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November 17, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Two videos by Ernie Gehr


Ernie Gehr - 2001

waterfront follies.jpg

Waterfront Follies
Ernie Gehr - 2008

This was my first time attending the part of the the Starz Denver Film Festival that was devoted to awarding the "Stan Brakhage Vision Award". A little history here - Brakhage was a periodic part of the festival, showing some of his own work, as well as introducing films by others. My own memory was of his speaking prior to the screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. That the SDFF devotes even a small part of its programming to experimental film is commendable.

Brakhage was also on my mind watching Waterfront Follies. The work is made up of three shots of sunset, from three different points at the Brooklyn, New York, waterfront. The camera does not move, and the focal point is the same for a three shots. What is different is the angle of seeing the sun, the difference in the clouds, the movement of the boats, and the offscreen voices. On a more literal level, yes, one is watching the sun go down over the shore of New Jersey, but what one is also looking at are the fields of blue and gray, and the descent of an orange-red orb. Watching this video made me recall some writing I had done on some films by Stan Brakhage in the mid-Seventies, and my teacher, P. Adams Sitney encouraging me to study the paintings by J.M.W.Turner, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. I don't really have the language of describing visual art, but the similarities are the three artists exist for me when you take Turner and Gehr's images and just think of the shapes and colors, and not objects as the subjects of the work.

Waterfront Follies was a challenge for some members of the audience in attendance. It's been more than thirty year since my own formal study of experimental films, so I understand that to see something that demands attention from the audience can be difficult. It does bring to mind whether some films or video works should be viewed in the same way that one views a traditional narrative film, or if certain works should be viewed in part, to be returned to several minutes later, as part of an installation rather than in a theatrical setting. Also, one might be able to watch a real sunset, alone or with someone, and be comfortable with the real time experience, while watching a video of a sunset might bring about a certain discomfort or anxiety based on the conditioning we have of expecting "something" to happen in front of us.

But things do happen in Waterfront Follies. A large boat temporarily blocks the view of one sunset. We overhear a Spanish man speak about the beauty of sunsets in Barcelona. A woman asks Gehr if he has found what he is looking for. The sun peaks in and out of the clouds. We hear distant bells, and the sound of the water.

Glider presents a challenge simply by being silent. The video was shot though a camera obscura that moves constantly. The ocean and the beach outside of San Francisco are recognizable for what they are. The images become abstracted by the change of angles and distortion, so that they dissolve into a series of shapes and patterns, in constant motion. Again, this is video that might be better compared to abstract expressionism.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 17, 2009 07:24 AM