Wednesday, October 14, 2009

WINGED DISTANCE / SIGHTLESS MEASURE: PROGRAM ONE—A Conversation Between Robert Beavers and P. Adams Sitney

In his review of AMOR for the PFA monograph The Films of Robert Beavers, Richard Suchenski writes (2009:12): "More than most works of their kind, the films of Robert Beavers are hard to describe in words without eliminating everything about them that is rich and poetic." Though I respect Suchenski's modesty, I don't necessarily agree. Just as one can read poetry and be inspired to write a poem, and just as Robert Beavers himself has traced literary influences in his own filmmaking, the critical response to his films is—one might argue—an essential accent to the poetic vision of Beavers's oeuvre; a critical response whose acumen is precisely negotiated through poetic language. Certainly, no one has done more to elucidate Beavers's poetic strengths than cultural historian P. Adams Sitney, whose articulations frequently achieve a poetic force all their own. Sitney has extolled Beavers's specific genius in various publications—including his essential surveys Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (now in its third edition) and Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson—and not once in his descriptions has all that is rich and poetic within Beavers's films been eliminated. On the contrary, the poetry of Beavers's films has been enhanced by Sitney’s erudition.

Sitney's contribution to the PFA monograph was originally written for the 2007 Tate Modern exhibition of Beavers’s 18-film cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure ("Winged Distance / Sightless Measure"), which had been shown in its entirety only once before in 2005 at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. The third time, as they say, is the charm as Winged Distance / Sightless Measure now visits Berkeley's
Pacific Film Archives October 13-20, affording Bay Area audiences the rare opportunity to watch the cycle in the official order Beavers intended. Along with Sitney's contribution to the PFA monograph, and the multiple chapters on the various stages of Beavers's career in his books, I heartily recommend Sitney's 2001 Film Comment essay "Majestic Images", his 2007 Artforum International appreciation of Beavers’s most recent film Pitcher of Colored Light (outside of the Winged Distance / Sightless Measure cycle, made available through the Highbeam Research Library), and his recent impressions on experiencing the 2008 Temenos exhibition of the films of Gregory Markopoulos, organized by Robert Beavers (likewise available at Highbeam Research).

To launch the PFA exhibition of Winged Distance / Sightless Measure, P. Adams Sitney introduced the first program (Early Monthly Segments, Winged Dialogue, Plan of Brussels, The Count of Days and Palinode) and engaged Robert Beavers in conversation.

* * *

P. Adams Sitney: It is with a certain impish pleasure tonight that I as a university professor—I believe a caricature of a university professor—am speaking here in this great institution within one of the greatest universities in the world. As I said, it is an impish pleasure to point out that many of the greatest filmmakers I teach, I study, I love, I write about, never went to a college or university, or went for a very brief time and dropped out in order to make films: for instance, Stan Brakhage, Larry Jordan, George Landow, Nathaniel Dorsky, Gregory Markopoulos made it, at most, through one year of university; but, Marie Menken, Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, didn't go at all.

The most radical instance of that is Robert Beavers who left high school, the Deerfield Academy, because he knew the nature of his calling to become a filmmaker. Extraordinarily, astonishingly, the films you're going to see tonight were made between the time he was 18-21 years old. He wasn't the only teenage artist to make an indelible imprint on the tradition of the American avant-garde film, but he was—to the best of my knowledge—the last, and the most prolific and the most intense in that very early period. To think that he made the entire first cycle of his series My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure before he was 22 years old—all the films we will see tonight and the first two of the films we will see in the next program—is quite amazing.

I should point out that he made those films and released them; but, many years later, he went back and revised all the films you'll see tonight. They are all most—if not universally—shorter than in their original form and one of the major transformations occurred because of the technological facility that came with digital sound. So the soundtracks have been largely changed. The films are shown in chronological order with the codicil—I should indicate—that the very first film you'll see, Early Monthly Segments, is a film composed of a discipline the young filmmaker gave to himself of shooting something once a month during that early period. That film was made as all of the other films that you'll see tonight were being made.

Beavers left Deerfield Academy and went to New York where he was mentored by Gregory Markopoulos, with whom he lived for almost 30 years in Europe, traveling in Europe and living in Europe until Markopoulos's death in the early 1990s. One of the inadvertent pleasures that we get from looking at Early Monthly Segments—these fabulous fragments of cinematic genius—is that they document the life of Gregory Markopoulos and Robert Beavers during those early years and we see some of the filmmaker's creative processes in that work.

I ought to mention that these self-taught filmmakers are a most erudite and intellectually adventurous group. I'd like to ask Robert Beavers to tell us a little bit about his background as he was taking that plunge into filmmaking.

Robert Beavers: I would like to qualify that a little bit, P. Adams, and say we were precocious and immature. Also, we were unlocking the psychologic and erotic energies. All of that was possible because of the generation just before me—meaning the filmmaking I encountered in New York when I went to New York at a very young age, 16, which would be the films of Markopoulos, Brakhage and Anger, and silent films—and the wonderful dream-like qualities of using 16mm at relatively little expense. Plus the addition of
the New American Cinema and the Film-Makers Cooperative and the miniscule amounts of money that people lived on back then. There was a group called Friends of New Cinema, which gave to these filmmakers small stipends. When I arrived in 1965 they were being given $45 a month. It went up to $75 when I received it three years later.

Sitney: With $40 a month in 1964, one could either pay the rent on a New York apartment and eat a little or—as was more often the case—buy four or five reels of color film and have them developed.

Beavers: At that time the development was actually included in the price of the film.

Sitney: You couldn't apply for these grants. No one knew where they were coming from. Usually Jonas Mekas, consulting with a couple of other people, made up a list every year and that list was submitted to
Jerome Hill who was himself a filmmaker and a very affluent man who didn't want anyone to know where the money was coming from. These checks would arrive once a month in the hands of 12, at the most 15, filmmakers. Aside from the economics, what was the intellectual firmament as you were perceiving it? How were you developing intellectually as a filmmaker? It's an extraordinarily daring thing to drop out of high school and start making amazing films.

Beavers: But, as I said, it had to do with the entire context of these other filmmakers. Some of them were very generous. It only takes one person to say, "You can make films" to counteract—as I've said on some occasions—the family, which basically has very legitimate concerns for how you will exist. I remember asking Markopoulis when I first came to New York, "But how will I survive? How will I eat?" He said, "We will never let you starve."

Sitney: Which was not quite the case later. [Laughter.]

Beavers: Recollecting now that brief period between the winter of 1965 to 1967 when I was in New York, I absorbed so much. At that age you're a titan and your clock is so presto. You're able to do so much. This is a wonderful thing. That was the first time I had the occasion to see many different kinds of films. The Museum of Modern Art and the Filmmakers Cinematheque had their daily screenings. For me it was a wonderful adventure. But standing behind this psychological awakening was Markopoulos balancing and commenting upon what I was doing. It didn't remove the freedom but there was a Presbyterian side to it: meaning, no drugs and alcohol.

Sitney: The audience will note that once the title appears for the cycle—My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure—what follows are two films. The transition from Winged Dialogue, which was shot on the island of Hydra in Greece with Markopoulos, to Plan of Brussels occurs without a title change. In fact, it occurs at that moment when we see the façade of houses in Brussels and hear knocking on a door. Why did you decide to not mark the difference?

Beavers: I marked it by a length of black between the two films. I decided to remove all titles quite early on, maybe in the '70s. I wanted the titles to be in the printed text of the program but I didn't want them to be a part of the visual image. I would like to mention that the structure of the program this evening and of the first films of the second program is that you will have seen all of the monthly filmings that I did silently—I don't know how many there are, maybe 20?—that were done between 1968 and 1970, with Winged Dialogue actually being filmed in 1967. You've seen them silently as a prologue but—beginning with this evening's program and the next—these segments are dispersed between the longer films I made in the same years. You see them again. There is only one sound that continues through all of them: the sound of wings. These segments have a very different meaning when you see them again within the context of the longer films. It's a rather unusual structure of the early part of my work.

Sitney: I'd like to address the sound design of Plan of Brussels, in which you have a French text from
Michel de Ghelderode’s 1925 play for marionettes: Duvelor ou la Farce du diable vieux. Plan of Brussels is much more complex than Winged Dialogue in its introduction of any number of figures. Can you speak to your choice of sound and the density of Plan of Brussels?

Beavers: The image had also been more dense than it is now. There were a lot more superimpositions, all of which were done in camera. The film's rhythm is one of measured numbers. There are rhythmic phrases of numbers carefully measured. The sound is an interweaving of many sounds taken from locations where I filmed but at a later date. At the center of the film is this puppet play Duvelor, who is a small devil waiting to give up his human existence—with which he's bored—to return to Hell. But around that are all these acoustics suggested in relation to the room. The music conservatory was next door so you have someone singing and practicing a song from Carmen. There are many rhythmic elements but they are all taken from on location and drawn into relation to the abstract because—in all of the films that you will see—I realize now that I was constantly involved with abstraction. The sounds float upon the abstract shapes, which are the skeleton for the whole film. Because the sounds are brought into relation to the shapes, they should have—I hope they do have—a strong subjective value and emphasis to them.

Also, one of the inspirations for Plan of Brussels were the paintings of
James Ensor, who I still think is a great painter from Belgium. He dealt very much with masks. One of his great inventions and gifts to painting were these masks, which he used socially, politically and religiously. This carnivalesque element entered the film. There were lots of people from the other part of Flanders, from the Dutch side, who had come to Brussels to celebrate their winning a football game. All this is woven together for atmosphere, to create a parade sense, but the center of the film is my isolation in this small room.

Sitney: It continually strikes me that—just as Winged Dialogue and Plan of Brussels are something of a pair, easily matched because of your presence in both of those films—the erotic exuberance of Winged Dialogue is somehow matched by the erotic despair of Plan of Brussels. Count of Days and Palinode are, in a sense, your most difficult films because of the compacted drama that is never fully elucidated. They, too, seem to be matched together. When I think that a
palinode is always a poem in which you take something back, I wonder if Palinode is perhaps a palinode to Count of Days? Or a palinode to something else? Can you address any of these observations of mine?

Beavers: No, I don't think Palinode is a taking back from Count of Days; but, I think you're correct about the pairing. The two films are paired because they both somehow deal with the same themes. I find them more similar than one retracting from the other. What is similar is that both of them are films in which I'm dealing with negativities within myself and with what I believe I encountered with this location, this place, of Zurich, which is: qualities of life unlived. There's a frustration in the figures I'm presenting; but, of course, they are figures of fictional types.

The problem here is that neither the abstraction nor the narrative are free. This is somehow an awkward development; but—just as with so many other creative individuals—you have to take so many steps; you have to try so many things. Something which is not fully successful at one point is still adding to your development. One of the positive results in seeing a filmmaker's work in the form in which I am presenting it—which is this series in chronological order—is that you have the possibility to see within a very short period of time the development over decades.

Sitney: Beavers makes a very good point about the crucial nature of place. This will appear all through the entire cycle. I would urge you very much to try to see as many of the films as possible. What you'll see in the next program is a further purification of the elements we see in the films in today's program. Then—in what to my mind is an utterly astounding breakthrough film made in Florence called From the Notebook Of…—the beginning of Beavers's maturity and from From the Notebook Of… on, a strength of pellucid masterpieces. What is also interesting to me is that the filmmaker seems to be turning perhaps towards some kind of narrative, which he turns away from.

What you're seeing in tonight's program is the amazingly impressive work of a very young filmmaker; but, if you really want the exalted and the ecstatic, come see the mature films.

Early Monthly Segments (1968-70/2002)

Early Monthly Segments, filmed when Beavers was 18 and 19 years old, now forms the opening to his film cycle, My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure. It is a highly stylized work of self-portraiture, depicting filmmaker and companion Gregory J. Markopoulos in their Swiss apartment. The film functions as a diary, capturing aspects of home life with precise attention to detail, documenting the familiar with great love and transforming objects and ordinary personal effects into a highly charged work of homoeroticism.—Susan Oxtoby, Toronto International Film Festival.

Early Monthly Segments collects studies shot between 1968 and 1970 and was completed in 2002 (this unhurried artist finishes pieces over a span of decades). In it, he begins to articulate his distinct cinematic lexicon: close examinations of Mediterranean light, the elaborate use of mattes and color filters as cinematic punctuation, associative editing and visual rhymes, and a variety of in-camera effects. Segments also includes diaristic episodes of the couple's life together. In one shot, Markopoulos sits in a room, wearing a stiff, high-necked collar, holding over his heart a pocket mirror that flashes light into Beaver's camera, an image that reappears in The Count of Days.—
Ed Halter for The Village Voice; 10/12/05.

Early Monthly Segments (1968–70/2002) provides a notional prologue to the entire cycle, encompassing the entire range of [Beavers’s] visual leitmotifs and containing sequences of film that are reused in several later works. In this, the earliest of the films shown here, images of the filmmaker dominate. As if watching the uncertain moments in which the artist holds a camera for the first time, Beavers tentatively establishes his relationship with the device, exploring its ability to capture the world around him and what it may reveal about his own image. The autobiographical tenor of the film is heightened by scenes depicting interactions between Beavers and Markopoulos as well as recurrent shots of Beavers in his studio—in this instance a simple table in a sun-dappled room—cutting and editing carefully arranged fragments of film. Beavers, like many filmmakers who began working in the 1960s, uses reversal film stock, allowing him to view the positive images on the film strip by holding it up to the light. Because he cuts his films manually and edits the sequences through visual memory alone (only in the making of his most recent works has he projected the images during the editing process), the final compositions preserve a patina of this intricate handcrafted process.—
Andrew Bonacina for Frieze; June-August, 2007.

Winged Dialogue and Plan of Brussels (1967-68/2000)

Winged Dialogue details with growing clarity the desperate beauty and sexuality of the body animated by its soul, essence blindly reaching out, touching, in brilliant patterns through and beyond those of the vanishing images, expressed vividly in the after-image on the mind, on the soul’s eye.—Tom Chomont, a note on Winged Dialogue.

One of his earliest films, Plan of Brussels (68), made when he was 19, has structures reminiscent of Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poete, the fountainhead of lyric visions of the narcissistic imagination for Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage as well as for Markopoulos. Shedding all traces of the narratives constructed by his predecessors, Beavers filmed himself in a hotel room, both at his work desk and lying naked on the bed, while in rapid rhythmic cutting, and sometimes in superimposition, the phantasmagoria of people he met in Brussels and images from the streets flood his mind. Fragments of Michel de Ghelderode's play Duvelor can be heard on the soundtrack, cuing the viewer to the Faustian theme of this 28-minute film inspired by James Ensor's paintings. [¶] Beavers included geometrical shapes in iridescent colors among the fast alternation of images. As punctuation, lubrication, and percussion, these abstract elements shape and formalize the film.
—P. Adams Sitney, Film Comment.

The Count of Days (1969/2001)

The film is seen as though upon and through the structure of its spiritual partitions. One might say that there are three elements or levels to the images: narrative, descriptive or analytic, and abstract. The Count of Days is not an account so much as an accounting of the essence of the days in which three separate persons are related at points … a penetration through the masks and habits of these days to reveal the nature of the charade and the arena in which it is enacted.—Tom Chomont, Film Culture.

Palinode (1970/2001)

Beavers included geometrical shapes in iridescent colors among the fast alternation of images. As punctuation, lubrication, and percussion, these abstract elements shape and formalize the film. In his subsequent work similar structuring elements grow in importance. In Palinode (69) a disk-shaped matte continually shifting in and out of focus alternately blocks part of the image or contains it. Its respiratory rhythm matches operatic fragments of Wladimir Vogel's Wagadu, as the camera studies a middle-aged male singer in Zurich, singing, eating, window shopping, meeting a young girl. The filmmaker told himself, "Don't let yourself know what that film is about while you are making it." Thirty years later it still remains astonishingly original and mysterious; elements suggestive of Fritz Lang's M seem translated from criminal psychopathology to aestheticism. [¶] At the climax of Palinode Beavers shows his work space, his notes, and the apparatus he used to film the mattes.—P. Adams Sitney, Film Comment.

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