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Flash Dance: 4 or 5 New Movies by Ernie Gehr (some notes)

Ernie Gehr: fully developed, partially exposed. Gehr's digital lacings.

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The shadow crawl of magic lanterns still simulated by the visual decay of Gehr’s cheap DV: the massless pixilation means both a flattening of planes into overrunning shades and that every gradient and speck is an open simulation of an erstwhile object completed by the imagination. The promise of cinema—shadows that opened onto worlds—breaks down to ruins—shadows of the world, then back again. The magic lantern premise of Mist, a 9-minute still shot of boats passing on the river, could only work on digital, in which each of the frame’s elements, water, boats, fog, and birds, move as if autonomously to a set rhythm of pixels rippling. None offers a stable figuration, an object to hang onto: the water flows, the boats pass, and the white fog, the image of nothing and a scrim, is just the blank screen itself. The elements seem so autonomous in their loops that the collusions between them—the water that moves the boat, the fog that calibrates the light in the frame, all obvious assumptions of sight—look like feats of an artist’s legerdemain: a “manufactured universe,” like Waterfront Follies, predicated on a world of pre-programmed objects that modulate each other’s qualities. In Mist, the currents of movement become as much the objects as the screen’s itself.

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In Thank You For Visiting, superimpositions of transitional spaces in Brooklyn—construction sites, intersections—become other sorts of cross-sections onto each other’s times and places, as much alternate possibilities for a street corner’s construction as the movie’s: what Gehr could have shown instead. The screen figures as fog or veil again onto an evasive, unseen, stable universe our eyes normally accept around us, but digital sees as outer shadows. But by flattening his image, Gehr opens it up to new configurations across time/space: “[Bertrand] Russell, to describe an image in six dimensions, says that it’s enough to conjecture two superimposed perspectives of the world, in which we’d keep track of both at the same time. This seems a bit facile at first, but if you think that the depth of one can become the width of the other and the height of that one, the depth of this one, it becomes really complicated. It’s like a dissolve between two images in which you see two cubes turning endlessly.” —Raúl Ruiz, Interview with Cahiers du cinéma, 1983

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Any connotation of a snowstorm becomes a praxis of digital work in Crystal Palace, Gehr’s “ode to digital interlace, which is to video what intervals between frames are to film,” taken from a decade-old tape of a blizzard. The sheets of snow become a stack of projectile planes, movie screens at indeterminate intervals that, like the fog, seem both to blank out a world of objects underneath and offer a clearing to register grey-black gradations of apparitions on-top. The snow flakes become simulated film grain, pixels’ flit; the crystal the stillness of successive images and slides in a frozen world that Gehr simulates into movement; the storm itself the whirl of the simulated projector that, up and down, side to side, accelerates the motion of Gehr’s snow globe universe everywhere and nowhere.

Again instead of a three-dimensional space, there’s just a blank canvas of snow, and Gehr’s universe collapses into layered, magic lantern slides, strata of identical trees dwindling and whitening from plane-to-plane that can only suggest a line of snow-covered evergreens receding into the fog. To mark each of these planes as magic lantern slides detached from the rest, or any original space, Gehr jiggles them apart, in rhythms of drift, flutter, squall: one machine (Gehr’s car at time of taping) makes background planes cruise slowly while foreground trees fly by, while another (Gehr’s computer) makes background planes writhe faster than the front, but in a movie in which even the vanishing point’s vanished, there’s a sense that Gehr’s few, extracted trees are being tethered to an unseen horizon line and swung wildly around.

Again Gehr gets this career-long effect that there is no stable plane against which things can move; each plane is a screen relative to the others, so that even in stillness they could be moving together apace. It’s the snowstorm as much as Gehr’s homemade practice that unmoors the objects from a measured space and time and velocity, while fading them into the landscape/screen, and leaves them eddying around the screen so that even the most repeated movements belong only to the present. What’s the final point of this celebration? Against a world that photographs and movies have trained eyes to perceive linearly, toward single points of focus—a world of screens perceived frontally from a single, correct perspective; a world of objects objectively apart from our vision on them as a movie from a viewer—Gehr makes movies that return screens to screens, movies to movies, and a linear world to a circular, globular one without any natural demarcations. Movies in which any movement on-screen could be that of the object, the camera, the car, the film/DV texture, the editing software, or the viewer’s eyes, and the difference between these things becomes non-existent perceptually without any standard to measure variations. Worlds reconfigured as they’re seen and reseen. Which is another way of saying that they can show movement for the sake of movement, rhythm for the sake of rhythm: simply processes of the viewer’s moving and moving around these manufactured worlds as if to remake them.

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An angle on Gehr’s career is as a constant attempt to upend perspectival space. Across four or so segments of early cinema in ABRACADABRA, Gehr symmetrizes his image as two mirrors around a two-point perspective line, which only becomes another regenerative void like the fog and snow from which impossible illusions emerge. Abracadabra, worlds pulled out of a hat. 

As the camera travels on a train, the center axis both spews and swallows the passing landscape in and out; Gehr’s comedy of space dramatizes the vanishing point, infinitely far away, as the non-sight always in sight, the Renaissance notion of God, like a screen, the destination the train races toward but can never get any closer to. As the landscape is infinitely recreated, the landscape becomes infinitely long, potentially. In another transformation played backward, a century-old dockyard becomes an early cinema: out of the void, Gehr conjures a spectacle (ships pulled out from each other as if from the horizon), a proscenium arch (chains), and an attendant audience (spectators waving the ships off). And in the final section, the mute implications of this generative void as the point of full exposure, parodied by Courbet, come clean as a flickering Moulin Rouge dancer spreads in and out of herself like two paper snowflakes; at some point, just as she promises to kick up her legs wide open, she collapses into her double and her vanishing point disappears at the center of the screen.

Gehr’s hand-tinted flashing dance could be a disco movie, with infinite permutations of movement at every flicker. The perspective line looks to generate the material, but only because the constant movement of things on-screen make them react against each other as if they were moving to some destination. Of course, not only does the dancer go nowhere, but even impromptu, she follows the same choreographed dance as her double across the screen—like the boats in Mist, the corner construction sites in Thank You For Visiting, or the trees in Crystal Palace, she’s an element facing infinite repetitions both within the frame and across time. But infinite repetitions mean infinite variations; as in all the Gehr films, with stable coordinates elusive, the movement of the objects seems capable of cruising forever for its own sake on its own momentum in new vectors and rhythms: a pure cinema of attractions.

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" ‘Ah, demons are speaking for you,’ Persio said courteously. ‘Variety is the authentic promise of hell.’ " —Julio Cortázar, The Winners
Wait a sec are they speaking for me or for Ernie G.?
You’re on a roll, keep ’em coming says I…
Thank you—very much—Jacob, though that’s it: woulda been nice to have the time, energy, and insight for some words for Straubs, Petzold, Ferrara, but movies don’t need props, and will be a hiatus for a little while as other things call. “Death of cinema,” but an era when shooting videos is becoming nearly a civic duty. Thanks again.

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