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A few weeks ago, lured by past visits, and the promise of a certain seasonal quietude and benign weather probabilities, I went from the San Francisco area out to Death Valley.  I passed through the Mojave desert, by derelict towns and Air Force bases, old mining camps and their debris, then through the valley, passing famed Zabriski Point, and on to a town I’d visited before, Tecopa Hot Springs, there to bathe a bit trying to chase the flu or cold I’d picked up in the City.   And to scout and think, as it was my intention to shoot another landscape film in the Valley – envisioned in my mind a wide, vast and brooding image of this foreboding area.   I spent a few days soaking in the hot springs, surrounded mostly with Asians – Koreans mostly.  Nosed around the area taking photos, and then, drove north into Death Valley, taking the Badwater route.  As it happens the Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level.   Approaching from the south the density of traffic grew, from the occasional 4 wheeler or snazzy van headed south, to a near traffic jam.  Badwater was filled with tourists, folks who came to take selfies or take a walk down into the saline bowl to experience America’s lowest.

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My casual observation was that most these tourists were Asian – Korean, Japanese, Chinese.  Most meaning perhaps two-thirds or more.  I assume they were lured by travel agents, pointing out that Death Valley was indeed a spectacular place, and winter was the time to visit to avoid being broiled.   And the world being as it is today, they have the money to be tourists, and America is certainly a prime location for spectacular selfie backgrounds.

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Seeing this herd of tourists out in the midst of the aptly named Death Valley also underlined the profound change which we humans have brought to “nature.”  Once a lethally forbidding landscape, this remote and harsh desert has in the last 30 years,  along with much else in our world, been converted into a play-ground, a part of the vast Disneyland into which the globe has been transformed: today we zip through the European Alps on highways which simply flatten them – tunnels or elevated bridges letting us literally fly through them, making them mere spectacle.  No zig-zag tortuous hairpin curve up-down required any more.  And the same is true of almost everywhere. Great and modest suspension bridges leap over chasms, four-wheel drive ORV machines churn up desert sands or swampy marshes; para-gliders swoop over mountain ranges or ocean up-rises; base-jumpers leap from cliffs and buttes and natural arches (as well as man-made towers); skiers are hoisted to the tops of mountains only to zip down once treacherous slopes as entertainment.  Cheap airlines jam the air with tourists who traipse en masse through once near sacred sites – the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, and any other remarkable piece of architecture or symbolic totem of societies past.  All the world’s a playground, a kind of game.

DSC04761crpsmThe Pacific, off Cape Flattery on the Makah Reservation

It had happened by accident, but looking out over Badwater, it made sense.  A month earlier I’d been to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  It is the furthest western point on mainland USA.  As it happens Neah Bay is an Indian Reservation, the Makah Tribe.  Like most reservations it is a place of drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, trash and trashed housing – a lamentable if understandable response of a culture which has been simply squashed and destroyed by another culture.   A sad place.  And in a literal and geographic sense, The End of America.   I went to shoot for a film, Plain Songs, thinking I’d begin it with a shot of the Pacific, from there, The End of America, in the metaphoric sense – a desolate community destroyed by America’s ugly history.

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DSC04768crp.jpgNeah Bay, on the res

I found it oddly ironic that I’d accidentally come to Badwater, the lowest point in America, to watch tourists gather and gawk, at the same time my country had fallen into the morass of the Trump administration and metaphorically, at least for many of my fellow countrymen, we’re enmeshed in another “lowest point.”   I took another shot for the perhaps swan-song film on America, and wandered on, taking many still photos of the valley.  While the imagined landscape film escaped me, instead another idea came to mind, which, though far more work, might be a nice change of pace.

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Wandering from Death Valley I went to Beatty, Nevada, a small town scrapping to stay alive on the coat-tails of tourism, just outside the National Park.  Still chasing my cold, I hunkered down in a few motels, trying to think and perhaps write.  Neither came at the time, rather more diffuse thoughts meandered in mind.  At the same time clangorous “news” rattled the nation’s nerves – Trump Trump Trump, 24/7.  The rush of daily traumas ran into a smear – North Korea, Bannon, bigger buttons, vulgar statements – a non-stop litany of Trump’s obscenity, and his magical revelation of the utter corruption of America’s political and social institutions which appeared powerless in front of this pathetic man, thus showing their own decadence.   Beatty, a dead-end town of desert desolation provided a suitable setting to sour still more my contemplation of America.

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A VFW outfit offered a decent amber beer for $3, and an assortment, depending on the night, of grizzled camo decked vets, or other nights, a swarm of Asian tourists, sent there by the nearby motel – not that there were many options as where to go.  One wondered just what person would willfully choose to settle down in this town, or thousands of others I have traversed in my travels in America in the past decade or two.  The grim signs of failure littered the townscape in ramshackle housing, trailer homes, junked cars, abandoned stores, and the transparent poverty written on the faces and bodies of the people who live there.  The same is replicated with regional touches almost anywhere one goes in the United States.  Behind the hip gentrified facades of liberal America, or the closed gated communities of the well-off, or the distant penthouses or estate mansions of the very rich, there is a pervasive cancer gnawing away at our social accords.  It is a disease fraught with contradictions and confusions, one which breeds a mutual stew of contempt and hatred, and has long since embittered our national “unity.”   I think this largely accounts for our most American habit of flying the flag in the front yard – a kind of desperate wish for union which masks an awareness of our deep disunion.

DSC06175SM.jpgJames Benning’s replica of Ted Kaczynski’s cabinDSC06166ccrpsm.jpg

25394780_10156088431644917_3377314356651848815_o.jpgJames Benning’s 22 star flag for Alabama

With such thoughts I continued my journey, passing derelict towns, juxtaposed to vast tracts of shopping malls flanking the sides of our cities, endless miles of Big Box stores, corporate logos dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see, and the goading shrieks of our media – television, radio, giant bill-boards – all urging us to buy buy buy and run up our credit card bills into the trillions.

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I await the imminent burst of this bubble as the stock market zooms past Dow Jones 26,000, and the homeless camp beneath freeway overpasses, and the fractured psyche of the nation intensifies its internecine squabble with itself, with precious few any more honest or self-aware than Donald J. Trump, our titular head of State.

The United States of America represents about 5% of the world’s population.  It consumes 25% of the globe’s resources.  There is an explanation for how this occurs, and it is not owing to our supposed brilliance, inventiveness, our “can do” attitude.  It is owing to other things.  Things which America at large is unwilling to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner except to demand still more funding for our military.

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Trailing the dry cough of the flu I and millions of others picked up this winter, I moved along.  Some suggested this disease was metaphorical for the winter’s political and social discontent, and not merely a passing bug.  My own thoughts persisted, like the cough, to meander through the debris of now decades of seeing my own country through the eyes of a harsh critic, and seeing nothing has changed, really, for the better.  Rather it all appears to be coming to a bitter fruition as we collectively fulfill comments made long ago by a French visitor, or by some of our own sages.   In this case, being “right” in my own views, bears no consolation whatsoever.

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DSC06325SM.jpgSalton City, California

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
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“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  Alexis de Tocqueville

And the bitter truth is that America has never been good.

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I met Peter Hutton in 1974 (I think – can’t find sure info on it), during a wild trip from Kalispell, Montana to San Diego and on to NYC for my first screening (of short films) at MoMA , and then up to Hampshire College where he was teaching, and had arranged for me to screen Speaking Directly . I saw his films then – I think the first time – and loved them: In Marin County, July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971 ), Images of Asian Music. After seeing my film he was surprised I liked them so strongly, I suppose figuring I’d only like films like my own. Not so.

While staying with him I had the brakes on my VW van fixed – I’d rebuilt the engine with a friend in Kalispell, deep into autumn, and left with no brakes as we didn’t have tools to yank the wheel, rusted onto the spindle, off. The engine began blowing smoke by Portland and I threw a rod in Missouri. Luckily I found a junker in auto graveyard, yanked the engine myself and put it in my vehicle and it worked, if barely. Sputtered onto NYC for the MoMA screening, all with no brakes. A Porsche shop next to the loft Peter had in Amherst did my brakes in exchange for a lid of very lousy Montana homegrown. An adventure.

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Since that time we were friends, bumping into each other out on the rarified arts-film circuit, and I visited a handful of times in upstate NY, once he landed his job at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson. He’d show me work on his projector, some in editing stage. And we’d play cribbage in marathon bouts of 12 hours at a go, for nickels and dimes, beers in hand. Never talked about art or films, though once he took me to the DIA Foundation museum in Beacon NY.   Through the years he swore he always won at the cribbage, though I always seemed to walk away with a fistful of change I didn’t have when I’d arrived.

Not long after meeting him and seeing his films I wrote an article for American Film, the defunct magazine of the AFI. At that time Peter was a kind of filmmaker secret, known and prized in the more rarified world of experimental films, though his could hardly be called “experimental”. After all he made black and white silent 16mm films, with no “story” or narrative – just sequences of magical images that somehow cohered and made their own visual and emotional sense. Like the very first cinema.  He shot in Kodak Tri-X reversal, deliberately underexposing one and a half to 2 stops, getting a grainy rich image of a wide range of grays-to-black and almost no whites. He knew how to exploit the play of light which drew him like a moth in combination with the granular texture of the emulsion. His relationship with the stock and his sense of imagery was near mystical, and the results veered into the sublime.

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New York Portrait

In his earlier work – In Marin County, July 71…, and Images of Asian Music – his camera was sometimes exuberant, mounted on a skate board (way the hell back then), or under a cock-fight aboard a Cambodian coastal freighter, alternating with fixed shots. He also seemed to aim for willful “surrealist” shots. After these early forays, his camera stilled, and what moved was the light before it – subtle shifts in tones, the grains of the filmstock dancing. And he left behind the forced surrealist images and settled on the magic of his kind of “realism” which often focused on the mundane transformed by the divine dance of light and film grain.

[Peter’s shift to camera stasis reminds me of Parajanov, whose Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was delirious with camera movement, and who then changed to having long-take fixed tableaux, camera nailed to the floor – artists are hard to figure out.]

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Lodz Symphony

He pursued this line for some decades, gathering grants along the way (DAAD, Guggenheim, as well as other accolades like Whitney Biennial screenings). He was a regular at film festivals – Berlin especially, and the New York FF section for avant-garde films. He shot in Lodz, Budapest, and New York; moved to Bard he shot in the Hudson River Valley. And his reputation as a filmmaker’s filmmaker broadened such that, so he told me, Terrence Malick at one point asked him to travel the world doing shots for him in 35mm (turns out it fell through) and other such things. He shot a few features for others, worked with Ken Burns.

Then in 2002 or so, telling me he was doing so because Tri-X was no longer available, he shifted to color. And something happened.

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I am not one to mince words, or give deference to those who’ve done past work that was great but then slip into something else. When Peter switched to color (and Tri-X in fact is still available), somehow he lost that mystical connection between the granular structure of the film emulsion and the dance of light, and something else. Art-making is an organic matter, there’s no on/off button for it; it happens successfully when certain undefinable things align – often things out of the artist’s control. It happened with Peter when he left the Tri-X. Somehow the magic evaporated and his imagery became pedestrian – yes, nicely composed, and often with striking light, and yet lacking in that quality that was present in the black and white films. One might put it down to the fact that Peter was a little color-blind, though honestly I don’t think that had much to do with it. Something more to do with a certain kind of creative exhaustion.

Ironically, being more widely known, he became recipient to further grants, and traveled to shoot for them; he was shown more broadly at festivals. Through a friend of mine he was invited to Iceland, where he shot Skagafjordur. I recall seeing this film, a sequence of stunning landscape shots, glossy and gorgeous as in travel magazine fashion, and thinking it was missing the graphics of the month – June, July, August – up in the corner: calendar images. I recall visiting him in Annandale-on-Hudson, when he was editing At Sea, and his stringing up the edit to that point on his 16mm projector and screening it for me. To my eyes it was for the most part pedestrian; the sequences on board ship tragically vacuous compared to his own Images of Asian Music; the ship building sequences are ordinary documentary (though with Hutton quirks, like a little camera set-up or take-down movement at the start or end of a shot.) Only in a few sequences in the ship-dismantling section shot in Bangladesh did a few shots sing. Ironically, perhaps by critics who’d never seen his earlier work, At Sea was named “experimental film” of the decade. Aside from the simple matter that it is hardly “experimental,” it also isn’t a good film. That it was accorded this title, or screened in the Whitney Biennial, or then broken up to make a 3-screen “installation” at a gallery in NYC (to exclamatory good reviews), tells how far our arts world has fallen. And sadly, how far Peter’s touch had strayed.

I saw a few other later pieces of his – the one shot in Ireland, the last one shot in a desert area in North Africa – and they too are empty – perhaps nicely composed (a toxic notion), and innately “beautiful” (the coast of Ireland, the moody sky; the exoticism of camels in the desert), but beauty and composition don’t suffice.

The last time I saw Peter was in NYC, at a busy gallery opening of his two installation pieces, and one of James Benning’s, on the lower East Side – not far from where he’d lived and I’d visited decades earlier . It was full of art-world people, some few of whom I knew. I had a few words with Peter, as he was besieged with others. He passed on some comments about unhappy personal things, seemingly harried. At the time I thought he looked a little gaunt, something I’ve seen before in others. As if something were eating at him.

Peter died of cancer of the lungs on June 25th, 2016, at the age of 71. In May he’d sent me this note, after I’d sent him a letter about my own health. From this it appears he was rather blind-sided by his illness. The ending was quick.

May 7.  Jeeze! I came down with pneumonia the day I got your last message. My lungs are essentially shot, like swiss cheese the Dr says. I’m on antibiotics and feel slightly better.  Had a show in LA that just closed of Film Stills, sold a few which was good since my daughter is getting married in a month and I’m footing the bill. The digital thing has opened quite a few new exhibition opportunities, installations,trying to stay active but feel the grip loosening a bit . I’m trying to finish my Berlin film from 1980, which time has rendered “archival”. I’ll go to digital and maybe try another installation.I hope someone in Berlin will be interested. Carolina is down in Peru wandering around with a camera, “off the grid” at the moment. Do you know La Furia Umana. They are publishing a book about me, which will be out soon. Time and Tide……. stay in touch, glad you are healing. Best P

I regret there’ll be no more cribbage marathons (though I haven’t played for ages – last time with Peter), but I more regret that circumstances didn’t let me say to him how much his work meant to me, and how glad I was to have known him and had him in my life. I never did talk with him about my thoughts on his later work, though he was a modest sort and I suspect he would not have been bothered by my critique. In truth I think he knew inside himself, and that he carried on as a kind of necessary show. He’d done quiet and extraordinary work, and that was quite enough.

Sail on, sailor.

 

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Filmography:

  • In Marin County (1970)
  • July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971)
  • New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972)
  • Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) (1973-1974)
  • Florence (1975)
  • Boston Fire (1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter One (1978-1979)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Two (1980-1981)
  • Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984-1986)
  • Landscape for Manon (1986)
  • New York Portrait: Chapter Three (1990)
  • In Titan’s Goblet (1991)
  • Lodz Symphony (1991-1993)
  • Study of a River (1996-1997)
  • Time and Tide (2000)
  • Looking at the Sea (2001)
  • Two Rivers (2001-2002)
  • Skagafjordur (2002-2004)
  • At Sea (2007)
  • Three Landscapes (2013)

A nice piece written by Bill Stamets, Chicago friend

http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/reel-life-a-romantic-exulting-in-purified-light/Content?oid=878973

And Peter interviewed:

http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=3385 

[I note I’ve met a few of Peter’s students over the years, and heard from others that he was a wonderful teacher – something from my own knowledge of him would be a given.]

 

Bard

To All:

It is with great sadness that I inform the community of the death of Peter Hutton, Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts, on June 25 at the age of 71.

Peter began teaching at Bard in 1985 and chaired the Film and Electronic Arts Program for twenty-seven years. He also taught in the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.

Peter was born in Detroit on August 24, 1944. He received B.F.A and M.F.A. degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, and travelled the world as a merchant seaman, creating intimate studies of place from the Yangtze River to the Polish industrial city of Lodz, and from the coast of Iceland to a ship graveyard on the Bangladeshi shore. Anthology Film Archives presented a retrospective of his work in 1989, and the Museum of Modern Art presented a comprehensive, eighteen-film retrospective in 2008. His films have also been featured in the Biennial Exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art for many years. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow and Rockefeller Fellow in the early 1990s and received grants from the New York Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for his work on the Hudson River.

Peter was one of the most gracious, talented, original, and generous colleagues I have ever known. His contribution to the College was transformative. My deepest condolences to his daughter, Manon Hutton-DeWys ’06, of whom he was justly proud, and her husband, Donald McClelland; and his widow, Carolina Gonzalez-Hutton. He is also survived by his twin sister, Wendy Hutton, and brother, William Hutton.

A funeral service will take place on Tuesday, June 28, beginning with a quiet gathering at 5:00 p.m. at the Avery Center for the Arts, followed by a silent procession to Blithewood, where the service will be held on the West Portico, weather permitting, or in the Blithewood Foyer, if necessary. A reception at the president’s house will immediately follow the service.

If you choose to honor Peter and his legacy at Bard, his family has requested donations may be made to Bard College for the Peter Hutton Film Fund. Please do not send flowers.

Leon Botstein


Office of Alumni/ae Affairs
Bard College
845-758-7089
alumni@bard.edu