P. Adams Sitney (Artforum, Vol. XLVI, #9, May 2008)
|At Sea (2004-07/Peter Hutton/USA) 60'|
For nearly four decades Peter Hutton has been taking the measure of the cinematic image to delimit its powers of fascination and absorption. Over those years he transformed a diaristic mode of the filmic lyric into one in which subtle fluctuations in the visible field - of light, or figures and objects in motion, or slight camera movements - configure the ecstatic concentration of the filmmaker's attention. He marshals silence and the immanent rhythms of nearly still scenes, or slow vehicular movements, to evoke the pleasures of isolation, even of loneliness. [..] Within individual shots music, or vibratory energy, becomes soundlessly pictorial: A centripetal force repeatedly concentrates the intensity of scrutiny in prolonged, suspended moments that nearly efface the subjectivity of the observer only to have it resurface in the paratactic assembly of apparently isolated shots. The persona of the filmmaker looming within Hutton's work seems to go looking for loneliness, all over the world, in fact, as if convinced that beauty reveals itself most poignantly within the modalities of alienation. [..]
Peter Hutton : "I went from this wonderful expressive life in California to a dark, dank, grimy, rat-infested cellar in New York. It was like solitary confinement. But in that confinement I started really focusing on much more subtle notions of what the image was or what film was.... I started paying more attention to how light moves through spaces and just reducing film down to these very minimal kinds of concerns.... There was also that Eastern idea that regardless of where you are, there's a world there in front of you and you have to just find it in those shadows and in that darkness."
Interview with Peter Hutton in Satori (Spring 1989)
A telling allusion is made to the "Eastern idea" behind the film--a sense of "Buddhist" self-depletion--by the insertion of a few seconds from the end of Yasujiro Ozu's Toyko Story (1953), filmed off a screen. The rest is cityscape and landscape, intercut with luminist interiors and objects awaiting human use: falling snow seen from a window, a steaming bathtub, a bottle of milk on a table, a breeze blowing through a volleyball net. Repeatedly the images suggest that the beauty and melancholy of isolated moments cannot be sustained. Before Hutton, Bruce Baillie had been the acknowledged master of a cinema in which objects and landscapes release their inherent energy when the static or slowly moving camera attempts to hold it. Perhaps in relocating from San Francisco, where Baillie's influence had been a dominant force, Hutton had weakened his resistance to that model. In New York he seems to have absorbed the lessons of the colorist Baillie, transposing his mystical attention to objects and places into rich black-and-white tonalities.
"Near sleep" describes the film's mood, insofar as the waning of the filmmaker-subject coincides with an oneiric aura emanating from the catalogue of evanescent epiphanies in the film lyric. Here Hutton begins to isolate nearly all his shots by fading in and out, a repudiation of the impact of montage that he will pursue for most of his career. The consequent parataxis focuses the rhythmic elaboration on the movement (or stillness) within individual shots, intimating the narrative of an itinerant observer repeatedly arrested by vistas, configurations of light and shadow, things ready to hand, and actions in a discontinuous sequence. [..]
Peter Hutton : "One of the great revelations of traveling by sea is how slow it is compared to airplane or even train travel. You can actually go backwards in time on a ship, you can sail into a storm and make no headway.... One of the exhilarating and terrifying aspects of traveling by sea is the vulnerability you feel and the fact that you're not isolated from nature, but are rather in the heart of nature itself.... [..] Being on the ship forced me to slow down, and allowed me to take time to look."
Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (1998)
Moments wrested from the press of time and images of threatening or superabundant nature occur in the film, but their integration into the evenly paced flow of sensual discoveries divests them of dramatic emphasis: Waves breaking over the bow of a ship carry no more or less weight than a coffee mug resting by the vessel's side rail on a calm day at sea. [..] Subsequently, the camera stills itself in rapturous contemplation of the Southeast Asian landscape of temples, rivers, and jungles, or of the light falling on the meager furnishings of his hotel room. [..]
With his masterful three-part New York Portrait, Hutton achieved maturity as a filmmaker. In these urban meditations, he cultivates a nostalgia for loneliness and a melancholic poetry immanent, but repressed, in his earlier work. Abandoning the alternating rhythms of engagement with others and contemplative isolation that oscillate through July '71 and Images of Asian Music, he gradually moves from the observation of atmospheric conditions, the flight patterns of birds, and glimpses of isolated figures in the nearly empty city of Part I, to snow blowing on the beach at Coney Island, sleeping tramps, flooded streets, and the slow passage of the Goodyear blimp through the skyline of Part II, while Part III abstracts and distills the imagery of the earlier sections and culminates in a sequence showing a man wounded or dead on the street.
[..] Hutton's camera sucks in the atmosphere of a place he observes, to make palpable the lonesomeness he craves. I suspect his experience as a twin, which can deprive a child of the pleasures of isolation, may have contributed to the filmmaker's aesthetic, his persistent quest, in film after film, to transform quiet and loneliness into pictorial beauty. In his two films of Eastern European cities, Budapest Portrait and Lodz Symphony, he discovers even deeper pockets of sadness than he found in New York. [..]
Landscape opens with a shot of a train running parallel to the river, filmed from so great a distance that the train seems almost a toy. Study of a River continually plays with our sense of scale: Hutton films raindrops hitting a mud puddle so that they become squiggles of light in a microcosm, and juxtaposes those shots with images of massive constructions filmed from a high bridge spanning the river. Even though he unconsciously repeated a startling trope from Stan Brakhage's Creation (1979) when he inserted an upside-down shot of ice floes, he does not invest his film with any of the mythic aura Brakhage gave his trip amid Alaskan icebergs by systematically alluding to the stages of creation in Genesis. Instead, Hutton stresses the autonomy of each shot as a concrete locus of natural power and precarious human intervention. He is as often enthralled by the massive engineering of a ship or a bridge as he is by the energies latent in water, rock, and vegetation. The intensity of his absorption makes the individual shot a self-contained monad recalling, as critic Tom Gunning first pointed out, the initial films the Lumiere brothers made at the end of the nineteenth century. [..]