, which she knew as a lush wetland in her childhood, 2015; photos Murat Eyuboglu