24 Hours of Avant-Garde: The Good Hours, Part I

NYFF 09

Journals and Remarks (David Gatten)

Gatten's silent Bolero is “the second reel of the ongoing Continuous Quantities series [and] contains 700 shots, 29 frames each, shuttling between the 1839 version of what later became Charles Darwin's A Voyage of the Beagle (1945) and images gathered on a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.” Ostensibly Gatten's film is a film about evolution in which nothing changes: shots of Darwin's words are matched with present-day illustrations of them, and shots of Darwin-era drawings of animals are matched with current footage of them looking exactly the same. The tempo never quickens at the Chinese-water-torture pace of 29 frames per shot. But what evolves is the style; Gatten's achieved something like a mini-history of the avant-garde. At first image-shots alternate with black frames in a slow-motion simulation of a projector starting up. Soon images alternate with images, mostly from Darwin's book. More and more these alternate with contemporary images from Gatten himself, and more and more the shots begin to move from stillness. By the end, in these single units, shots begin to dissolve together in a move from Eisensteinian dialectics to Brakhage-like synthesis: the film moves from the opposition of a drawing of a creature in 1846 Platonic form with a clip of the creature in modern-day relative form (relative to its environment and the sunlight and the angle of the camera) to the blurring of landscapes in the superimpositions against an unchanging sea by the film's end.

Of course such a description can't do much describing of the vibrancy of Gatten's colors nor his steady sense of meter and bar even within the unchanging rhythm of changing shots that gives the piece its percussion. A panning shot, in a sudden burst of movement, may be suspended by three still shots of the same subject from approaching distances that build on each other before resolving in another pan; images may find their double not in the following shot but minutes later as motifs first planted that eventually spring into themes all their own. The basic idea seems to be that the Idea for a thing invokes the thing itself; the Platonic form becomes reality; art gives way to life and stillness to movement. But a reductive reading of that sort would lose sense of Gatten's musicality in building and balancing colors and angles and rhythms out of single words and drawings like Stravinsky or Ravel would out of single notes and phrases. Gatten tries to parse out single entities from reality only to show them linked in harmony–if a filmmaker's harmony of superimpositions and matching cuts–by the film's finale. In this glimpse of a microcosm fixed in place but dependent on movement, Gatten's real concern probably isn't evolution as much as it's eternity.

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A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Any Apichatpong film is something, but A Letter, with its slow Tarkovsky movements around a bedroom and digital enamel-finish, misses exactly the thing it's trying to capture, the way sunlight and sky comes through windows and sheets and a house that all play screen to make the inhabitants wince. Instead, with the cosmos looking like a lot of white pixels, without the visceral draw, A Letter plays as a neat thesis with form—a series of dolly shots through houses repeated in different incarnations—studiously matched to content—a letter being read about reincarnation. There are these arguments to be made in all his other films, of course, but there they only reaffirm a central mystery, the basic melody that's never seen but is riffed off of in weirdly particular ways. Here one gets it. Nobody should ever get it.

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I Know Where I'm GoingMay Tomorrow Shine the Brightest of All Your Man Days As It Will Be Your Last (Ben Rivers)

Rivers, a British filmmaker who films frontiersman in ramshackle houses, their few homemade utensils, their voices that sound like decades-old radio broadcasts that have played on repeat ever since, and the frontier itself—clouds, grass, animals—is something like the Terrence Malick of the avant-garde: it's never clear in these scrapbook documentaries whether civilization is just starting or ending against an indifferent, pretty nature, and Rivers, like Malick, willfully dissolves civilization's structured sense of space by a lot of ambient cutting between pretty shots that may not have any spatial relationship to each other and that seem to stand outside of time altogether. For a while, for both Rivers and Malick, it's been a formless form as fascinating as it frustrating. A string of shadowy shots with, quite deliberately, no place, function, or necessity is not necessarily an accurate representation of undifferentiated nature before or after God, but ornamentation without an architecture to ornament. Any shot could be removed with little impact.

But Rivers has started laying the barest traces of scaffolding, and made what's probably his best work. I Know Where I'm Going, another survey of edge of the world Britain, made under a Vauxhall Commission as a road trip from one nowhere place to another, makes use of 16mm cinemascope to set up a firm x-axis from objects (railings, etc.) bridging one side of the screen to the other (he's as much a master of 'scope as Anthony Mann) that he keeps cycling back to in new situations, as if to ensure this firm graphic design of a line going somewhere; then breaks through it into the z-axis with interludes from the car onto the passing road that give the misleadingly forward sense that the film also is going somewhere, when of course it's progressing from one lost outdoorsman to another and seems as lost as they are. Just the vague hint of architecture at the edge of madness, of a few objects set firmly in place across the screen against which the characters move, is enough: the film, matching characters' voice-over to images of them at work on their own, becomes a means of connecting disparate lives into some sort of nomadic collective voice of people still learning how to live their daily lives.

Rivers' Weekend-like May Tomorrow Shine the Brightest of All Your Man Days As It Will Be Your Last, in high-contrast black-and-white, and without the stern frame of cinemascope, plays from the opposite perspective, nature's facetious perspective on humanity, as a portrait again of grass and clouds and, here, a band of revolutionaries studying theory in the meadows and then roaming the hills looking for war. Its last few minutes, as awesome as any segment from the entire festival, find these self-proclaimed missionaries of civilization lost in the woods as humans with books and scythes and swords while the clouds roll on, humans and clouds each ignorant of the other, and the humans having no idea how beautiful and dumb they look as elements of outdoors wildlife.

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24 Hours of Avant-Garde: The Bad HoursThe Good Hours, Part IThe Good Hours, Part IIThe Good Hours, Part III

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  • Ek

    Regarding Gatten’s piece, the 29 frame interval reminded me of another ‘arbitrary’ system of organizing knowledge in film history: Zorn’s Lemma, no?
    -ekrem

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