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“Robert Gardner: Artist/Ethnographer”

Overviews of Film Forum’s partial retrospective. Also: Watch Forest of Bliss here, plus clips from Gardner’s interviews.

"It seems curious that as little biographical information exists in the recent books about the ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner as in his movies featured in the partial retrospective of his work starting today at Film Forum," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "For much of a career that has spanned more than a half-century and circumnavigated the globe, Mr Gardner has trained the camera on people whose lives, rituals, beliefs and bodily ornamentation can seem so far from early-21st-century Western life as to be from another galaxy. Yet despite Mr Gardner's seeming reluctance to share personal details, the work in Robert Gardner: Artist/Ethnographer makes it clear that he's been telling his own story all along."

J Hoberman in the Voice: "A man of many worlds, Robert Gardner is a descendent of Boston aristocrat Isabella Stewart Gardner (as in the Museum), the founder (and funder) of Harvard's Film Study Center, and mainly the globetrotting ethno-aesthete of American cinema — a filmmaker whose documentaries have been hailed by the avant-garde's godfather Stan Brakhage and anthropology's grand dame Margaret Mead."

Manohla Dargis: "His first important film and a landmark in the field, Dead Birds [1964], looks at the Dani of New Guinea, a warring highlands people he's called 'the last practicing Stone Age society.'" Dead Birds "is a document, a time capsule, about a society on the edge, both in terms of the marginalization of its population and the material changes that will come with the shrinking world."

"As visceral as Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand [1974] are, Gardner came into his own as a visionary with the exquisitely shot Deep Hearts (1980), a shamelessly expressionistic documentary of the annual political convention cum beauty contest held by the Bororo herdsmen of the upper Niger," writes Hoberman. "Even headier are Gardner's two Indian films. The fiercely lyrical Sons of Shiva (1985) records an elaborate four-day ritual that temporarily effaces caste differences among the hash zonked Shiva-worshippers of West Bengal. Its fauvist color schemes are exceeded only by the hues of Gardner's 1986 masterpiece Forest of Bliss, a portrait of the gaudy Ganges-side necropolis Benares that includes an astonishing catalogue of images: carrion-seeking dogs, flaming orange garlands, toothless healers and hawkers of sacred fire." And you can watch it right here.

At Cinespect, Ryan Wells notes that "Gardner also produced a highly productive late television show during the 70s and early 80s called Screening Room that featured ninety-minute discussions with filmmakers such as Bruce Baillie, Jonas Mekas, Les Blank, Jean Rouch and Robert Fulton." Click those names to see substantial clips from each of the respective programs.

Wells: "I asked Gardner about his take on filmmakers today, if he follows anyone regularly or a particular film movement. 'Strictly speaking, I wonder if there are anymore "film" makers,' remarks Gardner. 'Everyone seems to use video, which I feel has distinct disadvantages when it comes to visual observation. Principally, it is the disadvantage of having endless material to shoot, meaning, there is not sufficient restraint on the part of the film/video maker…. Listen to Dr Johnson when he said, "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature."'"

Rachael Rakes in the Brooklyn Rail: "With the rise in popularity of the hybrid documentary in recent years — films like Clio Barnard's The Arbor and Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar, which take extensive license with nonfiction form by using camera set-ups, extras, and acted segments to tell stories based in lived experience — now is an interesting time to look back at these films that only a decade ago might have seemed lost in a backward methodology. The same devices Robert Flaherty used — having his subjects 'act' in scenarios to communicate realness, for instance — are being employed, out in the open, by a burgeoning generation of makers interested in the infinite ways of telling a story. It's not the only reason to re-examine Gardner's collection of impressions, but it is a compelling one — these works may have once been defined by a certain way of looking, but now it feels possible to enjoy their metaphors and curious vision."

Update, 11/12: "Stan Brakhage has called Gardner's Forest of Bliss (1986) 'a series of wonderful metaphors,'" notes Darrell Hartman for Artforum, "and has pointed out that, were it a fiction film, it would buckle under symbolic overload. The film's subjects make devotional gestures the way most of his viewers turn on a microwave. Carrying a basket, lighting a candle, pounding a nail — Forest of Bliss portrays these simple acts as spokes in the wheel of human joy and suffering, and by eschewing music and leaving conversations unsubtitled, Gardner makes the moment king. Forest of Bliss could have easily wrapped itself around the spectacle of cremation ceremonies along the Ganges, but Gardner steers the film gently toward ideas of death and rebirth in other ways. Feral dogs tear at corpses, floors are cleansed, wooden boats are repaired and launched, and the river keeps on flowing."

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