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The Garden in the Machine
A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place
By Scott MacDonald
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2001 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Garden in the Machine
Two American Avant-Garde Films and the Nineteenth-Century Visual Arts
The image of the railroad on the shore of the pond figures an ambiguity at the heart of Walden. Man-made power, the machine with its fire, smoke, and thunder, is juxtaposed to the waters of Walden, remarkable for their depth and purity and a matchless, indescribable color–now light blue, now green, almost always pellucid. The iron horse moves across the surface of the earth; the pond invites the eye below the surface. The contrast embodies both the hope and the fear aroused by the impending climax of America's encounter with wild nature.
LEO MARX, THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN
One of the primary reasons I became interested in film studies was the seeming open-endedness of the field. Cinema was new, I reasoned, and would continue to be new, unlike other academic fields, particularly those devoted to historical periods: as a scholar and a teacher, I would face the future, endlessly enthralled and energized by the transformation of the potential into the actual. That my development as a film scholar-teacher increasingly involved me in "avant-garde film" seemed quite natural—a logical extension of the attraction of film studies in general: avant-garde film was the newest of the new, the sharpest edge of the present as it sliced into the promise of the future. Scholars in some fields may empathize with the attitude I describe, but scholars in all fields will smile at its self-defeating implications. Of course, I can see now how "typically American" my assumptions were—as if one could maintain the excitement of youth merely by refusing to acknowledge the past! Obviously, film studies, like any other discipline, is only a field once its history takes, or is given, a recognizable shape.
My particular belated recognition of the obvious developed in a fashion that, I believe, has considerable utility for several academic fields that are usually thought of as roughly distinct from one another: film studies, American studies, environmental studies, and art history. Indeed, my fascination with avant-garde cinema has led me relentlessly into the past—and not simply into the past of film history, but back beyond the invention and development of modern cinema, into forms of image making that many film scholars, and other cultural historians, might consider peripheral to cinema, at best. I have become increasingly fascinated by a considerable number of modern American independent films that, by both accident and design, have invigorated traditions of thought and image-making generally thought to characterize the nineteenth century. While there are various topics that could be used to demonstrate how the "avant-garde" has become the "old-fashioned" and vice versa, the most fertile of these topics (if the reader can forgive the pun) is the American landscape.
The importance of the landscape in American cultural history hardly needs comment at this late date: landscape was a dominant issue in American painting and writing throughout the nineteenth century and, as a wealth of cultural commentary suggests, has remained crucial throughout this century, as the nineteenth-century fascination with "wilderness" and "nature" increasingly gave way, first, to a focus on cityscape and city life and, more recently, to a fascination with the forms of human signification that, in our postmodernist period, are the inevitable overlay of both countryside and city. What is often overlooked as this cultural trajectory is charted, however, is that earlier fascinations do not simply disappear; often they are taken so much for granted that, in effect, our consciousness of them becomes repressed: their very obviousness tends to render them invisible.
It may seem apparent that the nineteenth century's obsession with representing "wilderness" and the pastoral "middle state" had become anathema to most artists and art lovers by the early years of the twentieth century as modernism gathered momentum, but this certainly doesn't mean that the representation of wild and rural landscape disappeared from the arts. Any trip to a local art and craft show will reveal that landscape, in the most traditional senses, remains a central issue for many painters and photographers. And, more important for this discussion, any exposure to modern cinema makes clear that the American landscape—in both the broadest sense of the term and in the more particular and traditional sense of the depiction of wild and rural scenes—is virtually indispensable to film pleasure. This is especially obvious in the Western, of course, but is true of all commercial genres. These days, art lovers may be less likely to go to galleries and museums to see wild and rural scenes than art enthusiasts of earlier centuries, but they do see depictions of such scenes all the time.
Of course, that visions of landscape are crucial to many popular films doesn't mean that popular filmmakers are engaged with the complex, sophisticated discourse about landscape that developed in and around nineteenth-century American landscape painting and writing. That discourse may seem virtually defunct, except in the work of scholars, even if vestiges of the original forms are apparent in popular film. But here too a cultural repression is involved, though of a different sort. Many of the most intellectually interesting engagements with American landscape in modern American cinema have been occurring in the work of filmmakers who work independently of mainstream commercial cinema.
That late-twentieth-century independent filmmakers often share an interest in landscape with nineteenth-century artists and writers is less surprising than it may seem, once one considers the development of American independent film and the emergence of academic film studies during the 1960s and 1970s. For a good many filmmakers coming to maturity during those decades, a broad and penetrating cultural critique was essential. This critique was often directed at the commercialism of Hollywood, which was seen as a particularly visible index of the increasingly rampant materialism of capitalist culture. The arrival of commercial television as the preeminent national entertainment was causing the declining pop film industry to be at least as desperately commercial as it had ever been, and this desperation was reflected in an increasing tendency toward visual and auditory overload, the apparent assumption being that the only way to maintain the audience that still went to movie theaters, and to win back some of those who were no longer paying admission, was to provide consumers with more and more to consume: larger images and more of them per minute, more visceral violence, and more overt sexuality. For many filmmakers working outside the Industry and wanting to critique it, the fundamental question was how to develop a film practice that worked against the demands of the commercial and against this increasing tendency toward overload—and where to go for inspiration.
One set of answers developed along with, and in part because of, the academicization of film studies. Inevitably, the development of cinema as a field of study catalyzed a new awareness of those whose "primitive" contributions to the rhetoric of cinema had been left behind as the industry developed the commercial feature as its most marketable form: the earliest filmmakers (Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Edwin S. Porter, George Méliès) and the motion photographers who preceded them, especially Eadweard Muybridge; and the tradition of image making and audience development that cinema's pioneers and original audiences inherited, including the "Great Pictures" of Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, the landscape and sequential paintings of Thomas Cole (see plate 1; figs. 3–6), the still and moving panoramas of John Banvard and others, Louis Daguerre's Diorama, and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon.
This new awareness of early cinema and precinema image making catalyzed a considerable body of work produced by filmmakers teaching or studying at academic institutions who were attempting to begin anticommercial filmmaking careers. Two instances of this body of work are Larry Gottheim's Fog Line (1970) and J. J. Murphy's Sky Blue Water Light Sign (1972). That neither of these films, or the names of their makers, will be familiar to most scholars and teachers outside film studies is, unfortunately, to be expected. While everyone understands the importance of the commercial cinema in the evolution of modern American culture, the remarkable contributions of the wide world of independent cinema (the extent of this history is suggested by the proliferation of names that have been used in connection with it: avant-garde film, underground film, abstract film, experimental film, the New American Cinema ...) remains outside the awareness of most scholars and teachers—largely because of the general failure of film historians to bridge the gaps between the developing field of film studies and other academic disciplines. My decision to focus the following discussion on two, relatively brief films is a function not only of the perceptual impact and conceptual density of these particular films but also of their remarkable utility for teachers. Few films can create as much energy in a classroom as Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign, both of which are effective instigators of a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between contemporary media practice and viewership and nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural development. My hope is that my discussion will tempt some of those who teach and write American studies, environmental studies, and art history not only to try including these two films in their curricula and their scholarly deliberations, but to see an exploration of the full range of American independent cinema as vital to their, and their students', sense of American culture.
Gottheim made Fog Line soon after arriving at the State University of New York at Binghamton, having completed his Ph.D. in comparative literature at Yale; Murphy made Sky Blue Water Light Sign when he was a graduate student in cinema at the University of Iowa. Like the Lumière Brothers (and the Edison Studio), Gottheim and Murphy limited each of their earliest films to a single shot, made with the camera mounted on a tripod. For the Lumières, this procedure must have seemed quite obvious: having developed a successful business as manufacturers of still cameras before inventing their Cinématographe, they must have felt it sufficient to surprise the first Cinématographe audiences with photographs-in-motion. For Gottheim and Murphy, it seemed equally obvious to model their first steps toward a new film praxis on what they understood as their cinematic fathers' first steps. Of course, the seventy-five-year gap between the invention of cinema and these young academic filmmakers' entry into filmmaking is as obvious as their indebtedness to the Lumières. The early Lumière films were fifty seconds long (seventeen meters), long enough to reveal the subject-in-motion, but not so long as to bore the Cinématographe audience. The Lumières' goal was commercial: they needed to demonstrate the flexibility of the new technology. While their films were one shot long, even the earliest public Cinématographe shows in Paris included multiple films on a variety of topics, many of which, in 1895–96, would have been considered reasonably exciting, or amusing, or impressive: large groups of soldiers marching, a train arriving at a station, the demolition of a wall by construction workers (also presented in reverse) ... And these single-shot views were presented one after the other without the intervention of the individual titles that were to become standard later, when the Lumière films were shown to film society and academic audiences. In other words, the early Cinématographe presentations were essentially advertisements, and their structure prefigures the barrage strategy of modern television commercials.
For Gottheim and Murphy, however, the salient fact was the simplicity and directness of the Lumière imagery; and from their position in the early 1970s, this simplicity and directness seemed a useful weapon in the service of an anticommercial aesthetic. They chose unusually "simple" subjects—a foggy, early-morning, rural landscape near Gottheim's home in Binghamton, New York, for Fog Line; and for Sky Blue Water Light Sign, the wilderness scene revealed by a light sign used to advertise Hamm's Beer in bars (the slogan for Hamm's was and is "from the land of sky blue waters"). And they extended the duration of their fixed-camera gaze on these subjects well beyond the early Lumière films: Fog Line lasts ten and a half minutes; Sky Blue Water Light Sign, eight and a half minutes.
While the commercial industry can be said to have developed the visceral excitement of the first Cinématographe shows and their commercial purpose, Gottheim, Murphy, and others developed precisely those dimensions of the Lumière films that, seventy-five years later, had come to seem least commercial and most primitive. Paradoxically, they became "avant-garde" filmmakers by accessing topics and themes that were more characteristic of the decades that preceded the invention of the Cinématographe than of their own time. Most obviously, Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign are "landscape films"; images of landscape are all we see in both films.
In the early 1970s the decision to focus on landscape alone for an extended duration—in both films there is a variety of evidence of human presence but no characters or human action—was distinctive, even radical; and, from my experience presenting the two films, it continues to feel at least as distinctive and radical for most viewers. In fact, as serene as both films can seem—once one allows that the filmmakers' minimalist tactics are legitimate—many viewers who see the films now are at least mildly annoyed, and some are angry: both filmmakers seem not to mind that their films are "boring."
That viewers have been trained, and have trained themselves, to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film experience provides us with a measure of how different our sensibilities are from those of art lovers of a previous century. Indeed, when I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!" Without overt human characterization and plot, contemporary film viewers are virtually blind to imagery and issues that fascinated artists and audiences alike during the nineteenth century, and they are blind regardless of the considerable visual subtlety and conceptual density of both films.
At this point, I must discuss Fog Line and Sky Blue Water Light Sign individually, for although they are similar in their makers' implicit defiance of late-twentieth-century taste and in their general affirmation of the nineteenth century's interest in landscape, the two films are worlds apart in their specifics—not only in the obvious sense that Gottheim's film presents a rural, cultivated landscape, a pastoral scene, and Sky Blue Water Light Sign, a wild scene, but in other senses as well.
While most audiences of Fog Line see, at most, only a foggy green landscape (Fog Line is silent)—what they define as "Nothing!"—the film offers a good bit more to the patient, discerning eye, both compositionally and as an experience in time. What one sees and can identify in Fog Line depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear (see plates 2, 3). At the beginning of the film, the image is virtually abstract—a milky green rectangle—and this abstraction is emphasized by the fact that Gottheim provides no pre-image credits. During approximately the first third of Fog Line, the only motion is the very slight clearing of the fog, most noticeable in the center of the image where several shapes gradually become identifiable as trees. This tiny alteration is enough to reveal, after a minute or so, that the milky green space is in fact a landscape trisected horizontally by several high-tension wires (hence the separate word, "Line," in the title, which is not "Fogline" but suggests two separate categories of image). The viewer's gradual identification of the image as a landscape provides the film's easiest metaphor: as the fog clears in the image, enabling viewers to identify the scene, they are no longer "in a fog" about what they are seeing, at least on a literal level.
Excerpted from The Garden in the Machine by Scott MacDonald. Copyright © 2001 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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