Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ goes West
A new film radically adapts Henry David Thoreau’s classic transcendental work “Walden” and transports it to contemporary Colorado.
Director Alex Harvey, a Denver native now based in New York, believes there is no more fitting place to explore Thoreau’s revolutionary 19th-century ideas about nature and society than in today’s Colorado.
“I see the concept of Colorado in the direct lineage of Thoreau,” Harvey explained in a recent phone interview. “It’s a kind of concept of wilderness that we’re all into.”
Thoreau’s “Walden,” as most any middle school English class will tell you, is about the author living alone on a pond in Massachusetts. It’s also about the kinds of places where you can live on the doorstep of wilderness — places Thoreau dubbed “borderlands” — and the oppression of workaday American life. For Harvey, the quintessential borderland today is Colorado.
“A lot of people are like ‘“Walden” in Colorado? I don’t get it,’” Harvey said. “But the truth is, if you’re going to try to update or modernize or make a contemporary framework for Thoreau, you need to find a frontier and find a place that pits cultural urban life right up against wilderness. That’s the key. For me, that link wasn’t complicated.”
Harvey enlisted fellow Coloradans and childhood friends to make the film — among them the screenwriter Adam Chanzit, the acclaimed artist/musician Laura Goldhamer and the comedian T.J. Miller, who takes on a small role as an insufferable and spineless boss.
“A lot of the people on this film have known each other since kindergarten,” Harvey said. “We all live in different places now, but all came back to do this. I was trying to grapple with the idea that there is this group of people that, when they move away from Colorado, they can’t stop thinking about it.”
Harvey’s “Walden: Life in the Woods” premiered Saturday at the Denver Film Festival. It takes Thoreau’s ideas in chapters on solitude, friendship and society and brings them to life in three intersecting narratives. In one, an elderly woman (Lynn Cohen) battles the solitude of dementia in a nursing home. Her son, played by Erik Hellman in the friendship storyline, escapes into the mountains with his boyfriend (Tony LoVerde of the band Belle and the Beard) and the pair spars over how to balance the responsibilities of work and society with the call of the wilderness. The third storyline follows the quietly desperate Ramirez (Demian Bichir) as he battles an exploitative employer, bank lenders, a health insurance company and an increasingly surreal middle-class life in the burbs.
Much of the action takes place in and around Denver, but it also sends its characters into the woods and the wilds of the mountains. For those portions of the film, Harvey filmed between Ridgway and Telluride, on the Platte River in Cheesman Canyon, in a cave in Clear Creek County, outside Silverton and elsewhere. It was shot entirely in Colorado.
“It was a full state community effort,” Harvey said.
Harvey and his crew didn’t make it to the Roaring Fork Valley or Pitkin County, he said, mostly because of stringent local filming restrictions, though he had initially hoped to shoot at the Crystal Mill near Marble.
The film is a surprisingly subtle adaptation of Thoreau’s transcendentalist text. There are no big speeches, there’s no preachy hammering-home of a message — the closest it comes to a call to action is a character almost whispering “Step outside” to another — and no easy answers. Instead, it challenges the viewer — certainly Colorado viewers in particular — to think about how and why we live the way we do, and what we want from nature.
That understated and often challenging approach, Harvey said, was the result of following Thoreau’s lead.
“He wanted people to pay attention and do the work,” Harvey said. “He wasn’t trying to hand things to people on a silver platter. We wanted to build a project that would pick up where the book left off and ask a lot more of the viewer than most films do these days.”
The filmmakers don’t yet know when or how widely “Walden” will be distributed in theaters. But Harvey has his mind set on traveling with it in Chautauqua-style presentations across the country and Colorado: “We’re going to tour it, and not to film festivals: to nature societies and Buddhist temples and churches and whatever you can think of.”
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