Sunday, October 25, 2009

WINGED DISTANCE / SIGHTLESS MEASURE: A Conversation With Robert Beavers, Pt. Two

[This entry is dedicated to Jonathan Marlow who has turned my eyes upside down. Part One of my conversation with Robert Beavers can be found here. Cross-published on the San Francisco Cinematheque website: here (Interview, Pts. One & Two), and here (Endnotes).

Guillén: Admittedly, my appreciation of your films is definitely colored by the Jungian perspective. There is in fact a term—which has fallen somewhat out of use; but, one which I still find useful—of a “psychoid” consciousness, and it’s possible that it’s not used too much because it has a negative connotation, sounding similar to “psychotic”, which is something altogether different. As I understand it, a “psychoid” consciousness is very much what a poet possesses, or any creative visionary actually. It’s the psyche’s ability to utilize the world, to claim it and transform it into living ideas. It’s the consciousness by which analogies are made and understood.(12) Let me give you a specific, personal example that happened just the other day.

I was walking to my bus stop and there was a pigeon on the sidewalk and—as I drew near—the pigeon startled and took flight and there was that sound of the flapping wings which runs throughout your films. I immediately saw a flash of images from your films. I saw the image of your film layered upon the surface of the world. That association and layering of meaning onto the physical world is a quality of psychoid consciousness. It’s a way of living in the world where everything means something of personal value. I have to thank you for adding onto that natural phenomenon a cerebral overlay.

Beavers: Cerebral?

Guillén: Cerebral and emotional, as in emotional intelligence.

Beavers: And sensuous?

Guillén: And sensuous, right. It’s very difficult to talk about great ideas without their being tainted by cerebrality, as if thought can only be intellectual. Your films are intelligent on a much more visceral, emotional and sensual level. In fact, despite Tony Pipolo noting what he perceived to be a “tutorial” quality in your second cycle of films, I had to disagree with Jeffrey Skoller the other night when he described From the Notebook Of… as pedagogical….(13)

Beavers: [Firmly, gesturing to my recorder] We will only discuss what we agree with.

Guillén: I respect that; but, I think it’s important for me to say that I do not find your films pedagogical in the least. I agree with you that you weren’t trying to pedantically teach through your films, you were trying to learn and express yourself. Another psychological process that could be applied here is what I would call psychic inflation, which is when an individual incorporates influence and becomes enthused, in the true sense of the word. The god within the influence becomes overpowering and overtakes the individual. Again, in Jungian parlance this would be when the ego-self becomes inflated with the truths of the larger Self. Usually the inflation is perceived as problematic. However, I felt From the Notebook Of… to be the most creative and appropriate demonstration of psychic inflation that I’ve ever seen in film. You can feel the pleasure of those Florentine influences entering your young psyche and its creative efforts to do something with it, to express it, to turn it into art. That pleasure has nothing to do with pedagogy and—attempts to reduce the creative impulse or to try to fit an individual experience into a cultural collective—robs it of its essential value, even though I understand it is the role of cultural historians and critics to do, unfortunately, just that.(14)

Beavers: I told the audience, and I think it’s important, to know that From the Notebook Of… would not have been made without the commitment of both Gregory and my painter friend in Florence who gave me the means to make the film, because I didn’t have the means to make the film. Everything that is possible for an artist—if they are not born with the financial means to simply establish their own work—has to involve the coming together of these different elements. Perhaps the vision of the Temenos is sustained by this also: to try to bring it into a form that has some more permanence to it.

Guillén: May I offer you my—once again, idiosyncratic—fantasy of experiencing Temenos? I’ve studied a lot of mythology and there have been many things I’ve concluded. One of the most important involves creation myths, which are so pertinent to artists and the artistic process. What I’ve observed in comparing creation myths from around the world is that they usually fall within two main categories. Creation is either manifested by sound, as in “God spoke and there was…”, or scientifically in how iron particles on a drum skin will vibrate themselves into mandalic shapes if a tuning fork is struck near them. Sound creates. Alternately, when I was doing my research of Mayan culture in Central America, there creation was envisaged. In other words, it was seen first and the creator gods of the Maya, the first artists, painted their visions onto the night sky. Scientifically, these would be the asterisms—the constellations—to which a culture’s stories are attached. For the Maya, these painted stories in the sky, which revolved across the sky, were thought to be pages in a book and the passage of the stars across the night sky was comparable to the turning of pages in a book. In other words, the night sky was read.

I fantasize, or have this sense, that when I’m at Temenos in 2012, the turning momentum inherent within the films will be corresponding to the turning of the night sky. For me this is an appropriate relationship between art form and space.

Beavers: To a cosmic space?

Guillén: Yes.

Beavers: It’s the only place that I’ve experienced this; but, I think other people can find it closer. The night sky over Berkeley is also very beautiful; but, the interesting thing with the Temenos projections is that—because of the geographical context—you are isolated within this vision. That is a sustaining element.

Guillén: Which I comprehend. When I was leading tours down the Usumacinta River in Central America—the border between Mexico and Guatemala—on whose banks the Maya built several of their Classic period sites, which were—at that time—only accessible by the river, I would guide participants into a removed and—as you say—isolated experience. I used to tell them at the outset, “I am a psychopomp. We are starting here and I’m going to take you through this and when you come out on the other side, you will not be the same person.” That always proved to be the case because they had a depth of experience. That’s how I understand Temenos and why I am excited by experiencing it.

Another aspect of that rotating sky that I feel applies to your films, is a concept you expressed in your interview with Tony Pipolo of “the double movement of sight”(15) and your fascination with the reverse side of things. You’ve talked about two things going on at one time or moving in two directions at once. For me this is analogous to the two circles which comprise the truth of the sky: the phenomenal cycle of appearances vs. the Earth’s axial precession of the equinoxes.

Beavers: Yes.

Guillén: Your cinematic device of masking and filters—which one might characterize as your signature—intrigues me in its Dionysian impulse, in the sense that a mask reveals as much as it conceals. You seem to be playing with a fascinating equivalency between geometric masking (oval, rectangular, triangular), silhouettes of people architecturally framed within windows and doorways, and cast figural shadows. Can you speak to that equivalency?

Beavers: Of course I was searching. While I was in Zurich, one of my interests was in psychiatry. Both Count of Days and Palinode dialogue with points of modern psychology. They try to find visual equivalents for this. I didn’t really understand German at this time, but I tried to read a case study in German by Sigmund Freud.(16) Even in New York I was attracted to certain writers associated with Carl Gustav Jung, though I never read Jung. I read people like Károly Kerényi and Mircea Eliade. That interest also comes from my relationship to Gregory Markopoulos because he’d made—just before I met him—an elaborate film based on mythical archetypes called The Illiac Passion (1964-67).

While I was in Zurich I tried to meet some people connected to Jung and did succeed in meeting a couple of them. When you mention shadow, of course, this is a key element in this whole area of interest. Just a few days ago, for instance, I saw a painting by Georges Braque in which a figure and its shadow is split and I thought, “Oh yes, this has the same quality of something I was interested in.” I’m still absolutely fascinated by it and hope to go back to it. In film, what’s extraordinary is that everything is light. You have the possibility to create and to see the light in shadows—also, to think about color in shadow—and to bring this into relation to express the human being. All the filmmakers of my kind of filmmaking are using our elements to express what we either cannot or do not want to express in words; we want to give you another experience.

Guillén: I’m intrigued by the hand work in your films and the resemblances struck between film editing and sewing, the making of blood pancakes, and so forth. Can you speak to the value of the hand work and its association to your editing?

Beavers: The films speak to the value of the hand work and the value of the hand and what the hand communicates. For instance, in AMOR—where you have the tailor and the tailor in relation to architecture—you also have the hand and both sides of the hand within the space of the image and sound. I was interested between the subjective sense of uniting certain sounds with the inside of the hand and others with the back of the hand. For myself, I feel an extraordinary power that goes through the hand: this relation between hand work and objects. A favorite writer of mine Francis Ponge speaks to the mute expressive power of objects. I am someone who very much communicates through these means. Of course indirectly I am showing the presence of the human being through this hand work. What I am articulating is not done dramatically; it’s done in a more lyric way using the elements of film. Rhythm is much more important than breadth and the clarity of rhythm can carry and communicate with the image and with the sound a narrative that is there; but, it is not a dramatic narrative. It is suggested in other ways.

Guillén: Susan Oxtoby has emphasized that your films “occupy a noble place within the history of avant-garde film, positioned at the intersection of structural and lyrical filmmaking traditions.” In terms of the lyricism—which is what speaks to me emotionally—have particular poets inspired your filmmaking?

Beavers: P. Adams Sitney visited me in Switzerland and looked through my books and—in his text for the monograph—he lists all of the poets.(17) But their influence upon me was over a long period of time. When I was in school, I was interested in French poetry. I read Paul Valéry and was interested in his writings. Then Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet. Then much later some Italian poets, particularly a Jewish-Italian poet Umberto Saba. Then German poets Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. And lots of Americans; before Valéry, Ezra Pound. Much later, Wallace Stevens and—for the past decade—two American women: Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.

Guillén: Ah, Wallace Stevens! His poem—“Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird”—seems so in alliance with your films. I watch one of your films and I feel I am being offered thirteen ways to look at something.

Beavers: But, Michael, you have to be in the mood to want that. [Laughter.] There is one side of America that says, “One’s enough! We don’t have time for the other ones.”

Guillén: I was struck by Nigel Gosling’s comment: “The eye wanders around and picks up images.” I appreciate that comment within the context of seeing being directing, or seeing being the narrative impulse, in contrast to more standard Hollywood narratives. Can you speak to that?(18)

Beavers: You mean the eye, how it moves?

Guillén: Yes.

Beavers: That’s very complex. First of all, Gosling is a critic in two fields; under one name he wrote art criticism and under another name he wrote dance criticism, both for The Observer, one of the leading London newspapers. His wife was a ballerina so she must have helped him with the dance criticism. He was probably the first specimen of a critic that I encountered. He’s a very kind man and I was probably unkind to him. We actually rented rooms from him. That’s his house in the film. Anyway, that comment was his idea. He was saying that when you watch a film, your eye is not permitted to wander around. What he liked about still images—paintings and other things—is that he was in control. All of his other comments had to do with bringing a film image into—as he says at one point—being like a telephone just sitting there that becomes part of a room. I have to say that’s his comment; but, what you’re asking is maybe more about: do I do something like this?

Guillén: Exactly. To create your films does your eye wander around and pick up images?

Beavers: Every film has a different development. I am very interested, for instance, and have structured some of my films on thoughts about how the eye moves. In other words, when I am turning the lens in—for instance—AMOR, I am moving the lens itself in the camera while it is running. Many of my movements that you’re seeing in the films are not movements of the camera but movements of the lens. I was coming closer to what the eye is doing. I was fascinated by the fact that—every time we change focus—we close our eyes. I think it’s physiological. The human eye does not allow itself to stay open and focus. All of my interruptions of closing the image and opening the image again and incorporating the movement in opening and closing have to do with this thinking about vision; but, it is orchestrated in a way. There’s freedom in what part of the image a spectator takes; but, there’s a very strong element of measure in my work. I’m not alone in that. Every filmmaker who is not relying on a dramatic structure is relying on measure, some through improvisation, some through other more decided forms.

Guillén: When you say “measure”—as you often use the term “phrase”—do you mean them to be the same?

Beavers: No.

Guillén: Is a phrase more of a durational aesthetic?

Beavers: They’re connected. Measure and phrase are connected. In the little text that I wrote for the monograph, I said that I wanted to go away from the measure that is controlled by the cut of the image. One way I did that was to go to the phrase, to create phrases, in which the rhythm is not established by the cut. There’s a larger phrase of many images in a particular film and the point of emphasis is not always coming from where the images cut; it’s coming through other means, through a number of different means. Color and sound are two of these means, which interact sometimes or establish a definite point of purposes. How much I let the viewer wander or decide: this is always the question between filmmakers who use measure and filmmakers who use static compositions, such as Fritz Lang. There are filmmakers who go away from editing and want the spectator to become aware through duration. I’m very interested in that way; but, I have not done it. I might. I’m still filming.

Guillén: In Ruskin, you say you were following John Ruskin’s movements around Venice?

Beavers: Not his movements; but, the locations that he is writing about in the development of his book.

Guillén: When I first saw Ruskin, I was struck by the architectural detail of Noah and his creation of wine sculpted on the Ducal Palace. Did Ruskin reference that sculpture as well? Is that what drew you to that sculpture?

Beavers: Yes. But I don’t remember what he said; but, it’s very important. Ruskin is actually a political writer in some ways. That’s what the Moderns hold against him. He has an ethical and moral viewpoint that he thinks he is seeing in all of this architecture.

Guillén: With regard to attaching the Monthly Segments to the larger films, you mentioned that you added the sound segue of the flapping wings. I’m interested to know if you can recall what you were thinking by doing that? What does the sound of the wings signify for you or what do you hope the sound will signify for us?

Beavers: This sound of the wings grows out of From the Notebook Of….(19) The central place for this sound is in that film. In relation to the Segments, From the Notebook Of… ended my filming of the monthly episodes of the Segments. When I went to edit them in relation to the longer films, they are of course related to my travel and to filmmakers. Usually it’s only one flight of wings; but, at certain moments I used two. So you hear it twice. That’s a muted development of this thought because this sound of the wings has so many different levels in my filmmaking. From the Notebook Of… opens with the point of inspiration of Leonardo releasing the birds.

Guillén: Let’s talk about narrative construction. You’ve said that your films are in opposition to or the opposite of the dramatic model coming from the Hollywood studios and one could say that your films are almost non-narrative; however, as I’ve watched some of them repeatedly, I see a lot of analogy of form that causes my eye and my sensibility to follow the sequences and rhythms. I see in a lot of the contrasts of color against black and white, or certain vibrant colors against others, again a kind of leading of the eye or what could be interpreted as a narrative impulse. Further, I understand that you have said you seek to elicit from your audiences a narrative impulse. Can you speak to that?

Beavers: Yes, but what I am interested in is the narrative within the image. The image itself can create narrative.(20) For instance, From the Notebook Of…, The Painting, Work Done and Ruskin—which were done within the context of Florence—to look at, perhaps, those images which are within that extraordinary culture, those paintings, those are all narrative. You look at the figures. You look at the entire composition. It’s not an abstract painting. It has a narrative element. And so when I am using the images in my films, I am asking you to see them and to have a dialogue with them that—in a way—is in this direction of approaching them narratively. It’s not exactly a narrative in a sequential narrative; but, it is still a narrative.

The juxtapositions, the fact that I am using physical elements and transforming them; for instance, this narrative of transformation in Work Done where you begin with the ice and go to the river, or you have the book and you go to the trees, and the relation of the stones to the mountain. Bringing these elements together within the making of the blood pancakes with the blood balancing where the film begins with the ice: this going back to a solid. It’s a kind of progression and structure, which can be read completely with the elements of film; but, in the conscious seeing of it, not in the narrative which is the actor following this trance state, which is the usual dramatic narrative. My personal development involves a balance between abstraction and representation and bringing these two—very often reflecting—and bringing them together.

Guillén: You’ve spoken now and then about movement within an image. This intrigues me. I see it as a vibrancy to the image, or a literal vibration of the image, as registered in a suite of images I’ve detected throughout your films: a palm frond that’s quivering, the flanks of a horse that’s flinching, human skin that’s flinching, or a seed pod shivering in the wind. Can you speak to what that is? It seems to be a common movement that your eye, as a filmmaker, has been drawn to.

Beavers: Actually, the one that comes to mind—which is perhaps not so obvious—is from Ruskin where there’s a black and white image of an alp and there is this tree there with only one leaf that’s dropping. I’m not sure. You have strung together an interesting series that are obviously related; but, I have to think about what it is. I suppose it has something to do with the almost biological sense that one wants to create that something is alive. Also, the last sound of Wozzeck is a quavering sound that is pulsing, as if returning to its beginning.

Guillén: You also shake or vibrate some of your masks, I seem to recall. I bring this up in the context of statements you’ve also made about the influence of Florentine paintings. Poet Mark Doty has written a lovely essay concerning the influence of paintings, how if a painting speaks to you, you are caught in its orbit. The painting that spoke to me when I was visiting the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence was Caravaggio’s portrait of the reclining Dionysos. He’s holding a goblet of wine and on the surface of the wine you can see concentric rings that register the vibratory energy of his presence. This was tremendous for me when I first saw it and I agree with you that this has to do with “the almost biological sense that one wants to create that something is alive.” Your films exhibit a sensual attention to the basic vibration of life. This is not conscious on your part?

Beavers: Partly. It’s what one is attracted to. There are these two elements, these two facets, together: the stillness and the vibration. It’s important that it should be both. It is both.

Guillén: As someone who vainly fancies himself a poet admiring the poetry in your films, I love this pulse of energy between two points that you express so exquisitely.

Speaking of moving between points, you mentioned in one of your Q&A sessions that you’re not necessarily a peripatetic type of person, that you actually don’t travel that much, though it appears you do because of your background of returning to various locations: Greece, Belgium, Switzerland. That got me thinking about the situational notion of triangulation. I too have my geographic points of reference by which I situate myself and understand myself: Idaho, San Francisco, Central America, Paris. I sought out San Francisco to escape Idaho. I sought out Central America and Paris to escape America. But in the process especially of triangulating between San Francisco, Central America and Paris, I discovered myself to be undeniably American. And that’s somewhat the gist of what I’m suggesting in my question to you. My desire to want to live among and somehow be indigenous to Central America was a fantasy wholly privileged by my being American. As Sitney quipped, there is something completely American about the need to travel elsewhere in order to recognize one’s roots.

How’s your lamb, by the way?

Beavers: It’s delicious!

Guillén: I hope I haven’t let it get cold on you. That’s the true hazard of an interview.

Beavers: [Laughs.]

Guillén: Now here’s another somewhat tough question for you. You have talked about “the rhetoric of the personal.” I notice you tend to resist an audience impulse to focus on what is biographical in your films.

Beavers: Michael, can you really call it resistance? Some, perhaps, but not completely.

Guillén: Okay. I’ll concede resistance is probably not the right word. You’re focused in a certain way. Careful about the work. Serious about the work. And, as you mentioned earlier, you don’t want the biographical to distract from what is essential about the work. My question, however, concerns a statement you made about films like From A Notebook Of… and Ruskin,(21) where you sought—not so much to place the historical personages in your films—as much as to suggest them.

Beavers: And to show my enthusiasm for them. This is the point. Somehow my connection to these figures allowed me to make the films.

Guillén: That I understand. But what I thought of when you made that comment was the contrast between Winged Dialogue—the start of the cycle where you and Gregory are so much the visible subjects of the film—to The Ground, the cycle’s completion, where you and Gregory are not in the film….

Beavers: But I am in the film.

Guillén: Yes, but not with the intense specificity of Winged Dialogue. Your presence is implied, not directly represented. That arc in your work, that movement, that shift from being markedly present as a subject to being absent as a subject is fascinating to me, and I wonder if you can speak to that?

Beavers: Well, first maybe I should say something about Winged Dialogue and the early films. Much of my work has been done in a state of alertness to what I’m doing, but also allowing important elements to remain somehow free from scrutiny. At the time of making Winged Dialogue, I didn’t even know that I was doing something so intimate—I just did it!—but, that’s why it could be deeply intimate. There was no hurdle for me. I was simply open to doing it without worry and that had to do with the context of my life. It could only be done then.

Guillén: I liked how you expressed that you were a titan at that time and could do anything.

Beavers: You know, you misunderstood what I said. That night there were students in the audience and what I was saying was that at that time in one’s life, youth, you feel like a titan or you feel like you have a clock within you….

Guillén: Oh, a clock!!

Beavers: You have a clock within you that is very dynamic, you understand? That’s when I used the word presto because you have this completely different possibility and this strength.

Guillén: Oh dear, I apologize, even though I loved what I thought you said.(22) [Laughter.] I was all excited. I thought, “He’s right!”

Beavers: Maybe you were closer to the truth?

Guillén: Okay, but now that I understand: there is this clock, this immediacy to everything….

Beavers: And you just get so much done.

Guillén: But returning to what I was asking about the shift from being present as a subject to being absent as a subject, P. Adams Sitney has written about a certain hermetic quality to some of your films and the astounding way in which something that is so intimate and personal and subjective bridges over to become universal. Were you aware of that?

Beavers: I was just being myself. Although, when I use the word “subjective”, Michael, I have a definite direction. I can appreciate the important filmmakers who create a film form that is an abstracted subjective; but, I do not want the further development of my own work to be that. I have gone in a different direction. The articulation of the subjective in my films is still connected to the world as we know it and as we experience it. I am not like an abstract painter. This recognizable voice is what interests me. It is an exterior, spoken voice in a sense. Not that the film speaks or that the filmmaker is speaking, but it is not free-floating.

Guillén: I find your films most subjective in their sound design. This is why I wish I had the chance to see the cycle one more time so that I could focus less on the accomplishment of your visuals and more on the accomplishment of your sound. My initial impulse with your films was to concern myself with the imagery, to understand the connections and compositions, to recognize the analogies being made, but now I wish I could focus on the sound: why is that drone of the bees being associated with that particular piece of architecture?(23)

Let’s talk about color and the interestingly different ways you use color. A Pitcher Of Colored Light was vibrant with the colors within the objects themselves, in contrast to the filters you used in earlier works. You’ve also struck rhythms, especially in Ruskin I would say, between color footage and black and white footage. Can you speak about that rhythm? Is it safe to say that—at least in that film—black and white references the past and the color the present? Or is that too literal?

Beavers: In that film, yes. Also in Diminished Frame. Yes, you can say this. Also, the strange color qualities in Ruskin are partly caused by the unadvised hours of the day in which I used the color stock: before the hour when you’re supposed to use it, after the hour, and so forth. I did sometimes film in the same location at different hours of the day. Michael, you know, color, shadow, sound: these are all messengers from the subjective. But they are not being left to float. For instance, in Pitcher of Colored Light they are connected to a particular person and in Ruskin also qualities of the black and white are connected to the period in which Ruskin lived and to the position of the beginning of photography in his life and the kinds of illustrations that he had in his own books. If you look at his books, for instance, you see immediate connections to my film.

Guillén: A lithographic impulse?

Beavers: It’s not lithograph, it’s more
photogravure, even earlier, like cyanotype—I can’t quite remember the name—but it’s a process that doesn’t have Ben-Day dots.

Guillén: How about, then, in Work Done where the colors are so intensified? I recall J. Hoberman’s review of that film where he said the pig blood was “impossibly red.”

Beavers: No, it’s exactly as it was.

Guillén: It was really that red? That’s astounding!

Beavers: Of course, you could say it’s Kodak red also. But, no, the color of the pig blood was in no way adjusted or changed; it was just extremely fresh. The man uses only blood from that day. Of course other scenes are filtered by me, like the green pasture and the blue mountain. In The Painting also, my filming of the figures and using filters to bring out a dominant color that was already there, but to make it even more dominant; changing the dominance.

Guillén: My final question: Now that you say you are finished with the Cycle and it is done….

Beavers: Oh yes.

Guillén: But is it done? Can it ever really be done? Isn’t one of the cycle’s enduring qualities that it is somehow open-ended and ready for its audiences? In the spectatorial interaction with the living film, isn’t there always a constant negotiation? Just as you have been more than patient with the expression of my individual idiosyncratic experience of Wingless Flight / Sightless Measure, I have no doubt that each individual in your audiences has, hopefully, had their own experience.

Beavers: There is also—and I could even call this an esoteric thought—which is, that as long as I am living, whatever actions I take, can possibly influence this cycle because the worth of a work may not be a physical thing. It may not be in the “real” realm. It might be a combination of the real and some other force.

Guillén: The force that comes across to me from the cycle—at least one aspect of it—is that of a creative life well-lived. I feel that the truth of that is being imparted through the screening of the cycle to young people.

Beavers: But, Michael, why only young people? Because they will continue and might carry it further? I disagree that the cycle is something imparted just to young people.

Guillén: You’re right. The cycle is not just for young people; but, perhaps what I meant to say, is that it is for what is young in all people. It gives license to what is the creative impulse in all people—which, I guess, I associate with a youthful beginning—even though it doesn’t matter when in the biological timeline the impulse arrives. Quite simply, Wingless Flight / Sightless Measure is inspirational. Thank you for putting up with my intrusive and sometimes indelicate questions and for responding with such generosity of spirit.


(12) The concept is perhaps better enunciated through Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Sitney (2008:146): “The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts.” Psychoid consciousness moves in both directions.

(13) Hazarding indelicacy, and framing the following within a fecund and democratic exchange of ideas, during the Q&A after the screening of From the Notebook Of… and The Painting, the following exchange took place:

Jeffrey Skoller: I found these last two works to be deeply pedagogical. They seem very much like works of contemporary artists of their time. What works were you in dialogue with through making these works? In what ways were you engaging with certain kinds of approaches and ways of thinking about art and cinema that this work seems to reaching out to touch or engage? It may help to enlarge the sense of where this work stands.

Robert Beavers: Even before I left New York I had read a text by Paul Valéry on Leonardo da Vinci. This was an inspiring prose text. That would be one source for From the Notebook Of… though it was not contemporary; it was from the turn of the 20th Century. In the period that I was living in New York, or even as a very young student in Boston, I was looking at American-colored paintings and fascinated by some of those painters. Because the filmmakers whom I admired in New York had so highly developed film editing—it is still in my mind a great period of film editing and the mysteries of this condensed form of editing—this became an important, basic impulse in my work. But in order to take a step myself, I transferred this unlocking of the editing of the film frame to the space within the frame. My use of the mattes is, in some way, an alternative to that highly-developed articulation based on the single frame. Though my films are still highly elaborate in their editing, the points in which I feel I am moving forward have to do with the space that I am developing as a correspondent to the unit of editing in time.

The very few filmmakers whom I found had become masters of their filmmaking—and they were not so many, even in the New York school—but, those filmmakers had begun actually much earlier in the ‘40s and ‘50s and had taken time and been forced through a difficult challenge in those years when they were totally neglected. It was their accomplishment plus silent film that inspired me to become a filmmaker. The classic Hollywood film—even though I absorbed it much more than many other people through television and the local cinemas—would never have brought me to film a single frame. Everything I do is in opposition to that work. Maybe not; but, at least at this time.

Skoller: I wasn’t asking about what work influenced you and what your influences were; but, there’s a sense—at least in those two films—of you reaching out to teach something.

Beavers: Jeffrey, I was reaching out to learn something. Really. And maybe to teach, but in which way do you mean?

Skoller: Well, that there’s a sense that you’ve been doing something now very intensely for a few years. Also in this period of art there’s this desire….

Beavers: What do you mean by “period of art”?

Skoller: I’d say the early ‘70s where there’s a way in which some contemporary artists….

Beavers: Who are you thinking of?

Skoller: Well, within film I’m thinking of the materialist filmmakers, the radical filmmakers—whether Godard or Straub—and within conceptual art there were artists who were dealing with image and language and trying to find a way to talk about what they were doing; all of which were not only trying to make demystifying statements about art, but they were also trying to find language to talk about the things that they were learning about the medium or forms they were either working with or inventing, y’know? So this directness that I see in From the Notebook Of… where you’re actually writing down in words certain kinds of directives and certain kinds of observations or directions for yourself or maybe for others who are watching this, that some of these seem like aphorisms that somebody might actually follow, then their relationship to the images that follow. There’s a sort of demonstrative quality.

Beavers: In many of the films that I made at this time—and perhaps in all of them—the movement is not the usual kind of movement in film. In From the Notebook Of… I sometimes use the word “locomotion”: it’s a movement in place. The movement is a dual movement of reading and seeing. The spectator is constantly being guided from one to the other and back. It’s a constant flux between these two different ways of using the eyes. They also allow a different use of sound so that—because you are reading—you already have a sound. When I am reading, I already have a voice inside me that is the voice of reading. Because it is a film also with sound, it’s possible to bring together such a constellation of elements—color, shadows and light. I did go back and read the Notebooks of Leonardo and there was one quote about the pyramids of sight which I used in my film. I think you’re off on a false track, basically, because the real sources were the sources that I felt by being in Florence. I may have put it into an idiom, which is of that moment; but, the sources of inspiration were those other sources. At least that’s my feeling about it.

As for the English filmmakers that I think you’re thinking of, I find they lack…. There are dangers in working with this form. I have tried to avoid being too ideological and too flat. These different elements have to create a certain life. I don’t want to be pedagogic in that way. Valéry said a poem is like a piece of fruit; it nourishes you and it’s pleasurable. I don’t want to eliminate the pleasure. I want it to be there. Valéry also said about Nietszche: “It’s more stimulus than nourishment.” There are all these possibilities. But, of course, I am of a period.

(14) Sitney turns to Marcel Proust to make the same observation: “It is the power of genius to make us love a beauty more real than ourselves in those things which in the eyes of others are as particular and perishable as ourselves…. [¶] There is no better way of becoming aware of one’s feelings than to try to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought, together with his, that we bring to light…. Actually the only times when we truly have all our powers of mind are those when we do not believe ourselves to be acting with independence, when we do not arbitrarily choose the goal of our efforts. The subject of the novelist, the vision of the poet, the truth of the philosopher are imposed on them in a manner almost inevitable, exterior, so to speak, to their thought. And it is by subjecting his mind to the expression of this vision and to the approach of this truth that the artist becomes truly himself.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:168)

(15) Tony Pipolo, “Interview with Robert Beavers,” Millenium Film Journal no. 32/33 (Fall 1998), p. 15.

(16) “Notes Upon A Case Of Obsessional Neurosis” (1909), commonly referred to as the Rat Man case.

(17) “He disciplined his sensibility with an intense reading of modern European poets: Valéry, George, Saba, Cavafy, Rilke, and perhaps Hofmannstahl. Their aesthetic nostalgias, negating arrests, and epistemological ironies—which portray poetic craft as an inspired construct to transform things and events into acts of the mind—inform his poetics of the cinematic image as the fusion of observation and action, seeing and directing….” (Sitney, 2008:128)

Elsewhere, Sitney has finessed Beavers’s engagement with Saba: “More relevant might be the concatenation of self-reflection, lost love, and sacred affection Saba associated with certain Trieste streets and shops and the objects he chanced upon in them, although the explicitly autobiographical aspect of Saba’s poetry is foreign to Beavers’s work.” (Sitney, 2008:361)

(18) I realized after the fact, once I got my hands on a copy of Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down, that Beavers had already addressed this, again in his essay “Em.blem”: “I am aware of the way in which ‘observing’ becomes ‘directing,’ aware of the power that exists in Seeing. The making of a film allows one to move back and forth, observing-directing.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:128.)

(19) “The opening scene, with the doves being released in the square, came from a biographical anecdote: Da Vinci would buy caged doves to set them free. The scene led me to compare this movement of the doves' wings to the opening of the window shutters in my room and to the turning of the pages in my notebook because all can be compared to the movement of the camera's shutter.”

This biographical anecdote comes from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, wherein Vasari wrote: “[H]e took special pleasure in horses as he did in all other animals, which he treated with the greatest love and patience. For example, when passing by places where birds were being sold, he would often take them out of their cages with his own hands, and after paying the seller the price that was asked of him, he would set them free in the air, restoring to them the liberty they had lost.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:151-152)

(20) Beavers has written in his essay “The Senses”, published in The Searching Measure: “The image nourishes how we see it. It enlivens all our senses by concentration and praises the instant.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:162.) Sitney has expanded upon that statement: “What may appear as mere elements of image and sound in projection can speak to us in the shape of the interval as the pattern of the film rests upon the screen. The spectator builds the narrative like a bridge in the vibrant lightness of attention. The coherence is not imposed nor does it exist as literature to be discarded by a discursive understanding.” (Ibid.)

(21) In his interview with Tony Pipolo (1998:12-14), Beavers stated: “Whenever I have used a biographical source for a film, whether it was Leonardo or Ruskin, I have always refrained from any attempt to present the person directly and have tried to find other ways to establish their presence.”

(22) I misunderstood Beavers and thought he said “you have a cock that goes presto.” My deepest apologies to him. That text has been corrected.

(23) Sitney’s interpretation is that “the swarming sounds of bees naturalize the intimations of regimentation and collective behavior of [Berlin’s] citizens….” (2008:140)

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