If I were to look back on my childhood and try to write a story about it, I’d probably write myself as both the heroine and the villain. Memories are a funny thing — on the surface, they claim to be objective truths about past events. “Harold,” a student-made silent film that screened alongside a live opera this past Sunday, challenges this notion. As the lines between imagination and memory in the film begin to blur, we are given a fantastical reconstruction of the past that feels more real than either of those things could ever be on their own. We learn that memories are complex, subjective and prone to manipulation.
The room is pitch black as I make my way into Sudler Hall for the 13-minute performance, the brainchild of Jordan Plotner ’17, Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17 and John Chirikjian ’17. The choir silently makes their way on stage. For the first 30 seconds of the film, there is nothing but darkness. Then, the singing ensemble begins whispering and murmuring, gradually growing louder and more cacophonous. Suddenly, it gets quiet. I turn my attention to the film just as the voices stop and Harold wakes up.
Our first introduction to the film’s protagonist and namesake (Marc Cameron, voiced by Michael Protacio ’13+1) is far from extraordinary. Adult Harold is a middle-aged man who goes through the same, monotonous schedule every day: He wakes up, eats, scribbles in his journal and visits the local library, where a single children’s book serves as the portal to his childhood. One day, the book goes missing, and we watch as Harold grapples with the confusions and regrets of his past.
What follows is a series of intricate temporal shifts interweaving the present with both real and imagined flashbacks. As a child, Young Harold (Hunter Taylor) witnesses his mother (Michelle McGregor DRA ’14; voiced by Abby Sneider ’17) engage in an extramarital affair. He remembers the suitor (Otis Blum ’15, voiced by Julian Hornik ’17) as an evil figure constantly lurking in the shadows, although the black-and-white flashbacks reveal that he likely isn’t as wicked as Harold believes him to be. While the vacillation between the present, past and “pseudo-past” can get complicated, it aptly communicates Harold’s struggle with being at the crossroads of imagination and reality.
This internal conflict is powerfully executed through the film’s spot-on casting choices. Finding a little boy and a middle-aged man to star in “Harold” posed a challenge for the creators, who took to the streets of New Haven and the pages of the World Wide Web to find their actors. Plotner found his Young Harold in the New Haven Free Public Library; Cameron signed on to the role after responding to the production’s Craigslist ad. Despite these unconventional methods, the Harolds of the film are perfectly cast. With his blond hair, piercing eyes and cherubic face, Taylor is the very image of a delicate, innocent child caught up in his own imagination. Meanwhile, Cameron is exactly how I’d imagine Adult Harold — though he is older and physically worn out, there is a youthful spirit about him that shines through when he reads his book.
In the film’s most climactic moment, imagination and reality collide as Teen Harold (Will Viederman ’17) finds himself in the middle of a confrontation between his father (Jonathan Adler ’17) and his mother’s suitor. We are transported to a surreal cemetery scene in which Teen Harold sits by the two men as a dramatic fight unfolds between them. Eventually, Harold walks away without a word. In later attempts to reconcile with his mother, she remains distant and unmoved. As she sits on the edge of her bed and away from Harold, the choir sings “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always,” a painful and ironic reminder of the pair’s damaged relationship. This line, perhaps the most important one of the film, is hauntingly resonant.
The film’s emotions and storyline are effectively conveyed by its operatic accompaniment. The clarity of Protacio’s voice evokes Harold’s childlike innocence; as a soprano, Sneider sings in the nurturing tone of a mother. While Hornik’s sound is not as traditionally operatic as that of the other singers, he succeeds in portraying the duplicity of the suitor’s character. His performance is a transformative one, as he artfully alternates between a suitor who is menacing and one who is harmless, between perpetrator and victim.
Upon leaving the performance, I found myself looking back on my childhood and questioning the validity of my own memories. “Harold” is a modern fairy tale in its own right. The film masterfully places the intricacy of memory in conversation with the purity and innocence of a child’s imagination. Meanwhile, the opera’s storybook-inspired lyrics are charming and powerful — at the heart of their simplicity is an emotional complexity that leaves audience members yearning to return to their youth.