PRINT February 2005


Ernie Gehr

BEST KNOWN FOR his single-minded, dynamic minimalism, Ernie Gehr has also been the American avant-garde filmmaker most devoted to exploring the “intensification of nervous stimulation” that pioneer sociologist Georg Simmel identified with urban life. Gehr’s oeuvre is a tale of three cities: San Francisco (his home for the last fifteen years), Berlin (which his parents fled before his birth in 1943), and New York (where he emerged as a leading structural filmmaker in the late ’60s). It is the latter that Gehr chose to revisit on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s reopening last November, premiering as new works four fragments from an unfinished city symphony, shot and abandoned in the early ’70s.

Made mainly in Manhattan public spaces using (with one exception) black-and-white film stock, these silent, polished shards—doubly excavated for having been transferred from 16 mm to digital video—are pure photographic recording. There is (with one exception) no mediation of the image; the films express the elemental, late-nineteenth-century fascination with “motion pictures.” Indeed, Gehr titled his twelve-minute consideration of the subway Workers Leaving the Factory after the well-known Lumière brothers actualité. The technology is almost as archaic. Gehr used a series of unprepossessing Kodak M 16 mm cameras—near-pocket-size rectangles, produced in the early ’30s and purchasable, forty years later, in Bowery pawnshops for fifteen dollars or less. Most of the time he simply aimed the camera at his subjects; when possible, he placed it on a flat surface and stood nearby.

Essex Street Market—at twenty-nine minutes the longest of the four pieces—is a wintry study of shopping on the Lower East Side: The market itself is a bazaar fading into nonexistence. Elderly women pick their way through small piles of produce, torsos pass back and forth in front of Gehr’s stationary camera like fluttering ghosts. The liveliest presences are the outsized carp scooped up and hacked open before our eyes. The fluorescent light renders the atmosphere theatrical; outside, a snowstorm softens the tenement streets, where dry goods hung from the awnings are limned against the sky.

Gehr’s urban image expedition has a family resemblance to Peter Hutton’s neo-actualités (some of which, like New York Portrait [1978–91], were made in the same neighborhood). But here the filmmaker, who made no effort to conceal his ancient camera, is more of a presence—however inexplicable or crazy he may have seemed to his fellow citizens. Essex Street Market, Workers Leaving the Factory, and the summery, twenty-one-minute Noon Time Activities were shot a few years before Chantal Akerman made her wonderful (and shockingly neglected) News from Home (1977). But where the Belgian visitor boldly framed her exploration of Manhattan in terms of the local structuralism, the archstructuralist Gehr is blatantly impressionistic and casually raw, using end flares and abrupt camera moves as punctuation.

As kinetic as it is contemplative, Noon Time Activities, shot mainly in the streets and at lunch counters around Wall Street and Penn Station, considers the metropolis with a percussive velocity that occasionally approaches that of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera—albeit using nothing more complex than storefront reflections and the rush of pedestrian shadows rendered additionally abstract through high-contrast film. Like photographer Rudy Burckhardt, whose early New York films—The Pursuit of Happiness (1940) and The Climate of New York (1948)—exemplify the “onrushing impressions” for which Simmel held responsible the dense stimuli of metropolitan life, Gehr tends to focus on the material basis of the street. Much of Noon Time Activities is a flat arena of concrete and asphalt, curbs and intersections, populated by quickly moving legs and feet and their crisscrossing shadows. Holding his camera as though it were an attaché case, two feet above the pavement, Gehr passes through the multitude—one more walker in the city. (Burckhardt, too, eschewed the hidden camera.)

Simmel attributed the privileging of vision to the invention of mass transportation: “Before buses, railroads, and trams became fully established during the nineteenth century, people were never put in a position of having to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without exchanging a word.” Yet Gehr’s descent into New York’s rush-hour underworld of extravagantly graffitied trains and grim (silent) clanking is largely shot from the same point of view he employed in the market and on the street. Again, the filmmaker is less voyeur than eccentric participant in some collective journey to the end of the line. The camera peers up from the subway floor as the train subjects Gehr and his fellow straphangers to its own rhythmic rocking.

This lost New York breaks its black-and-white spell with a five-minute Kodachrome coda playfully called Greene Street. Shooting through a loft window, Gehr uses an extremely shallow depth of field to focus on the window screen’s shimmering grid. After a few minutes, he resolves the great ruddy beyond as a brick building coursed by time-lapse shadows. The effect is pure magic hour; the sensory explosion of reddish golden light brings to mind both the opening (“About half-past five one afternoon at the end of June when the sun was shining warm and bright into the large courtyard”) and, even more forcefully, the title of Guy de Maupassant’s story “Useless Beauty.”

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.