Leighton tells me we met in a bar in Iowa City back when I had long hair. I am not certain when that would be, but a long time ago – it’s been a long time since I had much hair, much less long. In any event I don’t recall it, but I suppose there’s a lot of bars and what went on in them that I don’t recall. 1985 or so he says.
I do remember meeting him in Graz, Austria, during some kind of little media festival, in 1996 or 7. What I recall mostly of that, aside from the provincial charm of this small university city, is that the lady who organized it asked for and got a mess of my old VHS tapes (long ago !) and never returned them, despite a few repeated requests to do so. And also going to a wonderful museum there full of old armor, since Graz once long ago was a maker of medieval armor. Hundreds of clanging knight’s costumes, lances, helmets – an entire vast warehouse of them. Very impressive and told a lot about our societies. It helped me understand Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac much better.
I was showing London Brief, my first foray into DV, and Leighton was showing his 16mm 50 Feet of String. I don’t recall too much of the films shown, but only of having a little chance to talk with him, and liking him a lot. I think I asked him to send me some of his films, which he did. He was still working in celluloid, and finished Glass afterward. After it – a marvelous film, a near magical summation of true filmic intelligence – he switched to DV. See this article which I wrote for Senses of Cinema almost ten years ago (2002) for some thoughts on Glass and other earlier work.
The first time I saw The Back Steps I was unable to understand or figure out what I was seeing for a few minutes. There was a flurry of gorgeous color, movement, the murmur of wind-chimes and distant voices, perhaps the sound of ocean waves. The colors shifted, and a blackout came, and then in variations these colors returned and slowly I discerned it was two little girls sitting on the steps of a porch in some kind of costumes, Halloween or something. They began to stand, sat again, and were interrupted repeatedly by long blackouts. Each time they seemed to rustle more, advancing a bit further in time; voices of very young children became faintly audible, and finally they actually stood and went a bit into the yard, and then were restrained by an even longer blackout, and finally they went into the yard where one could see some people gathered at a barbeque. It was so devastatingly simple, a single shot shown again and again, but modulated exquisitely. Unlike most structuralist films, which might use a similar repetition, this one does not feel mechanical or cold, but instead gently builds a tension, and leaves a space in which the anxiety and excitement of childhood is opened for the viewer. The little child inside us is full of wonder at the black space before us, the adventure that this little backyard party offers. Life unfolds and beckons. Leighton Pierce captures this in the most subtle of artistic manners.
The Back Steps was his first DV film, and unlike most others, who used this new camera technology merely as a substitute for a film camera – which for some years begot comments from ignorant critics about the gritty/ugly nature of digital video – Leighton immediately saw that this instrument and its aesthetics were entirely another thing, and he promptly exploited it to gorgeous effect. Of those who used digital video as ersatz film and made substandard work with it, it had solely to do with them and their failures, and not with the medium at hand.
What Leighton seized upon was the flexibility of digital video cameras which allowed, among other possibilities, using a slow shutter speed, and in tandem with the nature of computer editing systems opened up a kind of painterly imagery simply not possible in celluloid. I had, in varying ways, done much the same myself, finding in this new tool a kind of liberation, not only fiscally, but aesthetically. To see Leighton so quickly and decisively perceive this, and then to immediately be able to execute a work far removed from his prior cinema, yet using all he’d learned before, was as a spectator, enthralling. Here was someone who really understood. This sense of excitement was no doubt amplified by the long trail of negative discussions I’d had with many filmmakers, some of them friends, who regarded digital video as some kind of lesser thing than celluloid. It was in a way as if I had found a missing brother.
His next work in DV was another deceptively modest piece entitled Wood. Ironically I have used this film as an example of how digital video can be, within its limits, just as good or even better than 16mm if one is looking for resolution, detail and clarity. Though this film, too, is also uniquely digital in its aesthetics.
Wood is a film of utter simplicity and brevity, a poem of a kind of childhood domestic bliss. Through the distortions of the heat of a fire we glimpse very briefly a young boy, looking out a window. A black out. Along the way we hear the crackle of fire, and later various other sounds – the sawing of wood, a creaking noise, the gurgle of water coming from a hose, wind-chimes, the snapping of a dried branch. Interspersed with blackouts and some fades, we are shown a kind of family-snapshot sequence of a boy sawing wood, water dripping off a table, a chair rocking, glimpses of someone walking, a swing describing an arc. Described, it is almost nothing and I suppose most would be hard-pressed to see such a scene and imagine anything could be there beyond the most mundane of things. But Leighton is a fine-tuned poet of this world, and what he sees, and how he sees it, and then orchestrates it in time, and composes the sounds for his images makes this ordinary backyard scene anything but ordinary. He does not use the actual sound, but records sound as its own process and very carefully composes it so that every sound is distinct and chosen, in such a way that it amplifies the imagery in a sense by counter-point. And his use of sound is such that when he makes a blackout, we find our ears in a state of heightened awareness hearing the most discreet of sounds when no image is on screen. A visual/audio counterpoint that enhances both senses. Likewise his sense of detail, of what he shows us, makes a kind of miraculous mosaic out of the seemingly most ordinary of things. And his editing of these simple elements is truly exquisite, bringing the two elements of sound and image together into a delicate minuet of time. I like to show this film to my students for a lesson in how to see, how to show, how to edit. I doubt they get it, to tell the truth. Too sublime. No crashing cars.
In these two films, Leighton Pierce works small, and they are like gems, perfectly cut. They do not press themselves upon you, but rather invite you in. For all their simplicity they bear repeated viewings, each time revealing some new facet. Only art of a very high order does this.
THE GRASS so little has to do,—
A sphere of simple green,
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain,
And stir all day to pretty tunes
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap
And bow to everything;
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—
A duchess were too common
For such a noticing.
And even when it dies, to pass
In odors so divine,
As lowly spices gone to sleep,
Or amulets of pine.
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,
And dream the days away,—
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
In some more days (or weeks it seems) I’ll continue this, moving on to some of his subsequent works, which gain in complexity, as well as his installations which perhaps thanks to his being located in the alleged cultural wasteland of the mid-west, have only been seen “out in fly-over land.” A pity since they are the best installations I’ve ever seen, by far, making the big names of that realm look small and empty despite their usual bombast. He deserves a setting like MoMA or the Tate Modern. So far he got the basement of the University of Iowa Museum.