What the Water Said: Peter Hutton (1944-2016)

At Sea

By Michael Sicinski

In his 1995 interview with Scott MacDonald published in A Critical Cinema 3, Peter Hutton made a general assessment about his films, one that has been quoted quite a bit in the weeks since the filmmaker’s death. Let’s take a moment and consider it: “I’ve never felt that my films are very important in terms of the History of Cinema. They offer a little detour from such grand concepts. They appeal primarily to people who enjoy looking at nature, or who enjoy having a moment to study something that’s not fraught with information. The experience of my films is a little like daydreaming.”

In another interview with MacDonald, conducted in 2007 (published in MacDonald’s collection Adventures in Perception), he and Hutton discuss the non-narrative film work of Abbas Kiarostami, in particular his 2003 film Five. Hutton makes some interesting remarks about the late Iranian master, in particular noting that, due to his stature in the world of cinema, Kiarostami was free to do anything and it would be taken with a certain degree of seriousness; Hutton compares it to “Picasso doing ceramics or neckties.” He goes on to offer his judgment (quite correct) that Five is not a revelatory avant-garde work, though by no means without interest.

Hutton and Kiarostami passed away within nine days of one another, Hutton on June 25, Kiarostami on July 4. The men were contemporaries, Kiarostami a mere four years older than Hutton. Given that the importance of Kiarostami’s cinema is beyond question, we are implicitly asked once more to consider Hutton’s own self-assessment. How marginal (or “minor,” to use Tom Gunning’s old category) were Peter Hutton’s contributions to the history of film? What did they offer us, apart from a respite from the sensory assault of modern media culture?

Granted, that in itself is not exactly nothing. Kiarostami, too, strove for such an aim, and in one of his own oft-cited self-assessments remarked that he felt okay if people fell asleep during his films. “Some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing,” he told A.V. Club’s Sam Adams. “It’s not to be taken badly at all.” This has everything to do with the relationship between film, as a set of light (and maybe sound) impulses and the rhythms of the body. If we acknowledge that the pace of most cinema—its cuts, movement, sound/image relationships, and the cognitive meaning-making all that speed requires—is a kind of labour (assertions made by thinkers as ideologically diverse as David Bordwell, Gilles Deleuze, and Jonathan Beller), then films that move slowly, that offer a respite or a “detour” for the body and mind, are actually a form of counter-cinema.

Hutton’s films, humble in their aims and artisanal in their approach to filmic craft, are in fact a very major part of the History of Cinema, at least inasmuch as we choose to define it as a human-centred practice, not fundamentally defined by industrial criteria of speed and predictability, use and exchange value. These are films that observe broad natural phenomena. They bring the forces that are larger than us, like the flow of rivers or the changing of seasons, within the frame, making visible those elements that engulf us. Seen from that perspective, Hutton’s movies are actually “action movies” of the highest order.

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Over the course of his career, Peter Hutton’s work underwent several phases, all intricately intertwined. His filmmaking evolved from a diaristic style into a more urban-symphony approach, shifting decisively toward the land- and riverscapes for which he is best known, and finally taking a brief semi-ethnographic twist at the very end. His films were primarily black and white, but he started working in colour in the last 15 years of his career. The one constant was silence. Hutton stands, alongside Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky, among the most important filmmakers in the experimental canon to commit so fully to absolute silence. All the same, Hutton’s first film, In Marin County (1970), is a sound film, his only one. It’s a film about environmentalism, well-shot but relatively undistinguished.

Soon afterwards, Hutton made his first significant cinematic work, the extraordinarily titled July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon. This is a personal work, diaristic in approach without necessarily focusing on Hutton as a narrating subject. July ’71 is as much a record of the daily experiences of light and shadow as it is a catalogue of domestic life. More involved with “straight photography” than Brakhage, but far more engaged with tactility and the plastics of the image than Jonas Mekas, this early work embraces the mundane—making bread in the kitchen, riding bikes by the San Francisco Bay, hanging out in a cheap-looking flat with friends, plucking a game fowl for supper—while also paying attention to the wind, water, and trees that surround these fleeting moments.

Hutton’s attention to the rich textures of black-and-white celluloid are already in evidence in early works like New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972), Florence (1975), and the New York Portraits (1978-90). But here we begin to see Hutton’s fascination with the single shot as a monad of meaning. He starts separating his shots with black leader, and editing with an open, almost anti-associative mode. New York Near Sleep resembles Dorsky in its combination of quotidian detail and formal deliberation, each image seemingly held apart from those around it. Florence finds Hutton exploring his fascination with landscape—large, turbulent skies and receding horizons, somewhere between Turner and the F.S.A. But much of Florence consists of sharp-angled interiors, studies of light and shadow that gracefully fade into abstraction.

The two most interesting films of Hutton’s early period are, in a sense, transitional. Both operate in almost opposite modes, but the seeds of later approaches are witnessed in both. Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) (1973-74) is very much in the diary mode of July ’71, the difference being that it is a record of travel rather than a study of domesticity. Shot while Hutton was working as a merchant seaman in Thailand, the film begins in a manner very much like the later Hudson River work. We begin with water, and then are aboard a craft at sea. But Images of Asian Music tends to focus more on the men Hutton was working alongside, their camaraderie and downtime activities. Once ashore, Hutton explores Thailand in a manner both conventional (Buddha heads, temples, fireworks) and more in line with his own prerogatives (the shoreline, the forest, people moving down distant roads).

Organized as if Hutton shot it sequentially, like any traveller would, Images of Asian Music provides a glimpse of Thailand processed through Hutton’s private image bank. By contrast, Boston Fire (1979) is a small masterwork that looks piercingly at precisely one thing. In deep, rich black and white, Hutton shoots from a distance, from ground level, as firefighters struggle to extinguish a blaze. The flames in the night, combined with the failing structure of the building, provide the drama of light and shadow in the film, while the billow of smoke plays the role that would customarily be occupied by clouds or fog. A nearly perfect distillation of Hutton’s aesthetic, Boston Fire also harks back to the earliest days of cinema. It is an actualité, an observational eight-minute record of a dramatic human event. And, in terms of Hutton’s mature films about the Hudson River, Boston Fire serves as a kind of inversion. Instead of humans struggling to move across a placid natural surface, here it is nature that is the (destructive) agent, with humans desperately trying to beat it back.

These transitional gestures, and the disparate strands of Hutton’s creative personality, all coalesced in his New York Portrait series, the three films that definitively announced Hutton as a major filmmaker. In the telling, what these films achieve sounds quite simple. Each of them, in its own way, adopts the urban poem/city symphony template as a kind of skeleton or container. Within that framework, Hutton is able to incorporate exquisitely wrought images from his other working modes: the seascape, the skyscape, the diaristic studies of human behaviour, and the modernist black-and-white abstraction. In New York Portrait: Chapter One (1978), Hutton uses high contrast footage of the skyline as a kind of backbeat. Against this visual riff, we see hazy pavements, mammoth cumulonimbus formations, street scenes, and the piercing whiteness of the negative space between skyscrapers. Misty rain, or the shimmering puddles where a city bus has just left the frame—these are the “action shots” in the New York Portraits. There is indeed a sense that Hutton and Dorsky are operating in the same rarefied zone here, but their work could hardly be more different. Hutton’s use of contrast and abstraction are subtle, but they are unavoidably dramatic. Where Dorsky works to tamp down those punctums that disrupt the equality of his shots, Hutton knew when he had a special image, and in the New York films especially, he was not afraid to let them pop.

Following New York Portrait: Chapter Two (1981), Hutton went to Hungary and made Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984-86). Possibly the most nondescript film of his career, Budapest resembles a series of architectural and historical studies that are then livened with admittedly lovely portraiture. We can see Hutton experimenting with geometry and anti-associative editing, but in large part this film is a bit of a dry run for his trip to Poland, which yielded better results. But perhaps most significantly, Hutton began sticking closer to home for the next phase of his filmmaking, the longer works that would cement his importance once and for all.

In 1985 Hutton started teaching at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, a professorship that marked a decisive shift in his filmmaking. (At Bard, Hutton’s colleagues included Peggy Ahwesh, Kelly Reichardt, Jackie Goss, Ben Coonley, and Ephraim Asili.) Being largely rooted in one place, as academics often are, Hutton began exploring the very specific dimensions of his immediate environs. He turned his attention to the Hudson River, not only as a body of water in a landscape, but also as a subject of depiction within art history. What sort of light does Upstate New York generate, and the area around and through the Hudson in particular?

Looking at the Luminist paintings of the Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Frederick Church, Hutton made films inspired by their treatment of natural light. What would it mean to introduce photographic means, along with time and movement, into this examination of landscape as light? In his Landscape (for Manon) (1987), Hutton continues his work in the free-associative style and slow accumulation of disparate views that we see in the New York Portraits and the early films. But here he focuses exclusively on the big, bold skies, dense cloud formations with rays of light piercing through the image, and a matter-of-fact treatment of the pictorial sublime. Like Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” series, Landscape makes the sheer variety of clouds into a formal principle. In 1991’s In Titan’s Goblet (named after a Cole painting), Hutton focuses exclusively on turbulent skies over landscapes, the slow-building tension of fog over hills or the moon’s solidity plastered against the diffuse vapour of clouds. With these films, and their dense, inky imagery, Hutton has found secure footing in the painterly approach that will come to define his mature work.

After those films, however, Hutton went abroad to make one more film in the earlier vein. Lodz Symphony (1993) is one of his best films, possibly because by calling on his previously honed skills—the diary, the travelogue—he was also filtering them through his contemporary interests in light, grain, and the almost celestial perspective on everyday phenomena. His study of urban Poland feels at times a bit like a poetic riposte to Dziga Vertov. We see chimney sweeps on the rooftops, but they are patiently individuated. We go inside machine shops and factories, looking closely at industrial processes, but with a slightly soft focus and off-kilter framing that turns these movements into abstraction. These are the reveries of the tired worker, dignified but unheroic: Joris Ivens’ Regen (1929) rather than Kino-Pravda (1922) or Ballet mécanique (1924).

From that point on, Hutton began making his key Hudson River films, starting with Study of a River in 1996. Still working with high-grain black and white, the filmmaker produced a multi-perspectival film of the Hudson, almost sculptural in its insistence on total coverage. From one shot to the next, we see aerial views, close-ups of the water, lateral tracking shots heading down the river, misty fog and ice floes, boatside views through valleys, shots from the shoreline and from bridges…It’s as if Hutton were cataloguing all the possible approaches one could take in rendering images of this natural feature.

From here, Hutton made his bold leap. Time and Tide (2000) is Hutton’s first colour film. In it, we see the Hudson River chiefly from the perspective of the professional seafarers who navigate the Hudson for their livelihood. We see an extended shot from the bow of the ship, down at the frozen water, ice chunks broken like massive panes of glass as the freighter breaks its way through the surface. We then see the ship go by in its entirety, cutting through the icy water, along with the centre of the screen, from bottom to top. Hutton shows us the gap in the ice healing itself after the ship passes through, as if the river were zipping itself up. From there, we explore various parts of the ship, and those parts of the Hudson we can see from the ship. Much of Time and Tide is observed through portholes, not only providing a circular cast to the usual rectangular film image, but also making Hutton’s maritime colour palette—blue-gray, iron black, the occasional stripe of red paint across a vessel’s hull—seem all the more vibrant against the dark, round frame of reference. Over the course of the film, winter ends, and along the journey we see the shoreline, cradled in dense forest and various factories.

Uncharacteristically, Time and Tide begins with found footage, specifically a 1903 Billy Bitzer reel called Down the Hudson. This is a gesture we would more expect from Ken Jacobs or Ernie Gehr. But Hutton’s choice does indicate a certain fealty to early cinema, with its silence, of course, but also its pre-Griffith organization. Editing was not a going concern; instead there was concatenation, one reel after another, side by side but not inexorably connected. This is a way to think about Hutton’s arrangement of shots, usually separated by brief intervals of black leader. There is no argumentation, no build within Hutton’s cinema. There is only drift, in both the denotative sense (slow, floating movement) and the colloquial one (a general idea or shared orientation about what the film is, without absolute specifics…we “catch Hutton’s drift”).

This sense of assemblage or concatenation led to increasingly complex films in the latter part of Hutton’s career, works whose coherence was staked less upon the man behind the camera and more upon the ability of a viewer to form temporary, provisional relationships among semi-autonomous images. Because of his abiding interest in landscape, Hutton was often considered alongside James Benning in terms of avant-garde masters of the first part of the 21st century. But it seems to me that his suspensive approach to montage has much more in common with Nathaniel Dorsky. Looking at Skagafjördur (2004), for example, Hutton moves us around—not through or across—a northern Icelandic landscape. Each shot maintains an internal integrity; it invites, but does not demand, a connection to those around it. Hutton brings everything to bear here: Hudson River skies, shots of moving water, low hillscapes, distant shots from the shore depicting tiny crafts dwarfed by the massive expanse of nature. Moreover, Skagafjördur combines colour and black-and-white imagery, resulting in a veritable compendium of attitudes toward painterly light.

It was with his last two films that Hutton brought all of these perceptual resources to bear on a somewhat new style of filmmaking. In the simplest terms, I suppose one could call At Sea (2007) and Three Landscapes (2013) documentaries. These films certainly contain more human activity, and more explicitly social and economic interaction, than anything Hutton has done since the days of Asian Music or the New York Portraits. But as you would expect, they communicate in a manner that is substantially different than those works we usually think of as documentary. Hutton’s last films show us concrete details about labour. They exhibit contrasting circumstances and life-worlds between the West and the global South. But they are not declarative, nor are they poetic essay films. Although Three Landscapes shows certain affinities for Harun Farocki’s dialectical mode of social observation (cf. In Comparison, 2009), both Three Landscapes and At Sea share more with other non-argumentative filmers of fact, such as Robert Fenz, Ute Aurand, and the late Mark LaPore.

At Sea begins at a shipyard in South Korea. Fully embracing his newfound colour scheme, Hutton gives us a sharp, Constructivist photographic primer. Shot by shot, we move from the long distance of entire ocean liners being loaded with metal cargo boxes, all the way in to close-up images of the hull, the engine, and the crane that lifts a piece of iron into place for welding. By the end of the first part, Hutton provides integrated views of the whole port—crane upon crane, ship after ship. In a sense, the first 20 minutes of At Sea offer an introduction not only to the rest of the film (which finds us aboard another freighter), but Hutton’s maritime filmography as a whole. After the voyage, Hutton provides a quite unexpected coda. On a shore in Southeast Asia, we see the rusted-out hull of a decommissioned vessel. This time, we are watching in silence as local scrappers take the ship apart for whatever meagre pittance they can earn. At Sea, then, displays “shipping” within its life cycle, but does so without facts or judgment. The shots form a limited narration regarding a capitalist process, while also providing enough space between the shots for less deterministic rumination.

Three Landscapes goes further in this direction. It is admittedly a strange final film for Hutton, given that it indicates a substantially new direction that the filmmaker never got the chance to fully explore. Divided quite absolutely into a triptych, Three Landscapes is Hutton’s first film since Lodz Symphony not to approach a body of water. Instead, we see still, somewhat Benning-like shots of the industrial Detroit, followed by a study of an agricultural/farming area surrounding the Hudson River Valley, concluding with the cracked, arid salt flats of Ethiopia. There is an odd uniformity to the camera angles in Three Landscapes. Hutton keeps his tripod on the ground, usually at either a middle or greater distance. His shots of silos, oil tanks, and metal stockyard structures call to mind the generic Rust Belt taxonomies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, while his surveys of farmland tend to keep the horizon low and the sky big, the clouds billowy.

Humans are present but small in stature, until part three. In Ethiopia, Hutton adopts an unexpected intimacy with the camera, shooting in close-up among a group of people sifting through large sheets of salt and stone in order to collect them, presumably for trade. For a change, individuals are engaging directly with the landscape, sorting it and breaking it apart with their hands. (This is the sort of close labour that we would have once found in part two, which is now dominated by industrial tractors and combines.) In the final shots, Hutton shows us the nomadic workers heading off in the distance, their camels forming a small travelling line across the horizon.

These shots directly echo Hutton’s frequent images of ships gliding across the Hudson, made small by the enormity of the natural world. In his travels (the trip to Ethiopia was sponsored by the late Robert Gardner), Hutton found fundamental similarities between the landscape in his own backyard and one a continent away. But, as with the Asian men demolishing the ship for scrap, Hutton’s look at the salt gatherers was not one of Western appropriation. These images, the last of Hutton’s filmography, arguably sum up his career, although in truth Hutton was looking upon the future of us all. We toil in the margins, we gather up our wares, and trade with whomever we can.

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