Thursday, October 08, 2009

AVANT-GARDE CINEMA—A Robert Beavers Online Reader

Who is Robert Beavers? The question is fair. Even the most committed Bay Area cinephiles have probably never had opportunity to watch the films of Robert Beavers. By remedy, the long-awaited multi-institutional celebration of Beavers’ film cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure—organized by the Pacific Film Archive in partnership with San Francisco Cinematheque and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—launches this evening at SFMOMA with SF Cinematheque’s inaugural program of four Beavers films: AMOR, Work Done, The Hedge Theater, and Pitcher of Colored Light. Followed by three more SF Cinematheque programs venued at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Program Two on Friday evening; Programs Three and Four on Saturday afternoon), the series then crosses the bay to Pacific Film Archive where the cycle will be shown again in its entirety, although this go-round in its "official order". Beavers is expected to be present for most screenings at all venues, which can accurately be categorized as a not-to-be-missed once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As Susan Oxtoby has written: "The films of Robert Beavers are exceptional for their visual beauty, aural texture, and depth of emotional expression. …Beavers's films occupy a noble place within the history of avant-garde film, positioned at the intersection of structural and lyrical filmmaking traditions. They seem to embody the ideals of the Renaissance in their fascination with perception, psychology, literature, the natural world, architectural space, musical phrasing, and aesthetic beauty. The act of making things by hand is central to Beavers's cinema, as are the notions of self-reflexivity and portraiture."

To help prepare for a heightened appreciation of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure, I offer a sampling of critical commentary on the films of Robert Beavers to accompany the exquisite monograph The Films of Robert Beavers published by PFA in conjunction with the series (which is being generously offered for free to the public at all screenings).

First, in his own words, Robert Beavers' essays "Editing and the Unseen" and "La Terra Nuova" have been replicated in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998) devoted to Beavers and his lifetime partner/mentor Gregory Markopoulos. These essays were later published in a monograph The Searching Measure published by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on the occasion of an earlier Beavers residency in February 2004. Likewise from the commemorative Millennium Film Journal issue is Tony Pipolo’s foundational interview with Beavers, wherein the filmmaker states evocatively: "I do not look upon the camera as simply a recording device. There is a living quality that can be reached in the elements of filmmaking, and this quality can carry the filmmaker forward beyond his initial intentions. A work cannot live if it only realizes intention, as fine as that intention may be."

In "Frames of Mind"—an
Artforum interview with Henriette Huldisch, the assistant curator who organized the Beavers retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in September 2005—Beavers offers insight into his aesthetics, editing practices, and hopes for the future of the film cycle. Chrissie Iles’ introduction to that interview has been recently republished by Artforum in tandem with PFA's presentation of the Winged Distance / Sightless Measure cycle.

In an interview conducted earlier this year with Nicolas Niarchos for
The Yale Daily News, Beavers opined: "I am not a filmmaker who came to filmmaking through the so-called 'plastic Hollywood shell' of the feature film. I am a filmmaker who became excited by the inter-subjective possibilities of the film-image and of sound directly, and also excited by the possibilities of the spectators who can open that door to the visual and not need the actor to carry them through the dream of film—I want them to be awake."

Perhaps due to the access to avant-garde cinema through the New York Film Festival's annual sidebar "Views From the Avant-Garde", in tandem with the first presentation of Beavers’s film cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure in its entirety at the Whitney, most critical response to Beavers’s films emerges from the New York press. Several Village Voice pieces are available online, including Amy Taubin’s September 1999 survey of the avant-garde films at that year’s edition of the NYFF ("Left of Center and at the Forefront")—wherein she recommended Beavers’s three entries "sight unseen"—and her October 2001 review of The Ground; Paul Arthur’s May 2001 review of Still Light, Sotiros and The Stoas; J. Hoberman’s March 2002 profile "Renaissance man: Robert Beavers's Spirit-of a Vanished Age"; Ed Halter’s February 2003 report on the Temenos Project ("Sacred Grove: Into the Vaults") and his October 2005 reaction to the Whitney retrospective; and Nathan Lee’s initial September 2007 review of Pitcher of Colored Light and his inclusion of that film in his Top 10 Films of 2007.

Comparable coverage is represented at The New York Times where Stephen Holden reviewed Efpsychi, Windseed and The Stoas when they were featured at the 1997 edition of NYFF's "Views From the Avant-Garde" sidebar. Holden also reviewed From the Notebooks of… at the 1999 edition, whereas at the 2001 edition Elvis Mitchell reviewed The Ground. When My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure opened at the Whitney in 2005, Roberta Smith reported to The Times.

Ed Halters approached Beavers’s material again in a May 2001 article for the
New York Press that profiled the Lincoln Center’s Image Innovators film series, which included Beavers’s Still Light, Sotiros, and The Stoas.

When My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure traveled to the
Tate Modern, Andrew Bonacina wrote it up for the June-August 2007 issue of Frieze.

10/16/09 UPDATE: At the SF Bay Guardian, Max Goldberg remarks that for 40 years Robert Beavers has done everything by hand, "off in the hinterlands of the avant-garde."

10/21/09 UPDATE: Tim Cawkwell is a British film enthusiast whose report on the 2008 Aurora Festival in Norwich UK "Touch, Focus, Memory: Robert Beavers and His First Principles of Film" is available in PDF format. His essay is particularly helpful in understanding Beavers' camera techniques.

Cross-published on