Still (1969-71, Ernie Gehr) Pt. III: A surprise encounter & a modern-day comparison

Read Part One Read Part Two

7:30 PM: So I’m walking out of the screening when I spot Robert Cargni of the International House Film Program, who makes the commute to NYC on a regular basis to check out films.  He has to run to catch a train back home, but as he hurries off he points to a short middle-aged man talking to Jack Angstreich (one of the NYC cinephiles profiled in the documentary Cinemania) and says, “That's Ernie Gehr.” Ernie had shown up unannounced just to eavesdrop on his own screening.

I ended up spending a half hour listening to Jack and Ernie talk. You’d think that, as a cinephile, I could take part in any cinephile discussion, but what they talked about and the way they talked about it made me feel like I was a novice. Ernie expressed dissatisfaction at the occasional jitter of the frame, caused by an unsmooth threading of the film through the gate. He also felt the audio was too loud. The projectionist apologized profusely – apparently the 16mm projector wasn’t as sturdy as what they had in the old days. This triggered an extended discussion about the decline of film as a medium of choice. Ernie is doing preliminary planning of restorations on some of his work but is opting to go with video transfers rather than film restorations due to cost issues. But he’s holding out on transferring to HD because from what he’s been told, the technology isn’t good enough yet to capture the original frames at a comparable resolution. He talked a little about his dissatisfactions with video exhibitions, and how he’d work painstakingly at getting the color and picture levels to his exact satisfaction, but have that work go for naught from one poorly calibrated video projection to the next. Jack seemed very sympathetic, as was I – but then I’m someone who will watch anything on any format and could care less about color correction, even with my own work. When I asked him what he felt about his shorts Serene Velocity and Shift being available online, he said they looked absolutely terrible, and would rather people not see them at all than see them in such conditions. [gulp]

On a happier note, Ernie will have two new installations at the MoMA this coming fall: one in the Morita Gallery and one in the Titus I Gallery. He has also moved back to New York City after 18 years of living and teaching in San Francisco. He is looking for work, but, now in his sixties, he wants to get by on just enough to focus on his two priorities: to enjoy life and keep creating. He is now working on a new project (a sort of sequel to Still, he said) and has been roaming around New York City with digital camcorder in hand (he works completely on his own).

After Jack left I asked Ernie more about Still. One thing I didn't appreciate about the film until he explained it to me is that he did not create the superimpositions in post-production -- they were done in camera by shooting a reel of film at a lower-than-usual expsosure, then rewinding the reel and shooting the same reel a second time with the same framed shot. Given some of the effects and coincidences he achieved (like the two people walking together through different takes), his deferral of post-production and reliance on pure chance to create them was purely impressive (though he affirmed that he had shot many, many more reels of film this way than the eight that made the final cut). But the key takeaway here is that this is a technique that is purely filmic -- you simply can't do this double exposure with video except in post-production. Gehr made Still at a time when he was young and struggling to get by, working as an assistant at the Filmmakers Cooperative. In fact, Still is shot from the front window of the Filmmakers Cooperative, back when it was located at 175 Lexington Avenue, approximating the view from his desk where he’d spend a big chunk of his day working.

As soon as he said that, the film took off into another level of significance for me, both personal and emotional. It was like another film started playing in my head, one about a young struggling filmmaker toiling away at an unfulfilling office job to make ends meet in a vacuum of alienated labor. This film then was an act of both catharsis and sublimation, taking this everyday entrapment that so many of us have come to accept as life, never mind how it numbs us to our own reality, and asking what kind of art could he possibly make out of it? Thinking about all of this, the film’s rigid point of view looking impassively out of the front window onto that limited view of 174 Lexington Avenue not only is a faithful reenactment of that experience, but also a kind of redemption of it.

At this point one might wonder to what extent such contextual info should figure into one’s appreciation of the film. As far as I’m concerned, it should figure insofar as it moves and inspires me, which is quite a bit.

I was also impressed that Gehr made this film without any funding (indeed, it would be several more years before he secured his first artist’s grant); in fact he secured the equipment to make the film from friends at SUNY Binghampton who would bring the equipment over to him when it wasn’t in use. He was 27 years old when he completed Still. From listening to him it almost sounded like he’s in essentially the same financial situation now than he was over 35 years ago, making this film on a shoestring (I’m not sure how that could be possible with the likes of MoMA commissioning his work). If that is true, it’s also inspiring to think of living with less regard for material comforts and all of one’s attentions set on exploring one’s creative potential. I guess this means a lot to me now because I’ve recently received a hefty promotion at my day job with more opportunities to be creative… but it’s still not the creative work I really want to do, work that I’m afraid the added responsibilities at work will distract me from pursuing in earnest. It’s a romantic fantasy to toss material concerns to the wind and dive into creative activity unrestrained. But from listening to Ernie, such a choice of lifestyle is nothing glamorous whatsoever; for him it’s simply necessary.

174 Lexington Avenue, 1970 vs. 2007 (I'll get a more time-of-day-appropriate shot when I have a chance):

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

Read Part One

Read Part Two