Like Seeing New York for the First Time 1

Date: 15 April 2001 | Season: Century City

Sunday 15 April 2001, at 3pm
London Tate Modern

Six Extraordinary Films of Manhattan in the 60s & 70s

Two programmes of films selected by Mark Webber for the Tate Modern exhibition “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis” (1 February – 29 April 2001), presenting six unique views of New York in the 60s and 70s.

Peter Hutton, USA, 1978-79, b/w, silent, 16 min

Hutton’s black and white haikus are an exquisite distillation of the cinematic eye. The limitations imposed – no colour, no sound, no movement (except from a vehicle not directly propelled by the filmmaker), no direct cuts since the images are born and die in black – ironically entail an ultimate freedom of the imagination. If pleasure can disturb, Hutton’s ploys emerge in full focus. These materialising then evaporating images don’t ignite, but conjure strains of fleeting panoramas of detached bemusement. More than mere photography, Hutton’s contained-within-the-frame juxtapositions are filmic explorations of the benign and the tragic. (Warren Sonbert)

Hutton’s most impressive work, the filmmaker’s style takes on an assertive edge that marks his maturity. The landscape has a majesty that serves to reflect the meditative interiority of the artist independent of any human presence. New York is framed in the dark nights of a lonely winter. The pulse of street life finds no role in New York Portrait; the dense metropolitan population and imposing urban locale disappear before Hutton’s concern for the primal force of a universal presence. With an eye for the ordinary, Hutton can point his camera toward the clouds finding flocks of birds, or turn back to the simple objects around his apartment struggling to elicit a personal intuition from their presence. Hutton finds a harmonious, if at times melancholy, rapport with the natural elements that retain their grace in spite of the city’s artificial environment. The city becomes a ghost town that the filmmaker transforms into a vehicle reflecting his personal mood. The last shot looks across a Brooklyn beach toward the skyline of Coney Island’s amusement park. The quiet park evokes the once frantic city smothered by winter. Nature continues its eternal cycles impervious to the presence of man, the aspirations of society, or the decay of the metropolis. (Leger Grindon, Millennium Film Journal, 1979)

Ernie Gehr, USA, 1969-71, colour, sound, 53 min

In Still, Gehr’s picture of place feels most like home. From the perspective of a ground-floor window, we look out at a bit of Lexington Avenue just south of 31st Street in Manhattan, the one-way traffic and the people going by, crossing the street, entering and leaving a luncheonette – nothing out of the ordinary – except for the superimpositions, the ghostly presences, of other people, other cars and buses and trucks inhabiting the same place. These are not supernatural but material ghosts, conjured without mystification or fuss by double exposures done in the camera. And yet this technique works wondrously to evoke the mysterious interplay of different times in the life of a place, times of the day and of the year, pieces of personal and social history that have here come to pass. This is a film about place in time, and in time we sense that this is a place happily haunted by its ghosts. One admirer, the dramatist Richard Foreman, called Still an inti­mation of paradise. It is paradise found in the yellow of cabs and the green of a tree across the street, in the way that things are seen to fit, body and ghost, into the fabric of the world. It is paradise found in the kind of detachment that is most deeply involving. Still begins in silence and in winter. The tree is bare, the light is low, and the wintry white of a parked car stands at the centre of the screen. Then suddenly the tree is in bloom and the light is bright, the long shadows of winter are gone and the sounds of the city are heard. Wintry white gives way to the double-exposed spring yellow of two superimposed pairs of parked taxicabs. If the fluorescent-lit interior of an institutional corridor is “an unlikely vantage point to view the dawn,” as Sitney remarks in his book on Gehr, “a stretch of Lexington Avenue in the 30s is almost as unlikely a spot to hail the coming of spring.” But we work with what we’ve got, and from the view out the window Gehr composes an urban salute to spring as stirring as any bucolic one. (Gilberto Perez, Yale Review, October 1999)

David Rimmer, Canada, 1971, colour, sound, 10 min

Taken between September 1970 and May 1971, with the unmoving camera apparently bolted to the window ledge, this film, a ten-minute eternity, chronicles what takes place within view of the lens. The backdrop is a typical New York pizza stand, the actors are selected New Yorkers who happened to be there during the half year, the plot is the somewhat sinister aimlessness of life itself. (Donald Ritchie, Museum of Modern Art, New York)

David Rimmer has quietly placed his camera in the blind spot everyone walks past. A fire engine, lights flashing, stops for the firemen to dash in to get some pizza to take to the fire … You haven’t been to New York ’til you’ve seen Real Italian Pizza. (Gerry Gilbert, BC Monthly)

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Like Seeing New York for the First Time 2

Date: 22 April 2001 | Season: Century City

Sunday 22 April 2001, at 3pm
London Tate Modern

Six Extraordinary Films of Manhattan in the 60s & 70s

Two programmes of films selected by Mark Webber for the Tate Modern exhibition “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis” (1 February – 29 April 2001), presenting six unique views of New York in the 60s and 70s.

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1968, colour, silent, 12 min

View from above is of a partially snow-covered low flat rooftop receding between the brick walls of two much taller downtown N.Y. loft buildings. A slightly tilted rectangular shape left of the centre of the composition is the section of rain-wet Reade Street, visible to us over the low rooftop. Distant trucks, cars, persons carrying packages, umbrellas sluggishly pass across this little stage-like area. A fine rain-mist is confused, visually, with the colour emulsion grain. A large black rectangle following up and filling to space above the stage area is seen as both an unlikely abyss extending in deep space behind the stage or more properly, as a two dimensional plane suspended far forward of the entire snow/rain scene. Though it clearly if slightly overlaps the two receding loft building walls, the mind, while knowing better, insists on presuming it to be overlapped by them. (At one point the black plane even trembles.) So this mental tugging takes place throughout. The contradiction of 2D reality versus 3D implication is amusingly and mysteriously explicit. Filmed at 24fps but projected at 16fps the street activity is perceptively slowed down. It’s become a somewhat heavy labouring. The loop repetition (the series hopefully will intrigue you to further run-throughs) automatically imparts a steadily growing rhythmic sense of the street activities. Anticipation for familiar movement-complexes builds, and as all smaller complexities join up in our knowledge of the whole the purely accidental counter-passings of people and vehicles becomes satisfyingly cogent, seems rhythmically structured and of a piece. Becomes choreography. (Ken Jacobs, New York Film-makers’ Cooperative Catalogue #5, 1971)

Hollis Frampton, USA, 1970, colour, sound, 60 min

Zorns Lemma has three parts. The first part is only a few minutes long and consists of black leader with a voice-over reading of a simple poem from The Bay State Primer used to teach children the alphabet. Each of the rhymed couplets in the film features a letter of the alphabet, not always at the beginning of the line, but as the initial letter of the subject of each couplet. For example, for “D” we have “A dog will bite a thief at night”. For “Y”: “Youth forward slips, death soonest nips”. The second and longest part of Zorns Lemma is comprised of a gradually evolving forty-five minute series of one-second shots. It begins with twenty-four twenty-four frame close-ups of metallic letters of the alphabet against a black background, followed by twenty-four frames of black. The alphabet has been abbreviated by omitting the letters “J” and “U”. Then follows twenty-four twenty-four frame shots of words filmed from signs, windows, graffiti, and so forth, mostly from lower Manhattan. For three more cycles, this series repeats, always in alphabetical order with one word for each letter of the abbreviated alphabet, except for “I”, which in the second cycle is replaced with a word beginning with “J”. Throughout the film, either “I” or “J” will be represented in any one cycle, and the use of an I word or a J word will alternate periodically. Similarly, “U” and “V” will only be represented one at a time, though instead of alternating, U words will abruptly and permanently replace V words later in the film. In the fifth cycle, a series of replacements begins when a shot of a fire is found in the place of the expected X word. Irregularly (every one through ten cycles) another image replaces the shots of the words until every letter has been replaced. At this point, part two ends. The third and final part of Zorns Lemma serves as a kind of retroactive explanatory articulation. It consists of what seems to be a single long take of a man, a woman and a dog crossing a snowy field, though actually there are three dissolves used to cover the breaks between camera rolls. On the sound track over this “shot” is a portion of Robert Grosseteste’s “On Light: Or the Ingression of Forms” read by six alternating female voices at the arbitrary rate of one word per second. This medieval mystical text, though somewhat difficult to follow because of its choppy presentation, reprises some of the basic themes of the film. It is about the nature of light, whose role in the cinematic process is almost too obvious to miss, and whose centrality has been asserted by filmmakers and film critics from Josef von Sternberg to Tony Conrad. More importantly, though, it asserts that a small set of mathematical ratios is fundamental to the composition of the universe. This comes close to summarising Zorns Lemma itself, where Frampton has composed as many elements as he could in multiples of twenty-four. From the number of frames per second of sound film projection, to the number of frames each image in the second part of the film is projected, to the (adjusted) number of letters in the alphabet, the entire film seems to be guided by the same set of numerical relations. […] The alphabetical schema is not only familiar to every literate person who can speak English, but is highly overlearned and therefore easily accessible from memory. The relationship between units of part two of Zorns Lemma is simple progression. And, since simple progression is the only relationship between these units, the storage and organization demands on the viewer are minimal. (James Peterson, Dreams Of Chaos, Visions of Order, Wayne State University Press, 1994)

Standish Lawder, USA, 1970, b/w, sound, 12 min

In Necrology, a twelve minute film, in one continuous shot he films the faces of a 5:00pm crowd descending via the Pan Am building escalators. In old-fashioned black and white, these faces stare into the empty space, in the 5:00pm tiredness and mechanical impersonality, like faces from the grave. It’s hard to believe that these faces belong to people today. The film is one of the strangest and grimmest comments upon the contemporary society that cinema has produced. (Jonas Mekas, Village Voice Movie Journal, May 1970)

The credits listed at the end of the film are woefully incomplete. The following is a complete breakdown of the relevant statistics regarding Necrology.
Total performers: 325 (190 male, 135 female)
Credited performers: 76 (53 male, 23 female)
Uncredited performers: 250  (138 male, 112 female)
Frames of darkness between escalator and cast: 329 (28.5 black, 300.5 grey)
In examining these statistics, certain patterns come immediately to mind, patterns which raise serious questions about Lawder’s integrity. Most obvious is the implied sexism of the credits. Only 17.04% of the women in the film are credited, whereas fully 27.75% of the men receive credits. Furthermore, all but two of the women’s credits reflect sexual stereotyping, and of these two, one is pejorative (“fat teenager”), and in the other instance, the woman is identified as working for men, as social director for a YMCA. There are other disturbing structural patterns as well. If this is an unmanipulative film, how does it happen that there are so many round numbers (250, 300) and threes ? Consider the following: fifty-three men credited, twenty-three women credited, thirty more men than women credited, three more uncredited men than total women, etc. Most disturbing is the fact that before the credits there are three more frames of darkness than total performers in the film. Why the discrepancy ? Two of the extra frames can be accounted for. One may be the hand which reaches into the frame at one point; one could conceivably be Audrey who is thanked in the credits; last frame, however, is totally inexplicable, though it corresponds to the one frame which is half black and half grey. We must assume that this is a totally frivolous structural symbol, since Lawder provides no resolution to the mystery. Some people might argue that viewers would not generally notice such details. Perhaps this is true on a conscious level, but who can deny the powerful subconscious impact of such disturbing discrepancies ? (Nick Barbaro)

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