Still (1969-71, Ernie Gehr) Pt. II: Screen of consciousness

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6:15 PM. The Screening: Sure enough, Fred Camper’s synopsis was spot on: the film is made of eight “scenes,” all taken from the same general vantage point across a busy one-way Manhattan street. Each “scene” is comprised of two single takes of the same length and the same exact point of view, superimposed over each other. The first four “scenes” run three minutes and without sound; the second four run 11 minutes with sound from each take mixed together. Only the last “scene” is a single take without superimposition. Though the “scenes” seem essentially identical, there is a sense of progression from one to the next. With the soundtrack off on the first four “scenes”, the emphasis is on the visuals, and the weird visual effects created by the superimpositions. In a word, the effect is “ghostlike” – cars and pedestrians pass the frame semi-transparently. Cars from different takes that occupy the same position in the superimposition are neither in front of or behind each other – the viewer’s sense of depth perception and dimensionality is skewed. In “scene” #2, there’s an increased number of pedestrians, giving the composition more density. In “scene” #3, we even see two pedestrians from different takes walking side by side like a pair of ambling phantoms.

At this point I recall the most intriguing line from my pre-screening readings, Tom Gunning’s assertion that “Few filmmakers have so strongly imaged the city as a circulatory system, a channeling of flows.” I don’t think it rings true for this film. There isn’t a real sense of circulation because the dominant movement in this film, that of the cars going from right to left down this one-way avenue, is uni-directional. It is also sporadic, given the stoplight-regulated patterns of Manhattan traffic. The overall effect is not of circulation but of a harsh and unpredictable onrush of motion – a pedestrian’s tentative attempt to jaywalk underscores this impression of everyday environmental danger.

During “scene” #4, I’m starting to regret my decision to read up on the film before watching it. I wonder if reading those articles made me overconceptualize the work in my head, that it preempted my ability to receive the film first and foremost as an experience rather than as a concept. A white car parked squarely in the middle of the frame anchors the composition, but I take this observation of a symptom that I’m just reaching for anything of significance where there otherwise may not be any. Overall, I’m starting to feel fatigued by looking at the same spot for 10 minutes now.

“Scene” #5 offers a breath of fresh air by bringing in the soundtrack. Also the colors seem brighter. Also, in the place of that single white care, there are four yellow taxis (two from each take) parked in such a way that they overlap each other in the frame, These new elements have such an effect that I feel like I’m looking at a completely different location. The odd sense of dimension is more striking than ever – bordered by the translucent taxis and the hard black shadows cast from buildings, one piece of sidewalk seems to float like an island in a dimension of its own.

By “scene” #6 I’m just grooving. I’ve become absorbed in the texture of the films and comfortably situated within its parameters. The furniture and Kasto’s Restaurant storefronts are now familiar as friends to me – and I am now really curious what this exact location is and what it looks like today, now that I’ve spent nearly an hour staring at its 1971 incarnation. It feels like I’m hanging out at a real place, and yet at the same time I am still fully cognizant that I’m interacting with a celluloid object with its own filmic properties. The superimpositions are certainly one example, but there’s also sense of sound – the way one hears the Jurassic roar of a city bus a full block away before it actually crosses the camera’s line of sight. The effect is one of vague urban dread. I’ve lived in New York for seven years and I’ve never really heard anything like this – maybe because buses are quieter now, but maybe because this film’s manner of production reorganizes these sensory elements in a way that images and sounds stand out more.

In “scene” #7 Gehr uses the suspenseful sounds caused by the oncoming city bus for dramatic effect – a man in a black jacket crosses the street as we hear a bus approaching. And as he crosses, a superimposed bus from another take runs through him. Nice trick. But then the attention shifts to the girl waiting for him on the other side of the street. They greet each other – the first human interaction in the film – and enter the diner. One realizes how anonymous the street has been all this time, and how much impact a simple thing as two people greeting each other can make to redefine the film… and how hungry a viewer is for narrative that fantasy explanations start to blossoming in one’s mind to account for this couple (friends, lovers, lunch, afternoon delight…)

Scene #8: The filmstock looks grainier and washed out; the audio sounds more canned. Now I realize that it’s a single exposure (not entirely true as there’s one moment of double exposure, as if it to tease). As if to suggest that the novelty is gone, and we’re back to the banality of singular reality. But the eye still wants to see and discern more – searching the shadows and sounds for nuances and details. It’s like the training wheels have come off. The search for every possible thing that’s visible and audible continues within this single square space, but now it’s just our eyes and ears doing the work.

Read Part One

Read Part Three