Of the many films worth anticipating in the New York Film Festival’s eleventh annual Views from the Avant-Garde (including new works by Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs and Peggy Ahwesh), two that can already be considered highlights come from veteran artists Robert Beavers and Peter Hutton. Beavers’ Pitcher of Colored Light is publicly programmed with a posthumous work by Beavers’ longtime partner Gregory Markopoulos, but it made for a complementary pairing with Hutton’s hour-long At Sea when the two played together at a festival press screening. While one film is shot within the safe confines of a single home and the other depicts a maritime odyssey with epic views of endless ocean, both employ vivid palettes of light and color to evoke feelings of adventurous movement through time and space, underscored by a creeping sense of mortality.
Beavers’ 23-minute film, a steady but seemingly unstructured series of pans, close-ups, and panning close-ups across a variety of surfaces and objects in his aging mother’s home, feels like Proust on celluloid. The loving close-ups suggest the perspective of a child when everything inside one’s house seems big—certainly bigger than one’s gaze or attention span. The nearly incessant fade-outs and fade-ins to other objects speak to this viewpoint, but eventually some of these household images return, their presence as affirming as pillars or pillows. There are hints of themes and patterns—the light of dawn breaking over a ceramic rooster; the purple of a shirt being ironed matching violets in the garden; but any overriding logic is supplanted by the persistence of the spaces and objects, first and foremost, as things in themselves.
Only gradually does one realize the passing of seasons, that a full year is being chronicled. Light itself is always shifting, teasing the camera to follow its diagonal paths through domestic interiors (this film deserves the title Secret Sunshine moreso than Lee Chang-dong’s feature). Whether it was intended to be seen as such, I’m inclined to describe this film as an approximation of a pre-cognizant child’s evolving experience of home; if so, the recurring close-ups that linger on the silver hair and deeply wrinkled countenance of Beaver’s mother add a layer of foreboding to this nostalgic cavalcade.
Hutton’s At Sea is itself a reflection on the artist’s background as a merchant seaman, fixated as it is with the life cycle of a merchant ship. Hutton filmed a South Korean shipyard where a giant merchant vessel is assembled and launched, as well as a desolate beach in Bangladesh where another ship is disassembled for scrap metal. One might dub the results Au Hasard Boatazar, as Hutton shares some of Bresson’s project of searching for the life and pathos found in the non-human. Not unlike Bresson’s donkey, Hutton’s ships remain objects perpetually being acted upon: whether by skillful Korean welders firing away at the creation that dwarfs them by stories; by the relentless beating of rain and waves against a freighter as it carries its cargo around the world; or by the crude hacking, against a rusted hull, of South Asians seeking scrap metal.
Like Beavers, Hutton’s camera can never capture the full scale of his spaces; these mega-freighters stretch beyond the frame, inducing a frightening majesty reminiscent of Flaherty’s oil rig in Louisiana Story. Their curved red hulls covered with scaffolding grids create complex patterns of geometry and color. Remarkably, Hutton’s camera never moves; and when it is planted aboard the ship, the world seems to move around it, inflicting torrents of punishment upon this sturdy but inevitably doomed vessel. By the end of the film, the ship is reduced to a faraway pile of steel on a beach that seems soaked in oil and rust, while Bangladeshi laborers joyfully sidle up to the camera and smile unabashedly, the first close-ups of any kind in the film. Self-reflexive nods to the camera in its act of filming may be played out as an aesthetic trope, but in this instance Hutton leaves us with a tense, unresolved relationship between mankind, its monstrously magnificent creations, and the ever-weary environment.