In the last years, I've written some things about the American avant-garde film, especially about Brakhage, Warhol and Hutton. Cosmos, rituals, landscapes.
The subjective in Brakhage, a perception that enters in itself to go beyond itself, a deployed subjectivity, disseminated in the folds of universe. The objective in Warhol, the ob-iectum, thrown-in, in front of the camera, placed in front of, but beyond the substance: objectivism Warhol is an anti-essentialism. The subjective-objective in Hutton, the paradox of the gaze laid on the facts (objective, the "what") and, at the same time, inscribed in the relationship with those facts (subjective, the "how").
Peter Hutton was a friend of mine too. We just wrote, but I can say we were friends. His last message, a few days before his dead, was so beautiful, positive, inspiring. He thanked me for my friendship, and I was so moved and touched. He was so generous and kind.
The sea has taught to Hutton to see and wait: the patience of seeing. Hutton went to see, wanted to see with his own eyes – through the camera, his Bolex. The same camera, the world's window that subdues the world itself becomes the attraction, not only an eye throught see, but in which see. A vision, his vision, that reconciles action and contemplation, often separated into the western culture. Hutton has traveled extensively in the East of the world, he was born in Detroit, he went to the school to Hawaii, then San Francisco, New York, Hudson River Valley. He was a sailor. His vision is never a sort overflight, an overview, but it is always situated in the living space, sometimes even obstructed from it, while other times the image becomes blurred. Not a power, but a journey, an ethics of silence. An eye that is not possession but that preserves the world. He's still travelling – and seeing.
TONI D'ANGELA: I always thought that your films are a sort of invitation to see the voice of world, to listen to the horizon of being, and I've asked to myself how your experience as sailor has been important (the sailor looks the sea, listen to “sound” of light), how was the influence on your work as filmmaker.
PETER HUTTON: The sea has always been a profound influence on me for so many reasons. First and foremost is the visual atmosphere. Imagine being a painter and beginning a canvas that is already painted black. One of my jobs as a deckhand on ships was standing lookout. I'm on the forepeak of the ship night after night looking into the vast darkness of the ocean trying to make out lights on the distant horizon to see if there were ships headed in our direction. After seeing only darkness, light eventually begins to emerge: stars reflecting on the surface of the waves, explosions of phosphorescence under the sea, the moon emerging from behind clouds, and eventually the night transitioning into dawn and a spectrum of color emerging as subtle as a whisper.
When I first went to sea I thought of myself as a painter. After a decade of shipping out and going to Art school, I transitioned into sculpture and then into filmmaking. My last voyage on a ship was in 1973 when I was shipping out of Thailand. I was shooting B&W film and my great excitement came from sailing into storms as we crossed the Indian Ocean. Much of the beauty I was experiencing was evocative of J.M.W. Turner. My vision also became so refined that much of what I was seeing was not visible on film. Mariners have traditionally relied on their vision to survive: reading weather patterns, the texture of the oceans currents, and of course, the stars. There's an interesting story about the Polynesians I read some time ago related to their journeys across the Pacific. They used to study the color of clouds on the horizon and if they saw a tint of green under a cloud they knew an island was there, long before it became visible on the horizon.
T.D.: In the recent past (after the II World War), the capitalistic processes have changed the face of voyage as knowledge and discovery, tend to reduce the differences, putting the differences of countries, places and cultures on the same level and standard (what not it is called globalization), and today the new media lead to atrophy of bodies, the voyage becomes virtual. You have always travelled (seas, cities, rivers, Unites States, Asia, Europe, Africa) and in your cinema the voyage is very important, can you tell me something about that?
P.H.: Wanderlust – I don't know if it was the Flatlands of southern Michigan where I was born, or the fact that my father went to sea as a young man, or from reading Jack London stories, but from a young age I had a very strong desire to experience the world. When I got my seaman's papers at age 18 in Detroit, I started shipping out on the Great Lakes. Here I was with visions of all the world's great ports in my head and I was going to places like Toledo, Ohio, Alpina, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana. Time to reset the compass. I saved up my pay for two months and bought a ticket to Honolulu, Hawaii. The very first day I went into the SUP union hall (Seaman's Union of the Pacific) and registered. The dispacher said "Hey kid, you wanna go to Calcutta?" My heart jumped. Two days later, I set sail on a tramp steamer: the SS Norbarto Capay, which was loaded with wheat to deliver to India during a famine. This experience changed my life and I never looked at the world quite the same way again.
T.D.: Were you a great reader of literature of voyage (Stevenson, Melville, Conrad) and, in the case, it was another influence for you?
P.H.: I've always loved to read but never thought of myself as an intellectual. I read many of the books my father read. He was a great romantic. These consisted mostly of books about heroic adventure; Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl comes to mind. Because my first love was painting, I read a great many popular books about artists lives: Lust for Life about Van Gogh and The Agony and The Ecstasy about Michaelangelo, as I mentioned, Jack London's work, and the biography about London, Sailor on Horseback. Irving Stone was big in my house. Later, I got into Conrad, and for some reason I waited on Melville who I have been reading the last few years. Now my literary taste are all over the map but I still really enjoy travel writing. Robert Byon's The Road To Oxiana and Song Lines by Bruce Chatwin are two favorites. I'm currently reading Roberts Gardner's The Impulse to Preserve and realize his writing is just as perceptive as his films. He has been very important to me since I first met him at Harvard in the mid 70's and I'll always be greatly indebted to him for his generosity and passion for filmmaking, and as someone living in the world.
T.D.: You worked at Canyon Cinema founded by Bruce Baillie, and when you have started to work as filmmaker, the scene of american experimental film was characterized (not only but mostly) by the “lyrical film” of Brakhage and Baille, and the “structural film” of Snow, Sharits, Frampton and others. The first ones were focused on what is called the uncultived eye, beautiful imagery, politics of beauty, the second ones on the deconstruction of apparatus, showing the cinema-machinery. Consider that they are only formulas (eye/mind), can I say that you were (and are) more interested in a cinema of eye rather than a cinema of mind? Anyway what was your position in front of these tendencies of experimental film when you started to make films?
P.H.: I never quite know where I reside in the context of the avant-garde. In the late 60's, I was a projectionist at Canyon Cinema so I was greatly immersed in experimental film culture and was in awe of so many filmmakers: Mekas, Nelson, Conner, Menken, Brakhage, Baillie, Deren, Anger, Snow, etc. Many of my artistic influences came from my Chinese and Japanese art teachers in Hawaii.
I usually tell people I reside in the “rear-garde” in my desire to return cinema to pre-narrative landscape, where the phenomena of the moving image is the focus. I don't think of myself as an artist on the same level as these filmmakers. They were so expressive and truly creative with the medium. I guess I would lean in the direction of anthropology. It's also important to understand that when I was young, I did not think about "context," but was simply happy to make films. I was living day-to-day trying to stay afloat.
T.D.: May you describe me what kind of relation you had with the artistic tendencies of Sixties/Seventies (minimal art, conceptual art, eartworks)?
P.H.: I think my "artistic" influences came from my exposure to a wide range of painting and sculpture. I often think about Giorgio Morandi and the simplicity of his still life as work that encompasses those influences in a profound yet subtle manner. I studied sculpture and made happenings in the 60's that led to my making records of these events on 8mm film. I studied briefly with Bruce Nauman, who introduced me to conceptual art. He was like a monk and said very little. He was inspiring with his use of materials in a very reductive manner. I experienced a happening by Alan Kaprow that opened up a door. He gathered a group of students in the SF Art Institute courtyard to draw silhouettes with chalk of all the shadows, then redraw the shadows again and again. The results were quite beautiful. I thought about light moving in a new way.
T.D.: Occasionaly in your films appear chimneys, pylons, empty fields, trains, and especially "still lifes" à la Ozu. In New York Near Sleep for Saskia, at certain point, the light lies on the glass bottle of milk, the light goes and comes, while a film by Yasujiro Ozu ends. But to tell the truth, Ozu's films do not have a beginning nor an end. I don't want to establish any formal or strict connection between his films and yours, but I see in your films a sort of dialetic of permanence and change that brings me back to Ozu. Your “travel diaries” throught seas, cities, and rivers, telling and showing the time being, they are a journey in the perception, always experiences and never simple representations. The echo of a world in which the music resonates for our eyes. And what about your relation with the so-called representative-narrative film (hollywodian classicism, european film des auteurs, etc.)?
P.H.: When I first saw Ozu's Tokyo Story in New York in 1974, something important was triggered in me. I saw a lot of Japanese films in the 60's when I lived in Hawaii, but these films were mostly action films like Kurosawa's Red Beard, Yojimbo, etc. Ozu reminded me how important it was to understate cinema and how meaningful Chinese brush painting was to me as an early artistic reference point. The films of Jacques Tati were a huge cinematic reference point when I was young. My father loved Tati and presented his films in the late 50's in a cinema guild he established in Detroit. I was so happy to rediscover his films in the 60's in San Francisco and turn my friends on to him. I felt like a real cineaste. Of course, the 60's were so important to my generation in terms of educating ourselves to the creative expanse of narrative film. To see Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, etc.: this is how we learned about the larger world. Russian films were always screened at the Progressive Labor Party offices in San Francisco, which were equally important but in more formal ways. It's only been since I started teaching that I have developed any perspective on Hollywood films, many of which I greatly admire: Keaton, for example, for his brilliant use of physical space. My students always know way more than me.
I remember when I was teaching at SUNY Purchase in the early 80's and would often commute with the film historian Tom Gunning. He would be talking about this film or that film and he might as well have been talking in a foreign language. I realized how little I knew about cinema in general. I kept my mouth shut and just watched the landscape slide by. The narrative craft of cinema is so complex I often balk as even posing as a filmmaker. I have shot a few narrative films for others over the years so I have great respect for the narrative process, but what I do is very minimal. Because I came from a studio arts background, I wanted to make films on a daily basis, like going to your studio everyday or, in my case, going into the streets. I realized how expensive the process could become, so it was imperative for me to keep it simple. I always tell people "I just need another roll of film.” One of my all time favorite films is In the Street by Helen Levitt, who was better known as a photographer. The film is just that: footage of children playing in the streets of upper Manhattan in the early 50's. The simplicity of the film is amazing. I often show my filmmaking students a condensed history of photography at the beginning of our semester and refer to photographs as very short films. There's something attractive to me about the having limitations. There's a beautiful quote by the writer James Agee, who worked with Levitt on a number of films. It's from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his collaboration with Walker Evans. "For the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is."