The World in Focus: Vincent Grenier (1948-2023)

By Michael Sicinski

While I would never compare the end of a magazine’s run with the end of a person’s life, there is a painful appropriateness to the fact that I am eulogizing my friend, filmmaker Vincent Grenier, in the final issue of Cinema Scope. Grenier’s work represents a tactile, phenomenological cinema that is not very popular with current tastemakers. It is allegedly too abstract, too unfocused, insufficiently engagé or “relevant.” The same could be said of a number of meticulously formal, poetically inclined film- and videomakers, and, indeed, has been said about them. 

This attitude frustrates me for several reasons. For one thing, cinema is a medium that is uniquely suited to interrogating our senses, the way we see and hear. That’s what it does. When a viewer has no interest in such questions, it’s hard to take their interest in cinema very seriously. But perhaps more than this, the current vogue for “content,” whether in the form of downloaded deliverables or readily identifiable meaning, is a direct outgrowth of our late-capitalist death spiral. 

From this perspective, you should never spend time doing something if you are not already fairly certain of the outcome, whether it’s money, direct communication, or a festival slot earmarked for “political film.” What William James once referred to, somewhat ironically, as “the cash-value of ideas” is now a dominant aesthetic, meaning that the point of films is to tell the viewer something concrete about some social scenario, preferably one that we have already formed opinions about. Despite its good intentions, a lot of this “relevant” work is part of what Marcuse called “affirmative culture,” the reification of forms and ideas.

Vincent Grenier’s work was not valuable in this limited sense: it was too subtle to have any proscriptive use. His work had a very different cast to it, sharing much more with modern poetry and painting than with any mode of rhetorical or narrative filmmaking. Although he had a brief period in the ’90s where he experimented with his own brand of video verité in a series of short documentary portraits of friends—Out in the Garden (1991) and Feet (1994), in particular—Grenier soon moved away from this kind of non-fiction filmmaking, despite the fact that he was quite good at it. 

But this brief period is still interesting, for a couple of reasons. One, it marked a pointed move away from the playful late structuralism of Grenier’s best films from the ’70s, such as World in Focus (1976), While Revolved (1976, revised 2022), and Interieur Interiors (to AK) (1978). These films showed Grenier’s interest in movement and geometry, and were particularly distinguished by the filmmaker’s droll, painterly employment of negative space. The work was wry and sturdy, in the vein of his contemporaries Ernie Gehr and Barry Gerson, and Grenier could have continued in this mode quite comfortably.

But when Grenier turned from film to video, he took the new medium up as a challenge, something that required learning and, perhaps, a bit of unlearning. The short documentaries are notable in that they reflect Grenier seeing what the video camera could do in perfectly ordinary situations, and how video editing could take his approach only so far. The digital work he began producing in 2000 found him experimenting with a new set of formal parameters that he explored throughout the rest of his career, including extremely controlled, temporally modulated superimpositions and fades, dense audio mixes, and the internal constriction and expansion of the picture plane into moving verticals or overlapping, Rothko-like horizontals. 

For institutional as well as aesthetic reasons, the histories of avant-garde film and video art have essentially remained separate in North America, but Grenier was one of a handful of artists who saw the widespread shift to digital as an opportunity to overcome this division. A pivotal work here is Tabula Rasa (2004), in which Grenier returned to footage he’d shot in the ’90s of an American high school. This footage may have been shot with a direct approach similar to that of Feet, but he produces thick geometric layers of imagery, organizing the architecture into prisms and angles not unlike a Diebenkorn canvas. Although human figures and (especially) voices are present in Tabula Rasa, they come and go like ghosts. The title has a double meaning, of course. Rousseau’s theory of knowledge rejected Locke’s “blank slate” idea, going so far as to assert nature’s dominance of nurture. For Grenier, going back to this semi-documentary material with a medium-specific formal approach meant a kind of return to first principles, even though the nature of the original footage continued to assert itself. We can stop and then start again, but we can never really start over.

After taking a position in the film department at Binghamton University (a program founded by Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim), Grenier settled in nearby Ithaca, NY, and more of his films focused on his immediate surroundings: his home and garden; his neighbourhood; the sylvan highway commute between Ithaca and Binghamton; Cayuga Lake and the Susquehanna River. This intensive focus on the local was probably a point against Grenier for those who demanded a more flagrant worldliness from independent cinema, and while this close attention to one’s immediate surroundings has a great many precedents in art history, that too is unlikely to sway any skeptics.

But Vincent’s work (and I’m going to drop the formality here and refer to my late friend by his first name) was a crystalline expression of his personality. He was cheerful yet serious, preternaturally patient, with a quiet curiosity that occupied the mental space that most of us cede to anger and frustration. Vincent was an attentive listener and observer, and whether it was someone else’s artwork, a verbal or written argument, or just an object capturing the light in his immediate environment, he could always see things from a fresh, unexpected angle. Many experimental film- and videomakers find their way into academia as a survival tactic, but not all are suited to pedagogy. While Jacobs’ ebullient, vehement teaching at Binghamton is legendary, I think it’s critical to understand what Vincent brought to the program. He understood that artwork takes time and care, and that one must give students that same time and care in order to nurture them, and allow them to develop their own visions.

Vincent’s finest films tend toward an Objectivist inscription of that patient, careful observation. Like the modernist poets, Vincent understood that a work of cinema is a molded thing, an entity that both describes and reconfigures its subject. Filmmaking is about reframing, adding, and subtracting, treating perception as a question rather than a limitation. The four-part video Armoire (2007–2011) is the simple but skillful articulation of a paradox. A robin in Vincent’s yard was confused by a full-length mirror leaning against the wall, and by training the lens on this false, redoubled world, Vincent demonstrates a phenomenological truth: we are all that robin, and the confrontation between the mirror’s surface and the camera lens restages the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, resulting in a draw.

Les Chaises (2008) is another example of Vincent’s subtle yet complex, ludic formalism. Occasioned by two chairs in his yard, focusing on their vermillion vinyl back cushions, the film explores how objects carve out space within the broader colour scheme of the outdoors. The sun reveals different overtones in the vinyl, but Vincent’s frequent juxtaposition of the artificial red with the natural greens of the trees enacts colour theory as a kind of chance experiment. Similar in orientation, Intersection (2015) sets up camp at a particular juncture where the highway crosses in front of a glade of wildflowers, producing a collision of different surfaces and motion: the hard digital streaking of cars and trucks going by, and the green and blue flowers trembling as the vehicles whizz past.

These films are almost defiantly modest in their aims. Over 30 years ago, Tom Gunning wrote “Towards a Minor Cinema,” in which he described a historical shift away from grand aesthetic programs (Brakhage, Snow, Frampton) and toward something inchoate and termite-like. Drawing from Deleuze and Guattari, Gunning praises the cinema that “begins by expressing itself and doesn’t conceptualize until after.” I would say that this encapsulates my own approach to watching and writing about film, and one of the reasons I have felt more at home here than any other publication is that I feel as if this has been one of Cinema Scope’s implicit tendencies: to look at the world of film not for what it ought to be doing but for what it is doing, and celebrating those filmmakers whose work exhibits a similar approach. 

Vincent Grenier’s cinema is comprised of a series of “minor” interventions into our visual and aural comprehension of the physical world. These films presume a particular spectatorial attitude, one that regards ambiguity and instability as fundamental to our process of perception, and can face those uncertainties with patience and amusement. Where so much of our sensory input is obsessed with identifying and enumerating things, all in order to move us onto the next discrete thing, films like Vincent’s are polemical only in their refusal to participate in this overly codified existence. But here’s the secret: the cinema that insists on simplifying things into concepts, on “being about” rather than being, always has an expiration date. Vincent’s films, by contrast, have only just begun their work in the world. They will remain. Sicinski Michael