Frames of Mind

Chrissie Iles on Robert Beavers

Left: Robert Beavers, From the Notebook of . . ., 1971/1998, still from a color film in 35 mm, 48 minutes. Right: Robert Beavers, Early Monthly Segments, 1968–70/2002, still from a color film in 35 mm, 33 minutes.

IN HIS ESSAY “LA TERRA NUOVA,” ROBERT BEAVERS elucidates a paradoxical principle that has informed his filmmaking from the earliest days of his career: “Like the roots of a plant reaching down into the ground, filming remains hidden within a complex act, neither to be observed by the spectator nor even completely seen by the filmmaker. It is an act that begins in the filmmaker’s eyes and is formed by his gestures in relation to the camera.” While the act of filming is distinguished from painting, say, by the mediating apparatus of the camera, filmmaking is nevertheless inexorably tied to the artist’s hand. In Beavers’s description, the recording device translates interior vision into image by a direct physical action.

The comparison of film with painting provides an insight into Beavers’s profoundly physical understanding of his medium, which is underscored by his unorthodox editing methods. Working without an editing table, he cuts his films manually with a splicer. “I memorize the image and movement while holding the film original in hand. . . . There should be almost no need to view the film projected until the editing is completed,” he wrote in “Editing and the Unseen.” (All of the essays cited here were collected under the title The Searching Measure [University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 2004].) The near-complete execution of the entire production process by a single maker has always been a marker of avant-garde film. However, Beavers’s approach goes beyond that of standard noncommercial filmmaking, and for the past forty years he has maintained strict control over the production, exhibition, and preservation of his films, which has resulted in one of the most distinctive—and yet underrecognized—bodies of work in cinema.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Beavers attended Deerfield Academy. In the summer of 1965, at the age of sixteen, he went to New York to do research for a proposed film club at school. In the foyer of the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque (then at the Astor Place Playhouse), he encountered avant-garde film luminary Gregory J. Markopoulos, who went on to play a major role in his life. Shortly afterward, he dropped out of high school and moved to Manhattan to pursue filmmaking.

In 1966 Beavers completed his first film, Spiracle, shot in and near a loft on the Bowery where he lived. After two years of working odd jobs, including printing 16-mm film in a lab, he left for Europe in February 1967. Markopoulos, who had become his partner, followed him soon thereafter. The two filmmakers spent the next twenty-five years living and traveling in Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Germany, tirelessly plying their art, often working under great financial constraints.

Having extracted himself from the New York avant-garde film community before he had established a career, Beavers’s work became almost entirely inaccessible between 1974 and 1996, as he declined all public screenings in the US. Instead, he and Markopoulos worked on the realization of the Temenos (Greek for “a piece of land set apart” or “sacred grove”), the elder artist’s vision of an outdoor viewing site and archive devoted exclusively to their writings and films. From 1980 through 1986, the filmmakers held annual screenings in a rural spot near the village of Lyssaraia on the Peloponnese, and these became the only way to see their work. (The tradition was revived in 2004, when Beavers presented a part of Markopoulos’s late work in the same location for three days in June. [See P. Adams Sitney, “Idyll Worship,” Artforum, November 2004.])

From his earliest to his most recent films, Beavers has combined an exacting formal examination of camera movement and framing with richly filmed depictions of people and places encountered in his nomadic life. The structure of his films—including visual rhymes, repetitions, and equivalences—is akin to that of poetry. In Diminished Frame, for example, made in Berlin in 1970, he used a variety of mattes to partially mask the frame in each shot: A black rectangle obscures the view from an elevated-train stop or blots out a group of boys posing in front of the camera on their bikes. In Work Done (1972/1999), which uses colored filters to luminous effect, Beavers constructs a series of metonymic shots—intercutting the image of a block of ice with that of a river, or the felling of a tree with a book being bound.

At the beginning of his career, Beavers often made reference in his films to his own artistic process and to the material conditions of filmmaking, inserting shots of himself, the camera, or his editing table. From the Notebook of . . . (1971/1998), inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and an 1895 Paul Valéry essay on Leonardo’s methods, examines Beavers’s own mode of working, juxtaposing shots of pages noting ideas for filming with views from his hotel window in Florence.

In his later work, he shifts away from a formal investigation of the filmmaking apparatus toward precisely structured relationships between objects and entities. In AMOR (1980), he sets the recurring motifs of cutting and sewing cloth into a metaphorical relationship with romantic love, and in The Ground (1993–2001) the work of a stonemason is paralleled with the ruins of a tower on the Greek island of Hydra.

The Hedge Theater (1986–90/2002)—combining footage from two earlier projects on the architecture of Borromini and the fifteenth-century Sienese painter Il Sassetta—marks the completion of a cycle titled My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure. Beavers began to rework almost all of his films in the late ’80s, a project that would eventually take him more than a decade. The final versions are typically shorter, and they have acquired newly recorded and edited sound tracks. Encompassing his reedited films from 1967 to 2002, the cycle asserts the clarity and rigor of Beavers’s vision.

This piece was originally published in the September 2005 issue of Artforum. The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley will present My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure October 13–20 and will host a special conversation between film historian P. Adams Sitney and Robert Beavers on Tuesday, October 13. For more details, click here.