A labyrinthine work with ties to the region
Katherine Partington, of Guilford, appearing in <i>The Hunter.</i>

A labyrinthine work with ties to the region

A Guilford actor, dancer, and choreographer collaborates with a former Brattleboro resident in a streaming series that explores ‘the core meaning and significance of existence’

Alexander P. Gutterman's episodic film The Hunter is a heady, spiritual, sometimes playful expedition - a quest to understand.

Originally a three-hour-plus film that was then repackaged into 10 episodes, its maker, Alexander P. Gutterman, isn't your status quo filmmaker.

As Katherine Partington of Guilford - the choreographer/dancer in the series - puts it: “Alex is resistant to narrative structure and, in that sense, he has a unique voice.”

That resistance is at the core of his labyrinthine work.

A native of New York City's Upper West Side, he's a past resident of Brattleboro with lifelong ties to the area, going back to when he vacationed at a country property in nearby Jaffrey, N.H., that's been in his family since 1910, and to Vermont summer camp experiences.

Gutterman was a child actor, heavily involved in theater in and out of school through eighth grade, with leading roles in school and supporting roles off Broadway.

He says he's been totally immersed in the arts since childhood - “in the world's museums, great films, literature, poetry, philosophy of the arts, and in the creation of poetry, painting, and film.”

Later, at University of California-Davis, he was involved with the painting department and “that was a high-water mark in my immersion.”

While in Brattleboro, he was at the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, doing management and production work, thereby connecting with many area artists.

Gutterman loved life here - he skied here avidly, and fell in love with a yoga teacher from Putney. And for a while, he was a patient at the Brattleboro Retreat, a time about which he would readily engage.

Given his propensity for introspective exploration evidenced in his work, Gutterman no doubt credits the Retreat for inadvertent input on The Hunter - and on his first film, In Winter.

* * *

Gutterman explains that The Hunter is “primarily and absolutely a philosophical project aimed at exploring the core meaning and significance of existence” in the face of meaninglessness and mortality.

In short films ranging from 14 minutes to 32 minutes, Gutterman explores quintessential questions: What is the meaning of all this? Of life? And does language really have the power to tell it all?

“Pleasure and wisdom are wanting - that's manifest at different levels,” Gutterman explains. “Even the pizza delivery guy pursues these states only to find they are empty.”

The Hunter is available internationally, exclusively at docsnowplus.com. As described there, the series follows a day in the life of “two filmmakers as they try to meet festival deadlines.”

“Their editing studio conversations, arguments, and frustrations frame internal sequences of the film they are creating,” the description continues.

Those sequences include “an existential piece about a group of symbolic characters trapped in an underground labyrinth, who pass their time in philosophical dialogue, romantic pursuits, and the production of a stage play based on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes.”

Consider theater as metaphor. The Hunter is that as much as it is a primer in Western classical and existentialist philosophy.

It comes there honestly, given Gutterman's work at Dartmouth College, where he majored in comparative literature and philosophy, and his master's in philosophy from UC-Davis, followed by a life immersed in the ongoing application of that learning.

From Wittgenstein's Fly Bottle to Aristotle's unities and Socrates' dialectic, and even some verbatim Kafka, The Hunter covers a lot of territory.

Striking is the recurring use of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes in King James Version diction. Different episodes are epigraphed or punctuated with a range of quotes from that great source of existential aphorisms.

Among them: “There is no new thing under the sun.” “That which is crooked cannot be made straight.” “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” “[Men] might see that they themselves are beasts.”

One episode is titled “The Waste Land,” a nod to Ecclesiastes, yes, and to T.S. Eliot.

So, the thrust is evident as Gutterman leaves more questions unanswered than answered while revealing his own spiritual core. Witness Feeling God and keeping his commandments from Episode 7.

* * *

The setting of the series is primarily in the basement of Denfeld High School in Duluth, Minn., the city where Gutterman now lives and films in order to be close to family.

He chose that setting “to reflect the vertical dimensional layering of n, n + 1, n + 2, and to infinity where n is the sub-dimension (the film) and n +1 is the dimension of the Editor and names Director in their study (and the Critic) and n + 2 is you and me now and n - 1 is the Theatre Company's play inside dimension n and n - 2 is the Sculptor trapped in the box inside the play.”

To fully grasp this - and I think I do - you really have to watch the series. With a notepad and pen.

Moreover, Gutterman explains, “the film is designed to be in every way a mystery, a dark labyrinth with glimpses, clues, and shafts of light - the Denfeld basement location was that world.”

The Hunter's cinematography is exquisite; the set details, elucidating; the palette - returning regularly to muted peaches and turquoises - artfully subtle.

Clay recurs as a motif, and the molding of it as a symbol. Lighting is rich, often unexpected, multi-dimensional. An apt motif, chess often worms its way on to the scene. The unique lighting of each occurrence lets it be known that there is far more than a Queen's well-being on the board.

Throughout the series, different characters puzzle to know if words' meanings can actually represent experience. If not, how can we be liberated from the trap of language? In an early episode we hear a semantic struggle around the notion of beginnings, middles, and ends.

As meaning is addressed from both an introspective and a linguistic standpoint, we see in Episode 3, The Philosopher and his Student - both archetypes - really dig in: How do words connect to meaning? And can we - channeling Kafka - ever really know the truth?

One couple's several scenes show lips moving, but no sound: dialogue, instead, is seen on the screen in silent movie fashion. This, Gutterman explains, “is because the film itself is hyperlinguistic, so we wanted to play with uses of language, with form/content congruence.”

Admittedly influenced by Samuel Beckett, in general, and, in particular, by that writer's timeless Waiting for Godot, Gutterman even uses actual snippets of dialogue from that Absurdist play's text in his film.

Godot fans will see the influence in The Hunter's instances of cyclical dialogue: covering territory, but getting nowhere.

* * *

Other ties to Windham County can be found in The Hunter: Former NECCA student Ilsa Greatorex-Duncan makes a cameo appearance and, in several episodes, we see dancer/actor/choreographer Partington.

Like Gutterman, Partington first came to the area from the Upper West Side to attend The Putney School, where she studied with Karla Baldwin and Hallie Flower.

“Putney is where I dove in deep,” she says.

She then completed the program at London's LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) as the youngest to be accepted that year and soon found herself missing Vermont.

“I was craving something not so fancy and a little rough around the edges,” Partington recalls, adding that she was “looking for a whole new experience.”

From there she returned to Windham County and went to Marlboro College, where she studied dance with Kristin Horrigan and fortified her writing skills - and her worldview - as a political science major, studying with Meg Mott.

She performed for a while in the area and then, since she'd spent time in New York as a teen with Manhattan Youth Ballet, she returned to the city, where she danced with Shen Wei Dance Arts, among others.

About her art, Partington says, “Anyone I've ever worked with lives in my body.”

She started studying ballet at the age 3 and has trained with Luigi, François Perron of the Paris Opera Ballet, Deborah Wingert of the New York City Ballet, and Marina Stavitskaya of the Kirov Ballet. She currently trains with Jason Wise of Broadway Dance Center.

Partington has just finished shooting Grafton, as well - a psychological thriller shot in - you guessed it, Grafton - and directed by Bryan Santiago of Newfane and New York.

With her husband, Daniel, a general contractor, interior designer, and fine artist, she is busy at her place, where they offer short- and long-term housing while cooking up plans for a performing arts space in their big old barn.

Partington met Gutterman some 12 years ago while she was a student at Marlboro; he was known in the area already for producing and directing.

“We knew each other through a mutual friend's theater production,” Partington recalls, “and I always got the sense we'd one day work together, as we both seemed aligned artistically.”

For The Hunter, Partington says, “he had his concept and was looking for connection on intellectual and spiritual levels.” Once found, Gutterman would tailor the role to the actor.

“When I was cast, I had a sense of immediate ease where we all fit with each other,” she says.

About The Hunter process, “We followed the script but improvised in and around it. [Gutterman's] film feels like a poem to me - while it may sound like a dark intellectual film, it's comedic at times, often colored with elements of ridiculousness.”

Gutterman, Partington says, “is looking to be surprised and to follow whatever happened to its final conclusion.”

His “casual vibe” works for Partington, as did the intimacy of collaboration afforded by small company work. In fact, she credits Marlboro for instilling her with confidence and savvy required in such small-group collaboration.

Gutterman's next project, titled The Threshold, will begin shooting in 2023.

“It's Tarkovsky meets ... Woody Allen,” he explains.

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