By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Michael Sicinski
1. David Gatten’s cinema is probably the clearest articulation of a broader tendency in contemporary experimental cinema. Filmmakers working in this mode are equally influenced by Romanticist and Formalist traditions. Personal expressivity and objective rigour are not so much stances as they are strategies, poles along which to suspend oneself in a mutual process of reality testing. But let’s not be vague here. “Structuralism” and “mythopoeia” are not simply equally available options in a filmmaker’s equal-opportunity toolkit. We have to draw some lines, and here is a line: the most vital contemporary work being made today emerges from the tension implicit within this historical inheritance, by plumbing the problematic. As Scott MacDonald correctly pointed out, a film such as Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002) exemplifies this in its very construction. David Gatten organizes the rhythm of the lengthy, text-free third “act” with mathematical regularity, a method that will remain a hallmark of Gatten’s editing. But the cement splices of black leader so organized produce highly irregular, handmade images of pure cinematic “stuff,” a thick, pulpy impasto that at times resembles primitive landscapes but mostly summons visual memories of Abstract Expressionism, albeit of a sort that struggles to birth itself from a dark painterly pitch. Secret History of the Dividing Line does not “resolve” Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton; it instigates a dialogue that Gatten does not ever intend to finish.
2. Although considered a conceptual filmmaker, David Gatten is committed to a handcrafted approach that enriches even the text-only elements of his films with a sensual, haptic cinematic supplement. This is yet another way in which Gatten’s films reframe older aesthetic dichotomies. Gatten’s films are beautiful. Such a statement, flat and declarative, may contravene certain still-prevalent prejudices regarding so-called conceptual cinema. But whatever else they do, these films operate as a network of luxurious surfaces, their texts either emanating and dissipating from within a hazy, milky-amber light, or embossed upon the screen with the shallow, crepuscular ridges of the printed antiquarian page, the solidity of the textual-image framed by the irregular line of xerography, tape lift, or light spill. For instance, much of The Enjoyment of Reading, Lost and Found (2002), consists of card-catalogue entries, a series of formally uniform descriptions of texts. Like Dividing Line and two other films—Moxon’s Mechanik Exercises (1999) and The Great Art of Knowing (2004)—Enjoyment is part of Gatten’s ongoing series of films engaging with the material history of William Byrd II (1674-1744), founder of Richmond, Virginia, and early American librarian. Gatten’s structural regularity of the catalogue cards in Enjoyment, each onscreen for the same number of frames, each in identical format, actually complements their timeworn individuality as physical artifacts, the tangible resonances of distributed ink that only Gatten’s cinematic presentation could highlight. And so, when this procession of “clerical” data gives way, in the film’s next movement, to crystalline colour images of pure green luminosity (unavoidably evocative of Brakhage’s The Text of Light ), we are indeed receiving “raw data” in a phenomenological sense. But the distinction between the two parts—the green light reveals a candle; the cards are sensual in their own right—is a matter of degree.
3. David Gatten’s work, taken as a whole, can be broadly characterized thusly: the presence or introduction of systems of knowledge simultaneously undermined and made uniquely expressive by their non-comprehensive state. Each film, and the films taken together, forms a library “misfiled” by desire. Patently expressive works like Brakhage’s frequently thematize the engulfing power of the universe upon the human sensorium, the sublimity of lostness. This is especially true of the longer works, like Dog Star Man (1961-64), The Text of Light, or The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000). Less often remarked upon, however, is the fact that “late” structuralist film projects, such as Michael Snow’s ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974), Hollis Frampton’s Magellan cycle (1971-1980), or Ken Jacobs’ variations on Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-present), are also largely about foregrounding the experience of being lost. But instead of diving straight into phenomenological rapture, these works attempt to install provisional categories and parameters for understanding. The experience differs from work to work, of course, but they are united in their situating of data within frameworks that are consistently incomplete, sometimes (especially in Snow) to the point of absurdity. This impulse toward “mobile order,” the taxonomy in the sands of high tide, places these films in a noble tradition: Descartes and Locke, Barthes, Borges, and Calvino. This is quite squarely the framework for understanding Gatten’s cinema, with the proviso, of course, that a large part of its radical a-systematic non-comprehensiveness results from Gatten’s commitment to the Romantic and artisanal modes that traditional formalisms have tended to suppress.
None of Gatten’s films thematizes this problem as explicitly as The Great Art of Knowing (2004), which, at 37 minutes, is the longest of the Byrd films to date. In it, Gatten specifically (re)stages a tremulous death match within what we have come to understand as intellectual history. On the one hand, Knowing draws on various actual texts and ideas (Leonardo, Wittgenstein, etc.), present within the film, the organizing/disorganizing principle being a 17th-century tome with which the film shares its title. A volume from the Byrd library, it was intended to be a vast compendium of available knowledge. On the other hand, Gatten engages with the tomes of the library and the Byrds themselves, their history and the material facticity of what they built. Where does “knowing” lie? The Great Art of Knowing interpolates fragments of the life of Byrd’s daughter Evelyn and traces of a love affair that was not meant to leave a record. Where does a “body of knowledge” reside? Is it in the building of a library, with its system of categorization and judgments over inclusion? And where did that missing book go?
4. David Gatten’s cinema is not only textual. It is chemical. History is left on the material substrate of things. Moxon’s Mechanik Exercises is Gatten’s Byrd film based on another titular volume, in this case a text about (as the subtitle explains) the art of printing. More specifically, the book is about the printing press and its function in disseminating the Bible (as Gatten has noted elsewhere, the word and the Word). Much of Moxon’s consists of slide-like, white-on-black texts that compare elements of the Gutenberg Bible with other editions. But Gatten juxtaposes this exegetical model with a purely tangible, even spectacular filmic motif, a concrescence of the haptic and the optic. Portions of the Biblical texts are affixed to the film, lifted from their source with cellophane tape after Gatten has boiled the books. We see the ink, hanging together in atomic word-forms like nervous constellations, mottled and wavering in thickness. The Word, indeed, is made flesh. If the Byrd project demands that we consider how one builds textual traditions—are they merely “great conversations,” or do they consist of piles of pulp and leather, brick and mortar?—the tactility of Gatten’s work also demonstrates that attempts to transmit and fix/unfix meaning will inevitably engage a materialism that might strike some as shockingly brute. But look again, and it is in fact modernism’s hidden face, not just the “pleasure” but also the “pressure” of the text (to paraphrase both Roland Barthes and filmmaker Peter Rose).
In this regard, Gatten’s What the Water Said films are indubitably connected to his more obviously philosophical Byrd efforts. Made by submerging raw film stock in the ocean, off the coast of North Carolina near Seabrook Island (a location of personal importance in Gatten’s childhood), What the Water Said replaces cameras with crab traps, the varying movement of the sea taking the place of measured light exposure. These raw records of turbulence, salinity, available light, friction, and sometimes, direct engagement with underwater life form a kind of chemical calendar, Gatten organizing the footage by date. The colour and scratch patterns of What the Water Said, both within the relatively small spans of time of 1-3 and 4-6, and the many years between those sets (1998 and 2007), are astonishing in their physical variety. Sometimes the scratches burst like fireworks; other times emulsion scars punch white light through like popping corn. Gatten intercuts the sea footage with texts about “the life aquatic,” by the likes of Eliot, Poe, Melville, and others. But what we have, much like in the inks of the Byrd films, is a kind of cinema degree zero wherein a photochemical transaction between the celluloid and the ocean has bypassed “representation,” in any conventional sense. Instead, Gatten has allowed for a direct, para-scientific inscription of a phenomenon in time and space. And so, much like Joseph Moxon catalogued efforts to inscribe the Word of God, while detailing a material effort that actually achieved a parallel, physical history, Gatten’s sea-films provide a core sample of the ultimate in sublime knowledge, that “oceanic feeling.” We are often told, upon undertaking an investigation, that we are “just scratching the surface,” but Gatten’s materialism proposes provisional codices for reading those very surface scratches, as the front line in a Secret History.
5. David Gatten’s films display the extent to which the unspooling of a piece of celluloid in time is more than the instantiation of a potential message, but an activation of live energies which both antedate and postdate our bearing witness. The old popular model upon which so much film theory was based was Plato’s Cave; we were metaphorically chained in seats gaping at shadows, coaxed into identifying first with their figures and then with the camera-eye that organized them. Every time the What the Water Said films are shown, however, we are instead observing the record of a process that is self-sufficient and non-representational. The literary interludes serve as dialectical reminders of how both Gatten and we will struggle each time to reconcile chemical facticity with belletristic accounts based on memory and imagination. (One is reminded of Martha Rosler and her photo-essay “The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.”) But the ocean-inscriptions are, in a way, merely the limit for a temporal force that permeates Gatten’s film work. Few filmmakers demand quite so much active literacy from their viewers, and so much specific facility with the English language at that. But Gatten’s work/play with text is always exactingly modulated for strict temporal control, with careful visual schemes and rhythms. The “signature” Gatten shot is that of an off-white frame (a yellowing page, perhaps) with words fading in and fading out of it, the time of reading “becoming” the time of enframed visual dictation. This manoeuvre places the films in a lineage with works like Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice (1972) and Michael Snow’s So Is This (1982). But of course Gatten’s use of “moveable type,” the milky, fading texts onscreen, relates more directly to the vicissitudes of history and textual materiality. But there’s more. Like the water scratches and discolourations, these wavering ink messages allude to a physical trace of something typically lost in the rush of time, in this case the incomplete speech and momentary cross-reference of textual connections in the mind. You read, your inner text sends your mental library to another spot for a synaptic footnote. Frequently this is the province not of logic but of desire. In The Address of the Eye, Vivian Sobchack argues that films themselves have “bodies,” that they are phenomenological entities instantiated in the time of their projection. They view and are viewed, and therefore have a kind of subjectivity all their own. Gatten’s cinema, then, rather like celluloid cousins to Roland Barthes’ S/Z, provides a new angle on Sobchack’s radical thesis, by offering film-bodies that are their own reading subjects. The words press into the screen, emboss it, and retract like ideas whose time is always already somewhere else, in a history perpetually eaten by the take-up reel.
6. The cinema as speech act. “I believe in you.” “You are my friend.” “I thee wed.” “I love you.” One of Gatten’s most remarkable recent films is Journals and Remarks (2009). It is comprised of 700 shots, each exactly 29 frames long. In some senses, to call this one of Gatten’s most personal films seems counterintuitive, as it is his second film to engage directly with Charles Darwin. In it, the text and illustrations of A Voyage of the Beagle are continuously juxtaposed with contemporary footage Gatten shot on a trip to the Galapagos. We see fragments of Darwin’s language, detailed etchings of tortoises and shorebirds, each followed in kind by the same animals, in living colour, quite frequently in the same postures and attitudes in which Darwin’s draughtsman captured them. In a tight, syncopated 15 minutes—the 29 frames create a kind of off-beat—Gatten forcefully splices past and present in a deceptively placid defense of Darwin’s vision of life on earth. Journals and Remarks, then, silently speaks its case. In this regard, I see it as a film with which to bridge Gatten’s text-web of historical materialism and more recent efforts which take this idea—film as a living subject, as a speaker, film as speech act—into the most humblingly personal of places. The film How to Conduct a Love Affair (2007), for example, might be seen as an isolation of that “secret” romantic marginalia of desire from the Byrd library, expanded into a general principle. In it, plaintive instructions to a would-be lover (“be patient,” for example) appear on the screen; we soon discover that the text is taken from an early conduct book, bearing the same title as the film itself. Throughout the film, Gatten alters the text through deletions and additions, eventually resulting in what appear to be direct statements in his own voice, patterned after the conduct book’s tone. What one finds here is a rather heartbreaking tension—our innermost feelings are, in the end, not that different from those of other people and, as such, subject to schematic treatment. Of course, an actual love affair exceeds these strictures, but not entirely, perhaps the way a river laps against its banks. Against these conceptual matters, Gatten provides exquisite images, the dominant one being of a heavy, wrinkled piece of canvas, hanging like a curtain but appearing to be flat against the wall. Gatten lights and frames the material to highlight shadow and texture, and the result is rather like a Warhol film-portrait of a Richard Tuttle painting. In counterpoint to this image, we see dusty, antiquarian close-ups of windowpanes, encrusted bottlenecks, and eventually superimpositions, ghostings, and painterly, near-monochrome intrusions of colour. The overall impression of Love Affair is one of constant surprise, a framework in which there is not only continually renewed promise in that which we know well, but the likelihood of something utterly unexpected just in the offing. Not bad guidelines for courtship; Love Affair begins by dictating a proper means of expressing true love, and ends by embodying and instantiating it. Love Affair (dedicated to Mary Helena Clark), then, “becomes” a loving object as it transforms in the time of its showing. Gatten’s most recent film, The Matter Propounded, of its Possibility and Impossibility, treated in four Parts (2011), consists of a collection of Instructions, Questions, Answers, and Conclusions, all drawn from a 19th-century book on fortune telling. These phrases are rendered random when removed from context. (“Shall I ever escape from the sadness that overshadows me?” etc.) Dedicated to Phil Solomon, the film is a rearrangement of a system of organization that, once compromised, becomes poetry rather than objective or semi-objective meaning. The film, then, can have only one unadulterated message, and that is its dedication.
7. There will always be more to say. We can see this impulse—film as speech act, film as surrogate, authorized speaker—taken to its most tender extremes with Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (2010). Three textual systems are put into play: Western Union telegraph codes and customary Protestant wedding vows from The Book of Common Prayer are both combined with a taxonomy of speech acts by Sir Francis Bacon. As with other Gatten works, 323 once again reflects the intersection of classification systems that are self-enclosed and inscrutable to one another, the misunderstanding yielding a kind of Venn diagram of concrete poetry. The telegraph codes (“HAFIJ 62 JSLSI”) are meant to simplify and expedite vital messages. The vows (“to have and to hold”) connect quotidian effort to spiritual perpetuity. The rhetorical meta-language (“instances of ______”) measures a mind against its own impulsive intentions. The relationship between the elements is a shifting one, but the end result is a speech act in the fullest possible sense. The film, which served as Gatten’s physical wedding vows for his union to fellow filmmaker Erin Espelie, is, as they say, a living, breathing document. If you have not see 323: OUATITW yet, I am happy for you that you have this truly uplifting experience to look forward to. John Searle, for his part, would no doubt find it highly felicitous.
Thanks to Chris Stults, Aaron Cutler, and David Gatten for invaluable assistance in researching this article.