WINGED DISTANCE / SIGHTLESS MEASURE: A Conversation with Robert Beavers
[This interview is dedicated to Jonathan Marlow who has turned my eyes upside down.]
(1) In his essay “Editing and the Unseen,” published in the UC Berkeley monograph The Searching Measure (2004), Robert Beavers explained: “I reach beyond the life-likeness of the actor and the shadow of performance to the figure gathering the life that is in the light of the image.” Quoted in P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down (2008:127).
(2) Laura Nyro, “Timer”: “Holding to my cradle at the start / but now my hand is open / and now my hand is ready for my heart. / Let the wind blow, Timer, / and if the song goes minor, I won’t mind.”
When Sitney asked Beavers about the significance of the hand gestures in The Ground, Beavers responded in an email letter dated April 29, 2008: “In re-reading my notes … recently, I found that the literal meaning of doron, the Greek word for gift, is ‘hollow of the hand.’ …I am filming myself, and the gesture is equivalent to ‘opening the heart.’ ” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:368)
(3) Sitney has written at length on the tactility of Robert Beavers’ films and the multiple registers of meaning encoded into his hand gestures, whether the desirous energy to touch, or a reference to handiwork and craftsmanship. In ancient understandings, the human soul was thought to whorl out of the human body through the conduit of the fingerprints into a crafted object, which is how one would distinguish the soulfulness (i.e., the beauty) of one crafted object over another. I was reminded of this in the scene where Beavers filmed a strip of film on which his fingerprints were left as a filmic imprint; as a film on the film. Beavers explained in one of his Q&A sessions: “I feel an extraordinary power that goes through the hand: this relation between hand work and objects. A favorite writer of mine, Francis Ponge Francis Ponge, speaks to the mute expressive power of objects.” I would equate that “mute expressive power of objects” with the invested soulfulness of craftsmanship. Incidentally, Sitney reports that Beavers once showed his films to Ponge. (Sitney, 2008:361)
(4) Winged Distance / Sightless Measure first screened in its entirety at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Fall of 2005. Its second presentation was at the Tate Modern in 2007.
(5) Sitney: “Beavers, an unusually determined, reserved, meticulous young man, was far from the typical dropout of the 1960s.” (2008:124)
(6) I must concede that Beavers was being most patient with this line of inquiry. I should have, perhaps, taken heed of Sitney’s suggestion that Beavers as filmmaker “casts a cold eye on the nature of his desire and, by implication, his own youth.” (Sitney, 2008:362) Perhaps a more positive assessment would be Sitney’s supposition of Beavers’s “priority of desire over satisfaction, as if the poetic purpose of desire was to inspire and encourage the crafted artifact.” (Sitney, 2008:363) In other words, instead of being concerned with “who was zooming who,” I should have chastened my curiosity, which might have turned “the power of erotic observation and direction into an examination of the inspired continuities of filmmaking and filmmakers” (ibid.); my focus should have remained on the beautiful films inspired by the mutual generosity between Beavers and Markopoulis; but, it’s difficult to resist the anecdotal in such fascinating lives.
(7) More accurately, Sitney has borrowed the term from Beavers himself who referenced it in his notebooks. When Sitney asked him about it, Beavers responded in an email dated March 2, 2005: “I had purchased a book… about certain phallic objects and rites in ancient time… like oil lamps, etc. […] I found this tradition of swearing an oath by the phallus mentioned in it. In my note I was intending to show the power of the phallus through the entire body, perhaps by showing the arms raised or in some other way.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:155)
Never one to skimp on his research, Sitney discovered: “In biblical literature (Gen. 24:2, 47:29-31; Deut. 67:29) the phallic oath is sworn by placing a hand under the genitals of an authority. It is a token of fidelity, duty, and submission.” (2008:156)
(8) Beavers somewhat touched upon the enthusiasm of my reaction and inquiry: “When I showed Markopoulos’ trilogy—Psyche, Lysis and Charmides—at Berkeley, it was interesting to see the students’ reactions. Some were offended—or, more correctly, threatened and afraid, while others, perhaps a smaller number, were enthusiastic. In both cases, the response was immediate and strong, and I was particularly interested to see their reaction to this film, since it had been made in the late 1940s when the filmmaker was the same age as these young people.”
(9) Sitney (2008:126) has quoted Beavers from an early version of his essay “Em.blem”, wherein he opined, “It is not the filmmaker’s work to tell you: his work is to make the film and to protect what he does, in the serenity of a thought without words, without the quality in words which would destroy what it intends to represent.” In this, Beavers aligns with Paul Valéry who was—as Sitney synopsizes (2008:147)—“brutally critical of observers who name everything they see or those who trust in the stability of words to convey fixed meanings.” Valéry preferred modes of abstract construction and visual analogy (what he called “notions of differentiation”) over the arguably false confidence of words. This disposition creates a unique challenge with regard to Beavers because his artistry is intimately fused to his persona as an artist whose protective reticence disfavors written descriptions of his artistry, perhaps “because the filmmaker has subtly comprehended the structural impossibility of arriving at definitions or ends.” (Sitney, 2008:360-361) As a writer, however, I felt compelled by the creative challenge to assess his work, however inexactly, however distractedly, and perhaps even despite his wishes. Words must have their way. Mine, certainly, because words are my own artistry.
(10) In one of the Q&A sessions Beavers referenced her again and specified that she carved wood. If I’m not mistaken, she’s also the individual who gave Beavers a copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice.
(11) In retrospect, I feel I was not mistaken. I later read Sitney’s synopsis: “Yet the very notion of the weight of European culture is an American idea—no European filmmaker I know shows the range of Beavers’s cultural enthusiasms—linking the filmmaker to Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. If the details and references of its films largely evade the Emersonian models, the overall aspiration and achievements of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure are fundamentally a consequence of the poetics of Emerson and Whitman.” (2008:371)
(12) The concept is perhaps better enunciated through Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Sitney (2008:146): “The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts.” Psychoid consciousness moves in both directions.
(13) Hazarding indelicacy, and framing the following within a fecund and democratic exchange of ideas, during the Q&A after the screening of From the Notebook of… and The Painting, the following exchange took place:
Jeffrey Skoller: I found these last two works to be deeply pedagogical. They seem very much like works of contemporary artists of their time. What works were you in dialogue with through making these works? In what ways were you engaging with certain kinds of approaches and ways of thinking about art and cinema that this work seems to reaching out to touch or engage? It may help to enlarge the sense of where this work stands.
Robert Beavers: “Even before I left New York I had read a text by Paul Valéry on Leonardo da Vinci. This was an inspiring prose text. That would be one source for From the Notebook of… though it was not contemporary; it was from the turn of the 20th Century. In the period that I was living in New York, or even as a very young student in Boston, I was looking at American-colored paintings and fascinated by some of those painters. Because the filmmakers whom I admired in New York had so highly developed film editing—it is still in my mind a great period of film editing and the mysteries of this condensed form of editing—this became an important, basic impulse in my work. But in order to take a step myself, I transferred this unlocking of the editing of the film frame to the space within the frame. My use of the mattes is, in some way, an alternative to that highly-developed articulation based on the single frame. Though my films are still highly elaborate in their editing, the points in which I feel I am moving forward have to do with the space that I am developing as a correspondent to the unit of editing in time.
“The very few filmmakers whom I found had become masters of their filmmaking—and they were not so many, even in the New York school—but, those filmmakers had begun actually much earlier in the ‘40s and ‘50s and had taken time and been forced through a difficult challenge in those years when they were totally neglected. It was their accomplishment plus silent film that inspired me to become a filmmaker. The classic Hollywood film—even though I absorbed it much more than many other people through television and the local cinemas—would never have brought me to film a single frame. Everything I do is in opposition to that work. Maybe not; but, at least at this time.”
Skoller: I wasn’t asking about what work influenced you and what your influences were; but, there’s a sense—at least in those two films—of you reaching out to teach something.
Beavers: Jeffrey, I was reaching out to learn something. Really. And maybe to teach, but in which way do you mean?
Skoller: Well, that there’s a sense that you’ve been doing something now very intensely for a few years. Also in this period of art there’s this desire….
Beavers: What do you mean by “period of art”?
Skoller: I’d say the early ‘70s where there’s a way in which some contemporary artists….
Beavers: Who are you thinking of?
Skoller: Well, within film I’m thinking of the materialist filmmakers, the radical filmmakers—whether Godard or Straub—and within conceptual art there were artists who were dealing with image and language and trying to find a way to talk about what they were doing; all of which were not only trying to make demystifying statements about art, but they were also trying to find language to talk about the things that they were learning about the medium or forms they were either working with or inventing, y’know? So this directness that I see in From the Notebook of… where you’re actually writing down in words certain kinds of directives and certain kinds of observations or directions for yourself or maybe for others who are watching this, that some of these seem like aphorisms that somebody might actually follow, then their relationship to the images that follow. There’s a sort of demonstrative quality.
Beavers: In many of the films that I made at this time—and perhaps in all of them—the movement is not the usual kind of movement in film. In From the Notebook of… I sometimes use the word “locomotion”: it’s a movement in place. The movement is a dual movement of reading and seeing. The spectator is constantly being guided from one to the other and back. It’s a constant flux between these two different ways of using the eyes. They also allow a different use of sound so that—because you are reading—you already have a sound. When I am reading, I already have a voice inside me that is the voice of reading. Because it is a film also with sound, it’s possible to bring together such a constellation of elements—color, shadows and light. I did go back and read the Notebooks of Leonardo and there was one quote about the pyramids of sight which I used in my film. I think you’re off on a false track, basically, because the real sources were the sources that I felt by being in Florence. I may have put it into an idiom, which is of that moment; but, the sources of inspiration were those other sources. At least that’s my feeling about it.
As for the English filmmakers that I think you’re thinking of, I find they lack… There are dangers in working with this form. I have tried to avoid being too ideological and too flat. These different elements have to create a certain life. I don’t want to be pedagogic in that way. Valéry said a poem is like a piece of fruit; it nourishes you and it’s pleasurable. I don’t want to eliminate the pleasure. I want it to be there. Valéry also said about Nietszche: “It’s more stimulus than nourishment.” There are all these possibilities. But, of course, I am of a period.
(14) Sitney turns to Marcel Proust to make the same observation: “It is the power of genius to make us love a beauty more real than ourselves in those things which in the eyes of others are as particular and perishable as ourselves… There is no better way of becoming aware of one’s feelings than to try to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought, together with his, that we bring to light… Actually the only times when we truly have all our powers of mind are those when we do not believe ourselves to be acting with independence, when we do not arbitrarily choose the goal of our efforts. The subject of the novelist, the vision of the poet, the truth of the philosopher are imposed on them in a manner almost inevitable, exterior, so to speak, to their thought. And it is by subjecting his mind to the expression of this vision and to the approach of this truth that the artist becomes truly himself.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:168.)
(15) Tony Pipolo, “Interview with Robert Beavers,” Millenium Film Journal no. 32/33 (Fall 1998), p. 15.
(16) “Notes Upon A Case Of Obsessional Neurosis” (1909), commonly referred to as the Rat Man case.
(17) “He disciplined his sensibility with an intense reading of modern European poets: Valéry, George, Saba, Cavafy, Rilke, and perhaps Hofmannstahl. Their aesthetic nostalgias, negating arrests, and epistemological ironies—which portray poetic craft as an inspired construct to transform things and events into acts of the mind—inform his poetics of the cinematic image as the fusion of observation and action, seeing and directing….” (Sitney, 2008:128)
Elsewhere, Sitney has finessed Beavers’s engagement with Saba: “More relevant might be the concatenation of self-reflection, lost love, and sacred affection Saba associated with certain Trieste streets and shops and the objects he chanced upon in them, although the explicitly autobiographical aspect of Saba’s poetry is foreign to Beavers’s work.” (Sitney, 2008:361)
(18) I realized after the fact, once I got my hands on a copy of Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down, that Beavers had already addressed this, again in his essay “Em.blem”: “I am aware of the way in which ‘observing’ becomes ‘directing,’ aware of the power that exists in Seeing. The making of a film allows one to move back and forth, observing-directing.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:128.)
(19) “The opening scene, with the doves being released in the square, came from a biographical anecdote: Da Vinci would buy caged doves to set them free. The scene led me to compare this movement of the doves’ wings to the opening of the window shutters in my room and to the turning of the pages in my notebook because all can be compared to the movement of the camera’s shutter.”
This biographical anecdote comes from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, wherein Vasari wrote: “[H]e took special pleasure in horses as he did in all other animals, which he treated with the greatest love and patience. For example, when passing by places where birds were being sold, he would often take them out of their cages with his own hands, and after paying the seller the price that was asked of him, he would set them free in the air, restoring to them the liberty they had lost.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:151-152.)
(20) Beavers has written in his essay “The Senses”, published in The Searching Measure: “The image nourishes how we see it. It enlivens all our senses by concentration and praises the instant.” (Quoted in Sitney, 2008:162.) Sitney has expanded upon that statement: “What may appear as mere elements of image and sound in projection can speak to us in the shape of the interval as the pattern of the film rests upon the screen. The spectator builds the narrative like a bridge in the vibrant lightness of attention. The coherence is not imposed nor does it exist as literature to be discarded by a discursive understanding.” (Ibid.)
(21) In his interview with Tony Pipolo (1998:12-14), Beavers stated: “Whenever I have used a biographical source for a film, whether it was Leonardo or Ruskin, I have always refrained from any attempt to present the person directly and have tried to find other ways to establish their presence.”
(22) I misunderstood Beavers and thought he said “you have a cock that goes presto.” My deepest apologies to him. That text has been corrected.
(23) Sitney’s interpretation is that “the swarming sounds of bees naturalize the intimations of regimentation and collective behavior of [Berlin’s] citizens….” (2008:140).