912. Still (1969-71, Ernie Gehr)

screened Thursday, March 8 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NYTSPDT rank #853

This film is not listed on IMDb

Still remains one of Gehr's least screened and least appreciated films. It's slow for a Gehr work, in that its single view of a street — the camera never moves — is presented in real time. And the scene seems somewhat randomly selected: one looks across the street at a few buildings and storefronts, one with a small awning that says "Furniture" and another with a larger "Soda-Lunch" sign. The camera is at a very slight angle to the street, preventing one from equating the view with the film frame — as is encouraged by the head-on camera angle in Untitled (1977) — and indeed suggesting that the composition is nothing special. The film has eight sections determined by the length of 100- and 400-foot camera rolls: the first four are about 3 minutes each and silent, and the last four about 11 minutes each and include street sounds. These begin and end, demarcated by black leader, without regard to the movements of cars and pedestrians — though Gehr did stage a few small incidents.

Gehr's main intervention is that all sections but the last are double exposures, each roll shot twice. And since the camera usually isn't moved between the two exposures, the facades of the buildings and the parked cars remain solid. But moving objects — cars and pedestrians — appear as ghostly, almost transparent shadows. Further, for some layers Gehr used a darker exposure or filmed them in lower light, so that some pedestrians seem gossamer thin. Gehr again calls attention to the nature of film, specifically the transparency of the film strip (he even titled an earlier work, a view of a highway, Transparency).

Fred Camper's synopsis from his review for the Chicago Reader

In representational films sometimes the image affirms its own presence as image, graphic entity, but most often it serves as vehicle to a photo-recorded event. Traditional and established avant garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing. But film is a real thing and as a real thing it is not imitation. It does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind. It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.

-Ernie Gehr, January 1971

5:15 PM - one hour from the screening. I just got off the phone with Atsushi who wanted to meet up at the MoMA before he watched Abbas Kiarostami's Ten, also screening this evening. I told him that I'm going to see Still, which he had never heard of. When I described it to him, he chuckled derisively and said, "That doesn't sound very interesting. Is it like Andy Warhol?" I wasn't really sure what to say since I don't know all that much about this film other than that it has something to do with some still shots all taken within the same city block (a formal limitation that I would have expected him to find interesting, given that he's going to watch a movie that spends its entire 90 minute duration on single static shots inside a car).

So I've decided this time around to do a quick pre-screening inventory of my knowledge and expecations about this film. After the screening I'll continue with a follow-up post.

First I read the following reviews of the film:

An oddly formatted essay by Tom Gunning

Fred Camper's review from the Chicago Reader

I know pretty little about the experimental film world, so reading these reviews, my mind makes associations with narrative filmmakers like Kiarostami as well as Tati, Antonioni (the end of L'Eclisse which takes place at a single intersection).

Gunning's allusion to Nazi Germany in his essay also brought to mind Shoah, the way Lanzmann's camera pans questioningly at the worn-out sites of wartime atrocities ("Are the traces of the past still here, are they tangible, or have they vanished?"). Gunning's review gets increasingly more evocative as it goes on -- the line I'm most likely to take into the screening: "Few filmmakers have so strongly imaged the city as a circulatory system, a channeling of flows." Camper's review is well-observed and highly descriptive, but it also points out the difficulty of writing about experimental fim in a way that doesn't sound too academic. It's hard to write about experimental film in a way that gives an impression that is vivid, tactile and immediate. I certainly couldn't do it with Atsushi.

. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying. Camper's intro to his essay gives an incisive rallying argument as to why:

Earlier this month I heard a wonderfully erudite, enthusiastic lecture on Frank Capra by University of Chicago professor James Chandler. Making his case for Capra's films, he said in part that there are some self-referential moments in the narratives — a plausible argument that also set me thinking. Ever since the 70s, when heavy doses of European theory first made film study "respectable," scholars have spent much of their time on mainstream Hollywood movies, taking one of two basic approaches. One faction asserts that these films are not the naive escapist stories, transparent vehicles for stars, and affirmations of mainstream values that they seem but are instead somehow subversive, containing sub-rosa cultural critiques, suggesting fissures beneath their apparently unified forms, or even — as in the case for Capra — breaking with illusionism to make the viewer aware that he's watching a movie. Another, probably larger group criticizes Hollywood films as seamless entertainments that seek to lull the viewer into semiconsciousness while affirming the dominant ideology. But for both factions mindless escapism is the enemy and self-awareness is a virtue. Given that position, it's genuinely stupefying that only a tiny number of film professors have specialized in the vital, vibrant American avant-garde movement, which dates back six decades.

And with that, off to the screening. --------------------------------------

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

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Ernie Gehr links page by Fred Camper

Want to put on an Ernier Gehr retro in your hometown? His films are distributed by Canyon Cinema

Ernie Gehr entry in Wikipedia

Two additional Ernie Gehr films online at ubuweb: Serene Velocity and Shift