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Sacred Places

In Sacred Places, the new WMHT (Channel 17) documentary, azure skies and flowers in full bloom provide a serene backdrop for an exploration of spiritual sites in the Capital Region and Hudson Valley. But it’s likely that many viewers will assume the program was created after the attacks on the World Trade Center, which increased the nation’s awareness of all things spiritual. “It’s certainly very timely,” says WMHT producer Steve Dunn, the videographer and writer for Sacred Places, which premieres on Monday. “We had a preview last night for some people, and they thought that we did it because of Sept. 11, but actually, it’s an idea we’d been kicking around for awhile, and I shot it over the summer.”

One segment, however, was discarded after the bombings: the footage of a Muslim community in Troy gathered for prayer. “After Sept. 11, the segment didn’t make sense anymore,” says Dunn. “There was no context. People would’ve thought it was denial.” On Sept. 14, Dunn filmed a sermon held in response to the tragedy at the Islamic Center in Colonie. While there, he happened to meet a young Muslim who had lost a cousin in the attack, and who talks on camera with bewildered resignation. It’s the program’s only topical segment. “I’m not sure if it helps or not,” says Dunn, who also produces the channel’s popular Historic Views series. “People will have to judge for themselves.”

Mostly, the documentary is a quietly beautiful piece that contemplates what a sacred place is—a much broader definition than just churchyards—as well as what, exactly, makes it spiritual. For some places, it’s an aesthetic, such as the antiquity of the architecture of All Saints Cathedral, with its “mystical” ambience, or the purity of the design for the chapel at Kenwood Convent, which has been described as “chaste.” For the Shakers of Wisdom Valley in Watervliet, farmland was sacred ground. “All of their labor was consecrated to God,” explains a Shaker curator.

In contrast to the simplicity of Shaker worship are the colorful statues and ceremonial objects that overflow the Hindu Society and Mahayana Buddhist temples, and the ritualized iconography of a Russian Orthodox monastery in Jordanville. “You look for contrasts, you look for rhythm,” says Dunn, who tried to include as many places of worship as possible. “I went to St. Sophia’s, the Greek Orthodox church, because I knew they had superb mosaics—the most beautiful mosaics I’ve seen outside of Ravenna, Italy.” Many places are made holy by their memories. Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Albany was a stop on the Underground Railroad. At Temple Israel, where the sanctuary was severely burned by arson 10 years ago, the rabbi movingly recalls how non-Jewish firemen risked smoke asphyxiation to help him rescue the congregation’s sacred Torah scrolls.

As the program states, sacredness is embodied by “art, architecture, song and prayer,” and along with organ and flute music, and chanting and gospel singing, there are atmospheric pauses during which the camera pans the setting without narration. “I tried to make it aural,” says Dunn. “That was intentional from the first. We wanted the images and sounds to evoke the feeling of the place.” He adds: “Temple Israel was a challenge because it’s such a verbal story. But that’s OK, because Rabbi Silton is compelling.”

The documentary—the station’s first to be shot in digital beta, a state-of-the-art, “letterboxed” video format—travels from the Grafton Peace Pagoda to a hilltop retreat in Rhinebeck. But Dunn makes it clear that the program is ecumenical. “Whether you’re spiritual or not, you can get something out of this program,” he says. “I think an atheist or an agnostic could appreciate it because it’s about people’s highest aspirations.”

For the producer, however, Sacred Places was indeed a spiritual journey. “It made me think about my challenges with faith,” Dunn says. And did he experience the “specialness” referred to by the interviewees? “Doing the camerawork, there were moments,” he admits. “Like when I was in the cemetery by the Kenwood convent, with the black crosses. I was completely alone. There were these little bushes behind the crosses, and they were rustling in the wind. And I felt that I was ‘in the moment.’ ”

Sacred Places airs Monday (March 4) at 7:30 PM on WMHT (Channel 17).

—Ann Morrow

F8 Featuring Leif Garrett

OK, let’s get two things out of the way right up front. First, yes, that Leif Garrett—fair-haired teen pinup superstar of the ’70s, made for dancing all, all, all, all night long. Yes, the one you saw on that four-star episode of VH1’s tragedy-grubbing Behind the Music, telling tales of evil managers, screaming fans, inflated egos, reckless living, ruined relationships, a Herculean heroin habit and a late-life redemption. Second, no, you’re not gonna hear that song when Garrett and his new band, F8, play Northern Lights on Saturday. So don’t even ask.

Not that Garrett (pictured, second from left) is at all chagrined about his former existence as heartthrob, it’s just that he’s got other, more important, things on his mind. “At first, I didn’t want my name to be associated with it at all,” he says by phone from his Hollywood home. “But to get people to book us in clubs and stuff like that, to get the guarantees, they want to put ‘featuring Leif Garrett.’ And I understand. You know, whatever it takes to get people through the door right now, to hear the music and check it out, is all I care about. I think we can—and already have—changed people’s minds.”

So, despite the fact that there are still those occasional throwbacks in F8’s audiences who seem stuck in Garrett’s past (“ ‘Where’s the long blond hair?’ ” Garrett jokes, “ ‘How come you’re not wearing tight trousers? Where’s the spandex?’ ”), the reactions have been generally far more accommodating. “The boyfriends who used to be like, ‘Oh, that fag, man, I’m going to kick his ass because my girlfriend’s got his picture on her wall,’ are now coming out and they’re like, ‘You fucking rock, man!’ ”

And to hear Garrett describe it, that kind of affirmation is worth more to him than the hordes of adoring teenyboppers, the scads of cash and the jet-set lifestyle of his younger years. His rapid progression from being a “teen idol pinup to playing the Houston Astrodome” without ever paying his dues, came at the expense of a feeling of control and artistic integrity. “I’m kind of a control freak now,” he laughs, “after having been through what I went through and being ripped off, and being basically a marionette for a bunch of puppeteers.” It’s a control that Garrett claims he wouldn’t relinquish again for any price. To play his music, his way—“a cross between Led Zeppelin, Stone Temple Pilots and maybe a little Alice in Chains thrown in” is how Garrett describes it—has provided him a feeling of “not so much revenge, but vindication.” He’s proud and content, he says, with his current level of celebrity: “I’ve earned people’s respect because I haven’t sat back on my laurels. I’m not David Cassidy. . . . I mean, I know he’s not happy playing Vegas. This is not what he wanted to do.”

And, Garrett makes clear, once you’ve experienced artistic self-determination, there’s no going back: “I would rather pump gas at 76 than ever have to do something that I don’t want to do again.”

F8 featuring Leif Garrett will play Northern Lights (North Country Commons, Route 146, Clifton Park) on Saturday (March 2). Tickets for the 16-and-over show are $12, $10 in advance; doors open at 7:30 PM. For more information, call 371-0012.

—John Rodat

 

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