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Water seeking its level

Following the earlier Back Steps and Wood, the next of Leighton’s digital works expands on the aesthetics he was developing for this media, while the subject remained the same – the magical realm of childhood, and of the growing consciousness therein.  Water seeking its level, seen from one aspect, is again as simple as the earlier two works – a young boy stands in a rushing stream, the water dazzling, the rush of sound immersing us in some mystical world of impressionist’s color.  The back yard has moved to a park in southern France (though we don’t know this and little beyond the not-Iowa colors at the stream’s bottom suggests it, and the title note “St. Pons”).  Leighton swiftly orients us with his musician’s use of sound: we hear a rush of water, of a few steps into it  – audibly instantly recognizable, though the imagery which comes next is a swirl of abstraction which the sound “describes” and gives us our bearing.   A fluid passage of color quickly delineates the essential elements – a young boy’s leg, his touseled blonde hair, the boy’s feet standing as the water distorts them and the stream’s floor into a dazzle of color, a hand thrusting down, grabbing beneath the water and then holding a small stone, his small voice saying, “Daddy, look.”  

Daddy has indeed been looking, and looking deeply – not only at the little scene before him, but at the tools he is using to depict it.  Here a flourish of rich muted reds, modulated by the optical warping of water, blonde flesh and hair, are shown, but by the artist’s intervention with how he uses the camera and editing techniques he transforms the mundane into the cosmic in the most gentle and unpretentious of manners  (though using no corny “effects” menu items – all is done  organically directly with the image itself, in a manner more akin to a graphic artist’s multiple printing of the same basic image – say, see a series of woodcuts of Munch’s Madonna, or lithographs by Helen Frankenthaler).  The image caresses his son, the nape of his neck, his arm and leg, and embraces him in what is transparently a parent’s love.   Daddy is looking passionately.

And listening.  The water rushes by, the child’s hand is immersed in it, and his small voice comments how cold it is; the hand makes the water leap, and then clenches, the water stopped, and with it the sound.  Gentle hints of water drips, and in the subdued quiet slowly sound of liquid rushing builds, presaging a cut to the lip of a small waterfall, presented in almost pure abstraction but instantly identifiable.   And then slowly this crisp rush of water dissolves into a muted image not so readily understood – debris settling to the bottom of a lake?  Or….  it is snow, falling gently to the branches of a tree.  Water, in its varying forms, seeking its level.

Water seeking its level is a cinematic poem of a disarming simplicity of “content” which expands out to suggest the whole of a life,  our whole universe.  It is awash in love and stunningly beautiful.  Technically it is simply masterful in all aspects from its seemingly casual camera work, to its hidden and dazzling editing of both image and sound.  In five minutes it compacts, with a complete lack of pretentiousness or ponderousness, a whole poetics of life – its beginning, its future, its meaning.

Never once saying so, or pointing to the metaphoric possibilities of its primal source in water, Leighton’s film is drenched with the pathos of love, of our being here, of a parent’s deepest feelings and sensibilities for his child.   This is what makes this small five minute cinematic poem so rich, along with its truly masterful aesthetic and technical control.   He does not say so except in purely poetic terms, but within this joyous work there is the acknowledgement of Heraclitus’ wisdom:

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei … kai … dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still …. and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”

Hendrik ter Brugghen, Heraclitus

With Evaporation Leighton extends this theme, in which vapor and fog collude invisibly to suggest the ephemerality of childhood and youth, and by implication, life itself.   Here a young boy, who in this brief film becomes a young man, is seen looking out a window toward the sea, then near a harbor, walking on a pier, then gazing from the rails of a small ship.  A rush of liquid abstractly rushes over a fall, the shifting fractals of waves move mysteriously, a boat sets out from the mouth of a river into the hazy infinity beyond.   The boy looks pensively from the deck of a boat, the water rushing swiftly by.  And we return to the window which looks out upon the sea, now empty.


In a second passage we find the boy in a field, with grasses lit by the sun, on a pathway glistening with wetness.  He hesitates, turning to look towards the camera, and then turns to go forward.   Our gaze is directed to the swaying, wave-like motion of the grasses, from which emerges, in another time and seemingly place, a glimpse of a grown boy, seen intermittently, walking away.  His image at first is lost in the blurred shifting of foliage, and then we see him, clearly older, and, with a painful poignancy, receding to the distance, taking off upon his own life.  It is a father’s poetic farewell to his son, who now is on the path of his life, receding from the parental embrace, lighting out to his fate.   With Evaporation Leighton Pierce gracefully acknowledges this parting, and the film is a gesture of pure love, lovingly crafted, and a profound gift to both his son, and to us.

In a culture besotted with celebrity and bombast, where artists are advised, whether directly, or by the insistence of the clamor of the world around them, that to be heard they must make a grand splash with aggression and transgression, Leighton Pierce – like Nathaniel Dorsky – offers instead a counter-current of beauty and love of the world expressed in the greatest gentility.


So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

                                      Raymond Carver

[I am happy to relate that after 20 some years at the University of Iowa, Leighton is taking over the reins of the Media and Film Department of Pratt Institute in NYC.  I hope being in the vortex of America’s creative navel he’ll finally get the attention long overdue to him.  I hope to hell one of the major museums finally gives him the space to put up some of his extraordinary installation works.]

[Series to be continued as time permits.]



  1. What with all the cascading words and ecstatic energy pouring into Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” (oh, man, I really want to read your thoughts on this one), I would love to see Pierce’s own meditation on youth, life and the ineffable. Sounds like there may be some overlap.

    Btw, good luck with this newest chapter of your ever-peripetetic life.

  2. Assuming Mr. Pierce has only one son, I know that young boy!–now in his 20s. (I’d be lying to say I knew him very well, though.) Also had the privilege of meeting Mr. Pierce after a screening of some of his short films, though not including the ones you have written so eloquently about. I remember most strongly a three-part short work in which LP lets the camera access the world only through the mediating presence of a little glass item held in the filmmaker’s other hand. Can’t remember the title, though (was it “Wood”?). And, of course, The Back Steps, which feels more akin to memory than just about any other moving image I’ve seen.

    • I actually don’t know how many children Leighton has – somehow I always thought 2 sons, but maybe that’s from watching 1 grow up on screen. I must ask him now! The film you are thinking of is FALLING, and the object is a marble. It, along with a few other films is my next item on Crossing Paths sequence. It’s a gorgeous piece.

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