It’s the Small Things

Vincent Grenier, Armoire, 2007–11, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

INITIALLY DRAWN TO PAINTING AND SCULPTURE, Quebec-born Vincent Grenier began making films in 1970 and has taught at Binghamton University since 1999. He has more than fifty films and digital works to his credit, many of which screened over the years in the Avant-Garde programs of the New York Film Festival. Watching and rewatching two dozen of them in a short span of time, I was struck by their modesty and simplicity, virtues that make it easy to overlook their concomitant beauty and observational acuity.

Many of Grenier’s titles describe quite literally the subjects and imagery of the works. In Travelogue (2010), we sit in the cab of a truck or a van as it moves along Route 79 in upstate New York—the filmmaker’s territory. De-Icing (2014) records the titular treatment airplanes often undergo before they are readied for takeoff. Because Grenier is as committed to the material reality of things as he is to the medium’s ability to transform them into estranging phenomena, titles may also be metaphorical. Burning Bush (2010) focuses on an actual bush, but by closing in on its vivid red leaves, shaking images to a blurry wash, fluctuating the camera’s distance and speed, filtering, and adding a crackling sound track—as if something offscreen were, in fact, burning—he creates a filmic reality as palpable as the one documented. On the other hand, in Mend (1979), we watch a tree and a snowfall through a window as a dark, indistinguishable shape in the foreground makes fleeting, indiscernible movements, only to learn at the last moment that they are the gestures of a woman sewing in the penumbral space around her.

In Straight Lines (2009) we gaze at grayish, gently rippling horizontal lines—anything but straight—that seem to belong to a fabric of some kind, as a large vague shadow moves above them. The shifting contours, stirred perhaps by a slight breeze, suggest the gentle strumming of a musical instrument. Then, slowly, into focus comes a view of what could be part of a bed, dressed with a bright white coverlet or sheets.

It’s clear that Grenier is as interested in what is unseen or barely seen as he is about what is directly before us. But this play with presence and absence, or virtual presence and absence, seems less about the importance of offscreen space than it is about enlisting the viewer’s tendency to “complete” the picture that the film offers only obliquely. In White Revolved (1976), we follow a revolving white object without a clear sense of what it is or in which direction it turns. At first glance, it could be anything from a swinging light fixture to an undulating area of flesh.

This fondness for initially withholding the identity of the object of the camera’s gaze and soliciting the viewer’s imaginative play is critical to Grenier’s aesthetic. By filming up close, or through some mediating element, via obscuring shadows or insufficient light, he enforces the viewer’s active engagement, creating a need to puzzle out what he or she sees rather than passively soak it up. The everyday world is thus invested with surprise and suspense as we perceive that ordinary phenomena—objects, spaces, animals, nature, people—carry within them unplumbed mysteries equally inherent to their existence.

Vincent Grenier, Burning Bush, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 9 minutes.

Grenier’s frequent tendency to frame ambiguously, or deflect the material basis or the genesis of a work, is not just an optical game he plays with the viewer—although, surely, he must draw great pleasure from this prospect. The strategy to incite discovery seems ingrained in his character, a natural proclivity to reproduce or literally reenact his way of looking at the world—as if to entice its response. Consider the phrase heard from offscreen in his film Tabula Rasa (1992–2004): As the camera pans over a pale, ghostlike space, a voice exclaims, “Watch this wall respond to me.”

Less cryptic are the transformations in Back View (2011). Shooting from a high angle, the camera is so fixed on the courtyards below between two apartment buildings that one might recall Hitchcock’s Rear Window. While no characters are in sight, a multiethnic, urban sound track colorfully reflects the buildings’ occupants, as the sun, shadows, and rain make their way across the spaces in the course of a day.

Nature studies like Tableaux Vivants (2011) and Watercolor (2013) testify to the meticulous sensitivity of Grenier’s painterly eye. The former is a long take of a deserted forest, its trees faintly fluttering in the breeze, followed by closer views of ferns and other greenery. The aptly titled Watercolor, one of the most stunning examples of digital cinematography I’ve seen, begins with a sustained shot of a body of water (it was filmed at Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca, New York) that fills the frame, as people and objects beyond its upper border cast reflections in the water. Through Grenier’s mastery, standard effects like dissolves, superimpositions, and color control conjure a series of moving watercolors, their brilliantly varied palettes shifting, dissipating, and fusing moment by moment, each rich hue tempered by the play of light and rippling of the water before dissolving into the next.

It may seem that Grenier’s work privileges the world around people rather than people themselves, but there are exceptions. YOU (1990) is a charming and hilarious piece in which a young woman (Lisa Black), posed in a series of unusual settings, addresses someone offscreen (hence the “you”)—the filmmaker? an imaginary person?—recalling his fury over people talking in a movie theater and other behavioral tics with which she’s had to cope. Though pitched as autobiographical, the woman, in fact, is not a former girlfriend of Grenier. Brendan’s Cracker (1999) juxtaposes, ever so gently, the antics of a young boy glaring into the camera’s lens while carrying a tiny cheese cracker, with a loving exchange between an old woman in a wheelchair, unable to speak, and a younger woman who may or may not be related. As the title of Grenier’s This, and This (2006)—a lyrical study of boys by a river—declares, he is not one to unduly press contrasting themes or moods, allowing them to coexist with equal weight, as they do in life.

One of my favorite moments in Grenier’s work occurs in the four-part Armoire (2007–11). A robin flits about a garden, flies up to a fence, then down to the grass—its moves oddly skittish, as if confused by the terrain. A slight pullback of the camera reveals why: What we took for the garden itself was, in fact, its reflection in a mirror. Our initial puzzlement, echoed by the bird’s, is wonderfully captured by the final shot, as the robin, poised by the mirror’s edge, looks up at the glass, then tilts its head at such a perfectly quizzical angle that it seems rehearsed. What better expression of the wonderment with which the filmmaker faces the world and the whimsical but subtle artistry of his celebrations of it.

“Cinemas as Found Object: Films and Videos by Vincent Grenier” runs Sunday, November 9 and Monday, November 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.