Filmmaker Barry Gerson. Image courtesy of Mónica Savirón.
Microscope Gallery in New York has presented a comprehensive selection of landmark films by avant-garde artist Barry Gerson followed by a conversation with the filmmaker, coinciding with his solo show “The Parting of the Clouds” at Thomas Erben Gallery. The one-hour-forty-minute-silent program included two digital films that had never been shown before, and five 16mm prints that were last projected more than ten years ago. Artist and filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz took care of a double projection at sixteen frames per second. David Callahan and Elena Rossi-Snook from the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts allowed us to show the only print that exists in good condition of the film Episodes from the Secret Life, which in 1983 was part of the Whitney Biennial Exhibition. This is the last film Gerson made before putting down his camera for 20 years. To introduce the screening, two pieces by Bach were played: Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A minor, and his Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C major. These pieces were included in Gerson’s debut, The Neon Rose (1965), his only quasi-narrative feature. They are the soundtrack for a dream sequence that weaves together the various dimensions of Gerson’s vision: past, present, and future.
The lamp in the mountain hut
Burns with a faint glow
My beloved mountain hut
On a path in the foothills
I sit at the window of memories
And think of you
The wind murmurs
With a song of days long past.
Autumn leaves in every hue
Of yellow and red
Float down the stream
Woven like brocade.
Late Autumn, Yasujirô Ozu, 1960
For Barry Gerson, the world is just an appearance; instead, dreams disclose reality, a hidden world of enigmas and long forgotten memories that are gradually and magically revealed through movement, visual obstacles, and filtered light. Reminiscent of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu’s poetic practices, Gerson restricts vision to allow in depth visibility, and to transcend limitations. Donald Richie elaborates on this: “Ozu’s method, like all poetic methods, is oblique. He does not confront emotion, he surprises it… His cinema is formal and the formality is that of poetry, the creation of an ordered context that destroys habit and familiarity, returning to each word, to each image, its original freshness and urgency. In all of this Ozu is close to the sumi-e ink drawing masters of Japan, to the masters of the haiku and the waka”. In Gerson’s work, there is an innocence and pureness that trigger active discovery in the unexpected. Each film is presented without title cards or credits—they start and finish with the impetus of a spiritual burst, like water bubbles shining in their perfect, delicate tension. The filmmaker is also surprised while filming. He is there to see the universe unveil in front of his camera—there is not such a thing as stillness. The spectator is invited to a play of emotions, by slowing down tempo and submerging consciousness. The following conversation with Barry Gerson touches on some of the aspects we discussed after this special screening.
Still from the film Episodes from the Secret Life. Image courtesy of Barry Gerson.
Mónica Savirón: It is fascinating to me how you pursue, even obsessively, what is hidden, what is behind appearances, almost entering a dreamy world, but in each and every of your films you approach this in a completely different way, which is so rare… What impels you to pick up your camera and start filming? Is there a previous idea? Things just happen in front of your eyes? Or is it a combination of both?
Barry Gerson: It is a combination of both. I started out when I was 11-12 years old by making still photographs, with the same project that I’m still doing. I would go out with my camera, and I was convinced that I would be able to see through the fabric of the planet, and of the universe, that I could capture something indicative of another reality. I have been influenced by painting, by film, and by what I see around me. I shoot what I see, it comes from my experience—things like in dreams, ways of looking at the world that become part of what I’m doing. Surrealists, in the 1920s, used to get together in Paris to go from one theater to another, and just look at ten minutes of whatever was on the screen. My father had four theaters in Philadelphia, and as a child I would accompany him on his rounds at night. I would sit and watch whatever was on the screen while he attended to business. Then we went to the next theatre and repeated this ritual. I think my way of experiencing the world and approaching my filmmaking, as a series of abstracted glimpses, was a result of those very early movie theatre experiences.
M. S.: There is a tension in your work between the control of staging objects within the frame, and the unpredictability of nature that surrounds it all. Is there a difference for you between making films in the outside world, as opposed to in the studio?
B. G.: Yes, I started to be interested in how filmmakers have always, traditionally, worked in the world as opposed to in the studio. I explored the area of studio-made films that would take us outside of the experience of being inside, opening it up to an outer world. The Secret Abyss is a really good example of this. Though shooting running and bubbling water in my studio, it feels that it is happening in the universe. It was a pedestrian way of achieving this effect, just using black plexiglass in my sink, and turning on the faucet, and shooting the resulting variations in the water. A different example is the film Snows of Reduction, whichwas all shot behind my house. Even though it was outside, it really should be treated more like a studio film, because it was a controlled environment that I set up. I used very few physical things to make the film from. I really make this distinction in my films.
M. S.: You mentioned once to me that you were inspired by the search for transcendence that you found in Brakhage’s films from the early 60s. I would not say that you are a religious person, but it is very interesting how your images seem to access another reality, like a force or an energy that is beyond human capabilities.
B. G.: Yes, he transcends the moment of what he is filming. Painting does this as well. My images need to have elements that are active in different parts of the frame, so there is not just one subject, and not just one activity. The viewer’s attention gets pulled around the image, from one motion to another. That came from painting. Film traditionally has been subject oriented. I try to stay away from that as much as possible.
M. S.: You are a “very selective” collector of antiques… What do these objects say to you to become characters in your films?
B. G.: I feel that I can get a sense of objects that are old and human-made because they have a lot of character. I’m interested in my films having feeling, I want to make them almost touchable. As you said before, to mix that with nature it’s very exciting, because nature is unpredictable. I like to combine the unpredictable with the predictable. The film Blue Follies, though I use objects in it, doesn’t have anything that is old. I was very aware of that. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. It didn’t come alive the way I thought it could until I started to edit the film. I shot the pieces of what was going to be a painted wood sculpture. I used them to make the film primarily because of the intensity and luminosity of their color.
At a certain point, I wanted to forego my own practices by using the human subject. I did it in Episodes from the Secret Life, and
you’ll notice that the performer, painter Joe Smith, is holding an old suitcase… I got it at a thrift store because I liked the way it
looked, because I liked its aura. I had formal concerns, and wanted to create a movement going up the stairs, that would define the
space which consisted of split screened images -one going down and the other going up- at the same time. So the human figure
appears, which is not normal in my films.
M. S.: Episodes from the Secret Life seems to have everything that you are interested in—it covers all basics…
B. G.: Yes. The objects that are in it are and look like they are old, they emit an energy from the past users who touched them. I see my kind of filmmaking as a transference of energy from one place to another, which I call, transmutation—like alchemy. I like to make images that are evocative, because I’m basically an imagist. I’m more interested in that, than in anything else. Any of the filmmaking techniques that I use are in the service of that. I was never interested in making films called structuralists, even if I borrowed some of the ideas from that kind of filmmaking. I’m not really interested in exploring the film apparatus. I’m interested in making images, not systems. I’m making images that, to me, need to have something special. Those things were looked down upon during the 60s and 70s. Structure was the most important part of the film, and if you had anything that was related to emotions and feelings, it was defined as bourgeois.
When I made Episodes… I had every intention of continuing making more films like that. I had just moved into the country, and thought it would be inspiring. Celluloid became very expensive though, and I stopped making films for longer than I ever thought.
M. S.: You define yourself as an imagist, but your images don’t seem to have a metaphorical meaning…
B. G.: Exactly. It all is about texture, color, light, movement, and the discoveries that come with them. All the objects that I use are part of my personal world. When I used white papers in Episodes…, I was interested in papers that have a kind of form, and they have a meaning that can only be expressed because of the way they drop and float in the air. They were not metaphors for writing, but they make space, and I can use them to deal with space in a way that would bring in feelings and emotions that are attached to those kinds of ethereal things. Then, each person can add their personal narrative to it.
M. S.: Since your work is mainly non-narrative, how do you approach editing? When do you decide that a cut in the sequence needs to be made?
B. G.: I just follow my feelings, I allow the developing forms to lead me. A number of factors have to come together, the sequence has to have an internal magic—it has to feel like it is a new experience for me, and if it doesn’t feel like that, I don’t do it. I see myself more like a poet, but using film images. I like my work to be felt, to make you feel that you can almost touch it. Film is an ethereal thing, images float out in space, and I don’t concern myself too much with practical aspects. When I made my first film, I was mostly influenced by Orson Welles, and the camera work by his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. To me, they transformed with lighting and composition what was in front of the camera. If I can’t transform what it is in front of me, then I can’t do anything with it. Working with celluloid, I used to do everything basically in the camera. Episodes… was completely edited in camera, I put the roles together, and those were the sequences in the order they were shot. I did split screen and superimpositions to create the images I wanted. I just listened to my heart. Working in digital, I do more traditional editing, though not that much.
M. S.: You are one of the not so many filmmakers who have made a smooth transition from film to digital. Other names could be Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, or Phil Solomon from a younger generation. You have found in the digital medium new ways of discovering and uncovering the world. What new paths have been opened for you?
B. G.: With the digital camera, I like to overwrite the capabilities of automatic focus, that tend to be fluid, so I can get things changing that you wouldn’t be able to do any other way. I feel that digital images allow me to be open, help me to be conscious in my dreaming. I’m interested in directing a dream to be about something we are investigating. To me, the dream world knows everything. The Dream world is the real world, and it is wise.
Double silent 16fps projection at Barry Gerson’s film screening. Image courtesy of Microscope Gallery.
 Donald Richie, Ozu, University of California Press, London 1974, p. XIII.