Arriving like a breath of fresh air five days into the 67th Berlinale, Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights salvaged what was by all accounts was another typically lacklustre Competition lineup. More →
By Max Goldberg
Comparing three American municipalities in his 1960 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch found that Los Angeles lacked certain qualities of “legibility”: “[The city] seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole.” Several generations of authors and artists have taken that bait. Cinema’s particular hold on the imagination of Southern California’s landscape means that the Los Angeles filmmaker-cartographer necessarily undertakes a material history of place. Invariably, the avant-garde adoption of formal patterns and rules suggests a reorientation of the landscape as a subject of historical contemplation, political analysis, and environmental aesthetics. If James Benning is the region’s most influential landscape filmmaker, as Tom McCormack recently suggested in these pages, his minimalism does not wholly define the field. Other filmmakers have been more explicit in rendering the Southern California landscape, grazing unexpected beauty while violating the rules of an orderly time-image.
Gary Beydler and Peter Bo Rappmund are two such artists. Beydler’s crystalline short films (all produced in the mid-‘70s) combine the cartographic and musical meanings of the “scale,” finding melody and counterpoint in the means of measure. The chilly terms for “laying bare the device” will not do for Beydler’s delightful elucidations of cinematic perception, each of them offered in the spirit of an elegant proof. Sadly, he died this past January, though not before working with Mark Toscano at Academy Film Archives on the preservation of his film work. Beydler should be better known and will be, thanks to Toscano’s restorations of four key 16mm works—Pasadena Freeway Stills (1974), Glass Face (1975), Hand Held Day (1975), and Venice Pier (1976, all of them available for rental from Canyon Cinema). Rappmund is still new to the regional fold, having in 2010 completed his hour-long visual essay Psychohydrography as a graduate student at Cal Arts, where he studied with Benning, Thom Andersen, and Betzy Bromberg. He was first encouraged to take up filmmaking by Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado. This is notable mentorship, certainly, but Psychohydrography is an ambitious debut in its own right, struggling to take intelligent advantage of digital technology in the landscape context. Divided into three parts, the film follows the Los Angeles water supply from its Eastern Sierra Nevada source through the alien channels of the Los Angeles River all the way to its eventual Pacific deposit.
While Beydler’s self-sufficient films unfold as representational koans, Rappmund’s landscape recordings piece together a strong mental image of a complex topographical system. And yet, there are intersections—most obviously in the manipulation of time to illustrate the relativity of space. The insights Beydler and Rappmund derive from their respective formal exercises are distinct, but their films similarly cinch what David E. James describes as the “double helix” of cinema and the Southern California landscape, with “each engaging the other’s history and morphology, each supplying the other’s metaphors.”
Toscano has helmed many restorations pertaining to the Los Angeles avant-garde, but only became familiar with Beydler’s work through James, who dedicates a couple of pages of The Most Typical Avant-Garde to Pasadena Freeway Stills and Hand Held Day. Beydler had given up his art practice many years earlier, but responded favourably to Toscano’s call about collecting and restoring his films. It was Beydler himself who first brought Venice Pier to Toscano’s attention. (As one might surmise from Venice Pier’s absence from James’ far-reaching history, the film had gone missing since it premiered as a 16mm loop at the Gagosian Gallery.) At 16 minutes, it’s his longest film, and the only one to employ multiple camera setups and a definitive soundtrack. It is also a dazzling work of cinematic impressionism, calling to mind Monet’s remark, “One does not paint a landscape, a seascape, a figure. One paints an impression of an hour of the day.”
Pasadena Freeway Stills is Beydler’s most technical conjuring of moving pictures. The film begins with the uncertain image of a rectangular frame within the frame. We only realize that these borders are strips of tape stuck to a pane of glass when a man (Beydler himself) enters the frame, sits down, and presses a black-and-white photograph to the rectangle. The photograph is an unremarkable snapshot of the Pasadena Freeway in light traffic. After a cut, the action is repeated with an identical looking photograph. Then another. The cuts accelerate until eventually the still photographs begin to flip before the camera fast enough that we discern their penetration of space. Finally, the speed of the film reaches the terminal velocity—one frame and photograph per cut—at which the freeway drive is smoothly animated as a motion picture, while Beydler’s pressed fingers jerk in stop-motion time. With the cinematic wheel thus reinvented, we watch for a minute of screen time, or a few curves around the road. The cuts then retrace the time arc back to longer duration shots, until the flow of real time is restored to the exterior image and the freeway again appears stilled.
As is typical of all Beydler’s shorts, a simple formal exercise triggers many related effects. There is the clever doubling of the “film within a film” idea, with the embedded frame signaling the compositional process—Beydler shooting the freeway with a film camera (also through a pane of glass), then printing the individual frames of the negative, then filming these 1200-odd stills at motion-picture speed, and then breaking down that image into stills so that the freeway panorama (a view recalling early films like A Trip Down Market Street ) is recreated.
The fact that Beydler uses his body to enact the film’s transference gives the piece a freewheeling performative quality—one quite distinct from the frowning “hands off” demeanour of so much structuralist film. Beydler told Toscano how he improvised the film’s return to the real time of the studio—he had initially just thought he would fade out with the freeway image humming along. The final arc strengthens the perceptual link between the two vehicles’ cruising speeds (24fps and 55mph), with the acceleration and deceleration of the film suggesting ramps onto and off of a freeway. And of course it’s significant that it’s the Pasadena Freeway—the first freeway completed in Los Angeles, and, as such, emblematic of the spatial projection of the city as cinema itself.
Glass Face plays as the B-side of Pasadena Freeway Stills, reapplying the earlier work’s spatial-temporal design: the same studio image, the same pane of glass (though without the inner frame), and the same parabolic arc of shot durations. But instead of limiting the frame to his midsection, Beydler here offers a more conventional portrait of his face. He leans forwards and presses his features against the glass, squashing a cheek or nose or chin—this repeats, gaining speed until it appears, quite amusingly, that his face is being molded like so much clay. Once again we’re unable to “see” the glass but for its flattening effect—a metaphor for the camera lens. The lack of an internal reference for the time shift lessens the overall effect, but it’s still a clever three-minute gag, making sport of the romantic notion of sculpting in time (to say nothing of being “put under the glass”).
Hand Held Day is another live-recorded film, but by moving outside the studio and opening his conceptual framework to natural processes, Beydler gains an added degree of lyricism. Here compression is the result of time-lapse photography: Beydler made the film over the course of a meteorologically active day in the Arizona desert. As with Pasadena Freeway Stills, there is a nested composition, though here the inner frame is a mirror rather than a transparency. Beydler palms the pocket-sized reflector in his right hand. The mirror image shows rugged mountains to the west, while the mirror divides the eastward-facing camera image into layers of scrolling clouds. The time lapse accentuates the minor twitches in Beydler’s remarkably steady hand, rocking the mirror landscape with grace notes of imperfection. The orientation of the shot makes for a stunning climax at sunset, when the mirror is so inundated with red light that the darkening eastern skies simply black out. With this searing abstraction of the composition, Beydler exceeds expectation.
Hand Held Day offers a heightened experience of space in time, but Beydler’s “hand held” gesture slyly undercuts the pomp of perspective—one cannot help but smile at this play on the sublime artist sticking out his imperial thumb to survey a landscape. Being in America, the landscape is naturally westward. But the mirror’s contradictory suggestions of depth—the surface being the nearest thing in the frame, the landscape it represents the most distant—suggests the implausible orientation of the picture-postcard view.
Shot over the course of a year, Venice Pier represents a different order of investment. Although it still follows a preconceived framework—we move down the length of the pier one cement divider at a time, the chronology of the shots scrambled—here that system is constructed first in a social space and then again in editing. The pier is a more particular landscape than Hand Held Day’s desert scene, overlapping at least three of Kevin Lynch’s five urban elements: it is edge, landmark, and path (and also outstretched film strip in the imagination of Venice Pier). As Beydler cuts between the different camera stations, he catalogues the variations in the pier’s appearance and social use. At four points, he suspends the documentary impressionism for a time-lapse image. We watch the crowds of a sunny afternoon shuttle up and down the pier and, in the film’s final image, gaze out over the ocean to witness another magnificent sunset. These silent refrains give us the theme of Beydler’s city poem: the impermanence of things. (When the film initially screened at the Gagosian, it was accompanied by planning materials, including an exquisite blueprint drawing of the pier. Unfortunately Beydler did not save these artifacts).
Over the course of Venice Pier, the basic elements of sky and pier and sea come together in an amazing range of colours and textures. As Toscano notes in his blog, (preservationinsanity.blogspot.com/2010/02/to-gary-beydler.html), Beydler didn’t want colour timing done for the new print: we’re made acutely aware of the Ektachrome stock as a scientific control for the pier’s environmental fluctuations. The soundtrack further clarifies the variations of surf, though its discontinuities from shot to shot primarily signal the different social manifestation of the pier. As the scene changes according to the time of year, so too does it according to the day of the week. Naturally, the sounds of a sunny weekend afternoon (children’s voices, a radio playing the Steve Miller Band) and a blustery evening are completely different, and with these different iterations strung together, we realize all the feelings we attach to environmental cues. In all, the film’s structure revels in the pier’s heterogeneity—the fact that this spit of concrete appears so different under pale pink or strong blue skies; that people use it to play, fish, promenade, work, and take photographs; that you see people who might not ordinarily mix (whether because of race, class, or age) all walk this same lane. Some of the shots Beydler captures are playful (a kid points his toy gun at the camera; a lifeguard climbs his ladder up out of the top of the frame), others are surprisingly intimate (a young guy washes up in a public sink; a lone fisher faces the sea), and still others arrive as if formed in a dream (a boy looking at birds in a shot oversaturated with afternoon light; a lone man walks back from land’s end on a grey day). All of Beydler’s films submit a predictable structure to some kind of chaos, but that registers with special tenderness in Venice Pier—here is a film that could be recreated but never reproduced.
Rappmund works on a larger scale than Beydler but still makes time-lapse photography interesting—no small thing given the effect’s abuses in the self-conscious epics of Godfrey Reggio that Psychohydrography superficially resembles. Reggio’s employment of time lapse spectacularizes vision and universalizes speed, resulting in monorhythmic pictures expurgated of conflict. Rappmund’s method, by contrast, tends to set the image against itself, radically extricating movement from stillness and delineating coexistent timeframes (geologic time, flowing time, industrial time).
Rappmund arrived at his shooting rig for Psychohydrography—an intervalometer used with a Nikon D-SLR—as a matter of practical necessity. His first concern was to capture the bizarre, evanescent phenomena he observed when he first stumbled upon the Los Angeles River at night—a revelatory experience he describes as “seeing the city inside out.” This required long exposure times, which made a Bolex prohibitively expensive. With the digital camera, Rappmund was able to explore the chemical spectrum of colours that make the paved waterway appear as one of the mythic infernal rivers.
Because all of Psychohydrography was shot with a fixed frame, Rappmund was able to treat different portions of a single image with different timescales. On a purely aesthetic level, these subtle manipulations give Psychohydrography a sculptural quality, which, taken with the evident challenges of documenting such extreme environments (the film’s rural and urban spaces are equally un-idyllic), intimates a physicality often lacking in digital work. But the time-lapse photography is also crucial to Rappmund’s dialectical conception of the water system as a whole—and the basic ambiguity as to whether it is better thought of as a monument or ruin. Already in the early images from the Sierra Nevada, there is a tense friction between the ghostly rush of water and the blasted, impassive rock. Rappmund’s alteration of scale between shots—moving from a conventionally magnificent expanse to a full-frame abstraction of light reflections—formalizes the seismic logic of opposing forces. It’s a vision with particular resonance in this geologically tumultuous landscape, where the highest and lowest points in the contiguous US stand less than 90 miles apart.
Approaching the transitional zones of Owens Valley, Mulholland’s Aqueduct, and greater Los Angeles, the engineered nature of Rappmund’s imaging underscores the increasingly technological view of the river. We begin to discern the waterway’s participation in a transportation network as it adjoins highways and ominous power stations. The electric current primarily registers on Psychohydrography’s expressionist soundtrack as so much liquid noise. The sound design’s enhanced textures sensitize the images in a manner similar to Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). Most time-lapse photography is oversold with music, but Rappmund’s field recordings are in awe of the invisible. He taped the majority of the film’s sounds on location (even the grind of unseen motorbikes), but then calibrated these recordings “to make them feel more like found artifacts than diegetic sounds.” Rappmund grows bolder in his sonic manipulations—introducing loops, the persistent motif of a vinyl needle stuck in a groove, and hermetic matches of sound and image—when the film reaches the Aqueduct. In doing so, he suggests a psychological order to the infrastructure and, equally important, dislodges the images from the backlog of cinematic representations of the Los Angeles River—everything from Chinatown (1974) to Water and Power (1989) to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) to LA Zombie.
Almost exactly halfway through Psychohydrography’s hour, Rappmund cuts to black, giving our eyes a chance to recharge for the night-time passages through the city. A roaring crowd swirls around the soundtrack before we see the river’s sleek reflection split into two massive channels around the Friday night lights—the one place where Rappmund allows himself a more pointed visual commentary of human obliviousness. The images along what Mike Davis referred to as the river’s “concrete straitjacket” are fantastic—we see reflected squiggles of neon reminiscent of Oskar Fischinger animations, and a heavy overpass with the distant city visible only by its haze. If the sequencing is somewhat less focused, that only pushes us to think of the film as survey photography in a visionary mood. Indeed, the sheer inexorableness of these images seals Psychohydrography as a praiseworthy head movie. The immersive “trip” structure may not satisfy environmentalist agendas for the river, though it would be silly to think that any exhaustive document of Los Angeles’ water could ever be apolitical. Rappmund explains, “I didn’t want to be too didactic, but I tried to construct something that would at least pique the curiosity of some as to how semi-arid land can support 13 million people.” Psychohydrography finally rests on the notion that in order to understand a landscape, it may be necessary to be overwhelmed by it.
That’s where the waves come in—or rather go out—since the culminating ten-minute ode to the Pacific is layered in reverse motion. We don’t realize this at first, when the violent flashes of surf appear against a painted backdrop of muted oranges and blacks. Rappmund recorded the scene over the course of a single evening when the Station Fire produced wild sunsets (it turns out he’s working in a well-established genre here—do a quick YouTube search of “Time Lapse Los Angeles Fire” to see what I mean). As with Venice Pier, the swelling vision of the ocean is so entrancing that we forget its narrow fulfillment of the film’s cartographic structure—once at sea, we leave all that behind. Rappmund gives us the sun rising over the Pacific and manipulates the frame speed so as to crystallize individual waves. The ocean sounds lock into place with the vinyl needle’s rotations, and a lyrical musical fragment blossoms over the course of several passes. Rappmund says the inspiration for this elegant motif came from listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops—the idea was to reverse Basinski’s elegant decay “to show the atomized coming back into being.” This is where the Psychohydrography map ends, with the x that marks the spot nearly swallowing us whole.