WINGED DISTANCE / SIGHTLESS MEASURE: A Conversation with Robert Beavers
by Michael Guillen
It’s important to stress—and I offer this as advice to any journalist wishing to interview Robert Beavers in the future—that it’s much richer to simply converse with him and not to have too programmatic an agenda. Our particular conversation spanned a period of two weeks (October 8-20, 2009) in which his film cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (Winged Distance / Sightless Measure) was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Pacific Film Archive (PFA), in partnership with San Francisco Cinematheque, and was consummated by a lovely, leisurely dinner at Adagia in Berkeley. My thanks to Susan Oxtoby and Jonathan Knapp at Pacific Film Archive, and Jonathan Marlow and Vanessa O’Neill at the San Francisco Cinematheque for their ample assistance in facilitating access to the films and the filmmaker; but, especially to Robert Beavers himself who put up with my sometimes indelicate questions with polite grace and profound humor; it has been a complete honor to befriend him. Further, I must acknowledge the considerable insights gained from reading P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008), from whom I have borrowed liberally to confirm understandings.
Robert Beavers is cloaked in a mysterious and fascinating persona; a cloak, which—much like the iconic garment painted in portraits of St. Martin of Tours—Beavers is willing to tear in two in charitable generosity. Not only did he offer invaluable information in his conversation with P. Adams Sitney, but he entertained a wide variety of questions from his audiences. In our conversation, I sought to build upon Tony Pipolo’s foundational interview for the commemorative issue of Millenium Film Journal in which Robert Beavers and his lifetime partner Gregory Markopoulos were both profiled; but also his subsequent interviews with Artforum’s Henriette Huldisch for the Whitney retrospective; and Nicolas Niarchos for Yale Daily News—all of which skillfully explored Beavers’s techniques and practices, both in filmmaking, editing and film preservation/exhibition. Those territories having been competently covered, my hope was to enrich the record with anecdotal emendation; to honor not only the artist’s persona intimately bound to the beautiful film work Beavers has meticulously crafted for over 40 years, but also the intriguingly protean personality behind the persona. I leave it to the reader to decide how much of Beavers’ truth-illuminated soulfulness I was able to capture as we wrestled with words, such necessary but untrustworthy agents of communication.
Michael Guillén: First of all, Robert, I want to simply thank you for your generosity of spirit. These last two weeks have been wonderful for me in the sense that you’ve allowed me an experience with Winged Distance / Sightless Measure in which I could be “awake” and “attentive” and I’m aware that these are qualities you wish from your audiences. You have spoken of film as being an opportunity for the “awakening of sight” rather than a passive reliance on actors and the shadow of performance more customary to studio narratives.(1) Can you speak further on that?
Robert Beavers: My first response would be rhythm. Or perhaps the very first word should be resistance. For the spectator who is not aware of my particular kind of filmmaking, a comparison might be made to hearing a composer’s music that you don’t know and having some resistance to it; but, at the same time, attraction. This combination of resistance and attraction does create a state of wakefulness and questioning; but, one does have to be careful in the experience of seeing a film like my kind of filmmaking to—perhaps, at a first encounter—have the sense (perhaps after it) not to question it in a way that will stop your experience. This is an important danger to be aware of.
Guillén: Susan Oxtoby made me laugh when—after seeing your films for the first time at an advance press screening—she noted that she’d never seen me look so startled. And quite frankly, I was completely startled; or more accurately, aesthetically arrested. I didn’t completely understand what I had just experienced; but, I was having a strong emotional reaction, especially to The Ground. I had the sense that there was so much life experience enfolded within that film—personal, philosophical, psychological—and, of course, now that I’m aware that it closes your 18-film cycle, it only seems appropriate that I should have felt that. But what I was specifically feeling was the sensation of being pulled into the gravitational field of the death horizon.
Beavers: The what?
Guillén: What I call the death horizon, which is a resonant space or field of energy where the experience of the death of a loved one or the death of an ideal or the death of a way of life has deepened and spiritualized an individual through crisis and grief. I didn’t yet know about your lifelong partnership with Gregory Markopoulis and his eventual death; but, I was sensing the depth of your loss in The Ground. The other day you mentioned that you began that film with an aesthetic of death….
Beavers: Oh! But, I didn’t finish what I was going to say about that, Michael. It began with this theme and this interest and then—when I began to film—it changed to the opposite.
Guillén: To become life-affirming?
Beavers: Yes! I could not focus on death—it just was not me—but, I couldn’t know that until I went through the process of making the film.
Guillén: My point being that—even though one is caught in a death horizon….
Beavers: It’s a horizon.
Guillén: Yes. A horizon resonant with life. I was taught at an early age by my mentor Joseph Campbell that, without death or the awareness of death, life has no resonance. It was that life-affirming resonance in The Ground which triggered my emotional reaction. It spoke to my own experience of losing my partner of 12 years and how that crisis, that rupture, created (and continues to create) the remaining shape of my life. The Ground is what hooked me into your film cycle and—in retrospect—it seems fitting that I would want to journey through all the films that led to The Ground.
Beavers: Michael, do you have a connection to Latin America yourself?
Guillén: I’m Chicano and my family is from Michoacan in Southern Mexico.
Beavers: Because what you’re saying to me maybe also comes from your own tradition?
Guillén: I did learn and absorb the Mexican cultural inflection of this theme—their local dance with Death, if you will—but, I maintain the wisdom of this theme is universal. Also, with regard to the gestural significations in The Ground, it reminded me of a popular lyric: “Now my hand is open and now my hand is ready for my heart.”(2) Can you speak—if there is a way to speak—about your frequent usage of gesture to emote?(3)
Beavers: I am alone when I’m filming usually, almost always. I’m also not planning. I have my notes and I’m thinking about what I’m doing so I’m not in a trance; but, there is a level in which it is not thought out and I think my usage of gesture is happening on that level. It is an intuitive searching and the central part of the filming as it develops. In a number of films—I know which ones—I can feel that I did not really know what I was doing. This must be true of many people. There are probably artists and composers and others who do know what they’re doing; but, I’m one of those mixtures: I know what I’m doing, I’m thinking certain things, and then I also don’t know what I’m doing. I feel I have to always be very careful about the production and how I am making a film. I don’t think I could ever make a commission—at least, I can’t imagine it—because I feel so many unpredictable elements in how I am working. Sometimes I have to stop. And that’s the tradition that I come from: this independent tradition of people who are very close to what they are doing. All of that enters into it. But it’s a rather narrow range. There’s a thematic range, etc.; but, my concerns and my interests, they’re constant. They don’t change very much. They take different forms. There’s a great difference between a film like AMOR and The Ground, even though there are some elements that are similar.
Guillén: In your interview with Tony Pipolo, you stated: “There is always a spiritual force which renews itself in cycles, but the individual filmmaker’s life has a certain trajectory and he or she hopes that certain helpful occasions may allow the work to develop. t is not possible to predict what form these occasions will take. It is important to continue to work and it is wonderful when this can be nourished by response; every filmmaker wants to be accepted, yet certain gifts come simply from putting the work first. That is basic.”
Having given you my personal, idiosyncratic reaction to one particular film of yours and my entrance into your cycle, I’m curious about your own response to the cycle’s multi-institutional presentation in the Bay Area? You strike me as an artist who is keenly invested in the intention of your films, and the value of their exhibition and reception, so I’m curious about your personal reaction to the cycle’s third go-round?(4) Has it proven to be a “helpful occasion”? What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? Was the third time the charm, as they say? Is there anything you might have done differently?
Beavers: I would have spaced the screenings over a longer period of time, perhaps. It’s not absolutely necessary; but, strategically—this is on a different, maybe ideal level—sometimes when work is completely unknown, it’s important to give the space so that people can somehow fit it in.
Guillén: And situate themselves?
Beavers: Yes. That might be the difference between the earlier two screenings of the cycle: this time it was in a more condensed period of time.
Guillén: You would have preferred screening only two or three films at a time?
Beavers: No, I mean over a calendar period. Maybe three weeks or even a month? Perhaps the cycle could even be shown twice? Such a period of time might make the continuities less obvious—here it was condensed so you had the flow—but, strategically with our public, which is so dispersed and tends to not be fully committed, over a longer period the cycle somehow can sometimes build up a greater presence.
Guillén: I would have to agree. I didn’t mind how it was done. I liked being introduced to your practices and techniques through your stronger, more mature films first, so that—by the time the cycle came around—I was ready to enjoy it as you intended it to be appreciated. But I truly regret that I don’t have one more round, now that I’m just starting to gain a clear sense of your aesthetics. I’ve been astounded by the depth of the full cycle. I feel, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be gone just when I’m starting to get it and when will I ever have this opportunity again?” So I would have to agree. The next time an institution solicits the cycle, demand that it be played in its official order twice.
Beavers: And maybe over a month, Michael? But you know there are pressures right now, which are not allowing that. We even had at least one important day removed here in the Bay Area. But what I liked was—I’ll say it very simply—because it was an intimate-sized audience, I liked this kindness of the spectators, their true involvement. I felt this even the first time I came to PFA with my work in 2004. California spectators … it’s a different culture here.
Guillén: I know you’ve differentiated before between cinematheque and festival audiences; did you feel any distinction this go-round?
Beavers: No. This is a cinematheque audience, of course. There is, perhaps, a difference between a museum audience—even though there is a museum here on the campus that PFA is connected to—but, it’s just two different kinds of audience. It’s not that one is better than the other. I found it pleasant to know there were some filmmakers in the audience. This I rather liked. But there is the advantage from the side of the museum presentation that tends to bring in a wider public; but, that’s only when the museum is in an urban area.
Guillén: But all in all you were pleased with the cycle’s presentation in the Bay Area?
Beavers: Yes, I am pleased and I am extremely appreciative of PFA. I have followed the archive for a number of years now. I had no contact with them before the late ‘90s; but, I think of them as perhaps the most clearly dedicated archive for this kind of film in North America. The challenge of cinematheque archives is how to bring young people in and also what kinds of new events can be created. It needs to be said that not all the work has been done. There’s still a lot to do.
Guillén: As someone who is still relatively new to the avant-garde tradition of cinema, particularly the New American Cinema of the 1960s which you’ve referenced a few times, I’m trying to imagine what it was like for you at that time. I’m fascinated not only in your work, but also in the persona you have consciously constructed over the decades. As P. Adams Sitney indicated the other evening, it’s remarkable and extraordinary that you started creating films at such a young age.(5) I’m trying to get a sense of you at 16 in 1965 experiencing New York. Sitney, I know, was trying to elicit this from you as well. At 16 you visited New York City, researching films to develop a film club at Deerfield Academy, but you were clearly too advanced for them and they took the film club away from you. Your response was to drop out of high school and move to New York City where you were accepted into this circle of creative, imaginative individuals.
How did you meet Gregory Markopoulos? Was it at screenings at the cinematheque? And, if it’s not too personal to discuss, I’m intrigued by what it was about Markopoulos that led you to trust his guidance, his mentorship? What was it about him that allowed you to feel that, alongside him, you could develop as your own person, as an artist and that led—as you have described it—to “a continuity in the way that we lived with filmmaking at the center.” We talked a bit about this the other day when I expressed my fascination with intergenerational eroticized mentorships: a style of relationship which you don’t often see these days, what with modern gay subculture’s nearly narcissistic obsession with youth.
Beavers: I don’t know. [A long pause.] Perhaps Gregory was drawing on all the resources of his own search and of his own background? [Another long pause.]
Guillén: Who was zooming who?
Beavers: What is “zooming”?
Guillén: Wooing would be the other way to put it. Did you woo him? Or did he come after you? I realize this is personal; but, I’m intrigued because of the way P. Adams Sitney has described you in Eyes Upside Down as an “ephebe”, which implies a classic interactional dynamic. It’s an almost quaint way of describing a certain part of your life.
Beavers: A certain stage, right. Although, that word comes from a different culture, which—in general, Michael—is not uncommon. An innovator uses a cloak for what he is doing.
Guillén: To grant credence?
Guillén: But I believe what he was trying to finesse was the nature of this mentorship.
Beavers: Yes, but as I also mentioned at the screenings in San Francisco, the importance of life scenarios in the figures who Gregory chose for his films and this idea of casting someone in a film—and having the person enact a myth which is directly perceived as connected to this person—was connected to a wider area of activity, such as Mircea Eliade and Jung and the uses of myth, and also Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, all of this background.
Guillén: It’s like the mythic investment in personal biography or—as I prefer to look at it—the intrapsychic dimension of interpersonal relationships.
Guillén: People get involved in these interpersonal relationships when they’re young, which later in life they recognize as having been truly intrapsychic the whole time. The people you meet and become involved with further the process that is evolving within your own mind. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
Beavers: But with some discipline.
Guillén: If you’re lucky, there’s discipline and awareness. Otherwise, you’re just acting out.
Beavers: Right. With Gregory and I, there was generosity on both sides. That’s how I like to say it. A different kind of generosity needs it from both sides.(6)
Guillén: Which, as someone steeped in Jungian parlance….
Beavers: But I am not.
Guillén: Please bear with me. There are these axial dyads between archetypal constellations and one of the most famous ones is that between the senex and the puer; i.e., the mentor and his protégé. My critical observation, however, is that in our contemporary culture this axial dyad is very much discouraged. That is perhaps why—though it is unfair of me to range into such personal territory—I remain fascinated by the dynamic of your relationship with Gregory. The only other intergenerational relationship I know that achieved a comparable measure of creative success was between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, where a similar generosity, as you say, was expressed. So Gregory, you say, being the man he was, the artist he was, had this impulse to mythologize personalities and create films out of them?
Beavers: Or to search for someone who would fulfill a certain myth.
Guillén: Notably, he cast you as Eros in his film Eros O Basileus?
Beavers: Right. But there had been another Eros in a previous film of his. Even further, a very basic statement that he made was that Eros is color.
Guillén: Which implies spectrum, variety?
Beavers: Yes. Passion has various forms and various ways of leading the creative person.
Guillén: The way that I have come to understand Eros—that is, the erotic impulse—is that it is what holds the world together. It’s almost molecular or even atomic; an attractive impulse that draws things to each other into form, let’s say relationships.
Beavers: Which is almost how I was describing the force in AMOR.
Guillén: I have another delicate question with which I’m intrigued. As I’ve been learning about the New American Cinema these last few years, I’ve been struck by the fact that so many of these innovative filmmakers were brethren. Kenneth Anger was perhaps the first of this group who I became familiar with, first through the diaries of Anaïs Nin and her accounts of filming Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and then when—by accident—I found myself sitting next to him at a tribute at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. We talked a little bit then. Kenneth Anger. Jack Smith. Gregory Markopoulos. Tom Chomont. Warren Sonbert. As a queer-identified male, I have found it so intriguing that these vibrant personalities were so brave at a time when homosexuality was much maligned.
You’ve explained that your filmmaking did not come from the plastic shell of Hollywood studio filmmaking with its dramatic narratives and the shadow of performance. Like these other individuals, you sought a different way of filmmaking. It makes me wonder if—at a time when a queer narrative was simply not feasible in a mainstream film—if queer sensibility then shifted away from narrative to perspective? If the independent films of that period expressed homosexuality through perspective and not narrative?
Beavers: What do you mean by “perspective”?
Guillén: Those films are infused with a sensibility that I would characterize as a queer sensibility. In your instance, when I first saw Winged Dialogue, I was—quite frankly—provoked. I couldn’t believe how provocatively homoerotic that film was, and I’m a fairly seasoned old goat. Winged Dialogue is thoroughly suggestive and thrillingly explicit. I was speaking to a friend about this after the screening who asked me what I thought was so suggestive and I said, “Didn’t you notice?! The way Beavers uses the shadow of a hand to caress a butt or how—through superimpositions—hands reach for and touch genitals”; what P. Adams Sitney described as “the phallic oath.”(7) In your conversation with Sitney you said that at that time you were “unlocking the psychological and erotic energies” and “working through a confusion between eroticism and psyche.” That’s what I mean by perspective.
Beavers: Perspective, right.
Guillén: Your generation, and the generation before you, have done more—in my estimation—for queer representation than the contemporary parade of silly queer narratives, which seem to have totally lost perspective.
Beavers: I hope there has been a positive quality to what has been created. Michael, it simply is a certain wonderful moment in each of those individual’s lives, and it changes. It is an important development.(8)
It’s difficult for me to speak about Kenneth Anger. I don’t feel competent. I only feel that he was an important filmmaker for me when I was young and the person who I recognize in the letters that have been published in the Cinema 16 history is brilliant and vital. I think each of these filmmakers have lived in extreme ways, also very different ways, all of them valid.
Guillén: As we were saying earlier, if Eros is color as Gregory suggested, the spectrum of queer desire would have to be expressed in many different ways. Do you have any thoughts or remembrances of Harry Smith? What you felt when you first saw his films? Did you meet him?
Beavers: I met him very briefly. Twice, I think. On both occasions, it was not pleasant. But he was one of the filmmakers whose work I enjoyed the most. When I arrived in New York, I was very interested in animation, which is visible in From the Notebook of… What I don’t like about that period, there is a side to some of this work that I find too negative. The last time I looked at Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, I couldn’t connect to it. But when I was very young, I didn’t see that side. To speak about the psyche, and then to read about it, yes, this is not the direction that I personally am so interested. And I’m not so interested in some of Kenneth’s areas; but, both have been wonderful sources for me as filmmakers.
When you speak about filmmakers I have been personally involved with, Gregory and Tom Chomont also, there I feel more trusted to speak about a special experience of qualities in them as persons.
Guillén: There is a sweetness I can detect in the films of not only you as a young man but Tom Chomont as well. I love the scene in one of your films where Gregory is talking to Tom and Tom is paying attention with a smiling twinkle in his eye. It’s lovely. So I do understand what you’re saying; that despite the seeming illusion of a presiding queer perspective, there’s a variety of temperament.
Which leads me to ask about an Amerindian concept I’m fond of: the longbody, which states that only now—in our middle years—can we look back and see the shape of our lives, its contours, its arc, and reflect upon our youth in a way we could not self-reflect at the time. If anything, within the concept of the longbody, we could only project ourselves towards an imagined elder self. So my question is: you were in New York, you met Markopoulos, you both felt a generosity for each other—I love how you say that!—but you elected to leave New York. Even though New York appeared to have a vital avant-garde scene, it possessed qualities that the two of you didn’t care to participate in? So the two of you relocated to Europe, where you traveled among various European cities and countries.
I mention this only because a few times you have expressed to me that you want to be acknowledged and recognized as an American filmmaker. P. Adams Sitney has commented—quite wryly—that nothing is more American than an expatriate’s infatuation with European art and architecture. Yet you chafe against the term “expatriate” because it implies fleeing from something, when in fact your movements were towards filmmaking. What is it in your filmmaking—that came into its own on the continent—which these days you consider distinctly American?
Beavers: The problem with interviews is that there’s always a temptation to bring up details, to bring up cultural history, and other points that disguise the essential matters and that don’t let you get to them. It’s difficult to have a conversation that goes beyond that.(9)
Guillén: I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.
Beavers: It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I’m thinking back; but, I’m speaking as a 60-year-old filmmaker. So it’s been a very definite moment, perspective as you said, and I’m thinking more of the experience, for instance, in my childhood where it was explained to me by a neighbor that certain artists were able to paint and write poetry and write music and be architects, and I was shown images: a box of black and white prints that were made at the end of the 19th century. This fascinated me. The elderly woman who showed me these images was extremely important in my boyhood. She was also an artist herself.(10) But her entire perspective and her ethic was deeply New England and so it’s really that ethic and belief in a different set of measures than the predominant contemporary measures in America. I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a substantial part of the American population that is still vitally connected to the serious spirituality of the country—which also has its playful side—but, it’s strong. All of our boats are anchored to that.
Guillén: Are you going in the direction of the thesis proposed in P. Adams Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down that there is a distinctly Emersonian or Whitmanesque heritage to the American avant-garde tradition? American transcendentalism?(11)
Beavers: I really don’t know if that’s what it is. There’s a man named Lewis Hyde who wrote a book called The Gift. I think this idea of “the gift” is somehow very American.
Guillén: Admittedly, my appreciation of your films is definitely colored by the Jungian perspective. There is in fact a term—which has fallen somewhat out of use; but, one which I still find useful—of a “psychoid” consciousness, and it’s possible that it’s not used too much because it has a negative connotation, sounding similar to “psychotic”, which is something altogether different. As I understand it, a “psychoid” consciousness is very much what a poet possesses, or any creative visionary actually. It’s the psyche’s ability to utilize the world, to claim it and transform it into living ideas. It’s the consciousness by which analogies are made and understood.(12) Let me give you a specific, personal example that happened just the other day.
I was walking to my bus stop and there was a pigeon on the sidewalk and—as I drew near—the pigeon startled and took flight and there was that sound of the flapping wings which runs throughout your films. I immediately saw a flash of images from your films. I saw the image of your film layered upon the surface of the world. That association and layering of meaning onto the physical world is a quality of psychoid consciousness. It’s a way of living in the world where everything means something of personal value. I have to thank you for adding onto that natural phenomenon a cerebral overlay.
Guillén: Cerebral and emotional, as in emotional intelligence.
Beavers: And sensuous?
Guillén: And sensuous, right. It’s very difficult to talk about great ideas without their being tainted by cerebrality, as if thought can only be intellectual. Your films are intelligent on a much more visceral, emotional and sensual level. In fact, despite Tony Pipolo noting what he perceived to be a “tutorial” quality in your second cycle of films, I had to disagree with Jeffrey Skoller the other night when he described From the Notebooks of… as pedagogical…(13)
Beavers: [Firmly, gesturing to my recorder] We will only discuss what we agree with.
Guillén: I respect that; but, I think it’s important for me to say that I do not find your films pedagogical in the least. I agree with you that you weren’t trying to pedantically teach through your films, you were trying to learn and express yourself. Another psychological process that could be applied here is what I would call psychic inflation, which is when an individual incorporates influence and becomes enthused, in the true sense of the word. The god within the influence becomes overpowering and overtakes the individual. Again, in Jungian parlance this would be when the ego-self becomes inflated with the truths of the larger Self. Usually the inflation is perceived as problematic. However, I felt From the Notebook of… to be the most creative and appropriate demonstration of psychic inflation that I’ve ever seen in film. You can feel the pleasure of those Florentine influences entering your young psyche and its creative efforts to do something with it, to express it, to turn it into art. That pleasure has nothing to do with pedagogy and—attempts to reduce the creative impulse or to try to fit an individual experience into a cultural collective—robs it of its essential value, even though I understand it is the role of cultural historians and critics to do, unfortunately, just that.(14)
Beavers: I told the audience, and I think it’s important, to know that From the Notebook of… would not have been made without the commitment of both Gregory and my painter friend in Florence who gave me the means to make the film, because I didn’t have the means to make the film. Everything that is possible for an artist—if they are not born with the financial means to simply establish their own work—has to involve the coming together of these different elements. Perhaps the vision of the Temenos is sustained by this also: to try to bring it into a form that has some more permanence to it.
Guillén: May I offer you my—once again, idiosyncratic—fantasy of experiencing Temenos? I’ve studied a lot of mythology and there have been many things I’ve concluded. One of the most important involves creation myths, which are so pertinent to artists and the artistic process. What I’ve observed in comparing creation myths from around the world is that they usually fall within two main categories. Creation is either manifested by sound, as in “God spoke and there was…”, or scientifically in how iron particles on a drum skin will vibrate themselves into mandalic shapes if a tuning fork is struck near them. Sound creates. Alternately, when I was doing my research of Mayan culture in Central America, there creation was envisaged. In other words, it was seen first and the creator gods of the Maya, the first artists, painted their visions onto the night sky. Scientifically, these would be the asterisms—the constellations—to which a culture’s stories are attached. For the Maya, these painted stories in the sky, which revolved across the sky, were thought to be pages in a book and the passage of the stars across the night sky was comparable to the turning of pages in a book. In other words, the night sky was read.
I fantasize, or have this sense, that when I’m at Temenos in 2012, the turning momentum inherent within the films will be corresponding to the turning of the night sky. For me this is an appropriate relationship between art form and space.
Beavers: To a cosmic space?
Beavers: It’s the only place that I’ve experienced this; but, I think other people can find it closer. The night sky over Berkeley is also very beautiful; but, the interesting thing with the Temenos projections is that—because of the geographical context—you are isolated within this vision. That is a sustaining element.
Guillén: Which I comprehend. When I was leading tours down the Usumacinta River in Central America—the border between Mexico and Guatemala—on whose banks the Maya built several of their Classic period sites, which were—at that time—only accessible by the river, I would guide participants into a removed and—as you say—isolated experience. I used to tell them at the outset, “I am a psychopomp. We are starting here and I’m going to take you through this and when you come out on the other side, you will not be the same person.” That always proved to be the case because they had a depth of experience. That’s how I understand Temenos and why I am excited by experiencing it.
Another aspect of that rotating sky that I feel applies to your films, is a concept you expressed in your interview with Tony Pipolo of “the double movement of sight”(15) and your fascination with the reverse side of things. You’ve talked about two things going on at one time or moving in two directions at once. For me this is analogous to the two circles which comprise the truth of the sky: the phenomenal cycle of appearances vs. the Earth’s axial precession of the equinoxes.
Guillén: Your cinematic device of masking and filters—which one might characterize as your signature—intrigues me in its Dionysian impulse, in the sense that a mask reveals as much as it conceals. You seem to be playing with a fascinating equivalency between geometric masking (oval, rectangular, triangular), silhouettes of people architecturally framed within windows and doorways, and cast figural shadows. Can you speak to that equivalency?
Beavers: Of course I was searching. While I was in Zurich, one of my interests was in psychiatry. Both Count of Days and Palinode dialogue with points of modern psychology. They try to find visual equivalents for this. I didn’t really understand German at this time, but I tried to read a case study in German by Sigmund Freud.(16) Even in New York I was attracted to certain writers associated with Carl Gustav Jung, though I never read Jung. I read people like Károly Kerényi and Mircea Eliade. That interest also comes from my relationship to Gregory Markopoulos because he’d made—just before I met him—an elaborate film based on mythical archetypes called The Illiac Passion (1964-67).
While I was in Zurich I tried to meet some people connected to Jung and did succeed in meeting a couple of them. When you mention shadow, of course, this is a key element in this whole area of interest. Just a few days ago, for instance, I saw a painting by Georges Braque in which a figure and its shadow is split and I thought, “Oh yes, this has the same quality of something I was interested in.” I’m still absolutely fascinated by it and hope to go back to it. In film, what’s extraordinary is that everything is light. You have the possibility to create and to see the light in shadows—also, to think about color in shadow—and to bring this into relation to express the human being. All the filmmakers of my kind of filmmaking are using our elements to express what we either cannot or do not want to express in words; we want to give you another experience.
Guillén: I’m intrigued by the hand work in your films and the resemblances struck between film editing and sewing, the making of blood pancakes, and so forth. Can you speak to the value of the hand work and its association to your editing?
Beavers: The films speak to the value of the hand work and the value of the hand and what the hand communicates. For instance, in AMOR—where you have the tailor and the tailor in relation to architecture—you also have the hand and both sides of the hand within the space of the image and sound. I was interested between the subjective sense of uniting certain sounds with the inside of the hand and others with the back of the hand. For myself, I feel an extraordinary power that goes through the hand: this relation between hand work and objects. A favorite writer of mine, Francis Ponge, speaks to the mute expressive power of objects. I am someone who very much communicates through these means. Of course indirectly I am showing the presence of the human being through this hand work. What I am articulating is not done dramatically; it’s done in a more lyric way using the elements of film. Rhythm is much more important than breadth and the clarity of rhythm can carry and communicate with the image and with the sound a narrative that is there; but, it is not a dramatic narrative. It is suggested in other ways.
Guillén: Susan Oxtoby has emphasized that your films “occupy a noble place within the history of avant-garde film, positioned at the intersection of structural and lyrical filmmaking traditions.” In terms of the lyricism—which is what speaks to me emotionally—have particular poets inspired your filmmaking?
Beavers: P. Adams Sitney visited me in Switzerland and looked through my books and—in his text for the monograph—he lists all of the poets.(17) But their influence upon me was over a long period of time. When I was in school, I was interested in French poetry. I read Paul Valéry and was interested in his writings. Then Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet. Then much later some Italian poets, particularly a Jewish-Italian poet Umberto Saba. Then German poets Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. And lots of Americans; before Valéry, Ezra Pound. Much later, Wallace Stevens and—for the past decade—two American women: Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.
Guillén: Ah, Wallace Stevens! His poem—“Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird”—seems so in alliance with your films. I watch one of your films and I feel I am being offered thirteen ways to look at something.
Beavers: But, Michael, you have to be in the mood to want that. [Laughter.] There is one side of America that says, “One’s enough! We don’t have time for the other ones.”
Guillén: I was struck by Nigel Gosling’s comment: “The eye wanders around and picks up images.” I appreciate that comment within the context of seeing being directing, or seeing being the narrative impulse, in contrast to more standard Hollywood narratives. Can you speak to that?(18)
Beavers: You mean the eye, how it moves?
Beavers: That’s very complex. First of all, Gosling is a critic in two fields; under one name he wrote art criticism and under another name he wrote dance criticism, both for The Observer, one of the leading London newspapers. His wife was a ballerina so she must have helped him with the dance criticism. He was probably the first specimen of a critic that I encountered. He’s a very kind man and I was probably unkind to him. We actually rented rooms from him. That’s his house in the film. Anyway, that comment was his idea. He was saying that when you watch a film, your eye is not permitted to wander around. What he liked about still images—paintings and other things—is that he was in control. All of his other comments had to do with bringing a film image into—as he says at one point—being like a telephone just sitting there that becomes part of a room. I have to say that’s his comment; but, what you’re asking is maybe more about: do I do something like this?
Guillén: Exactly. To create your films does your eye wander around and pick up images?
Beavers: Every film has a different development. I am very interested, for instance, and have structured some of my films on thoughts about how the eye moves. In other words, when I am turning the lens in—for instance—AMOR, I am moving the lens itself in the camera while it is running. Many of my movements that you’re seeing in the films are not movements of the camera but movements of the lens. I was coming closer to what the eye is doing. I was fascinated by the fact that—every time we change focus—we close our eyes. I think it’s physiological. The human eye does not allow itself to stay open and focus. All of my interruptions of closing the image and opening the image again and incorporating the movement in opening and closing have to do with this thinking about vision; but, it is orchestrated in a way. There’s freedom in what part of the image a spectator takes; but, there’s a very strong element of measure in my work. I’m not alone in that. Every filmmaker who is not relying on a dramatic structure is relying on measure, some through improvisation, some through other more decided forms.
Guillén: When you say “measure”—as you often use the term “phrase”—do you mean them to be the same?
Guillén: Is a phrase more of a durational aesthetic?
Beavers: They’re connected. Measure and phrase are connected. In the little text that I wrote for the monograph, I said that I wanted to go away from the measure that is controlled by the cut of the image. One way I did that was to go to the phrase, to create phrases, in which the rhythm is not established by the cut. There’s a larger phrase of many images in a particular film and the point of emphasis is not always coming from where the images cut; it’s coming through other means, through a number of different means. Color and sound are two of these means, which interact sometimes or establish a definite point of purposes. How much I let the viewer wander or decide: this is always the question between filmmakers who use measure and filmmakers who use static compositions, such as Fritz Lang. There are filmmakers who go away from editing and want the spectator to become aware through duration. I’m very interested in that way; but, I have not done it. I might. I’m still filming.
Guillén: In Ruskin, you say you were following John Ruskin’s movements around Venice?
Beavers: Not his movements; but, the locations that he is writing about in the development of his book.
Guillén: When I first saw Ruskin, I was struck by the architectural detail of Noah and his creation of wine sculpted on the Ducal Palace. Did Ruskin reference that sculpture as well? Is that what drew you to that sculpture?
Beavers: Yes. But I don’t remember what he said; but, it’s very important. Ruskin is actually a political writer in some ways. That’s what the Moderns hold against him. He has an ethical and moral viewpoint that he thinks he is seeing in all of this architecture.
Guillén: With regard to attaching the Monthly Segments to the larger films, you mentioned that you added the sound segue of the flapping wings. I’m interested to know if you can recall what you were thinking by doing that? What does the sound of the wings signify for you or what do you hope the sound will signify for us?
Beavers: This sound of the wings grows out of From the Notebook of…(19) The central place for this sound is in that film. In relation to the Segments, ,i>From the Notebook of… ended my filming of the monthly episodes of the Segments. When I went to edit them in relation to the longer films, they are of course related to my travel and to filmmakers. Usually it’s only one flight of wings; but, at certain moments I used two. So you hear it twice. That’s a muted development of this thought because this sound of the wings has so many different levels in my filmmaking. From the Notebook of… opens with the point of inspiration of Leonardo releasing the birds.
Guillén: Let’s talk about narrative construction. You’ve said that your films are in opposition to or the opposite of the dramatic model coming from the Hollywood studios and one could say that your films are almost non-narrative; however, as I’ve watched some of them repeatedly, I see a lot of analogy of form that causes my eye and my sensibility to follow the sequences and rhythms. I see in a lot of the contrasts of color against black and white, or certain vibrant colors against others, again a kind of leading of the eye or what could be interpreted as a narrative impulse. Further, I understand that you have said you seek to elicit from your audiences a narrative impulse. Can you speak to that?
Beavers: Yes, but what I am interested in is the narrative within the image. The image itself can create narrative.(20) For instance, From the Notebook of…, The Painting, Work Done and Ruskin—which were done within the context of Florence—to look at, perhaps, those images which are within that extraordinary culture, those paintings, those are all narrative. You look at the figures. ou look at the entire composition. It’s not an abstract painting. It has a narrative element. And so when I am using the images in my films, I am asking you to see them and to have a dialogue with them that—in a way—is in this direction of approaching them narratively. It’s not exactly a narrative in a sequential narrative; but, it is still a narrative. The juxtapositions, the fact that I am using physical elements and transforming them; for instance, this narrative of transformation in Work Done where you begin with the ice and go to the river, or you have the book and you go to the trees, and the relation of the stones to the mountain. Bringing these elements together within the making of the blood pancakes with the blood balancing where the film begins with the ice: this going back to a solid. It’s a kind of progression and structure, which can be read completely with the elements of film; but, in the conscious seeing of it, not in the narrative which is the actor following this trance state, which is the usual dramatic narrative. My personal development involves a balance between abstraction and representation and bringing these two—very often reflecting—and bringing them together.
Guillén: You’ve spoken now and then about movement within an image. This intrigues me. I see it as a vibrancy to the image, or a literal vibration of the image, as registered in a suite of images I’ve detected throughout your films: a palm frond that’s quivering, the flanks of a horse that’s flinching, human skin that’s flinching, or a seed pod shivering in the wind. an you speak to what that is? It seems to be a common movement that your eye, as a filmmaker, has been drawn to.
Beavers: Actually, the one that comes to mind—which his perhaps not so obvious—is from Ruskin where there’s a black and white image of an alp and there is this tree there with only one leaf that’s dropping. I’m not sure. You have strung together an interesting series that are obviously related; but, I have to think about what it is. I suppose it has something to do with the almost biological sense that one wants to create that something is alive. Also, the last sound of [Alban Berg’s] Wozzeck is a quavering sound that is pulsing, as if returning to its beginning.
Guillén: You also shake or vibrate some of your masks, I seem to recall. I bring this up in the context of statements you’ve also made about the influence of Florentine paintings. Poet Mark Doty has written a lovely essay concerning the influence of paintings, how if a painting speaks to you, you are caught in its orbit. The painting that spoke to me when I was visiting the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence was Caravaggio’s portrait of the recycling Dionysos. He’s holding a goblet of wine and on the surface of the wine you can see concentric rings that register the vibratory energy of his presence. This was tremendous for me when I first saw it and I agree with you that this has to do with “the almost biological sense that one wants to create that something is alive.” Your films exhibit a sensual attention to the basic vibration of life. This is not conscious on your part?
Beavers: Partly. It’s what one is attracted to. There are these two elements, these two facets, together: the stillness and the vibration. It’s important that it should be both. It is both.
Guillén: As someone who vainly fancies himself a poet admiring the poetry in your films, I love this pulse of energy between two points that you express so exquisitely.
Speaking of moving between points, you mentioned in one of your Q&A sessions that you’re not necessarily a peripatetic type of person, that you actually don’t travel that much, though it appears you do because of your background of returning to various locations: Greece, Belgium, Switzerland. That got me thinking about the situational notion of triangulation. I too have my geographic points of reference by which I situate myself and understand myself: Idaho, San Francisco, Central America, Paris. I sought out San Francisco to escape Idaho. I sought out Central America and Paris to escape America. But in the process especially of triangulating between San Francisco, Central America and Paris, I discovered myself to be undeniably American. And that’s somewhat the gist of what I’m suggesting in my question to you. My desire to want to live among and somehow be indigenous to Central American was a fantasy wholly privileged by my being American. As Sitney quipped, there is something completely American about the need to travel elsewhere in order to recognize one’s roots.
[…] Now here’s another somewhat tough question for you. You have talked about “the rhetoric of the personal.” I notice you tend to resist an audience impulse to focus on what is biographical in your films.
Beavers: Michael, can you really call it resistance? Some, perhaps, but not completely.
Guillén: Okay. I’ll concede resistance is probably not the right word. You’re focused in a certain way. Careful about the work. Serious about the work. And, as you mentioned earlier, you don’t want the biographical to distract from what is essential about the work. My question, however, concerns a statement you made about films like From A Notebook of… and Ruskin(21) where you sought—not so much to place the historical personages in your films—as much as to suggest them.
Beavers: And to show my enthusiasm for them. This is the point. Somehow my connection to these figures allowed me to make the films.
Guillén: That I understand. But what I thought of when you made that comment was the contrast between Winged Dialogue—the start of the cycle where you and Gregory are so much the visible subjects of the film—to The Ground, the cycle’s completion, where you and Gregory are not in the film….
Beavers: But I am in the film.
Guillén: Yes, but not with the intense specificity of Winged Dialogue. Your presence is implied, not directly represented. That arc in your work, that movement, that shift from being markedly present as a subject to being absent as a subject is fascinating to me, and I wonder if you can speak to that?
Beavers: Well, first maybe I should say something about Winged Dialogue and the early films. Much of my work has been done in a state of alertness to what I’m doing, but also allowing important elements to remain somehow free from scrutiny. At the time of making Winged Dialogue, I didn’t even know that I was doing something so intimate—I just did it!—but, that’s why it could be deeply intimate. There was no hurdle for me. I was simply open to doing it without worry and that had to do with the context of my life. It could only be done then.
Guillén: I liked how you expressed that you were a titan at that time and could do anything.
Beavers: You know, you misunderstood what I said. That night there were students in the audience and what I was saying was that at that time in one’s life, youth, you feel like a titan or you feel like you have a clock within you….
Guillén: Oh, a clock!!
Beavers: You have a clock within you that is very dynamic, you understand? That’s when I used the word presto because you have this completely different possibility and this strength.
Guillén: Oh dear, I apologize, even though I loved what I thought you said.(22) [Laughter.] I was all excited. I thought, “He’s right!”
Beavers: Maybe you were closer to the truth?
Guillén: Okay, but now that I understand: there is this clock, this immediacy to everything….
Beavers: And you just get so much done.
Guillén: But returning to what I was asking about the shift from being present as a subject to being absent as a subject, P. Adams Sitney has written about a certain hermetic quality to some of your films and the astounding way in which something that is so intimate and personal and subjective bridges over to become universal. Were you aware of that?
Beavers: I was just being myself. Although, when I use the word “subjective”, Michael, I have a definite direction. I can appreciate the important filmmakers who create a film form that is an abstracted subjective; but, I do not want the further development of my own work to be that. I have gone in a different direction. The articulation of the subjective in my films is still connected to the world as we know it and as we experience it. I am not like an abstract painter. This recognizable voice is what interests me. It is an exterior, spoken voice in a sense. Not that the film speaks or that the filmmaker is speaking, but it is not free-floating.
Guillén: I find your films most subjective in their sound design. his is why I wish I had the chance to see the cycle one more time so that I could focus less on the accomplishment of your visuals and more on the accomplishment of your sound. My initial impulse with your films was to concern myself with the imagery, to understand the connections and compositions, to recognize the analogies being made, but now I wish I could focus on the sound: why is that drone of the bees being associated with that particular piece of architecture?(23)
Let’s talk about color and the interestingly different ways you use color. A Pitcher Of Colored Light was vibrant with the colors within the objects themselves, in contrast to the filters you used in earlier works. You’ve also struck rhythms, especially in Ruskin I would say, between color footage and black and white footage. Can you speak about that rhythm? Is it safe to say that—at least in that film—black and white references the past and the color the present? Or is that too literal?
Beavers: In that film, yes. Also in Diminished Frame. Yes, you can say this. Also, the strange color qualities in Ruskin are partly caused by the unadvised hours of the day in which I used the color stock: before the hour when you’re supposed to use it, after the hour, and so forth. I did sometimes film in the same location at different hours of the day. Michael, you know, color, shadow, sound: these are all messengers from the subjective. But they are not being left to float. For instance, in Pitcher of Colored Light they are connected to a particular person and in Ruskin also qualities of the black and white are connected to the period in which Ruskin lived and to the position of the beginning of photography in his life and the kinds of illustrations that he had in his own books. If you look at his books, for instance, you see immediate connections to my film.
Guillén: A lithographic impulse?
Guillén: How about, then, in Work Done where the colors are so intensified? I recall J. Hoberman’s review of that film where he said the pig blood was “impossibly red.”
Beavers: No, it’s exactly as it was.
Guillén: It was really that red? That’s astounding!
Beavers: Of course, you could say it’s Kodak red also. But, no, the color of the pig blood was in no way adjusted or changed; it was just extremely fresh. The man uses only blood from that day. Of course other scenes that are filtered by me, like the green pasture and the blue mountain. In The Painting also, my filming of the figures and using filters to bring out a dominant color that was already there, but to make it even more dominant; changing the dominance.
Guillén: My final question: Now that you say you are finished with the Cycle and it is done….
Beavers: Oh yes.
Guillén: But is it done? Can it ever really be done? Isn’t one of the cycle’s enduring qualities that it is somehow open-ended and ready for its audiences? In the spectatorial interaction with the living film, isn’t there always a constant negotiation? Just as you have been more than patient with the expression of my individual idiosyncratic experience of Winged Distance / Sightless Measure, I have no doubt that each individual in your audiences has, hopefully, had their own experience.
Beavers: There is also—and I could even call this an esoteric thought—which is, that as long as I am living, whatever actions I take, can possibly influence this cycle because the worth of a work may not be a physical thing. It may not be in the “real” realm. It might be a combination of the real and some other force.
Guillén: The force that comes across to me from the cycle—at least one aspect of it—is that of a creative life well-lived. I feel that the truth of that is being imparted through the screening of the cycle to young people.
Beavers: But, Michael, why only young people? Because they will continue and might carry it further? I disagree that the cycle is something imparted just to young people.
Guillén: You’re right. The cycle is not just for young people; but, perhaps what I meant to say, is that it is for what is young in all people. It gives license to what is the creative impulse in all people—which, I guess, I associate with a youthful beginning—even though it doesn’t matter when in the biological timeline the impulse arrives. Quite simply, Winged Distance / Sightless Measure is inspirational. Thank you for putting up with my intrusive and sometimes indelicate questions and for responding with such generosity of spirit.