It’s important to stress—and I offer this as advice to any journalist wishing to interview Robert Beavers in the future—that it’s much richer to simply converse with him and not to have too programmatic an agenda. Our particular conversation spanned a period of two weeks (October 8-20, 2009) in which his film cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (“Winged Distance / Sightless Measure”) was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Pacific Film Archive (“PFA”), in partnership with the San Francisco Cinematheque, and was consummated by a lovely, leisurely dinner at Adagia in Berkeley.
My thanks to Susan Oxtoby and Jonathan Knapp at Pacific Film Archive, and Jonathan Marlow and Vanessa O’Neill at the San Francisco Cinematheque for their ample assistance in facilitating access to the films and the filmmaker; but, especially to Robert Beavers himself who put up with my sometimes indelicate questions with polite grace and profound humor; it has been a complete honor to befriend him. Further, I must acknowledge the considerable insights gained from reading P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008), from whom I have borrowed liberally to confirm understandings.
Robert Beavers is cloaked in a mysterious and fascinating persona; a cloak, which—much like the iconic garment painted in portraits of St. Martin of Tours—Beavers is willing to tear in two in charitable generosity. Not only did he offer invaluable information in his conversation with P. Adams Sitney, but he entertained a wide variety of questions from his audiences.
In our conversation, I sought to build upon Tony Pipolo’s foundational interview for the commemorative issue of Millenium Film Journal in which Robert Beavers and his lifetime partner Gregory Markopoulos were both profiled; but also his subsequent interviews with Artforum’s Henriette Huldisch for the Whitney retrospective; and Nicolas Niarchos for Yale Daily News—all of which skillfully explored Beavers’s techniques and practices, both in filmmaking, editing and film preservation/ exhibition. Those territories having been competently covered, my hope was to enrichen the record with anecdotal amendation; to honor not only the artist’s persona intimately bound to the beautiful film work Beavers has meticulously crafted for over 40 years, but also the intriguingly protean personality behind the persona. I leave it to the reader to decide how much of Beavers’s truth-illuminated soulfulness I was able to capture as we wrestled with words, such necessary but untrustworthy agents of communication.
Note: Because of the complexity of my experience with Beavers’s film cycle, this transcription differs from previous efforts on The Evening Class in that it includes Endnotes. Unfortunately, the blogspot software does not allow such references to work with the usual ease of Microsoft Word and I beg the reader’s indulgence in having to hop back and forth between text and notes; but, I nonetheless felt it important to include this amended parallel commentary to appreciate Beavers’s work and our conversation more fully.
Michael Guillén: First of all, Robert, I want to simply thank you for your generosity of spirit. These last two weeks have been wonderful for me in the sense that you’ve allowed me an experience with Winged Distance / Sightless Measure in which I could be “awake” and “attentive” and I’m aware that these are qualities you wish from your audiences. You have spoken of film as being an opportunity for the “awakening of sight” rather than a passive reliance on actors and the shadow of performance more customary to studio narratives.(1) Can you speak further on that?
Robert Beavers: My first response would be rhythm. Or perhaps the very first word should be resistance. For the spectator who is not aware of my particular kind of filmmaking, a comparison might be made to hearing a composer’s music that you don’t know and having some resistance to it; but, at the same time, attraction. This combination of resistance and attraction does create a state of wakefulness and questioning; but, one does have to be careful in the experience of seeing a film like my kind of filmmaking to—perhaps, at a first encounter—have the sense (perhaps after it) not to question it in a way that will stop your experience. This is an important danger to be aware of.
Guillén: Susan Oxtoby made me laugh when—after seeing your films for the first time at an advance press screening—she noted that she’d never seen me look so startled. And quite frankly, I was completely startled; or more accurately, aesthetically arrested. I didn’t completely understand what I had just experienced; but, I was having a strong emotional reaction, especially to The Ground. I had the sense that there was so much life experience enfolded within that film—personal, philosophical, psychological—and, of course, now that I’m aware that it closes your 18-film cycle, it only seems appropriate that I should have felt that. But what I was specifically feeling was the sensation of being pulled into the gravitational field of the death horizon.
Beavers: The what?
Guillén: What I call the death horizon, which is a resonant space or field of energy where the experience of the death of a loved one or the death of an ideal or the death of a way of life has deepened and spiritualized an individual through crisis and grief. I didn’t yet know about your lifelong partnership with Gregory Markopoulis and his eventual death; but, I was sensing the depth of your loss in The Ground. The other day you mentioned that you began that film with an aesthetic of death….
Beavers: Oh! But, I didn’t finish what I was going to say about that, Michael. It began with this theme and this interest and then—when I began to film—it changed to the opposite.
Guillén: To become life-affirming?
Beavers: Yes! I could not focus on death—it just was not me—but, I couldn’t know that until I went through the process of making the film.
Guillén: My point being that—even though one is caught in a death horizon….
Beavers: It’s a horizon.
Guillén: Yes. A horizon resonant with life. I was taught at an early age by my mentor Joseph Campbell that, without death or the awareness of death, life has no resonance. It was that life-affirming resonance in The Ground which triggered my emotional reaction. It spoke to my own experience of losing my partner of 12 years and how that crisis, that rupture, created (and continues to create) the remaining shape of my life. The Ground is what hooked me into your film cycle and—in retrospect—it seems fitting that I would want to journey through all the films that led to The Ground.
Beavers: Michael, do you have a connection to Latin America yourself?
Guillén: I’m Chicano and my family is from Michoacan in Southern Mexico.
Beavers: Because what you’re saying to me maybe also comes from your own tradition?
Guillén: I did learn and absorb the Mexican cultural inflection of this theme—their local dance with Death, if you will—but, I maintain the wisdom of this theme is universal. Also, with regard to the gestural significations in The Ground, it reminded me of a popular lyric: “Now my hand is open and now my hand is ready for my heart.”(2) Can you speak—if there is a way to speak—about your frequent usage of gesture to emote?(3)
Beavers: I am alone when I’m filming usually, almost always. I’m also not planning. I have my notes and I’m thinking about what I’m doing so I’m not in a trance; but, there is a level in which it is not thought out and I think my usage of gesture is happening on that level. It is an intuitive searching and the central part of the filming as it develops. In a number of films—I know which ones—I can feel that I did not really know what I was doing. This must be true of many people. There are probably artists and composers and others who do know what they’re doing; but, I’m one of those mixtures: I know what I’m doing, I’m thinking certain things, and then I also don’t know what I’m doing.
I feel I have to always be very careful about the production and how I am making a film. I don’t think I could ever make a commission—at least, I can’t imagine it—because I feel so many unpredictable elements in how I am working. Sometimes I have to stop. And that’s the tradition that I come from: this independent tradition of people who are very close to what they are doing. All of that enters into it. But it’s a rather narrow range. There’s a thematic range, etc.; but, my concerns and my interests, they’re constant. They don’t change very much. They take different forms. There’s a great difference between a film like AMOR and The Ground, even though there are some elements that are similar.
Guillén: In your interview with Tony Pipolo, you stated: “There is always a spiritual force which renews itself in cycles, but the individual filmmaker's life has a certain trajectory and he or she hopes that certain helpful occasions may allow the work to develop. It is not possible to predict what form these occasions will take. It is important to continue to work and it is wonderful when this can be nourished by response; every filmmaker wants to be accepted, yet certain gifts come simply from putting the work first. That is basic.”
Having given you my personal, idiosyncratic reaction to one particular film of yours and my entrance into your cycle, I’m curious about your own response to the cycle’s multi-institutional presentation in the Bay Area? You strike me as an artist who is keenly invested in the intention of your films, and the value of their exhibition and reception, so I’m curious about your personal reaction to the cycle’s third go-round?(4) Has it proven to be a “helpful occasion”? What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? Was the third time the charm, as they say? Is there anything you might have done differently?
Beavers: I would have spaced the screenings over a longer period of time, perhaps. It’s not absolutely necessary; but, strategically—this is on a different, maybe ideal level—sometimes when work is completely unknown, it’s important to give the space so that people can somehow fit it in.
Guillén: And situate themselves?
Beavers: Yes. That might be the difference between the earlier two screenings of the cycle: this time it was in a more condensed period of time.
Guillén: You would have preferred screening only two or three films at a time?
Beavers: No, I mean over a calendar period. Maybe three weeks or even a month? Perhaps the cycle could even be shown twice? Such a period of time might make the continuities less obvious—here it was condensed so you had the flow—but, strategically with our public, which is so dispersed and tends to not be fully committed, over a longer period the cycle somehow can sometimes build up a greater presence.
Guillén: I would have to agree. I didn’t mind how it was done. I liked being introduced to your practices and techniques through your stronger, more mature films first, so that—by the time the cycle came around—I was ready to enjoy it as you intended it to be appreciated. But I truly regret that I don’t have one more round, now that I’m just starting to gain a clear sense of your aesthetics. I’ve been astounded by the depth of the full cycle. I feel, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be gone just when I’m starting to get it and when will I ever have this opportunity again?” So I would have to agree. The next time an institution solicits the cycle, demand that it be played in its official order twice.
Beavers: And maybe over a month, Michael? But you know there are pressures right now, which are not allowing that. We even had at least one important day removed here in the Bay Area. But what I liked was—I’ll say it very simply—because it was an intimate-sized audience, I liked this kindness of the spectators, their true involvement. I felt this even the first time I came to PFA with my work in 2004. California spectators … it’s a different culture here.
Guillén: I know you’ve differentiated before between cinematheque and festival audiences; did you feel any distinction this go-round?
Beavers: No. This is a cinematheque audience, of course. There is, perhaps, a difference between a museum audience—even though there is a museum here on the campus that PFA is connected to—but, it’s just two different kinds of audience. It’s not that one is better than the other. I found it pleasant to know there were some filmmakers in the audience. This I rather liked. But there is the advantage from the side of the museum presentation that tends to bring in a wider public; but, that’s only when the museum is in an urban area.
Guillén: But all in all you were pleased with the cycle’s presentation in the Bay Area?
Beavers: Yes, I am pleased and I am extremely appreciative of PFA. I have followed the archive for a number of years now. I had no contact with them before the late ‘90s; but, I think of them as perhaps the most clearly dedicated archive for this kind of film in North America. The challenge of cinematheque archives is how to bring young people in and also what kinds of new events can be created. It needs to be said that not all the work has been done. There’s still a lot to do.
Guillén: As someone who is still relatively new to the avant-garde tradition of cinema, particularly the New American Cinema of the 1960s which you’ve referenced a few times, I’m trying to imagine what it was like for you at that time. I’m fascinated not only in your work, but also in the persona you have consciously constructed over the decades. As P. Adams Sitney indicated the other evening, it’s remarkable and extraordinary that you started creating films at such a young age.(5) I’m trying to get a sense of you at 16 in 1965 experiencing New York. Sitney, I know, was trying to elicit this from you as well. At 16 you visited New York City, researching films to develop a film club at Deerfield Academy, but you were clearly too advanced for them and they took the film club away from you. Your response was to drop out of high school and move to New York City where you were accepted into this circle of creative, imaginative individuals.
How did you meet Gregory Markopoulos? Was it at screenings at the cinematheque? And, if it’s not too personal to discuss, I’m intrigued by what it was about Markopoulos that led you to trust his guidance, his mentorship? What was it about him that allowed you to feel that, alongside him, you could develop as your own person, as an artist and that led—as you have described it—to “a continuity in the way that we lived with filmmaking at the center.” We talked a bit about this the other day when I expressed my fascination with intergenerational eroticized mentorships: a style of relationship which you don’t often see these days, what with modern gay subculture’s nearly narcissistic obsession with youth.
Beavers: I don’t know. [A long pause.] Perhaps Gregory was drawing on all the resources of his own search and of his own background? [Another long pause.]
Guillén: Who was zooming who?
Beavers: What is “zooming”?
Guillén: Wooing would be the other way to put it. Did you woo him? Or did he come after you? I realize this is personal; but, I’m intrigued because of the way P. Adams Sitney has described you in Eyes Upside Down as an “ephebe”, which implies a classic interactional dynamic. It’s an almost quaint way of describing a certain part of your life.
Beavers: A certain stage, right. Although, that word comes from a different culture, which—in general, Michael—is not uncommon. An innovator uses a cloak for what he is doing.
Guillén: To grant credence?
Guillén: But I believe what he was trying to finesse was the nature of this mentorship.
Beavers: Yes, but as I also mentioned at the screenings in San Francisco, the importance of life scenarios in the figures who Gregory chose for his films and this idea of casting someone in a film—and having the person enact a myth which is directly perceived as connected to this person—was connected to a wider area of activity, such as Mircea Eliade and Jung and the uses of myth, and also Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, all of this background.
Guillén: It’s like the mythic investment in personal biography or—as I prefer to look at it—the intrapsychic dimension of interpersonal relationships.
Guillén: People get involved in these interpersonal relationships when they’re young, which later in life they recognize as having been truly intrapsychic the whole time. The people you meet and become involved with further the process that is evolving within your own mind. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
Beavers: But with some discipline.
Guillén: If you’re lucky, there’s discipline and awareness. Otherwise, you’re just acting out.
Beavers: Right. With Gregory and I, there was generosity on both sides. That’s how I like to say it. A different kind of generosity needs it from both sides.(6)
Guillén: Which, as someone steeped in Jungian parlance….
Beavers: But I am not.
Guillén: Please bear with me. There are these axial dyads between archetypal constellations and one of the most famous ones is that between the senex and the puer; i.e., the mentor and his protégé. My critical observation, however, is that in our contemporary culture this axial dyad is very much discouraged. That is perhaps why—though it is unfair of me to range into such personal territory—I remain fascinated by the dynamic of your relationship with Gregory. The only other intergenerational relationship I know that achieved a comparable measure of creative success was between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, where a similar generosity, as you say, was expressed. So Gregory, you say, being the man he was, the artist he was, had this impulse to mythologize personalities and create films out of them?
Beavers: Or to search for someone who would fulfill a certain myth.
Guillén: Notably, he cast you as Eros in his film Eros O Basileus?
Beavers: Right. But there had been another Eros in a previous film of his. Even further, a very basic statement that he made was that Eros is color.
Guillén: Which implies spectrum, variety?
Beavers: Yes. Passion has various forms and various ways of leading the creative person.
Guillén: The way that I have come to understand Eros—that is, the erotic impulse—is that it is what holds the world together. It’s almost molecular or even atomic; an attractive impulse that draws things to each other into form, let’s say relationships.
Beavers: Which is almost how I was describing the force in AMOR.
Guillén: I have another delicate question with which I’m intrigued. As I’ve been learning about the New American Cinema these last few years, I’ve been struck by the fact that so many of these innovative filmmakers were brethren. Kenneth Anger was perhaps the first of this group who I became familiar with, first through the diaries of Anaïs Nin and her accounts of filming Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and then when—by accident—I found myself sitting next to him at a tribute at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. We talked a little bit then. Kenneth Anger. Jack Smith. Gregory Markopoulos. Tom Chomont. Warren Sonbert. As a queer-identified male, I have found it so intriguing that these vibrant personalities were so brave at a time when homosexuality was much maligned.
You’ve explained that your filmmaking did not come from the plastic shell of Hollywood studio filmmaking with its dramatic narratives and the shadow of performance. Like these other individuals, you sought a different way of filmmaking. It makes me wonder if—at a time when a queer narrative was simply not feasible in a mainstream film—if queer sensibility then shifted away from narrative to perspective? If the independent films of that period expressed homosexuality through perspective and not narrative?
Beavers: What do you mean by “perspective”?
Guillén: Those films are infused with a sensibility that I would characterize as a queer sensibility. In your instance, when I first saw Winged Dialogue, I was—quite frankly—provoked. I couldn’t believe how provocatively homoerotic that film was, and I’m a fairly seasoned old goat. Winged Dialogue is thoroughly suggestive and thrillingly explicit. I was speaking to a friend about this after the screening who asked me what I thought was so suggestive and I said, “Didn’t you notice?! The way Beavers uses the shadow of a hand to caress a butt or how—through superimpositions—hands reach for and touch genitals”; what Sitney described as “the phallic oath.”(7) In your conversation with Sitney you said that at that time you were “unlocking the psychological and erotic energies” and “working through a confusion between eroticism and psyche.” That’s what I mean by perspective.
Beavers: Perspective, right.
Guillén: Your generation, and the generation before you, have done more—in my estimation—for queer representation than the contemporary parade of silly queer narratives, which seem to have totally lost perspective.
Beavers: I hope there has been a positive quality to what has been created. Michael, it simply is a certain wonderful moment in each of those individual’s lives, and it changes. It is an important development.(8)
It’s difficult for me to speak about Kenneth Anger. I don’t feel competent. I only feel that he was an important filmmaker for me when I was young and the person who I recognize in the letters that have been published in the Cinema 16 history is brilliant and vital. I think each of these filmmakers have lived in extreme ways, also very different ways, all of them valid.
Guillén: As we were saying earlier, if Eros is color as Gregory suggested, the spectrum of queer desire would have to be expressed in many different ways. Do you have any thoughts or remembrances of Harry Smith? What you felt when you first saw his films? Did you meet him?
Beavers: I met him very briefly. Twice, I think. On both occasions, it was not pleasant. But he was one of the filmmakers whose work I enjoyed the most. When I arrived in New York, I was very interested in animation, which is visible in From the Notebook Of… What I don’t like about that period, there is a side to some of this work that I find too negative. The last time I looked at Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, I couldn’t connect to it. But when I was very young, I didn’t see that side. To speak about the psyche, and then to read about it, yes, this is not the direction that I personally am so interested. And I’m not so interested in some of Kenneth’s areas; but, both have been wonderful sources for me as filmmakers.
When you speak about filmmakers I have been personally involved with, Gregory and Tom Chomont also, there I feel more trusted to speak about a special experience of qualities in them as persons.
Guillén: There is a sweetness I can detect in the films of not only you as a young man but Tom Chomont as well. I love the scene in one of your films where Gregory is talking to Tom and Tom is paying attention with a smiling twinkle in his eye. It’s lovely. So I do understand what you’re saying; that despite the seeming illusion of a presiding queer perspective, there’s a variety of temperament.
Which leads me to ask about an Amerindian concept I’m fond of: the longbody, which states that only now—in our middle years—can we look back and see the shape of our lives, its contours, its arc, and reflect upon our youth in a way we could not self-reflect at the time. If anything, within the concept of the longbody, we could only project ourselves towards an imagined elder self. So my question is: you were in New York, you met Markopoulos, you both felt a generosity for each other—I love how you say that!—but you elected to leave New York. Even though New York appeared to have a vital avant-garde scene, it possessed qualities that the two of you didn’t care to participate in? So the two of you relocated to Europe, where you traveled among various European cities and countries.
I mention this only because a few times you have expressed to me that you want to be acknowledged and recognized as an American filmmaker. P. Adams Sitney has commented—quite wryly—that nothing is more American than an expatriate’s infatuation with European art and architecture. Yet you chafe against the term “expatriate” because it implies fleeing from something, when in fact your movements were towards filmmaking. What is it in your filmmaking—that came into its own on the Continent—which these days you consider distinctly American?
Beavers: The problem with interviews is that there’s always a temptation to bring up details, to bring up cultural history, and other points that disguise the essential matters and that don’t let you get to them. It’s difficult to have a conversation that goes beyond that.(9)
Guillén: I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.
Beavers: It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I’m thinking back; but, I’m speaking as a 60-year-old filmmaker. So it’s been a very definite moment, perspective as you said, and I’m thinking more of the experience, for instance, in my childhood where it was explained to me by a neighbor that certain artists were able to paint and write poetry and write music and be architects, and I was shown images: a box of black and white prints that were made at the end of the 19th century. This fascinated me. The elderly woman who showed me these images was extremely important in my boyhood. She was also an artist herself.(10) But her entire perspective and her ethic was deeply New England and so it’s really that ethic and belief in a different set of measures than the predominant contemporary measures in America. I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a substantial part of the American population that is still vitally connected to the serious spirituality of the country—which also has its playful side—but, it’s strong. All of our boats are anchored to that.
Guillén: Are you going in the direction of the thesis proposed in P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down that there is a distinctly Emersonian or Whitmanesque heritage to the American avant-garde tradition? American transcendentalism?(11)
Beavers: I really don’t know if that’s what it is. There’s a man named Lewis Hyde who wrote a book called The Gift. I think this idea of “the gift” is somehow very American.
(1) In his essay “Editing and the Unseen” published in the UC Berkeley monograph The Searching Measure (2004), Robert Beavers explained: “I reach beyond the life-likeness of the actor and the shadow of performance to the figure gathering the life that is in the light of the image.” Quoted in P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down (2008:127).
(2) Laura Nyro, “Timer”: “Holding to my cradle at the start / but now my hand is open / and now my hand is ready for my heart. / Let the wind blow, Timer, / and if the song goes minor, I won’t mind.”
When Sitney asked Beavers about the significance of the hand gestures in The Ground, Beavers responded in an email letter dated April 29, 2008: “In re-reading my notes … recently, I found that the literal meaning of doron, the Greek word for gift, is ‘hollow of the hand.’ …I am filming myself, and the gesture is equivalent to ‘opening the heart.’ ” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:368)
(3) Sitney has written at length on the tactility of Robert Beavers’s films and the multiple registers of meaning encoded into his hand gestures, whether the desirous energy to touch, or a reference to handiwork and craftsmanship. In ancient understandings, the human soul was thought to whorl out of the human body through the conduit of the fingerprints into a crafted object, which is how one would distinguish the soulfulness (i.e., the beauty) of one crafted object over another. I was reminded of this in the scene where Beavers filmed a strip of film on which his fingerprints were left as a filmic imprint; as a film on the film. Beavers explained in one of his Q&A sessions: “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 would equate that “mute expressive power of objects” with the invested soulfulness of craftsmanship. Incidentally, Sitney reports that Beavers once showed his films to Ponge. (Sitney, 2008:361)
(4) Winged Distance / Sightless Measure first screened in its entirety at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Fall of 2005. Its second presentation was at the Tate Modern in 2007.
(5) Sitney: “Beavers, an unusually determined, reserved, meticulous young man, was far from the typical dropout of the 1960s.” (2008:124)
(6) I must concede that Beavers was being most patient with this line of inquiry. I should have, perhaps, taken heed of Sitney’s suggestion that Beavers as filmmaker “casts a cold eye on the nature of his desire and, by implication, his own youth.” (Sitney, 2008:362) Perhaps a more positive assessment would be Sitney’s supposition of Beavers’s “priority of desire over satisfaction, as if the poetic purpose of desire was to inspire and encourage the crafted artifact.” (Sitney, 2008:363) In other words, instead of being concerned with “who was zooming who”, I should have chastened my curiosity, which might have turned “the power of erotic observation and direction into an examination of the inspired continuities of filmmaking and filmmakers” (ibid.); my focus should have remained on the beautiful films inspired by the mutual generosity between Beavers and Markopoulis; but, it’s difficult to resist the anecdotal in such fascinating lives.
(7) More accurately, Sitney has borrowed the term from Beavers himself who referenced it in his notebooks. When Sitney asked him about it, Beavers responded in an email letter dated March 2, 2005: “I had purchased a book … about certain phallic objects and rites in ancient time … like oil lamps, etc. …. I found this tradition of swearing an oath by the phallus mentioned in it. In my note I was intending to show the power of the phallus through the entire body, perhaps by showing the arms raised or in some other way.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:155)
Never one to skimp on his research, Sitney discovered: “In biblical literature (Gen. 24:2, 47:29-31; Deut. 67:29) the phallic oath is sworn by placing a hand under the genitals of an authority. It is a token of fidelity, duty, and submission.” (2008:156)
(8) Beavers somewhat touched upon the enthusiasm of my reaction and inquiry: “When I showed Markopoulos' trilogy—Psyche, Lysis, and Charmides—at Berkeley, it was interesting to see the students' reactions. Some were offended—or, more correctly, threatened and afraid, while others, perhaps a smaller number, were enthusiastic. In both cases, the response was immediate and strong, and I was particularly interested to see their reaction to this film, since it had been made in the late 1940s when the filmmaker was the same age as these young people.”
(9) Sitney (2008:126) has quoted Beavers from an early version of his essay “Em.blem”, wherein he opined, “It is not the film maker’s work to tell you: his work is to make the film and to protect what he does, in the serenity of a thought without words, without the quality in words which would destroy what it intends to represent.” In this, Beavers aligns with Paul Valéry who was—as Sitney synopsizes (2008:147)—“brutally critical of observers who name everything they see or those who trust in the stability of words to convey fixed meanings.” Valéry preferred modes of abstract construction and visual analogy (what he called “notions of differentiation”) over the arguably false confidence of words. This disposition creates a unique challenge with regard to Beavers because his artistry is intimately fused to his persona as an artist whose protective reticence disfavors written descriptions of his artistry, perhaps “because the filmmaker has subtly comprehended the structural impossibility of arriving at definitions or ends.” (Sitney, 2008:360-361) As a writer, however, I felt compelled by the creative challenge to assess his work, however inexactly, however distractedly, and perhaps even despite his wishes. Words must have their way. Mine, certainly, because words are my own artistry.
(10) In one of the Q&A sessions Beavers referenced her again and specified that she carved wood. If I’m not mistaken, she’s also the individual who gave Beavers a copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice.
(11) In retrospect, I feel I was not mistaken. I later read Sitney’s synopsis: “Yet the very notion of the weight of European culture is an American idea—no European filmmaker I know shows the range of Beavers’s cultural enthusiasms—linking the filmmaker to Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. If the details and references of its films largely evade the Emersonian models, the overall aspiration and achievements of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure are fundamentally a consequence of the poetics of Emerson and Whitman.” (2008:371)
[Part Two 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).]