Ernie Gehr. No blockbusters here, just mind expanders
By Manohla Dargis
There are a multiplicity of adjectives that fit Ernie Gehr’s experimental film and digital work: abstract, beautiful, mysterious, invigorating, utopian. The work can also be oblique; this is not a bad thing! His 14-minute film History (1970), to take one extreme example, largely consists of what looks like a sparkly black-and-gray blob that brings to mind a hallucination of a desert night sky, like van Gogh on acid. What you’re looking at, and perhaps losing yourself in, isn’t a representation of something outside the camera, but film itself: those clouds of dye in color film and churning grains in black and white that make up the actual image you see.
In an interview with the filmmaker Jonas Mekas in 1971 Mr. Gehr explained how, to make History, he had held black fabric in front of a movie camera without a lens (“its image-forming device”), using a light to illuminate the cloth. Mr. Mekas didn’t ask why there was no lens, because he grasped the implications of Mr. Gehr’s granular vision. “ History comes closest,” Mr. Mekas said, “to being nothing but the reality of the film materials and tools themselves.”
The filmmaker Michael Snow, himself a master of the art, put it more simply: “At last, the first film!”
Mr. Gehr elaborated on his filmmaking ethos in the program notes for a 1971 show at the Museum of Modern Art. “When I began to make films,” he wrote, “I believed pictures of things must go into films if anything was to mean anything.” He changed his mind after he started shooting, realizing that what film usually did was function as a vehicle to record events. “Traditional and established avant-garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing.” But for Mr. Gehr film was a thing and not an imitation and didn’t reflect on life, but rather embodied the life of the mind. “It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea,” he continued. “Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.”
In his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting” the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that “each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” Almost from the start of his filmmaking career Mr. Gehr embraced this Modernist cry, shunning mainstream narrative to make films in which bubbling grain, streaks of color and pulses of light are the main attraction. Even when he features people in his films, as he does in the black-and-white Reverberation (1969), which shows a couple standing and then seated on a city street in swirls of grain and light, the emphasis isn’t on humans and their stories, but on bodies and their spaces.
Born in 1941, he began making eight-millimeter films in the mid-’60s. The precipitating event, he told the writer Scott MacDonald in a 2002-3 interview, was a program of Stan Brakhage films that Mr. Gehr caught in New York on a rainy night. The works excited him partly because in their abstraction and attention to color, texture and rhythm they were closer to his experience of 20th-century painting than of movies, and he continued to seek out more of the same. He eventually ended up at the Millennium Film Workshop and borrowing a light meter from the filmmaker Ken Jacobs (with whom Mr. Gehr shares an interest in early cinema). As he walked around New York reading light, as it were, Mr. Gehr discovered “the character of light” and learned about “cinema’s dependency on light.”
This poignant, almost naïvely romantic interlude led Mr. Gehr to make Morning (1968), a 16-millimeter, washed-out color film that is routinely called his first. It’s a blissfully simple, lovely work that — as in innumerable paintings — takes as its subject the domestic space of the artist, specifically as the dawning light streams through a large window into the loft that Mr. Gehr was sharing with friends. Throughout the five-minute work the light pulsates nearly on and off, by turns flooding the room with dazzlingly bright light and throwing the space into near-darkness. Again and again the room and its objects — a chair, a sofa, a roaming cat — become visible, hover at the edge of discernibility or are nearly swallowed in black.
Like another 1968 film, Wait, which shows two people seated at a table in a room, the light throbbing around them, Morning explores both human perception and the materiality of film. Mr. Gehr achieved his effects by playing with the amount of time each film frame was exposed to light, which underscores that you’re watching individual frames. (This individual quality is helped by the fact that his films are sometimes projected at slower speeds than the usual 24 frames per second.) In a widely hailed early masterpiece, Serene Velocity (1970), he transformed a long institutional corridor into a propulsive, metaphorically resonant landscape by increasing and decreasing the depth of field, which alternatively brings you closer to and further from the doorway (and exit) at the end of the hall.
Since 2004 Mr. Gehr has been working exclusively in digital, a counterintuitive development given his longtime preoccupations. Yet, like other avant-garde filmmakers, Mr. Gehr has moved into digital gracefully and is exploiting its plasticity to investigate some of the same issues that long animated his film work. In Crystal Palace (2002, revised 2011), in what he calls an ode to “digital interlace,” he disassembles a landscape of majestic snow-wreathed conifers at Lake Tahoe (and, briefly, a red house) into sharply differentiated parts and visual planes, isolating these elements in a way that brings to mind the individual layers of a paper diorama. By isolating parts of the image he draws your eyes to individual trees and snowflakes that appear suspended in time and space.
In the wonderful Abracadabra (2009) Mr. Gehr digitally reconfigures four early silent films into bursts of kaleidoscopic color and strange movement. In one section he loops and layers semi-transparent images of boys frolicking outside a clothing store, turning them into so many cinematic ghosts. In the other sections he divides the image — of a docking ship, a train ride, dancing girls — that turns one side into a mirrored reflection of the other, and then he sets the two sides into kinetic play. The overall effect evokes that of proto-cinematic devices like the stereoscope (in which two images are viewed together to create an illusion of depth), but one brought into the digital age. Even as film goes the way of all flesh and is supplanted by digital, Mr. Gehr’s work affirms the persistence of cinema.