But there do come certain moments in the history of a community when people can look around and say, "Well, here we are. What's next?" We have arrived at such a pause for clarification and decision in Vermont. Our providential wilderness cannot be taken for granted today. Because for a century we stood outside America's economic mainstream, our region's nonhuman community enjoyed a rare opportunity to recover. But in this new era of telecommunications, when business is no longer so closely tied to major manufacturing centers, there will be no more security for beautiful backwaters. Unless we find the will to protect the North Mountains of our state—as terrain in which selective logging, human recreation, and wildlife can coexist—we could lose within just a few seasons the balance that has grown up here.
John Elder, Reading the Mountains of Home
The Garden in the Machine
is the result of two explorations, one more obviously professional, the other more obviously personal; or to be more precise, the eleven essays that follow are the product of a decade-long intersection of these two explorations. Since the late 1970s, nearly all of my scholarly and critical energies, and a substantial portion of my pedagogical energy, have been devoted to what is variously termed "avant-garde film," "independent film," "experimental film" (in recent years, I have included "video art" as well): that immense world of alternative media that has developed generally outside the commercial histories of the movies and television and remains outside the awareness of both the mass audience and most teachers, critics, and scholars of media, the humanities, and cultural studies. I have found the many and varied achievements of this alternative media history endlessly stimulating and rewarding—and, in pedagogical contexts, remarkably invigorating. Indeed, one of contemporary academe's most stunning paradoxes is that, in an era when "media literacy" is so crucial and alternatives to conventional consumer culture so necessary, this unparalleled pedagogical resource is generally ignored.
The second exploration began as a personal response to my local circumstances, although in recent years it has become more fully a part of my serious research. Early in my forties, during the conventional midlife crisis, I came to realize not only that I had spent fifteen years in central New York—twelve more than I had expected or planned—but that I was likely to spend many more years here. Central New York was becoming "my place," seemingly without my conscious participation. I decided, of course, to "make the best of it" and did so by finding my way into the Adirondacks and Catskills, and into the cultural history of the region. The more I learned about upstate New York, the more interested I became not only in this place but in places in general, in all their specificity and interconnectedness. Inevitably, given my professional commitments, my developing interest in history and geography came to include—came to focus on—the history and geography of the depiction
of place, in literature, painting, and photography and especially in film and video.
Because many of the most inventive, evocative, and stimulating—even the most beautiful—twentieth-century depictions of place, particularly American place, are found in alternative films and videos and because nearly all these works remain unknown to most of those likely to find them interesting and useful, a book on some of the more remarkable and the issues they raise seemed called for. Further, because many of these works pose challenges to viewers, especially viewers coming upon them for the first time with expectations developed by commercial media, some detailed contextualization and in-depth analysis seemed essential.
This book was written during a moment when the idea of interdisciplinary study has been increasingly exciting to a good many academics. My hope is that The Garden in the Machine
will work across traditional academic boundaries: in other words, it should serve not only the field of film studies, but those many other sectors of academe involved with the idea and the depiction of place. Specifically, I have contextualized my discussions of particular films and videos in ways that, if I have chosen well, should demonstrate their relevance for American studies, for art history, and for environmental studies, most obviously—and with luck for other disciplines as well.
The order of the eleven essays, in addition to reflecting the progress of my thinking about the films and videos I discuss, has a certain rough trajectory. The first three chapters use developments in the visual arts during the nineteenth century, and earlier, as a context for films that engage the idea of original American nature and its depiction as wilderness or as pastoral. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the exploration of the American West, in early and contemporary times. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 explore the development of the modern city and the city film, and ways of responding culturally and cinematically to the stresses of urban experience. Chapters 9 and 10 focus on critiques of romantic ideas about country and city. The Garden in the Machine
concludes with a discussion of films that offer some sense of recovery from the lost innocence explored in "Expulsion from the Garden" (chap. 9) and "Satan's National Park" (chap. 10). I could not resist arranging the chapters "topographically": chapter 6, "The City as Motion Picture," focuses on urban spaces and is surrounded by chapters that focus on rural spaces or intersections of the rural and the urban.
The prose style of The Garden in the Machine
is meant to be as accessible to students and general readers as to scholars and faculty, and to recognize several crucial practical realities, the most obvious of which is that most readers will be unfamiliar with most of the films and videos I discuss. This means that a certain amount of description of the works—both their physical nature (how they look and sound, their timing) and the viewing experience they create—is inevitable, although I have attempted to hold such description to a minimum and, where possible, to enhance the reader's sense of these works with visual imagery. The introductory mission of the book precludes anything like a thorough review of the critical histories of the films and videos I discuss—although, of course, I provide access to relevant sources for those in film studies and those in other fields interested in a more complex understanding of the critical history of these works. A detailed list of sources for the films and videos discussed is also included.
It will be obvious to my colleagues in film studies that my survey is anything but exhaustive. Certainly, I am aware of a good many films and videos that might have been included in my discussions; and no doubt, there are many relevant works I am not yet acquainted with. I have attempted to discuss a sufficient number of works to demonstrate the accomplishment and potential of the larger field my selections represent. If I have been successful, others will be drawn toward a more thorough exploration.
The obvious American bias of my discussions is certainly not meant to denigrate the accomplishments of those working in other areas of the world who have explored issues of place. For example, over the past generation a considerable body of film and video about landscape and cityscape has been produced in the United Kingdom. Clearly, Chris Welsby's films could sustain a lengthy discussion; and he is one of many. And Canadian filmmakers and videomakers have frequently explored issues I discuss. Michael Snow (La région centrale
, Seated Figures
) and Joyce Wieland (La raison avant la passion
) are particularly noteworthy instances.
Some readers may feel that my decision to focus on only a few American commercial films and even fewer documentaries is unfortunate. Why give several pages to Twister
(1969) and only cursory mention to John Ford? Indeed, where is the whole history of the Western? Why not discuss Terence Malick's Badlands
(1973) and Days of Heaven
(1978)? What about all the documentary filmmakers who have represented American landscape and cityscape: Robert Flaherty, Willard Van Dyke, Pare Lorentz, Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Sarah Elder/Leonard Kamerling. . . ? And those familiar with the history of video will wonder how I could include Ellen Spiro and George Kuchar but not Bill Viola and Mary Lucier. I can only hope that the discussions I have
included in The Garden in the Machine
are useful enough to justify the many obvious limits of my survey. That there are
so many limits, of course, is inspiration for further explorations.
One thing, however, is already certain: whatever the extent or limitations in my coverage of independent cinema, my enterprise is constricted in another, far graver sense. Despite their remarkable visual and conceptual accomplishments and their virtually incomparable pedagogical value, the majority of the films explored in The Garden in the Machine
(all those other than the commercial features and the documentaries) are instances of an endangered cinematic species. Because these films have been so consistently underutilized, their economic viability is seriously in jeopardy. When film rentals are not adequate, new 16mm prints cannot be struck, and the remaining prints suffer more and more damage. To cite one example of the extent of this problem: as this is written, so far as I know, only one good print of Larry Gottheim's Horizons
(1973), the focus of chapter 2, remains available, and that print is showing signs of wear.
A related problem involves the increasing reliance of so many academic institutions on video and other new technologies and the atrophy of first-rate 16mm screening conditions. The overwhelming majority of the films I discuss were made in 16mm for exhibition in a public space where good 16mm projection is possible. Not only are these films generally unavailable in any format other than 16mm, but even if there were money for transfer from 16mm to video, laser disk, or DVD, so much of their visual subtlety might be lost that the transfer would be pointless (and, in any case, each new format seems to have a shorter life span than the one it replaces). Of course, the lure of the new technologies for academics is that once a new system is in place, the cost of buying or renting videos (or laser disks. . .) of films is far less than the cost of renting 16mm prints. The corollary is that those films available only in 16mm tend to be forgotten. The irony is that there is no necessity in this increasingly pervasive pattern. My experience as a teacher at a variety of academic institutions tells me that the resources for renting 16mm prints are nearly always available; I believe any dedicated teacher can raise the necessary rental money. And so long as prints are regularly rented, new prints can be struck, and the 16mm experience of the films can continue.
A central mission of The Garden in the Machine
is to draw increased attention to that larger body of 16mm film represented by the films I discuss. If those academic disciplines that can profit from this body of work, and those creative exhibitors with the capability of presenting 16mm film effectively, can recognize that a major resource is currently being ignored—wasted—this remarkable cultural accomplishment may continue to invigorate lovers of the moving image for generations to come. If I can play a small role in this process, I will feel well rewarded. 1 The Garden in the Machine Two American Avant-Garde Films and the Nineteenth-Century Visual Arts
The image of the railroad on the shore of the pond figures an ambiguity at the heart of Walden. Man-made power, the machine with its fire, smoke, and thunder, is juxtaposed to the waters of Walden, remarkable for their depth and purity and a matchless, indescribable color—now light blue, now green, almost always pellucid. The iron horse moves across the surface of the earth; the pond invites the eye below the surface. The contrast embodies both the hope and the fear aroused by the impending climax of America's encounter with wild nature.
Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden
One of the primary reasons I became interested in film studies was the seeming open-endedness of the field. Cinema was new,
I reasoned, and would continue to be new, unlike other academic fields, particularly those devoted to historical periods: as a scholar and a teacher, I would face the future, endlessly enthralled and energized by the transformation of the potential into the actual. That my development as a film scholar-teacher increasingly involved me in "avant-garde film" seemed quite natural—a logical extension of the attraction of film studies in general: avant-garde film was the newest of the new, the sharpest edge of the present as it sliced into the promise of the future. Scholars in some fields may empathize with the attitude I describe, but scholars in all fields will smile at its self-defeating implications. Of course, I can see now how "typically American" my assumptions were—as if one could maintain the excitement of youth merely by refusing to acknowledge the past! Obviously, film studies, like any other discipline, is only a field once its history takes, or is given, a recognizable shape.
My particular belated recognition of the obvious developed in a fashion that, I believe, has considerable utility for several academic fields that are usually thought of as roughly distinct from one another: film studies, American studies, environmental studies, and art history. Indeed, my fascination with avant-garde cinema has led me relentlessly into the past—and not simply into the past of film history, but back beyond the invention and development of modern cinema, into forms of image making that many film scholars, and other cultural historians, might consider peripheral to cinema, at best. I have become increasingly fascinated by a considerable number of modern American independent films that, by both accident and design, have invigorated traditions of thought and image making generally thought to characterize the nineteenth century. While there are various topics that could be used to demonstrate how the "avant-garde" has become the "old-fashioned" and vice versa, the most fertile of these topics (if the reader can forgive the pun) is the American landscape.
The importance of the landscape in American cultural history hardly needs comment at this late date: landscape was a dominant issue in American painting and writing throughout the nineteenth century and, as a wealth of cultural commentary suggests, has remained crucial throughout this century, as the nineteenth-century fascination with "wilderness" and "nature" increasingly gave way, first, to a focus on cityscape and city life and, more recently, to a fascination with the forms of human signification that, in our postmodernist period, are the inevitable overlay of both countryside and city. What is often overlooked as this cultural trajectory is charted, however, is that earlier fascinations do not simply disappear; often they are taken so much for granted that, in effect, our consciousness of them becomes repressed: their very obviousness tends to render them invisible.
It may seem apparent that the nineteenth century's obsession with representing "wilderness" and the pastoral "middle state" had become anathema to most artists and art lovers by the early years of the twentieth century as modernism gathered momentum, but this certainly doesn't mean that the representation of wild and rural landscape disappeared from the arts. Any trip to a local art and craft show will reveal that landscape, in the most traditional senses, remains a central issue for many painters and photographers. And, more important for this discussion, any exposure to modern cinema makes clear that the American landscape—in both the broadest sense of the term and in the more particular and traditional sense of the depiction of wild and rural scenes—is virtually indispensable to film pleasure. This is especially obvious in the Western, of course, but is true of all commercial genres. These days, art lovers may be less likely to go to galleries and museums to see wild and rural scenes than art enthusiasts of earlier centuries, but they do see depictions of such scenes all the time.
Of course, that visions of landscape are crucial to many popular films doesn't mean that popular filmmakers are engaged with the complex, sophisticated discourse about landscape that developed in and around nineteenth-century American landscape painting and writing. That discourse may seem virtually defunct, except in the work of scholars, even if vestiges of the original forms are apparent in popular film. But here too a cultural repression is involved, though of a different sort. Many of the most intellectually interesting engagements with American landscape in modern American cinema have been occurring in the work of filmmakers who work independently of mainstream commercial cinema.
That late-twentieth-century independent filmmakers often share an interest in landscape with nineteenth-century artists and writers is less surprising than it may seem, once one considers the development of American independent film and the emergence of academic film studies during the 1960s and 1970s. For a good many filmmakers coming to maturity during those decades, a broad and penetrating cultural critique was essential. This critique was often directed at the commercialism of Hollywood, which was seen as a particularly visible index of the increasingly rampant materialism of capitalist culture. The arrival of commercial television as the preeminent national entertainment was causing the declining pop film industry to be at least as desperately commercial as it had ever been, and this desperation was reflected in an increasing tendency toward visual and auditory overload, the apparent assumption being that the only way to maintain the audience that still went to movie theaters, and to win back some of those who were no longer paying admission, was to provide consumers with more and more to consume: larger images and more of them per minute, more visceral violence, and more overt sexuality. For many filmmakers working outside the Industry and wanting to critique it, the fundamental question was how to develop a film practice that worked against the demands of the commercial and against this increasing tendency toward overload—and where to go for inspiration.
One set of answers developed along with, and in part because of, the academicization of film studies. Inevitably, the development of cinema as a field of study catalyzed a new awareness of those whose "primitive" contributions to the rhetoric of cinema had been left behind as the industry developed the commercial feature as its most marketable form: the earliest filmmakers (Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Edwin S. Porter, George Méliès) and the motion photographers who preceded them, especially Eadweard Muybridge; and the tradition of image making and audience development that cinema's pioneers and original audiences inherited, including the "Great Pictures" of Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, the landscape and sequential paintings of Thomas Cole, the still and moving panoramas of John Banvard and others, Louis Daguerre's Diorama, and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon.
This new awareness of early cinema and precinema image making catalyzed a considerable body of work produced by filmmakers teaching or studying at academic institutions who were attempting to begin anticommercial filmmaking careers. Two instances of this body of work are Larry Gottheim's Fog Line
(1970) and J.J. Murphy's Sky Blue Water Light Sign
(1972). That neither of these films, or the names of their makers, will be familiar to most scholars and teachers outside film studies is, unfortunately, to be expected. While everyone understands the importance of the commercial cinema in the evolution of modern American culture, the remarkable contributions of the wide world of independent cinema (the extent of this history is suggested by the proliferation of names that have been used in connection with it: avant-garde film, underground film, abstract film, experimental film, the New American Cinema . . .) remains outside the awareness of most scholars and teachers—largely because of the general failure of film historians to bridge the gaps between the developing field of film studies and other academic disciplines. My decision to focus the following discussion on two, relatively brief films is a function not only of the perceptual impact and conceptual density of these particular films but also of their remarkable utility for teachers. Few films can create as much energy in a classroom as Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
both of which are effective instigators of a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between contemporary media practice and viewership and nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural development. My hope is that my discussion will tempt some of those who teach and write American studies, environmental studies, and art history not only to try including these two films in their curricula and their scholarly deliberations, but to see an exploration of the full range of American independent cinema as vital to their, and their students', sense of American culture.
Gottheim made Fog Line
soon after arriving at the State University of New York at Binghamton, having completed his Ph.D. in comparative literature at Yale; Murphy made Sky Blue Water Light Sign
when he was a graduate student in cinema at the University of Iowa. Like the Lumière Brothers (and the Edison Studio), Gottheim and Murphy limited each of their earliest films to a single shot, made with the camera mounted on a tripod. For the Lumières, this procedure must have seemed quite obvious: having developed a successful business as manufacturers of still cameras before inventing their Cinématographe, they must have felt it sufficient to surprise the first Cinématographe audiences with photographs-in-motion. For Gottheim and Murphy, it seemed equally obvious to model their first steps toward a new film praxis on what they understood as their cinematic fathers' first steps. Of course, the seventy-five-year gap between the invention of cinema and these young academic filmmakers' entry into filmmaking is as obvious as their indebtedness to the Lumières. The early Lumière films were fifty seconds long (seventeen meters), long enough to reveal the subject-in-motion, but not so long as to bore the Cinématographe audience. The Lumières' goal was commercial: they needed to demonstrate the flexibility of the new technology. While their films were one shot long, even the earliest public Cinématographe shows in Paris included multiple films on a variety of topics, many of which, in 1895-96, would have been considered reasonably exciting, or amusing, or impressive: large groups of soldiers marching, a train arriving at a station, the demolition of a wall by construction workers (also presented in reverse) . . . And these single-shot views were presented one after the other without the intervention of the individual titles that were to become standard later, when the Lumière films were shown to film society and academic audiences. In other words, the early Cinématographe presentations were essentially advertisements, and their structure prefigures the barrage strategy of modern television commercials.
For Gottheim and Murphy, however, the salient fact was the simplicity and directness of the Lumière imagery; and from their position in the early 1970s, this simplicity and directness seemed a useful weapon in the service of an anticommercial aesthetic. They chose unusually "simple" subjects—a foggy, early-morning, rural landscape near Gottheim's home in Binghamton, New York, for Fog Line;
and for Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
the wilderness scene revealed by a light sign used to advertise Hamm's Beer in bars (the slogan for Hamm's was and is "from the land of sky blue waters"). And they extended the duration of their fixed-camera gaze on these subjects well beyond the early Lumière film: Fog Line
lasts 10 1/2 minutes; Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
8 1/2 minutes.
While the commercial industry can be said to have developed the visceral excitement of the first Cinématographe shows and their commercial purpose, Gottheim, Murphy, and others developed precisely those dimensions of the Lumière films that, seventy-five years later, had come to seem least commercial and most primitive. Paradoxically, they became "avant-garde" filmmakers by accessing topics and themes that were more characteristic of the decades that preceded the invention of the Cinématographe than of their own time. Most obviously, Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign
are "landscape films"; images of landscape are all we see in both films.
In the early 1970s the decision to focus what for most first-time viewers seems a very extended experience, on landscape alone—in both films there is a variety of evidence of human presence but no characters or human action—was distinctive, even radical; and, from my experience presenting the two films, it continues to feel at least as distinctive and radical for most viewers. In fact, as serene as both films can seem—once one allows that the filmmakers' minimalist tactics are legitimate—many viewers who see the films now are at least mildly annoyed, and some are angry: both filmmakers seem not to mind
that their films are "boring."
That viewers have been trained, and have trained themselves, to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film experience provides us with a measure of how different our sensibilities are from those of art lovers of a previous century. Indeed, when I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line
what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!" Without overt human characterization and plot, late-twentieth-century viewers are virtually blind to imagery and issues that fascinated artists and audiences alike during the nineteenth century, and they are blind regardless of the considerable visual subtlety and conceptual density of both films.
At this point, I must discuss Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign
individually, for although they are similar in their makers' implicit defiance of late-twentieth-century taste and in their general affirmation of the nineteenth century's interest in landscape, the two films are worlds apart in their specifics—not only in the obvious sense that Gottheim's film presents a rural, cultivated landscape, a pastoral
scene, and Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
scene, but in other senses as well. Fog Line
While most audiences of Fog Line
see, at most, only a foggy green landscape (Fog Line
is silent)—what they define as "Nothing!"—the film offers a good bit more to the patient, discerning eye, both compositionally and as an experience in time. What one sees and can identify in Fog Line
depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear. At the beginning of the film, the image is virtually abstract—a milky green rectangle—and this abstraction is emphasized by the fact that Gottheim provides no pre-image credits. During approximately the first third of Fog Line,
the only motion is the very slight clearing of the fog, most noticeable in the center of the image where several shapes gradually become identifiable as trees. This tiny alteration is enough to reveal, after a minute or so, that the milky green space is in fact a landscape trisected horizontally by several high-tension wires (hence the separate word, "Line," in the title, which is not "Fogline" but suggests two separate categories of image). The viewer's gradual identification of the image as a landscape provides the film's easiest metaphor: as the fog clears in the image, enabling viewers to identify the scene, they are no longer "in a fog" about what they are seeing, at least on a literal level.
Once this simple identification is made, however, most first-time viewers, assuming the cinematic riddle has been solved, "space out" and, as a result, do not see a variety of other minimal, but quite suggestive, developments. The most "dramatic" of these begins approximately a third of the way through the film and is confined to the lower third of the frame (between the bottom wires and the lower frame-line): two horses walk slowly through the image, entering from the lower right to graze their way across the field between the camera and the trees in the center of the composition, and exit the image on the left. In those instances when audiences have assured me that they've seen "Nothing!" during Fog Line,
my follow-up question—"How many of you saw the horses?"—is generally greeted with disbelief and consternation. Because of the relatively low-light conditions in which Gottheim filmed the scene, the Fog Line
imagery is rather grainy, and as a result the tiny, distant horses are just barely visible. Nevertheless, once the identification is made, the presence of the horses is perfectly obvious, as all viewers grudgingly admit during rescreenings of the film. The widespread failure to see the horses during the first screening reveals not only the viewers' inability to see anything of interest in a "landscape film" but also their further refusal to consider the filmmaker as the designer of the image. In fact, Gottheim's particular composition of this
foggy space of countryside was determined by the regular movements of the horses through this space every morning: Gottheim had studied the scene for months, and filmed it more than once.
The process of identifying the image in Fog Line
as a landscape and recognizing the horses is suggestive. For a few moments at the beginning of the film, viewers cannot be sure that the image they're looking at is
a motion picture. Indeed, it is only once the fog has thinned enough for an identification of the image to be possible that we can recognize that something other than the movie projector—the fog itself—is moving. This first recognition is reminiscent of the development of photography during the early nineteenth century (indeed, the gradual appearance of the landscape image out of milky green abstraction is suggestive of the process of photographic development itself) and then, during the second half of the century, of motion photography: the two horses materializing out of the thinning fog suggest the fascination with the movement of horses that led to Eadweard Muybridge's earliest motion studies and his Zoopraxiscope, a forerunner of the motion picture projector.
If the movement of the horses through the image defines the middle third of Fog Line,
the continued, gradual clearing of the fog, especially in the space between the upper wires and the upper frame-line, defines the final third, which is punctuated by a bird flying through the image from left to right above the wires—a happy accident during the filming, as it echoes and balances the movement of the horses. Of course, those who have failed to see the horses are even less likely to notice the quick flight of the bird through the space. As the fog in the upper third of the composition thins, a faint circular shape becomes more evident just above the upper wires, to the left of center. Some viewers assume it is the sun beginning to break through. Fog Line
ends as abruptly as it begins, and no end credits are provided.
Viewers attentive to the evolution of the Fog Line
imagery are faced with at least three subtle conundrums. First, if Gottheim means to present a lovely rural scene—and the gradually evolving greens of the film are stunning and distinctive—why not avoid the wires? Simply setting up the camera a few yards closer to the field would have made this possible. Second, we must account for the fact that if we do identify the horses, we can hardly fail to notice their diminutive size compared to the trees, which seem very large—not only larger than we may have at first assumed, but too large to be possible in this landscape. And finally, what is
the circular shape just above the upper wires? By the end of the film we can feel reasonably certain it isn't the sun.
As the title suggests, the wires are central to Gottheim's thinking about the scene he depicts. Their compositional effect is to raise our consciousness of the upper and lower horizontal "lines" of the film frame, and of the frame's rigid rectangularity. While we usually tend to use the film frame as a window on a conventional illusion of a three-dimensional space, the lines within and around this image mitigate against our penetration of the space and draw our attention to the graphic makeup of the frame, which is emphasized by the flatness and graininess of the foggy image. The dispersal of the fog may be so gradual that one cannot be sure when changes are actually occurring in the image and when they're occurring in our consciousness, but the wires and frame-line combine to create a grid that rationalizes the natural process of the fog's lifting and allows us to measure the evolution of the image by spatially locating the subtler changes in relation to it—the way I've done in my preceding description of Fog Line
's tiny events.
The moment the linear elements of the image are recognized as indexes of the technological/aesthetic history that produced the motion picture camera and the illusion of Renaissance perspective that the motion picture camera is designed to mass produce twenty-four images per second, we can recognize that Fog Line
foregrounds not simply natural landscape, but the intersection
of natural process and human technological development. And this recognition allows us to solve the other two conundrums. The perspectival impossibility of the Fog Line
scene, evident in the comparative size of the horses and the trees, is a function of Gottheim's decision to film with a telephoto lens, a camera technology that allows for deeper penetration into space but at the cost of flattening perspective and fictionalizing the spatial relationships within the frame. To the extent that we do see and measure the scene before us in Fog Line,
we realize that we are seeing not Nature but photography's transformation of it—a realization confirmed by the circular brownish dot, which indeed is not the sun but a smudge on the lens that Gottheim was fully aware of as he shot.
Gottheim's interest in the intersection of natural process and human technological development recalls one of the central themes of nineteenth-century American painting, a theme brilliantly dramatized in Thomas Cole's The Oxbow
(1836) (the full title: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow
. For Cole, the cycles of nature on the left of The Oxbow
represent a physical and spiritual opportunity that the cultivated fields of the Connecticut Valley, on the right side of the painting, do not—no matter how lovely and productive those fields might be and no matter how we honor those who labor in them. Cole, turned toward us in the foreground of the wilderness side of the image (a wilderness Cole is, at best, "remembering" rather than depicting, as by 1836 the view from the Mount Holyoke hills was a tourist attraction), seems to be using his position as artist to ask us to reconsider the process of change from wilderness to cultivation that is evident behind him, in the interest of our spiritual health and growth. To extend Leo Marx's famous phrase, the technological development of the Connecticut Valley, evident in the grid of farms in the distance, is the "Machine in the Garden" of the New World. As Angela Miller has argued, Cole recognizes that, as members of a democracy, the choice emblematic in the two halves of The Oxbow
is ours, but even if we ally ourselves with Cole, we are, at best, near the edge of a momentous and deeply problematic historical change: the "drop into the distant agricultural prospect is precipitous rather than gradual," and by implication the potential of our falling away from God is considerable.
Like Cole, Gottheim assumes a viewer who can recognize the complexities of our current situation vis-à-vis nature and technology. The ease with which a casual viewer might miss Cole's image of himself in The Oxbow
parallels the tendency of contemporary viewers to see "Nothing!" in Fog Line
—especially the subtle hand of Gottheim-as-filmmaker. But Gottheim's historical position with regard to the issue of nature/technology is fundamentally different from Cole's. When Cole painted The Oxbow
a generation before the Civil War, much of North America was still undeveloped, at least in a European sense of "development." Certainly, in the Northeast—in Cole's Hudson Valley, in particular, and the Connecticut and other river valleys—the fast growth of trade and industry was doing considerable damage to "untouched" nature and even to the sense of pastoral harmony that some painters saw as the most logical accommodation between the Garden of North America and its exploitation by human society. But industrialization could still be seen as an inroad into
a gigantic wilderness that continued to dominate America's sense of the continent. When Gottheim made Fog Line
a century later, the reverse had become true. Industrial and agricultural development had put an end to "wilderness." What remained of the Garden that had defined North America for European Americans a century earlier had been enclosed within a system of national and state parks and forests that "protected" the enclosures from total commercial development. To put this another way, history had transformed the American scene from a Garden housing a potentially dangerous Machine into a continental Machine in which vestiges of that Garden, or really metaphors for it, are safely contained within grids of roads, fields, and power lines. For Gottheim, there was no question of declaring his resistance to industrialization and commercialization as Cole implicitly does in The Oxbow:
the machine he was learning to control remained connected to the industrial revolution by a celluloid umbilical cord. But his access to the 16mm camera did provide an opportunity to critique his position within this history and, at least in one sense, to turn problematic aspects of this history against themselves.
As Fog Line
makes clear, all that remains of an earlier concept of untouched wilderness and of the ideal, pastoral "middle state" is an illusion. "Nature," of course, is still here,
but it functions entirely within those technological systems developed to exploit it, including the "system" of motion picture production (of which 16mm, "avant-garde" filmmaking is a "trickle down" development). Indeed, Leo Marx's original "machine," the increasingly ubiquitous locomotive, shares a particular technological heritage with the "machine" of cinema: the advances that brought the railroad track ultimately brought the image track and sound track as well; and when the Cinématographe arrived on the scene, it declared its technological kinship with its sibling technology in the Lumières' L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat
(1895) and in what became a considerable tradition of cinematic trains, from Porter's The Great Train Robbery
(1903) and Hale's Tours to Keaton's The General
(1926) and Hitchcock's North by Northwest
When nineteenth-century painters critiqued the ongoing exploitation of nature, they tended to share a set of attitudes toward "wilderness" and the "middle state" that were virtually part of their birthright. And they also shared a determination to use the traditions of painting as a means of attacking or coming to terms with the problematic elements of this exploitation. Their paintings were a means of improving on what they saw around them, a way of teaching a society-in-transformation a set of values that would mitigate in the direction of spiritual health. For Gottheim, the fundamental goal was the same, but he was functioning within a society already transformed, by nineteenth-century standards at least, although still faced with the issue of coming to terms with the combined advantages and dangers of technological "advance." The birthright of Gottheim's society—and especially of the post-World War II generation—was the idea of the almost inevitable ameliorative impact of progress, defined as continued scientific breakthrough, technological development, economic advantage, and social mobility. Like his nineteenth-century predecessors in the visual arts, Gottheim inherited an image-making technology and tradition he was determined to use as a means of teaching the larger society where it was and where it should be going. But the historical transformations that had occurred between The Oxbow
and Fog Line
forced Gottheim to depict the lovely, meditative serenity of a particular intersection of natural process and technological development from the right side of The Oxbow,
from within the changed world Cole was still able to detach himself from, at least in his paintings.
Of course, while we can exploit nature, we can never fully control it, a fact evident during any presentation of Fog Line.
Because Gottheim's imagery is as minimal as it is and because the film is a single continuous shot, evidence of the material fragility of celluloid and emulsion and of the projection apparatus—scratches on the film, dust in the projector gate—is far more evident during Fog Line
than during more conventional films. Because so little is happening, a wobbling scratch or a particle of dust inevitably catches the eye. While this might be considered a limitation of Gottheim's method, it is also an index of the fact that since film, like any mechanical technology, is constructed from nature and functions within a natural surround, natural process will inevitably make itself felt as friction and decay, relentlessly undercutting and recontextualizing our technological goals and our intellectual pretensions. Sky Blue Water Light Sign
As was suggested earlier, Sky Blue Water Light Sign
shares with Fog Line
a "Lumièresque" commitment to the extended single shot. In other senses, however, Murphy's "landscape film" differs from Gottheim's, both in the particulars of its imagery and in its allusions to nineteenth-century image making. Most obviously, Sky Blue Water Light Sign
does not document (and distort) a real scene; it records a fabrication of an imagined scene—and in a manner that disguises what is being recorded. Specifically, during the filming, Murphy framed his shot so that the film frame coincides with the frame around the Hamm's light-sign imagery; the result is that viewers are unaware of the light-sign apparatus. Because we cannot see the superstructure within which the moving imagery is mounted, only the imagery itself, Murphy's framing magically transforms the reality of a strip of imagery moving leftward through the light-sign frame into the illusion of a continuous, smooth, rightward pan across the wilderness scene, filmed from a tripod mounted in the middle of the stream. This transformation of the sign creates an experience that, like Fog Line,
is suggestive of early-nineteenth-century developments.
I have stressed the ideological connections between Fog Line
and mid-nineteenth-century painting as represented by The Oxbow,
but other connections between Gottheim's film and nineteenth-century image making are equally germane. There is, after all, a precedent for precisely the kind of experience Gottheim's film offers, in Louis Daguerre's Diorama shows of the 1820s and 1830s. A sensation from the beginning, the Diorama shows quickly adopted a particular structure: a spectator would see two fifteen-minute presentations, each of which provided a single view on a gradually evolving scene (after the first scene, the entire viewing room—in Paris it sat 350 spectators; in London, 300—swung around to reveal the second). Richard D. Altick's descriptions of characteristic Diorama scenes frequently reveal parallels to the experience Gottheim creates in Fog Line:
[I]n Daguerre's Interior of the Cloisters of St. Wandrill,
a portion of the desolate ruin was seen as lighted by the midday sun, while the rest was thrust into darkness. Outside, as fleecy clouds passed across the sun, the leaves of the shrubs that half-covered the decaying mullions rustled in the wind and their shadows were reflected in the adjoining columns. In the Rouen scene [Diorama shows frequently focused on the interiors of churches and cathedrals—Canterbury Cathedral, Chartres, Rouen—as well as on cloisters like St. Wandrill], following an early morning storm, a rainbow appeared and the roofs of the buildings shone as if recently wetted by the rain. The next season's picture of a ruined chapel began with a thick February fog enveloping everything beyond the wall; then gradually, as if dispersed by the wind, the fog lifted, the tops of the trees and the snow on the distant mountains became visible, and at the end the whole valley, with its variety of tints and shades, was revealed.
If Fog Line
is reminiscent of the Diorama, Sky Blue Water Light Sign
provides an experience reminiscent of two related forms of nineteenth-century entertainment roughly contemporaneous with the Diorama: the still and motion forms of panoramic painting. Panoramic painting developed in England at the end of the eighteenth century largely as a result of the efforts of the Edinburgh painter Robert Barker, whose La Nature á Coup d'Oeil
apparatus included specifications for creating 360o
paintings that would be mounted in a circular building. By the end of the century, a variety of panoramic entertainments had evolved and proliferated, making Leicester Square the center of London's popular entertainment industry. The public fascination with panoramic painting quickly spread through Europe, and to North America. The paintings themselves focused on 360o
views of particular places—the city of London, for example—and on major historical events, especially important battles. The limitation of the 360o
panorama, especially on this continent, was that it required spectators to travel to particular buildings in big cities—something many Americans found impractical (although 360o
panoramas were established in American cities, and have in some cases, remained popular: the "cyclorama" of Pickett's Charge completed by Paul Philippoteaux in 1884, for example, continues to be a Gettysburg attraction). The solution to the problem of the relative immobility of 360o
panoramic paintings was the "moving panorama," which evolved during the early decades of the nineteenth century in England and on the Continent, finally arriving in the United States in 1828, where the form—long strips of canvas were unrolled from a cylinder hidden from the audience, across a rectangular frame at the front of the theater, and onto a second cylinder—continued to develop. In its heyday, the moving panorama was a "feature-length" entertainment (that is, like modern feature films, about two hours long) that, characteristically, took viewers on a journey along a major river—in the United States, usually the Mississippi, the Ohio, or the Missouri. A series of scenes were represented in a sequence on the strip of canvas, each individual scene enhanced by in-person narration and other sound and visual effects. A self-taught St. Louis artist, John Banvard, became the leading painter-presenter of moving panoramas, claiming to have exhibited a Mississippi panorama to four hundred thousand customers during a nine-month tour from city to city. Indeed, for a time, St. Louis seems to have prefigured Hollywood: various studios vied to present audiences with the biggest, the longest, and the best moving panoramas.
The "history" of most viewers' experiences with Sky Blue Water Light Sign
echoes the historical development of moving panoramas out of the somewhat earlier still panoramic form. Indeed, once we understand how the original light sign and Murphy's film were constructed—either by being told the facts or by deducing them from the imagery itself—we recognize that the light sign is a modernized and miniaturized version of the moving-panorama experience, with the obvious differences that the light-sign imagery is not painted on canvas but is printed on a celluloid strip and moves continually through the frame as long as the sign is turned on: the moving panoramas were unwound through the frame, a scene at a time, in one direction, and during each subsequent performance, back through the frame in the opposite direction.
While it alludes in this complex fashion to a particular precinematic motion picture evolution, however, Sky Blue Water Light Sign
defies the overt goals and implicit ideology not only of the nineteenth-century panoramas but also of modern motion picture history, which can be understood to have evolved at least in part from these and related nineteenth-century technologies. Like nineteenth-century panoramas, and contemporary industrial cinema, the light sign Murphy decided to film provides a moving-picture entertainment as a means to the end of making money, in this case, through beer sales. That the light sign pretends to portray a lovely wilderness scene is less a tribute to the traditional idea of nature as Garden—though the pretense of the sign, of course, is that Hamm's Beer is as "natural" and healthy as the great outdoors—than still another instance of that very exploitation of wilderness that Cole was so deeply concerned about in The Oxbow
and that the moving-panorama painters, like so many of their contemporaries, were interested in maintaining. Like Gottheim, Murphy uses the technology of cinema to critique the very history and ideology that has placed this technology at his disposal, although he does so in somewhat different ways.
During the ten and a half minutes of Fog Line,
we are offered the opportunity to see what we're looking at with greater precision. During the eight and a half minutes of Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
we are continually presented with new imagery (at least until the very end when Murphy includes just enough overlap to convince us that we've returned to where we began), and, minute by minute, this new imagery revises our sense of what we've already seen and our sense of the experience as a whole. As the film begins, we are seeing—and apparently hearing—a broad stream as it winds its way through a forest of deciduous and evergreen trees, and the "pan" continues across a quiet backwater. In my experience teaching the film, most viewers assume, at least during these early moments, that they are seeing an actual scene. They may recognize that there's something unusual about the texture of this imagery, but they tend to assume this is a result of some "artistic" manipulation of the original footage on Murphy's part. As the "pan" moves beyond the backwater and a campsite is revealed, however, the original assumption that the footage was made plein air in some real wilderness location is thrown into crisis: it is obvious—especially from the impossible regularity of the campfire smoke and the way in which a canoe sits in the water—that this
cannot be real. Indeed, for many viewers, the campsite is wryly humorous. To the right of the campsite is a large waterfall, almost as obviously unreal as the campsite, and after the waterfall, the pan continues back to the original view of the flowing stream. By the end of the film most viewers are left confused: many "know" the image is a fabrication of a wild scene but seem to believe the reality of the image anyway (Murphy's end credits—no credits introduce the film—are too brief to be read; and, as a result, his "Thanks to Hamm's Beer" is of no assistance in decoding the cinematic riddle he has provided). Of course, a moment's serious thought about the scene revealed by the "pan" makes obvious that the imagery is not "real" in the sense most viewers assume at the beginning of the film—the water of the stream, for example, flows toward the camera throughout the 360o
There is no question but that the scene in Sky Blue Water Light Sign
is indebted to nineteenth-century American landscape painting for its motifs, most obviously the waterfall. But it is also suggestive of the nineteenth century in other ways. As I've suggested, the Hamm's Beer light sign is a recent step in the continuous, still ongoing process of natural exploitation, already evident in the work of Thomas Cole. While Cole is usually understood to represent a resistance to this exploitation—a resistance predicated on his conservative attitude toward commercial-industrial development—the "Hudson River school" artists he inspired—among others, Durand, Church, Cropsey, Bierstadt—saw the transformation of "wilderness" into an American civilization as a divinely inspired Manifest Destiny, within which artists were—figuratively and sometimes literally—pathfinders. Indeed, master painters such as Church, Bierstadt, and Moran played direct roles in American commercial development not only by achieving record sales figures on both sides of the Atlantic for their own Great Pictures (and mass-market reproductions of them) but also by directly assisting in the industrial exploitation of the American West. Moran's images of the Yellowstone region were used by the Northern Pacific Railroad in its campaign to make Yellowstone a major tourist attraction (and our first national park) that would draw new customers to Northern Pacific rail travel.
While Hudson River school painters, and others whose work is related to theirs, promoted western development by demonstrating the divinity of even the most distant and difficult terrains, the panorama painters in St. Louis and elsewhere used their technology of paintings-in-motion to promote and humanize the flow of commercial development along the rivers their paintings depicted. As Angela Miller has suggested, the moving panorama, even more fully than the Great Pictures, formalized the very process
of wilderness transformation:
[P]anoramas abetted the imaginative colonization of the West. The exotic and unfamiliar elements depicted by the panoramas were confronted, enjoyed, and then passed by, in a symbolic enactment of their historical position within the rising commercial culture of the West.
In the process of appealing to the taste for the exotic and unknown, panoramas paradoxically familiarized their audiences with strange environments; they moderated the challenge of the new. . . . The cumulative effect of such devices [the panoramas' continuous narrative, the fictional voyage by steamboat, the friezelike composition] was to locate the threatening features of the West within a stable continuum of the known and familiar. By imposing eastern technology and its progressive time sense upon the landscape of the West, the panoramas demonstrated visually the historical process of settlement.
While it is difficult to imagine that the Hamm's Beer organization—or even those who designed the light sign—had moving panoramas in mind, nevertheless, the sign can serve as a particularly poignant symbol of how fully domesticated the awesome landscapes of the American West have become in the century since the Great Pictures and the moving panoramas were painted. In the nineteenth century, the presumed accuracy of landscape paintings and moving panoramas was central to their cultural and commercial influence. By the time Hamm's Beer had decided to image their slogan in the sign, however, the simple allusion to a (however distorted) natural scene was presumably enough to assist in convincing beer consumers that purer water was used in Hamm's than in other beers (in the past few years Coors has made an identical claim for their beer, using much the same imagery). And yet having said all this, the sign also reveals a poignant reality: even beer drinkers in an Iowa City bar long for the idea of wilderness strongly enough for the sign's approach to be effective. No doubt, for Murphy, sitting in that bar in 1972, this set of ironies was not only interesting and amusing but also an index of a larger set of issues he was wrestling with as a young filmmaker wanting to develop his own vision in defiance of commercial media (Murphy: "[M]ost people don't understand what they're seeing. Society is dominated by images used in the most manipulative way—by advertising, by politicians. To me it's important work to learn to see more critically"). And whether consciously or intuitively, Murphy recognized that one way of defying the commercialization implicit in the sign was to recontextualize it in a manner that might undercut its meanings.
This transformation is accomplished in three related ways. First, and most obviously, Murphy's framing transforms our understanding of the sign's motion. In a bar, the sign's endlessly revolving imagery would form part of the continuous commercial barrage of trademarks for beer and other products on sale. But seen in a movie theater, the sign is removed from its usual commercial context (this is true even in a cinematic sense: Sky Blue Water Light Sign
was made for a noncommercial art or academic venue), and the motion of the original sign is redirected (again, literally as well as figuratively).
Second, the enlargement of the sign's imagery—an inevitable result of projection in a movie theater—not only removes the imagery from its originally enclosed, commercially domesticated environment, but magnifies the imagery so that viewers can examine it carefully: they can really see
what they're seeing, distortions and all. Murphy's framing of the sign, and the projector's magnification of it, makes an everyday, throwaway experience into a cinematic mystery: it's a rare viewer who understands what Murphy is presenting, even though the film's title clearly identifies what it is (no title credit introduces the film, but the title is usually announced before the screening, by the presenter). The implicit function of the nineteenth-century moving panoramas was to domesticate the mysteries of the West, allowing viewers to feel more comfortable with the idea of commercial development. The implicit function of Sky Blue Water Light Sign
is precisely the opposite: at the conclusion of the film, most viewers are left mystified—and their confusion is actually exacerbated by the brevity of Murphy's handwritten credits: not only does the film itself refuse us the information we need to understand and categorize the experience it provides, but the credits confirm that Murphy is refusing to solve the "problem" the film has created. Nothing could be more defiant of commercial film (and television) than this refusal to allay the spectator's confusion.
Murphy's decision to add the sound track to the image instigates a final recontextualization of the light sign. In the screening room, the auditory surround of the sound dramatically adds to the confusion caused by Murphy's visual recontextualizations, and, I suspect, has a good deal to do with the fact that a surprising number of viewers conclude that the scene before them is a film taken in an actual wilderness location, despite visual evidence to the contrary. But the sound also provides a clear index of Murphy's own process as filmmaker of Sky Blue Water Light Sign:
it suggests that he himself has actually left the bar, found an actual stream, and recorded it plein air. If the light sign itself pretends to bring the great outdoors into the bar, the ultimate act of commercial domestication, Murphy has used the sign as instigation to return, at least briefly, to the real outdoors. And by doing so, Murphy enacts that fundamental hunger for connection with the wilderness—or at least what is left of it—that is our contemporary vestige of the deep spiritual relationship that seems to have inspired Cole, Durand, Church, and their colleagues. Of course, in the nineteenth nentury, painters took considerable journeys to see the landscapes they wanted to honor. Murphy merely left the bar and drove to a local stream. But given the distance film history had come by the time Murphy picked up the camera, his decision to take viewers to this
cinematic location, even for as short a time as eight and a half minutes, is a "long journey" conceptually, for him and for them.
I have not commented on the most frequent objection viewers make to my argument that Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign
are worth watching and thinking seriously about: that the amount of energy and skill necessary to make the films was minimal, especially compared to what goes into "real" movies and "real" art—an effort so
minimal, in fact, as to be nearly an insult. All Gottheim had to do to make his film was to buy (or borrow) a camera, walk outside his home, mount the camera on a tripod, compose the image, and turn the camera on and off; all Murphy had to do was take his camera to the local bar and make one shot, take his tape recorder to a local stream and record for a few minutes, and print sound and image together. If the filmmakers "studied" a particular landscape or a particular sign over a period of time, nevertheless, their procedures were neither labor intensive nor evidence of skills developed during a lifetime as professionals (as, say, Hudson River paintings are, and Hollywood cinematography). To put it simply, making Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign
seems just too easy to justify demands on viewer energy and patience.
Even this virtually inevitable complaint, however, is relevant to this discussion. While nineteenth-century painters shared the concepts of wilderness and the pastoral middle state as their birthright, and used their hard-won abilities as master painters (the technology
of painting) to demonstrate implicitly and explicitly the strength and complexity of their commitment to their ideals, the situations of Gottheim and Murphy on a transformed continent necessitated a very different deployment of artistic means. As the privileged beneficiaries of an already accomplished industrial revolution, Gottheim and Murphy automatically inherited access to the movie camera and its attendant apparatus and, therefore, the opportunity to make landscape imagery almost at will. What had come to be rare—as rare perhaps as the ability to paint well had been a century before—was the concept
of meditating on nature with the patience and care demanded by Fog Line
and Sky Blue Water Light Sign,
especially in spaces normally used for popular entertainment and education. By maintaining viewers' attention on the "Garden" across the road and on the "Garden" within a light sign in a bar, these filmmakers defy (even as they use) the historical processes of industrial exploitation and cinematic commercialization and offer viewers a metaphor for a spiritual state we often seem in danger of losing as a result of these processes. Gottheim and Murphy provide cinematic vistas that allow viewers to sample, if only for a long moment, something of that meditative sense of landscape that invigorates the painting of a previous century. Each filmmaker creates a "Garden" within the Machine of cinema and of contemporary society.