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Egyptian room of the British Museum

When I was young, rather some time ago – the 1960’s – I had little experience in the arts, though a year or two in college in Chicago (IIT) quickly altered that, and I found myself drawn deeply into the vortex of contemporary art back then:  Warhol, Rothko, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, Clifford Still, Motherwell and the whole roster of abstract expressionists, pop, and others.   I had not come from a background remotely concerned with the arts, though my family had a few Gauguin prints on the walls, and I recall a big coffee table book of paintings from the Louvre of which a David Rape of the Sabines provided some bare-breasted masturbation imagery.  Otherwise it was a desert.  I left home at 17 knowing more or less nothing of the arts, or for that matter, life.

But something in me was drawn to the arts, and on my own,  I jumped in, full tilt.  The visual arts, music (I saw and heard Segovia from the farthest reaches of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and van Cliburn playing piano).   I was ignorant, but eager, though back then outside music in which I liked classical work, I found older art – meaning anything not contemporary or very close – something I could not look at.   Naturally, as time went by, this inverted, and in these days it is difficult for me to look (without acidic comments) at most modern and contemporary art, and I long since took a kind of refuge in things ancient to older.  In phases I’ve been drawn to Vermeer, Uccello, Duccio, Goya, Rembrandt (primarily graphic arts and self-portraits), Constable (sketches mainly), Turner, Manet, Monet, Munch (graphics mostly), Lautrec, Degas, and many others.

For some years I’ve fantasized of the chance to be in London for a month or two, with the possibility of going each day to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and other smaller such institutions, to look slowly and carefully at the vast collection of imperial and royal robbery and prerogatives.  To look, to think, to perhaps sketch and write.

The Elgin Marbles Room

Quick sketches at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert, 1996-7

16th Century helmet, Landeszeughaus, Graz

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 Back Steps

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.


Diego Velazquez

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!

                                 Emily Dickenson

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. 

To contact Leighton go to his web-site at, or to see his work on-line, go to this.

Giacomo Serpotta, in another tonality, for the Oratorio de San Dominico, also in Palermo.  Here the sense is weightier in overall tone, if in turn the actual “content” seems lighter – a seeming procession of ladies of high society parading the metaphoric virtues (which one doubts they had themselves).

A belated bust of Serpotta, done with nothing of his skill

Palermo, Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita

Exiting from the clatter of the fetid streets of la cala in the center of Palermo, and entering a side-door to Chiesa di Santa Cita, one climbs a set of stairs and an open blacony welcomes with several young women chattering away, one of whom asks to see your pass for the Palermo Baroque church tour.   She glances, nods, and resumes her conversation.  A notice on the wall says no photography.   We enter into a flood of light, the sun bouncing off the white stucco walls and the dazzle of a wedding cake decor, so dense as to make the eye and mind whirl.  There is no one there.  Sedately, to the far end, a dark Carlo Maratta Virgin of the Rosary attempts and fails to distract.  You are in the Oratorio del Rosario of the Chiesa Santa Cita, caught in the delirium of Giacomo Serpotta’s rococo world, where a swirl of sculpture and ornament overwhelms the senses.   It is, in some ways, all too much – an assault so forceful that it seems to defeat its own purposes.  How is one to look at all this when it seems every surface is swarming with a delicate white meringue of whipped egg whites, all expertly formed into the most delicate of portraiture, as well as the customary billow of clouds and cloth, and an avalanche of putti?  The immediate response is almost to pass out, to flee from this overload on one’s senses, and perhaps, taste.

And yet, beneath this riot of plaster excess, there are myriad quiet corners, exquisitely detailed little stage-sets, telling, as usual in Italy, the same story to which Italian art was shackled for almost two thousand years.  Here it is told with a lightness of touch that amazes in its simple delicacy, especially when framed by the tumult of putti and angels which adorn this place of putative prayer.

Recently restored, this chapel is the work of Giacomo Serpotta (10 March 1652 – 27 February 1732), who specialized in stucco – a kind of plaster which he made more sophisticated by mixing in marble dust which gives it a more brilliant and hard surface.  Stucco must be worked quickly, while still wet.  Once set it may be carved, more easily in the mixture which Sepotta used.   A native of Palermo, the city and other places in Sicily are graced with his work.  Evidently he never left Sicily, and so is little known elsewhere.  I had never heard of him before despite a fairly reasonable acquaintance with Italian art.

In the same church, in a chapel adjacent to the center, reconstructed since major damage caused by bombing in World War II, is another dizzying chapel, this one with mixed marble in-lay.  As with the Rosario the initial sense is that of being overwhelmed, but if one stays, and looks with care, it is full of amazing and lovingly done details which seem literally to sing.

Bedda Sicilia !


Returning back from six weeks travel crammed with too much to ponder, a cloud of personal anxiety for Marcella who is still in Italy with medical problems which make me feel I should  be there with her,  the gray envelope of aloneness here in Seoul jangled only by the pressing matter of getting ready for academic chores, I found myself looking through computer files for something else, and bumped into this – a letter to both Jim Benning and Leighton Pierce, two filmmakers I respect immensely and like to think of as friends:

I hope you won’t mind me bunching this up, but since it’s about something by each of you, and kind of comparative, and as I am dead tired from finishing up (I hope to hell – the Jeonju fest runs tapes through a studio that is merciless, and I’d sent 3 so far, and each one has flaws I didn’t see – dropped pixels, shifted image, little buzz line at bottom of one passage – and I was up to 11 last nite and up at 5am working to 1:30pm before I took off for class and must make new tape tonite, poor me).

Anyway today I looked at a film of each of you – #1, and Ruhr.  It would be hard to find two more wildly different films (unless I opted for totally badly crafted ones) and yet somehow they both did similar things, though coming from completely different angles.

I’ve seen #1 maybe 4 or 5 times before, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while.  Like almost all your work, Leighton, it rewards re-looking again and again.  #1 is so rich, a first look is almost too much to take in, one gets lost in the dust, the forms shifting so rapidly and organically, a wild painterliness almost overwhelming in its seeming pace, the sounds shifting, hinting, guiding.  But with each repeated look the rush of images takes on more and more orderliness, like peeling back the layers of some gorgeous plant, each layer leading to another equally beautiful and sensuous, yet still withholding its secret.   Today I felt I saw so much more than the last time, though it is clear this poem will remain ever elusive.  And enticing.  I am sure I could watch and hear it 100 times – which I think I might have done with some of your films – well that’s a bit rhetorical of course.  How about 30 or 40 times?  Anyway #1 is stunning, in quite a literal sense.

Then I saw Ruhr, on a sizable screen, with my good projector.  Even with the compression it was quite clear and detailed, though I am sure off original it is much more so.  The compression mostly induced some motion artifacts, little jerkiness – annoying, but one is able to read through it.

For a few decades, Jim, I’ve thought your work was sadly compromised by shooting in 16mm, and I fantasized your being able to do it in 35mm, though I understood only too well the brutal fiscal logic that didn’t let you do that (and why I pestered you for a decade and more about DV).  So seeing the HD, the wide-screen format, the far better sound was all a distinct pleasure.  And I was very very impressed with Ruhr, which as radical as it is I suppose for most people, I feel really works.  Though the viewer must give it an awful lot, which I know most (95% or more? of even supposedly adventurous festival goers?) aren’t game to give.   But if you do then you really look and see and listen, it is very rewarding, guiding one to be attentive to the smallest of things, and in a way out of what most would think as almost “nothing” you offer a lesson in dramatic construction.  The little leaf in the tunnel, inconsequential and in most circumstances unnoticeable, makes an ironic little dance; the dance of steel pipes in the making (reminded me a little of the lumber mill sequences in The Bed You Sleep In), forcing one to look and look (and listen and listen), all the while shifting one’s sense of time steadily to another state, while tuning up the eyes and ears.  The forest sequence was gorgeous, the composition really exquisite with the two heavier trunks constraining what almost seemed a spatially false space of light between them; the dark mass to the right pulsating – I found myself thinking of Caspar David Friedrick, and perhaps a touch of Gerhardt Richter (some things of his), and some of the denser images of Pollock, especially late painting.  The jets taking off, the long pause and then the rustle of the branches, autumn leaves falling – this almost “nothing” was ripe with space to think and ponder.  Its repetition was again a lesson in drama – the dramatic act, the long pause, the rustled response, the senses being tuned to what is in the image and the sound.  The mosque sequence seemed a bit strange, though being familiar with Germany, I knew it was not so strange, though I find this religious genuflecting dubious, sad, and a bit fearful – whether of Muslims or our home-grown erstwhile Christians.  The Serra cleaning was the one place where I itched to see a not-Benning turn:  as I watched and it came to a close I promptly thought that it would have been gorgeous (and truthful) to have the guy go off screen with his stuff, and then shot unchanged do a very very slow dissolve to the cleaned work, a large steel monolith in the middle of the screen.  Kind of thing I would have done.  The street scene – stolid, drab, echt deutsch – seemed an anti-climax, though it too took on its own burgerlich life, and off-screen the sound hinted at the wider world, the industrial sounds hovering just a step away (again, was reminded of Bed where the sound of the pulp mill was ever present on the track).

And then the coke tower sequence, where you lay down the gauntlet, and I suppose most would decline the offer.  I looked carefully the whole time, while it was brighter my eyes at a later point saturated with the contrast, popped back and forth, almost hallucinogenic, while the ears tuned to the sounds, seeming almost Penderecki or some Alvo Part, the song of the industrial apparatus, trying to synchronize the repeated noises that seemed to presage the sudden burst of steams, the light drowned by the industrial clouds, the sly rhythm again building the sense of drama.  The off-screen thump, the sequence of up/down siren(?) sounds announcing yet another deluge.  The light slowly dropping, and the coke tower coiled with black shadow, morphing into the WTC towers – such is what an hour will give you to fill in the screen with your own thoughts.

Great film, James.

What both films do, in completely differing tacks, is move the viewer to SEE and to HEAR.  #1, a slightly long poem, plunges the emotions, whips them into a frenzied sensuousness, and leaves you – like making love, satiated and wanting more.  Ruhr, a more massive work than its 2 hours suggest, takes another route, and likewise tunes the eyes and ears, but leaves a vast canvas for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the process.  I felt Ruhr to have an ominous tone, a weightiness related perhaps to Anselm Kiefer.

Off the top of my head, those are my thoughts of the moment.  I’ll be chewing on them a bit and probably writing more or more clearly on cinemaelectronica in the next days – if I can get damned Swimming fixed and out of my hands.

Back in Seoul following my travels, I flicked on the computers which had frozen along with everything in my living box in my winter absence.  One put out a signal about DMI that sent me scrambling to Google to solve.  Five days later it’s back up.  And the others are under the harness, taking care of chores (mistakes discovered in screenings in Rotterdam and Jerusalem.)  Shortly it will be on to new work – scavenging the several hundred tapes to both get them on Hard Disks before my tape-running machines give up the ghost, and at the same time to look at the material gathered since 1996, and find whatever films are hiding in there.  I suspect there’s 3-5 features and lots more shorts waiting to be discovered and organized.  And along with that beginning to think about and take a few tangible steps towards shooting a film, narrative, in HD, in the summer, or perhaps next winter.

Perhaps it is getting on in age, the fabled mid-life crisis arriving rather late  (67 is not mid-life unless you  are Methusala), or perhaps it is a look at the changed world around me, but as I glance at the racks of tapes, or begin to write people about new film, I find I am less than enthused, and instead silently ask myself, “what’s the point?”

Certainly in my case it’s not the old stand-by, “to make a living,” as it is 100% certain that whichever of these – odd films culled from the backlog of footage, or a quasi-acceptable narrative shot in HD – they are not in the current world going to make any money, plain and simple.  They will cost a little or in the case of the narrative film, a little pile, of my own limited money with old age and its problems, more or less upon me, unprotected by any insurance for health, life, etc.  They’ll also cost lots of time and energy.   So no, it ain’t for money, which my work has never brought me, except belatedly here near end-game, tangentially, via a teaching job which I guess I “earned”  the right to have with 4+ decades of film/video-making.   Nor is it for the cultural pats-on-the-head of festivals showing your work, or retrospectives here and there, or an article written about one’s work.  I know some people like, appreciate, or even need such things, for their sense of self-respect or “ego.”  But being honest, such things really don’t mean much to me, perhaps because I am self-confident enough (or arrogant, depending how you look at it) that I really don’t need external approval: I know very well that I am very good at what I do, and given I am the one most acquainted with the actual processes and the penury involved, I know it better than anyone else could.   In fact often such sentiments are expressed in ways that are actually irritating for me.  So, nope, it’s not the back pats and gushing “loved it” that prompts me.  And when I watch the list of credits roll by in most films, and think someone just directed, or someone just did camera, and someone else edited, well….

Being honest with myself I wonder is it exhaustion, just a tiredness in the face of what this work is, and I think in some part it is.  After nearly 50 years (in 2013) it would be hard to say making a film is exciting or a thrill, as I read others imagine it must be.  It’s a perverse kind of non-paying job, or a bad habit, or, probably a compulsion.  I don’t know how to do nothing, to relax; instead I am a non-stop workaholic, doing one thing or another all day long.   And I know – from my own experience – that some others are very much the same.

On another level, there is a kind of self-pleasure – doing something that pleases one’s self.  When I find in working something new, something I did not know or did not know I knew, there is a flash of cognition, and this triggers a mode of happiness.  That is the thing which, when others perceive it, and are able to articulate it, I am able to feel a genuine sense of connection, of  “communion.”   It is perhaps the mix of this kind of thing, along with the communion I feel with the work itself that keeps things going.  For example I saw this on Mubi, regarding James’ film, and I felt sure that when he saw this he felt a flush of something that I guess we could say verges on the  “spiritual.”

Matt Nelson

on Tue 02 Mar at 06:08 PM

As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention.

So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me.

And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.

Jim Benning

As it happens, while “known” in the rarified avant garde experimental film world when I met him back in 1977 or 78, I think at the Edinburgh Festival, James has mainly been in the cultural arts-world background, working away with a consistency similar to my own:  a workaholic.  But he had to juggle his pay-day job, teaching (for some time now at Cal Arts, since 1987; before that in NYC scrambling on grants and visiting artist gigs), from which I suspect he extracted most or much of the money to pay for doing his films.  His work required a lot of travel over the years, really a lot, and I think we can guess he spent the last 3 decades on a real work pattern – all for marginal money, and the usual festival/archive/museum screenings deal.  And for much of it having to cover the costs from his own pocket.   In the last years he’s been rewarded (!) with some retrospectives, and long over-due acknowledgment of the cumulative weight of his ouvre.  With an eye to the future, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Wien is beginning to make archival prints and K2 digital copies of all his films.  (Need I say there weren’t any US offers to do the same.)  And with his newer HD digital works I feel he’s taken a leap in his work, consolidating all he’s learned and applying it with tools that genuinely match his artistic sensibilities.   I confess a real pleasure in seeing this all unfold, however belated it seems to me to be.

With his new, appropriate for his work and far less expensive HD tools, I hope he can maintain the energies to carry on at the standard he set in Ruhr, and in the related Pig Iron 30 minute film which I saw in Jeonju last spring.

RuhrPig IronCasting a Glance (Spiral Jetty)13 LakesRuhrTen SkiesJames at work, Ruhr

Over the decades I’ve had the pleasure to share a small bit of time, usually over a beer, with Jim, and to see if not all his films, most of them.   He’s had kind words about my own efforts, which I appreciate.  Perhaps in a handful of years his work will be more readily available to share – on BluRay or whatever comes next that way.  Meantime if you’d like to take a stab at Ruhr, I think you can download it here.

Or for a bit of reading, you can try this or this.  But the best would be try to see some of his films if you can.

10 Skies

[In a week or two I’ll continue with this rumination, with some thoughts on Leighton Pierce.]

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Just a little note, for those interested.   Newest film was invited to Rotterdam festival, where both Marcella and I will be to see friends, films, and introduce and do Q and A with film. Imagens (Images of a lost city) is a portrait of a disappearing Lisbon, which was recorded when I lived there, 1996-98. It was mostly shot in the area around the Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge, and Graça, though there are other places glimpsed. These are old neighborhoods in the center of the city, a hint of what once was Lisboa.

I first saw the city in 1964, while traveling on an Italian freighter, as one of 12 passengers, enroute to Tampico, Mexico.  Beginning in Genoa, other stops included Livorno, Marseille, Cadiz, then Lisboa and on across the Atlantic where we could have stopped in Habana but the United States had imposed its embargo, so we went on to La Guaira, a port for Caracas, and then to Vera Cruz and finally Tampico. It took a month, and cost all of $150, meals included. It was an Italian ship so the food was pretty good since one ate with the captain.  It was a fantastic adventure, too with many stories for another day.  Portugal at that time was still a very isolated little piece of Europe, under the right-wing dictator, Salazar, and distant from almost everywhere owing its location on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, the bad roads, poverty, and political climate. Then there were almost no cars, and little children trailed me as I went into the Alfama, the rare tourist, with my Pentax in hand.  It was at that time an extraordinarily beautiful city, its little pedrinas and stone inlays, its azulas (blue ceramic tiles which covered many buildings as protection against the ocean climate) all marking each square centimeter as being lovingly attended by hand and craft. I had seen many other European cities, but Lisboa left a deep impact.  Later, in the early 1980’s I returned, to shoot a documentary (never finished) for the BFI on Raul Ruiz, and renewed my acquaintance with Lisboa, which had already been somewhat ravaged by modernity, and which had begun to look and feel like a run-down 3rd world city. Again I returned in the late 80’s, and had a traumatic and passionate affair with a Portuguese singer, who quite inadvertently influenced the making of All the Vermeers in New York, which is dedicated to her.

And again I returned, then with my partner, Teresa Villaverde, a young (at that time) Portuguese filmmaker who had pursued me for several years after meeting me at a small festival in Dunquerque, in 1994 or so, and with whom I lived 5 years.  In 1997 our daughter Clara was born, at the same time I was shooting the material that became Imagens de uma cidade perdida.  In 1998 we moved to Paris, where Teresa edited her film Os Mutantes, as the producer, Jacques Bidou, was French.   Afterward we moved to Rome where we lived.   On November 2, 2000, Teresa Villaverde Cabral – having almost completed shooting of a new film, Agua e Sal (Water and Salt, i.e., tears) in which a surrogate filmmaker (a curator of photo exhibits), who was played by an Italian actress, Galatea Ranzi, who happened to look almost exactly like Teresa, especially after a bit of hair-cutting, etc., is breaking up with her husband, played by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, and who together have a young child, played by Clara Villaverde Cabral Jost, at her mother’s insistence  – kidnapped Clara from our home in Rome.  In the film the same occurs: Clara is kidnapped by her film mother. (More gruesome is that owing to typical film-world crap, Clara’s cinematic kidnapping was filmed after her real one – despite vehement objections I made to the Portuguese Juvenile court.)  To say a long and very unhappy period followed, as a completely corrupt Portuguese system closed around their “star” and legality was cavalierly trashed in the interests of an “important” Lisboa family. I have been unable to see my daughter, whom I had raised almost single-handedly for 3 and a half years while her mother tended the more important matter, to her,  of making her films (Os Mutantes and Agua e Sal), since August 2001. Teresa Villaverde has refused all contact, sent back gifts for Clara, and otherwise behaved in a manner typical to those called Parental Alienators. It has, for me, been a tragedy, which I am sadly certain has been doubled, or worse, in Clara. She will have her 14th birthday on March 27 of this year.

Clara, on her Facebook page, which was closed down the day I asked to “friend” her.

To say I have a conflicted sensibility about Portugal and Lisbon would be a considerable understatement. My experience there,  perhaps reflected in Imagens, is fully expressive of the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness. For them it is as if a part of their DNA, a cultural piece which they are obliged to carry. They have a particular word for it, saudade. However fanciful it sounds, the place is pervaded with it, and in a sense they are proud of it.   It is a phenomenon which is collectively neurotic, wherein they seem willfully to bring upon themselves actions which will induce a bit of saudade.   It is little wonder they are currently undergoing their economic travails, and surely in a way, they imagine they deserve it.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida runs 93 minutes. It’s slow and languid, like Lisboa. It is drenched in both beauty and melancholy, again, as Lisboa is. Its screening times and places in Rotterdam are as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011, 14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films. See this.

[For post-festival comments on my own film see this, and for comments on Nathaniel’s screenings, see this.]

Triste, by Nathaniel Dorsky

Nathaniel Dorsky Retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

January 27th 28th 29th 30th 31st
Five shows in person and then the cycle will be repeated in a  slightly different order for five more days beginning on February 1st.  Approximate time for all shows: 4pm

Thursday, January 27th and repeated on Tuesday, February 1st
Titled: The Two Sides of Light

Love’s Refrain

FridayJanuary 28th and repeated on Wednesday, February 2nd
Titled: Songs of the Earth

A Fall Trip Home
Arbor Vitae

Saturday, January 29th and repeated on Saturday, February 5th
Titled: Songs of Another Time

Song and Solitude
The Visitation

Sunday, January 30th and repeated on Friday, February 4th
Titled: The Late Quartet


Monday, January 31st and repeated on Thursday, February 3rd,
Titled: The Hours and the Days

Hours for Jerome

Link for Rotterdam Festival

I met Nathaniel sometime in the mid-1980’s, when moving back to the Bay Area which I’d lived in during the late 1960’s and start of the 70’s. Back then he was already a fixture in the San Francisco film world, known for his films (17 Reasons Why, Alaya, Pneuma), but also for being a “film doctor.”   He was famed for his uncanny capacity to be able rescue a film, so that if someone shot a hopeless mess, he could give it a once over, find some editorial thread, and stitch it together, if not into gold, at least into something watchable, and if the stuff was there to do the trick, maybe more.  He was pretty busy at this trade.

I frankly don’t recall how we met – I assume some modest film event, but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is becoming his dealer – well, a kind of dealer. As a bottom-of-the-fiscal-barrel filmmaker I had a habit of buying up cheap, out-of-date, or otherwise odd or undesirable film stocks. When I had a weird emulsion, or old film carton and can, Nick would eagerly snap it up.  Or I gave it to him.  He was a kind of celluloid fetishist, enamored of the actual stuff – the celluloid base, the emulsion, the label, the can.  I was just a crude opportunist looking to save some money I didn’t have, and he was a lover of the stuff.  He tells me Triste was made of those rolls he got from me.  He would hand process stock, and in one of my own films he gave me a minute of outs of some beautiful hand-processed work, flashing blue.  Also some sections of outs from Alaya, sand shifting in the wind.  And he let himself be in that film, Rembrandt Laughing, a filmic valentine to one of the qualities that makes San Francisco such a pleasure.

Dorsky’s hand processed film, mangled on his living room rug

Frame grabs from Rembrandt Laughing

Along with himself as “actor,” and the blue, torn-emulsion film and the shifting grains of sand, he also became in a sense embodied in the film through his persona, which materialized in his scenes, in my use of his collection of sand, and in echoes that reverberate throughout the film of a certain sensibility which he is, and which I hope I faithfully reflected.   Nowadays thoughts of that film caste another tone as I am prompted to remember Jon A. English, the lead actor/musician, and composer for many of my films, who died 14 years ago.  And Roger Ruffin, in this film and 3 others of mine, who died this past year.  And as well thinking of the difficult time some others have had since then.  So it is a saving grace that I also have Nathaniel to think of, a glimmer of the serious joy which the film was about. Though we are very different souls, Nick and me, along some very fundamental places we share a deep kinship.

My life took me away from San Francisco, and a few years later, in Italy (a place Nick loves) the Pesaro Film Festival, (once a very lively and good one, perhaps still is), invited me to program some films for them.  One I chose was Nathaniel’s Alaya – 30 minutes of silence and sand.  For me it’s a gorgeous film, in its utter simplicity, its masterful editing, and I’ve seen it maybe 5 or 6 times.  One minute into it and I am in a meditative state, wandering in my home-grown kind of Buddhist thought.   Anyone who knows me at all knows how hard it is to get me to watch a film once, much less twice, and five times, well….!   However, programming it I thought it was likely a hard film for most viewers, and I suggested they place it last in line, lest people leave and miss the other films.  The screening was on a hot Italian summer day, the cinema had no air conditioning, and was packed.  It was like an oven.  The projector rolled and… and Nathaniel’s film was first despite my suggestion, and my thoughts went gray as I thought of the empty cinema to come.  Half an hour later though I was elated – almost no one left, and later, when the discussion time came, the film drew very positive comments.  I’d miscalculated something seriously – my trust in the audience?  my trust in Nathaniel’s artistry?  I learned a good lesson.

A dish of stones in Nathaniel’s apartment, shown in Rembrandt Laughing Frame grab, Alaya

The last time I saw Nathaniel was in Portland, Oregon, 5 years ago.  He was doing a screening for a small group, the Cinema Project.   The setting was a small art gallery, on the east side of the Willamette, and Nathaniel, as usual, was concerned with the projection – the color temperature, that the machine ran smoothly, at 18fps, focus.   He seemed a bit harried, and there wasn’t much chance to talk.  If I recall properly he, and a cluster from the screening, afterward went to a cafe, and Marcella and I joined, but it was a bit too much to actually have words.  Since then we’ve corresponded here and there, and I’ve watched with a warm pleasure as his work has found screenings around the world – in Paris, New York, London.  I’m trying to get him here to Korea, not only for the selfish reason to see his films, and to see him, but also he’s never been to Asia.  At least not physically.  He might like, and it would be good for his work to get seen in this part of the world.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”
Nathaniel Dorsky

PastourelleAubadeComplineSong and SolitudeThe VisitationLove’s Refrain Triste

As it turns out, one of my own films has been invited to Rotterdam as well so I’ll be able to catch up with Nick there, see the new films I haven’t and see some others again.   And if things work out, I suggested we go on the train to Den Haag for him to see the gorgeous View of Delft, and a few other Vermeers there at the Mauritshuis.   And if very lucky, perhaps the canals will be frozen and we can go ice-skating!

Nathaniel, photo by Jerome Hiler Threnody Variations

For further thoughts and reading see these:

Making Light of It

Art Forum article by P.F. Sitney (PDF, good pictures)

About Nathaniel Dorsky, website

Mubi interview

Scott McDonald interview

IndieWire, Dorsky and Brakhage talk

Review, Redcat screening, 2006

Review, Toronto 2010

Review of Devotional Cinema

Bowl of miso soup, Nathaniel’s feet, in Rembrandt Laughing

Nathaniel’s films are certainly not for everyone – in truth for a little minority of people who are open to a kind of rarified experience rather remote from the hurly-burly of our society, and most of the cinema it produces.  But if you’re of the inclination to enjoy, say, a Persian or Indian miniature, or marvel at the exquisite perfection of van Eyck’s “Als ich kann” or simply let the wonder of a flicker of light against a wall stun you, then his discreet and subtle work just might be your ticket.   So if at Rotterdam, or somewhere near, this is a rare chance to see this work.

Nathaniel skating, Alaya out-take, big bang: Rembrant Laughing

[Added March 8 2011: Marcella’s Video of Nathaniel on a little trip, talking and shooting.]

[March 14, 2011: new article and interview with Nathaniel.]


Though not at all religious, when in various places I tend to visit churches, especially in Europe, or South America, or, as well, temples in Asia.  While scarcely an academic, I think I am drawn to these places as they tend to tell you much about the cultures in which they were built, and which have (or haven’t) preserved them.   As the apparent trajectory of most civilizations seems to have transited a major period in which religion was the dominant organizing mechanism – determining roles, status, and social values – churches and temples are a repository both of a culture’s highest level in the arts, and at the same time provide deep clues as to the essential grounding of that culture’s present day behavior, even if, for the most part, the religion has been left behind.   This summer, traveling in Italy, a place with which I am pretty familiar, having traveled there many times and lived there some years, and where I was in my own description, a “church junkie,” I indulged this habit again.   Fortunately we were in different areas and I was able to see many new places, some of them utterly amazing.

While I could easily find my way there if in Bologna, a Google search fails to help me identify the church where this painting is, one of a series, this one depicting the execution of saint whomever she is.  As painting it is neither famed nor I  imagine thought by any experts to be “good.”  What I found remarkable was its Nude-Descending-Staircase compression of time, a morbid inversion of animation.

Italy, by the grace of its sun and warmth, its geological terrain, mountains and lakes, and long dazzling coastline; by its cuisine, and the unfolding richness of its cultural heritage, is a place of extraordinary sensuousness.  Sometimes it seems as if every part of it had been caressed by a lover of amazing talents, and we are given the residue of millenia of such opulence.   Nature, architecture, the arts – sculpture, painting, music, theater and city planning – all offer up a sumptuous feast for the eye, ear and palate, not to mention the brain.   One drowns.   Which perhaps explains the  seemingly perverse constancy of the morbid death-oriented imagery which the Catholic religion regurgitates endlessly, a nearly infinite litany of torture, the body maimed in myriad creative manners, such that the long list of saints which are celebrated in paint and stone seem primarily known for the manner in which they were dispatched from this earth, rather than for what they did in this life.

Thus, for example one of my favorite places in Rome, a bit off the beaten tourist path, is San Stefano in Rotondo, an ancient basilica begun in 468.  Architecturally it is an unusual structure, round from the outside, and inside with both circle of columns, but also a wall which bisects the center, with arches in it; light enters through a high clerestory.  The effect is a place of an embracing calm, a perfect architectonic centering which inherently induces a meditative state.  Such is the architecture.

Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, Roma, after recent restoration

As if to counter-balance the beatific calm of this structure’s form, the walls are lined with relatively crude frescoes made in the 16th century depicting, as in a horror show, the death-theater of a sequence of saints.   Sometime, I suspect in the 19th century, labels were stenciled onto them, probably to point to literary description: who, when, how….

Aerial view, San Stefano in Rotondo

Again and again, Italy confronts us with seeming opposites.  The lovely small cities curled upon a craggy mountain-top,  roofs tumbling down the flanks of their settings; the wonderful narrow streets leading to the sudden openness of a lovely piazza, the dazzling high vistas overlooking an agricultural valley – all these are not the happy product of intelligent design and pure aesthetics, but are rather the by-product of times of constant war and piracy.  It was an enormous added cost to build on such heights, inaccessible and willfully, deliberately, difficult to reach.  Everything needed to be hauled up – food, water, the resources to make things.  All of this was a huge burden, and in a time when all of our work-saving machines did not exist:  if it came up it was hauled by man or animal.

Opposite Enna, Sicily, is Calascibetta, whose people are “stupid” said a very young and bright teenage guide to us; so much for neighborliness

As a culture Italy is a dense mosaic of isolated towns and cities, each rooted in a particular and peculiar history, so deeply embedded that most inhabitants feel more of their town or city than of a nation.  The sense of being Italian seems only to emerge during World Cup football tournaments, when rooting for the Azzuris is a collective national mania, or when Italy is criticized by an outsider, even if it is the same critique Italians level against themselves domestically.  In these two cases the regional and city identifications lapse and Italians are, if only briefly, “one.”   This regional identification derives from not so long ago, when most cities were in fact little states, busily warring with one another, making alliances, and breaking them.  Fidarsi bene; non fidarsi meglio. Hence the city walls, fortifications, and tendency whenever possible to build them on readily defensible heights.   Down below were armies, brigands, and insecurity.   This was Italy’s history from the break-up of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi’s campaign unified the peninsula in 1860.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The fragmentation of Italy into smaller units, centered on a city or region, is seen clearly in the shifts in styles in the arts and architecture.  While, for example, the Baroque is a general style (1600-1800) its effects shift considerably as one moves down the peninsula, from the relative austerity to the north to the often heavy and opulent excesses of Sicilia.   These “tastes” are also reflected in the balance of the culture – food, dress, music, and of course, behaviors to match.  Those to the north despise the southerners as “beasts” and  point variously to their wild driving manners, their menagerie of organized crime syndicates  – the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta – their corruption, and other proofs of the lower status of the mezzogiorno. Never mind that the country’s most recent scandals have come out of Lombardy and Milano, with its leading star being none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier, who now seems chronically mired in mud, whether it is fiscal, legal or sexual.   And is also in bed with the Sicilian Mafia.   As were his predecessors.  Still, even a casual survey of the Italian boot finds it more orderly and Germanic to the north, and more, well, maybe African, as one heads south.   Such are the blessings of Italy’s traditional regionalism and diversity.

Mosaic, Rimini

[With a backlog of pictures from Italian travels of the last few years, I will start to print some here, soon, the first groups to be called Sicilian Suites.]

Walker Evans, shadow self-portraits

The other evening, on returning to Seoul, I went with a few friends to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs.  The setting was high up on the 18th floor of a classy building facing the Olympic Park in the southeast corner of the city in a new Photography Museum.   I had been acquainted, closely, with the work of Evans since long ago in 1960, where I was introduced to photography at the Institute of Design at IIT, where I studied a few years, one in a class by Aaron Siskind.  I recall having bought a book of Evans’ pictures, poring over it lovingly.  I am pretty sure I also saw a number of direct prints at the Chicago Art Institute.   And since then I have frequently returned to Evans, in books, and in isolated photographs in museums, and of course in the now ubiquitous famous images imprinted on our culture from those which appeared in James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.   Walker Evans’ images not only reflect America, but they are now deeply embedded in its culture, they are a profound part of America.

Sharecroppers wife.Country church, Beaufort South CarolinaFrame house, Charleston, S.C.

A handful of Walker’s pictures have gathered for themselves an iconic status as quintessential American images, as with the sharecropper’s wife, an image which can stand with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, or any number of those of illustrator Norman Rockwell, or Jasper Johns’ Flags, or the Chrysler building in New York City, or Edward Hopper’s paintings.   Each of these, along with many others, captures some fundamental element of what makes America itself, just as certain images manage to condense and symbolize other cultures:  a Giotto or Michaelangelo for Italy, a Hokusai for Japan, or Goya or Ribera for Spain.

With Walker Evans there is a seeming self-effacement, in which he disappears into his work, as if he chose to not exist, but to be supplanted by those things which he photographed, as did Eugene Atget.  It is a work which is minimalist, direct, almost as if there were nothing to it.  For the most part he presents things frontally, as if to simply say “there is this.”   And then this.  And this.   It seems almost artless, and yet it is of the highest art, capturing so much with seemingly so little.   And yet cumulatively what emerges is a very distinct vision, one which would seem to be easily replicable, but which is not.   Evans’ legacy is vast, written in a long list of photographers, very widely different, whose work can be seen refracted in Evans’ lens:  Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerwitz, Paul Strand, among many other Americans; or Berndt and Hilla Becher abroad.  Or among painters, Warhol, or even Rauschenberg, along with Johns and Hopper, and many others.    The list is long and would include filmmakers, such as James Benning and certainly myself.

Easton, Pennsylvania

Bessemer, AlabamaReedsville, W. VirginiaGraveyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In books, however well made, or on the internet, one doesn’t really get to see these pictures.  The exquisite craft and artful concerns which went into their making disappear in the reduction to what the digital means of the net can do, or even in the best of printing for books.  To see the actual images one must go to a show like the one I went to here, or to a museum with archival quality prints.  The tonal range of Evans’ work is gorgeous – a rich delicate palette of grays, here and there a white, or a dense deep black.   On looking at the prints one can see how attuned his eye was to these qualities, and how much control he took, as well as how much he was attracted to certain things from which he could compose his images with an artist’s sensitivity to the effects of his medium.   As with other truly great photographers, it is this attentiveness to the nature of his medium which elevates him beyond just “taking pictures.”   As simple as his images appear, they are in truth rich and complex demonstrations of what can be done artistically with a camera, film, chemistry, light and a subject.  If you wish to really understand Evans’ capacities, go to an exhibit such as the one I saw, or visit a museum with a good collection you can access.   It is similar to seeing a real Durer watercolor of a bird’s wing, Wing of a Roller, as I did in Vienna, and seeing the pale reproduction the museum there offers.  There is really no comparison.

As I wandered this exhibit, one time, then another and then another, re-seeing these images, my eyes moistened.  In part it was owing to the artful beauty – not just the “look” but the content of these images, and their rich understanding and embrace of life, our lives.  In part perhaps it was due to these images being far closer to the reality of my young life than is today’s America – there has been a profound change, and these images recall for me the “Negro” shanty-town I would visit across a large field from the house where I lived when going to high-school in Fairfax, Virginia.  They recall the times I hitch-hiked in the mid-west in the late 60’s, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and later from California to Montana in the early 70’s.  Since that time a flush of wealth and corporate uniformity has left much of this older America in the dust, and the new suburban housing developments, the cities all gleam with a thin plastic veneer that lacks the character of that older time.  Perhaps my tears were nostalgic, a signal of passing times and loss.  In part they came as I sensed something our country has lost – not merely of the “look” which Evans images captured and which could not be found today – but of the soul.   However ragged, however poor, however crude, that old America had a character which our present America lacks.  Perhaps it has to do with hard times, with genuine difficulty, with real work.  I sense the same thing in Europe where it seems that everything has gone slack and what is present exists more for tourists – even if they live there – than being emblematic of a real life.   Or perhaps it was for my recognition that those shadow-portraits which Walker Evans took of himself in his youth reminded me of my own gangly young self, unsure, as one must always be unsure, taking first steps out into the world, yet feeling that something stirred inside, and something would come of one’s tentative efforts.  And naturally, being shadows, they reminded of our evanescence.   All together these feelings entered me, looking at these wonderful photographs, and traced a life-long etching in my own soul.

Child’s grave, Alabama

Thank you, Walker Evans.

[The Metropolitan Museum in New York maintains a very large on-line collection of Evans’ work which is deeply instructive for watching how an artist grows.  There’s very much, but it is worth it to take some time to look, carefully, as he did.]

Piazza del duomo, Siracusa

I’d come to Sicily, so I told myself in my mind, to make a film.  What that film was remained very vague, a thinly imagined sequence of images, or more just thoughts on how to make some images out of visions in my head. The images derived from past visits to Sicily, or images I’d seen in books. The medium was my now aging but hardly used Sony XDcam, a high-definition camera capable of remarkable clarity and resolution – as can be seen exquisitely in James Benning’s RUHR and PIG IRON.  In nearly 2 years I’d shot almost nothing with it, though I loaned it out to a Korean filmmaker friend, Hwang Cheol Mean,  to make a feature, and to some of my students to make some films – one showing next month in the Vancouver Film Festival, (A Silk Letter, by Kwang Sangwoo).  I imagined wedding the XDcam’s resolution to the multiple imagery I’d explored a bit in my own Swimming in Nebraska, though taking a very different, more “classical” approach.

On arriving in Sicily I was immediately let-down, though rather predictably so – after all I had been to this island some 5 or 6 times in the last three decades – to Taormina, Siracusa, Palermo, Cefalu and Tusa and other places.  And though I had found these places all arresting and fascinating, I had also, since 1978, been appalled at the squalid mess which Sicilians had made of their own land.  Abandoned illegal buildings littered the landscapes, as did trash, dull high-rise housing, ill-designed periferia, a clatter of advertising signs, poorly built roads, and the negative din of the Sicilian way of living.  And now an autostrada rises on stilts, flattening nature’s curves, impertinently striding across mountain and valley, reducing geology to a 2 dimensional diagram.  Roads are crammed with macho drivers, 10 cm off your tail-pipe, racing to pass you on a blind curve, proving their manhood to themselves and their girlfriends; or stopped on a blind-corner for a quick espresso or to talk with a friend, arguing over double parking – a constant chaos of disorder and a disrespect for all organized ways of social living.  And owing to pragmatic things – my summer vacation – we’d come in August, when the coasts and beaches are inundated with Italians al mare, making for an Asiatic urban density crammed on the beaches, a lemming-like cultural mass gang-bang.  Not an auspicious time to be present.  And in reality I knew all this before deciding to go there to attempt a film.

Cefalu beach, Sicily, around August 10

Almost immediately I felt the sense that I would make no film, though I did make a few desultory attempts at a few shots – shots having nothing to do with those I’d orchestrated in my mind:  after all, the ones in my mind had no corollaries in reality.  And something in me choked at the thought of aiming my lens at the squalid mess which reality presented.  Driving inland from the coasts, there was some relief – suddenly vast open country-side, with small towns perched on mountain-top redoubts, warbly winding roads and little traffic, but with smoke-smudged skies making for a dull burned out landscape of dried fields, an almost colorless range of dim earth tones and darks, a flat off-white sky, and again – nothing of the images I’d imagined to make, which required bright blue skies into which to blue-screen other images, or dark areas where I could also imprint other imagery.

Church interior, restored

Compounding this disillusion was the on-going wrestling match in my mind about the whole process of even bothering to add another image to the already endless deluge which our culture makes automatically.  Something in me resists, and whispers, “enough.”  The “enough” runs from a desired  Zen silence to a questioning of my creative energies:  I ponder if I am burnt out, as all creative people at some time are, or gone to seed.  Though frankly the idea that this might be so doesn’t bother me as I see it as a natural process – sure, we get old, tired of doing what we do and I’ve been making films for almost 50 years, and while I have vivid creative insights that intrigue me, most of the process has dulled into boredom.  Unless the images are something I have never seen, I am immediately promptly depleted of energies, a voice inside saying “another fucking image like the others” and I stop.  The images I had imagined were not those, but then they didn’t seem to want to materialize for me in reality.  Instead there were only what the Sicilian landscape offered up – Baroque splendors, Greek temples, great mountainous ranges, deep valleys – all that was there, but encrusted with the ruinations of mindless modern man, rampantly destroying everything of value in the name of an idiot consumerism that seemed to leave us all empty, able to toss a plastic cup, beer bottle, a cigarette pack or whatever onto the grounds of a 2,500 year old temple now turned into a costly-to-enter Disney artifact, neatly fenced in, labeled, controlled, and always now the book/trinket tourist store at the exit, after paying 8 or 10 Euro to enter.   Whatever I had imagined – despite my direct experience contradicting those visions – simply did not exist.  The camera stayed in the trunk of the car as we meandered from Messina to Milazzo to Enna, to Cefalu, and Palermo.  Yes, I took a lot of stills – competent images of no creative import at all – but the video camera, except for a few desultory shots, stayed unused.  With each passing day it became clearer that whatever it was I had intended to make, the actual material in images did not exist, and not being Hollywood, I could not pay to construct them to exist.  Instead what existed was a floundering and confusion, and a hard-nosed acknowledgment of a kind of defeat.

What that defeat is remains a bit unclear to me.  I addressed this in part earlier in these pages when writing of An Audience of (N)one – of the present reality that for all practical purposes the only outlets for the kind of work I do is now festivals, and festivals offer a bad environment for that kind of work.  And further, whereas not long ago – a decade or so – I could more or less assume a handful of festivals would show whatever work I do, I can no longer make that assumption.  The last three or four films I’ve made – Over Here, Parable, Rant, and Swimming in Nebraska, all have either had no invitations, or only one or two, to no tangible effect.  And contrary to 10 or 15 years ago, there is no little niche market, no chance at all of a sale to some Euro TV, to make a little money of it.  So, on a practical, material level, there is no evident point to making such work.  Nor do cultural pats on the head and ego-strokes really have any meaning for me. What is left is seemingly only my own pleasure in making things despite the final reality that when all is said and done, it seems they are made only for me.  And I have to pay to make them!  At 67 the enticement of this is rather diminished.  So surely this is one element of my sense of defeat here in Sicily.

Duomo, Agrigento

But it is perhaps a lesser element.  Of more import is my feeling that in our current culture, the vast swirl of imagery no longer holds any weight of the kind I care about – something spiritual, something of what I find in art, something that moves the mind and soul.  Or its weight is solely determined by what I feel to be utterly the wrong things:  the devastation of Sicily’s urban and rural landscapes is caused by exactly the same thing which has raped the value of all images.  That thing is money, and the system – capitalism – which has warped the human mind into an empty vessel of consumption, such that people can and will destroy the very things they assert to love and value in its pursuit.  A beautiful landscape will be taken, encrusted with signs, marketed, sold, and as I have seen again and again in the last weeks, laid waste in the name of making a profit. Whether it is in the half-built concrete skeletons of “abusive” buildings to be found here, or in the “legal” hotels and second homes that have transformed once small and sleepy fishing villages into cheap temporary playgrounds for the urban masses, or it is in the clutter of vehicles that cram the highways, or the endless stores peddling the same things from one end of this island (or the whole world) to the other – the “brands” from MacDonalds to Gucci, to be found now almost anywhere – all these collude to trash the very world that we live in, and whose beauties we seem so adept at first dulling and then utterly destroying.

In such a world, it seems that another image, however well crafted, however deep in intended meaning or however well “artistically” conceived, becomes merely another instantly discardable commodity – as at a festival, where “serious” film aficionados flit quickly from one film to another, rushing to cram as many difficult-to-see films in a day or week as they can.  To feed this frenzy seems to me an increasingly dubious matter pointing to a logic in which perhaps the proper response is renunciation – to simply stop, to withdraw, to be silent.  Perhaps though, these are merely the thoughts of an older man who is soon to be made permanently silent, like it or not.  Or perhaps the ruminations of an experienced soul that finally, as the closing comes, must acknowledge that it’s all really for nothing, a way to bide the time before the extinction of one’s self, or in the longer view, one’s entire culture, and finally universe.

Greek temple in Agrigento

The last days we’ve been wandering the remains of the Greek colonies which dotted the Sicilian landscape 2,500 years ago.  In Selinunte, the less touristic of these, a vast upheaval of stones – toppled columns, lintels, capitals, walls, the gridded outlines of foundations – all hint at a once-vibrant culture in flower, then invaded, burned and destroyed by the Carthaginians, who, as it occurred, lost the Punic wars, laying the ground for many of the myths of our culture, myths which still echo today.  In the sprawl of tumbled stone, one sees the carvings, the architectural sinews, the fragments of what was a great labor, and tries to imagine the culture which made this, as it were, all by hand. And these are but the hard elements – not the cloth, the food, the paintings, the less survivable materials of that long ago time. They had not our modern machines, and what is there was placed with labor – slave, animal, with very minimal use of the simple rules of physics: a bit of leverage here, a simple pulley there.  The massive stones were carved and nudged into place, the columns with central pins, and gravity the fundamental architectural glue to hold it all together.  Amid the jumble of these remnants it is difficult to piece together the serene world which it seemed must have intermittently existed, with its exquisitely designed temples rising on the crest of a hill, overlooking the dazzle of the Mediterranean’s rich blue.  One tries, but falters.

In the same moment one sees the furious forces of hatred which drove the Carthaginians to expend all the inverse labor needed to topple the city and leave it a heap of rubble – as to say, “so much for your Gods and culture.”  We see only the weathered stones, where once the same ground would have been littered not only with the earthly stuff of rock, but also caked in blood and the slaughtered corpses of the inhabitants.  Such a wreckage would not be easily done, and required its own immense work, driven by some demonic need to delete the other’s culture – their gods, their temples, their world – as if it were a mortal offense that it merely existed.  Against such a history the costly placement of the cities that followed, far up on a mountain top, begins to make sense:  all the effort to haul the stones of architecture, the provisions for water, to bring foodstuffs to these places, and then to ornament them all with cultural, religious, artistic investment, which could not so easily be destroyed as those coastal cities of the Greeks – it falls into an understandable range.  Still, with each town and city we saw – Enna, Agrigento, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa – each rich with a heritage of Baroque churches and palazzi, and remnants of earlier cultures – Greek, Sickel – the amount of pure work involved left me stunned.  Today it is nearly impossible for us to comprehend the levels of social investment which these towns – each with a splendid cathedral and all its interior decorations, a bishop’s palace, numerous other churches, and many other palazzi, all built and decorated in impressive style – imply: all constructed in effect “by hand.”  We really can’t comprehend how things were made without the advantages and efficiencies of electricity, of power tools, of all the things we now take for granted (and with which we so often build such graceless and ugly things).  To imagine merely cutting the wood to make the framework by which the stones were placed to build the cathedrals is already beyond our capacities; to imagine the small army of craftsmen deployed to make the carvings which are an integral part of these structures must elude us. Nor can we comprehend the numbers of people involved, which by our measure is small.  To then add that in those times those involved in agricultural production were not, as in ours, a few percent, but the great majority of the population, renders all this even more difficult to understand.  That there was so much in effect “surplus labor” to devote to taking everything to the nearest high, defensible, site, and building there under great additional stress, and lathering it all with costly artistic values (for religious reasons), all points then backwards to the great labor which the Carthaginians gave to toppling all the material signs of the Greek community of Selinunte. Which, as Sicily inescapably does, brings one around to the immense power – however evidently perverse – of religion in human history:  here it is clear it is one of the primal forces which propels human endeavors.

Again and again, the major elements of the historical remnants of society here are religious: the temples of the Greeks, the cathedrals of the Christians, the monasteries and convents, these are the focus of these societies, where the greatest social investment was placed. Conversely these were the sites which, as symbols of the core values of their societies, were the targets of enemies: Selinunte and its temples (along with the adjacent community) were destroyed because they represented the values of that culture.  Similarly, if not in Italy, but further north, Catholic iconography was attacked in the Reformation, which focused on the purported false values which they represented: churches, convents and monasteries, were destroyed in the religious wars ignited by Protestantism.

Nagasaki, August 1945Berlin, 1945

Within my grasp, historically, I might only vaguely comprehend these things by their modern equivalents:  perhaps the rubble of 1945 Berlin or Hiroshima, or more recently, the ravaged remnants of Babylon in Iraq, where perhaps unconsciously, the American military simply expunged from history traces of a civilization far far older than its own:  “Kilroy was here.”   The impulse to utterly destroy “the other” seems deeply implanted in the human psyche, whether we call the ground “religious” or “ideological.” The same story is to be seen in other parts of the world, where other non-Western cultures behaved similarly, obliterating all signs of those they had conquered, only to later themselves be conquered and subjected to the same erasure.

Juxtaposed to this massive lesson in human history, my small work in orchestrating for a brief moment the flight of photons from a complex and vulnerable projecting apparatus to a screen, and then to the inner screen of the spectator’s eye and then brain, each filtering in its own manner that actual image and its interpretation, all seems a self-evident folly.  Combined with the other the other factors I’d confronted in Sicily I found myself paralyzed, at least in terms of making the imagined film.  These and other far more mundane matters such as the pure and simple hassle of getting out the camera, mounting it on the lovely carbon-fiber Sachtler tripod, and then dealing with the iffy on-off button of the camera which I’d been warned by those who had borrowed it earlier was inclined to have a mini-mind of its own, going on and off randomly – that was quite enough to provide ample excuse to not do.  Instead I found myself making 100’s of still photographs each day, yearning for a small HD camcorder, blogging, and inventing plenty of distractions to assure the would-be film was never given any chance at all.

In chess, a now-standard response to the opening White E4, is to bring the Black pawn C forward to C5.  This was, in 1500 an innovative move, developed by some Italians and became known as the Sicilian Defense.  It subsequently became popular for some centuries, though later it was criticized, and lost ground.  In the last century it became used again, with chess masters  employing it and is currently used 25% of games.  Statistical analysis though shows it a 47% losing proposition, though simply being the second to play, is inherently to be placed on the defensive and a weaker position.   It appears to me I made such a move on this Sicilian trip, and despite experience which should have cautioned me, at least in terms of filmmaking, this journey was a predictable loss.  In terms of cannoli, granita, arancini, pizzoli, good local wines (and bad), and a vast array of arts from ancient (2,500 BC) to relatively recent (1800), it was a feast.  Now to see if we can run, work, fast it all off…

Ordinary cafe offerings, Gela

[For more thoughts on Sicily see cinemaelectronica, or check here later when I hope to add some further thoughts provoked by these travels.

[A few days after posting this my friend Linn Ehrlich sent me this, which we can’t figure out how to post under comments so I’ll paste it here]: