PRINT September 2007


Robert Beavers

ROBERT BEAVERS’S Pitcher of Colored Light, one of three films to premiere in “Second Lives,” the massive exposition of fifty film programs organized by Alexander Horwath for Documenta 12, makes its debut in Kassel this month. Countering the tendency to exhibit films on monitors in gallery spaces, Horwath insisted on projecting the films instead at the city’s Gloria Kino. In a written statement on the series, he concludes that film at Documenta 12 is “not an object to be taken home or sauntered along, but a spatially and temporally defined act of contemplation and exchange with the world.” His position is consistent with Beavers’s lifelong effort to show his work under the best feasible conditions. (For this reason, Beavers has not yet allowed any of his films to be released on VHS or DVD.) In taking this stance, Horwath carries on the polemical argument of the filmmaker Peter Kubelka, cofounder of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, which Horwath now directs.

When Beavers finished his previous film, The Hedge Theater (1986–90/2002)—also showing at Documenta—he had for more than twenty years been organizing virtually all his work into three groupings under the rubric “My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure.” The completion of The Hedge Theater in turn marked the consummation of the overall cycle, which was subsequently shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 2005 and at Tate Modern in London earlier this year. Pitcher of Colored Light, then, represents a significant pivot in the filmmaker’s career. Not only is it the first film he has shot in America since Spiracle in 1966 (and he also previously filmed a Flemish triptych in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—footage that would appear in The Painting [1972/1999]), he made Pitcher without the rhythmic imposition of framing masks (a stylistic innovation of his early films) or sudden panning movements and twistings of the lens turret (typical of his middle period). Instead, he used quick fade-outs and slight shifts of focus to a greater degree than ever before. Reflections and shadows play prominent roles. Throughout, Beavers’s meticulous montage continuously evidences the confidence of forty years of innovation and mastery with a deceptively simplified evocation of his mother, living alone in her small shingle house on Cape Cod.

The playful title refers to an amber and dark brown image of a water pitcher projected on a wooden panel, meshed with the trembling shadows of leaves, but it might just as well serve as a definition of a film made in Beavers’s mode. Turning to his ear as well to his native New England, he plays on the vernacular confusion of pitcher and picture. The seventeen films of “My Hand Outstretched . . .” are all pitchers/pictures of colored light, calibrating the timbre and mood of Brussels, Venice, Berlin, Florence, and numerous landscapes in Greece by capturing the nuances of luminosity that Beavers’s camera can discriminate within them. Yet his mother with her cat and dog, tending her garden, ironing, hanging wash, attempting to write and read with failing sight, in her small house in spring and snow-covered winter decidedly represents his humblest subject. There is even a confessional aspect to this work, as if after having lavished his attention for decades on details of Old World elegance and tradition in films that resonate with allusions to Valéry, Ruskin, Freud, Cavafy, and Borromini (among many others), he wanted to reveal the colored light of the place where his sensibilities were formed and which he left behind as a teenager to embark on his remarkable, autodidactic career as a filmmaker.

A melancholy undersong marks the film as a preemptive elegy for his mother. Just before we see her face for the first time, as she dozes on a couch, we hear her humming a hymn, which, she tells her son, she has chosen for her funeral. Having devoted much of the past fifteen years to remaking the sound of almost all of “My Hand Outstretched . . . ,” Beavers has so refined his mastery of composing a sound track that he is able to eschew heavy-handed emphasis, instead giving the interlaced bird sounds, wind, radio music, and his mother’s mumblings, prayers, and short addresses to him the quality of ambient noise, which on closer scrutiny opens into a symbolic commentary on the images. From the snatches of his mother’s speech and the exquisitely timed and poignant shots of a rather naive portrait of himself as a young boy, he evokes the tenderness and the psychic distances of their relationship. With comparable subtlety the montage intimates metaphors, linking the mother gardening in a bluish housecoat to a brilliant blue flower, or her dozing to her cat, her white curls to her dog’s fur. The cumulative effect conjoins her to the environment at the very moment when age and failing vision threaten her ability to remain on her own, although the film never articulates that threat explicitly. Rather, the very first shot of her standing by the kitchen window, filmed from behind her shadowy figure, nearly invites the viewer to look at the outside garden through her thick glasses, as we hear her asking Robert to identify the bird she can barely discern. “I can see the wings fluttering. Is it the size of a robin?” she asks. The rhythmic emphasis on shadows, alterations of focus, and reflections inscribes her optical degeneration in the texture of the film.

Typically Beavers invests isolated objects with iconic significance. An empty wooden bench in the garden emblematizes loneliness. Images of a red shoe and a blue pig, both made of glass, on the window sill, and of a porcelain rooster demonstrate the filmmaker’s ability to sublimate kitsch keepsakes into fragile vessels of cinematic beauty. This, in fact, may be the primary achievement of the film as an autobiographical investigation of the sources of the filmmaker’s fascination with simple objects and colored light. The close-up of a thimble links Pitcher of Colored Light to The Hedge Theater and other films in the third and last grouping of “My Hand Outstretched . . . ,” where sewing recurs as an analogy to filmmaking. In Pitcher, furthermore, two preadolescent boys occasionally glimpsed playing in the yard stand in for the filmmaker himself, who ceaselessly gauges his ties to this place and to the woman who fills it, while at the same time marking his distance.

Beavers has provided the following note to his twenty-three-and-a-half-minute-long film:

I have filmed my mother’s house and her garden. The shadows play an essential part in the mixture of loneliness and peace that exists here. The seasons move from the garden into the house, projecting rich diagonals in the early morning or late afternoon. Each shadow is a subtle balance of stillness and movement; it shows the vital instability of space. Its special quality opens a passage to the subjective; a voice within the film speaks to memory. The walls are screens through which I pass to the inhabited privacy. We experience a place through the perspective of where we come from and hear another’s voice through our own acoustic. The sense of place is never separate from the moment.

In Pitcher of Colored Light, Beavers has radically simplified the sense of place which had reached its apogee of complexity in The Hedge Theater. That earlier film complements Salzburg’s Heckentheater as an emblem of cinema’s perspectival depth and representation of the natural world with lovingly recorded details from two Roman churches built by Borromini, and pairs a tailor’s hand sewing a buttonhole on a white shirt with Il Sassetta’s panel painting of Saint Martin of Tours ripping his cloak to clothe a beggar. An initial parallelism of Borromini’s San Carlino and a woodland roccolo for trapping fowl suggests that the church might be a cage to catch the Holy Ghost or the Holy Ghost’s snare for human souls. Eventually the polarities of the editing alternate between Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and the Salzburg hedge theater covered with snow. At that point Beavers intercuts a shot of himself with a man’s arm over his shoulder and brief glimpses of Gregory Markopoulos’s face, turning the winter vision into a muted elegy for his lover. Then a transition from Markopoulos’s gesture of affection to the second part of the film is marked by a sound of fabric ripping as the camera pans up and down Sassetta’s poorly preserved panel. The film ends with an inundation of rain, which we can hear before we see it. The Sassetta imagery tropes the moment death tore Markopoulos’s companionship from the filmmaker, without annulling the allusion to the extraordinary generosity of his mentor, who shared everything with him, from the beginning of their relationship. Alive as well as in his death, Markopoulos passed his “mantle” to Beavers. The rainfall at the conclusion of the film suggests a hyperbolic metaphor for the tears of mourning and a symbol of cyclic renewal.

Although the film’s title simply translates Heckentheater, it harbors a revealing pun; for Beavers’s works hedge their theatricality with elegant aesthetic decorum. In his lapidary montage, the space of the theater suffices as a trap for the play of light and allusion.

Robert Beavers’s Pitcher of Colored Light was made with a grant from the Georg and Bertha Schwyzer-Winiker Foundation, Zurich. It will be screened together with The Hedge Theater at the Gloria Kino in Kassel, in conjunction with Documenta 12, on Sept. 14 and 17.

P. Adams Sitney is Professor of Visual Arts at Princeton University.