PRINT May 2008


Peter Hutton, At Sea, 2004–2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 60 minutes.

FOR NEARLY FOUR DECADES Peter Hutton has been taking the measure of the cinematic image to delimit its powers of fascination and absorption. Over those years he transformed a diaristic mode of the filmic lyric into one in which subtle fluctuations in the visible field—of light, or figures and objects in motion, or slight camera movements—configure the ecstatic concentration of the filmmaker’s attention. He marshals silence and the immanent rhythms of nearly still scenes, or slow vehicular movements, to evoke the pleasures of isolation, even of loneliness. If that sounds paradoxical, it is consistent with the oxymoron or catachresis in the title he gave his third film: Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973–74). Within individual shots music, or vibratory energy, becomes soundlessly pictorial: A centripetal force repeatedly concentrates the intensity of scrutiny in prolonged, suspended moments that nearly efface the subjectivity of the observer only to have it resurface in the paratactic assembly of apparently isolated shots. The persona of the filmmaker looming within Hutton’s work seems to go looking for loneliness, all over the world, in fact, as if convinced that beauty reveals itself most poignantly within the modalities of alienation. This would put him at the opposite pole of Jonas Mekas, the great film diarist who can never shake off the painful fissions of isolation despite the hectic whirl of social and familial life he records. In opposition to Hutton, he continually goes questing with his camera for what he calls “the ecstasy of old and new friends.”

Yet, despite this difference, both Hutton and Mekas are exemplars of the Emersonian spirit of the American avant-garde cinema. Emerson’s declaration in Nature (1836) of the simple “mechanical” means of manifesting the fundamental dualism of self and the world offers a master scenario for many of the most important films of their tradition:

The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women,—talking, running, bartering, fighting,—the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quite familiar, in the rapid movement of the rail-road car! Nay, the most wonted objects, (make a very slight change in the point of vision,) please us most. In a camera obscura, the butcher’s cart, and the figure of one of our own family amuse us. So a portrait of a well-known face gratifies us. Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years!¹

The cinematic dynamics of Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, and many other of Mekas’s and Hutton’s peers follow the guidelines set down in this passage.

The full span of Peter Hutton’s cinema, from 1971 until 2007, will be represented in a retrospective series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning May 5. Hutton shot some films before 1971, recording in 8 mm the performances he created as a graduate student in San Francisco, and he even completed a ten-minute-long film, In Marin County (1970), which I have never seen (and which will not be shown in the retrospective). With the exclusion of these apprentice efforts, his cinematic career begins spectacularly with July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971). In fact, I can think of no school-trained avant-garde filmmaker who made so auspicious a start. (Of Hutton’s significant American contemporaries, only Saul Levine, Phil Solomon, Warren Sonbert, and Leslie Thornton studied filmmaking in school, but they were slower to attract critical attention. In the generation of filmmakers before Hutton, a college degree was a rarity. Kenneth Anger, Robert Beavers, and Ken Jacobs avoided higher education altogether. Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, Hollis Frampton, Larry Jordan, Gregory Markopoulos, and Mekas dropped out of university.)

The speed with which Hutton moved from school to prominence as a filmmaker is deceptive. He had the advantage of being a few years older than most of his fellow students in the film program at the San Francisco Art Institute (where he was awarded his MFA in 1971), but, more important, he was older because he had gone to sea first. Like Moby-Dick’s Ishmael, who said, “A whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” Hutton attributes his aesthetic formation to his years in the merchant marine (intermittently between 1964 and 1974). This apprenticeship, in turn, fulfilled older fantasies, enkindled when, as a child, the future filmmaker pored over the photo album his father, himself a former sailor, had assembled from his voyages to Shanghai, Calcutta, and Angkor Wat.²

July ’71 spectacularly offers the gamut of vehicular motion: The first trope for the filmmaker in motion is the shadow image of his bicycle as he pedals and films. By the time the thirty-five-minute work ends with shots of the California hills from a glider, Hutton has filmed from a car and a boat as well. At one point, a man, symbolically extending the filmmaker’s movements, negotiates the hills lying flat on a scooter, and in a self-portrait filmed from a static tripod, Hutton presents himself as a frizzy-haired youth, significantly doing a somersault. The mobile and inverted perspective gives the filmmaker’s world Emerson’s “pictorial air,” as it inscribes the filmmaker’s subjectivity in the traces of what he had seen. This starting point is Hutton’s most social film. He made it when he lived in a commune, recording the meals, ablutions, and games of his companions.

Mekas himself and Annette Michelson were on the jury of the short-lived Yale Film Festival, which gave Hutton’s film its initial accolade in 1972. The Whitney Museum of American Art programmed the film that same year, attracting the filmmaker to New York, where Red Grooms immediately hired him as the in-house filmmaker of his Ruckus studio and gave him the basement apartment beneath it. There Hutton made his next film, New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972)—Saskia is the daughter of Grooms and Mimi Gross—in which he recoiled from the visual dynamics of his earlier success in the cinematic-diary mode. Whereas July ’71 had represented the selfhood of the artist catapulted into the world and caught up in its movements and intersubjective exchanges, New York Near Sleep stilled the camera and minimized human figures to a few posed, static shots. Hutton told the journal Satori, “I went from this wonderful expressive life in California to a dark, dank, grimy, rat-infested cellar in New York. It was like solitary confinement. But in that confinement I started really focusing on much more subtle notions of what the image was or what film was. . . . I started paying more attention to how light moves through spaces and just reducing film down to these very minimal kinds of concerns. . . . There was also that Eastern idea that regardless of where you are, there’s a world there in front of you and you have to just find it in those shadows and in that darkness.³

Red Grooms, in clown regalia, initiates the film in its second shot, and Hutton himself, sitting in a chair on a raft, nearly ends it. A telling allusion is made to the “Eastern idea” behind the film—a sense of “Buddhist” self-depletion—by the insertion of a few seconds from the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s Toyko Story (1953), filmed off a screen. The rest is cityscape and landscape, intercut with luminist interiors and objects awaiting human use: falling snow seen from a window, a steaming bathtub, a bottle of milk on a table, a breeze blowing through a volleyball net. Repeatedly the images suggest that the beauty and melancholy of isolated moments cannot be sustained. Before Hutton, Bruce Baillie had been the acknowledged master of a cinema in which objects and landscapes release their inherent energy when the static or slowly moving camera attempts to hold it. Perhaps in relocating from San Francisco, where Baillie’s influence had been a dominant force, Hutton had weakened his resistance to that model. In New York he seems to have absorbed the lessons of the colorist Baillie, transposing his mystical attention to objects and places into rich black-and-white tonalities.

“Near sleep” describes the film’s mood, insofar as the waning of the filmmaker-subject coincides with an oneiric aura emanating from the catalogue of evanescent epiphanies in the film lyric. Here Hutton begins to isolate nearly all his shots by fading in and out, a repudiation of the impact of montage that he will pursue for most of his career. The consequent parataxis focuses the rhythmic elaboration on the movement (or stillness) within individual shots, intimating the narrative of an itinerant observer repeatedly arrested by vistas, configurations of light and shadow, things ready to hand, and actions in a discontinuous sequence.

As the filmmaker’s alter ego, the clown mocks Hutton’s earlier effort to assert his artistic persona, putting him in his place behind the camera, where compositional elegance and the beauty of light are to be his compensations for loneliness, in this and almost all the films to follow. Near Sleep’s concluding three shots eloquently chart the filmmaker’s withdrawal. In the first he sits in a chair on a raft with his bare back to the camera. Then we see the empty chair. Finally, from a more distant perspective, we watch the landscape from the apparently empty raft, which slowly drifts, tethered, on the pond.

Before accepting the style of this film as his permanent mode, Hutton attempted a synthesis of it and July ’71. In Images of Asian Music, he returned to the diary form and to his life at sea. Living in Bangkok in 1973 and 1974 with stints as a merchant seaman, he recorded moments of his daily life at sea and on land. The film opens on an Indonesian freighter, alternating images of the moving ship from the perspective of the solitary filmmaker with sequences of his engagement with the crew, including a cockfight they stage. At the end of a revealing interview with critic Scott MacDonald in 1995, Hutton spoke of the influence on his art of his work as a sailor:

One of the great revelations of traveling by sea is how slow it is compared to airplane or even train travel. You can actually go backwards in time on a ship, you can sail into a storm and make no headway. . . . One of the exhilarating and terrifying aspects of traveling by sea is the vulnerability you feel and the fact that you’re not isolated from nature, but are rather in the heart of nature itself. . . . I was up on the bow of the ship late at night, probably around three in the morning. It was completely dark: the sky was clouded up so there were no stars or moon to illuminate anything. All of a sudden I felt the temperature change. . . . It was like going into an inkwell, and I had this revelation that there were all these declensions of darkness that I hadn’t been aware of. Pretty soon it started to rain and the seas kicked up rather dramatically and the mate on the bridge shined a light down and told me to come up. As I was turning around, a big wave dipped over the bow. It could have washed me over. I scurried up to the bridge and continued to observe the storm from up there. . . . Being on the ship forced me to slow down, and allowed me to take time to look.

Moments wrested from the press of time and images of threatening or superabundant nature occur in the film, but their integration into the evenly paced flow of sensual discoveries divests them of dramatic emphasis: Waves breaking over the bow of a ship carry no more or less weight than a coffee mug resting by the vessel’s side rail on a calm day at sea. Hutton doesn’t appear in Images of Asian Music, but the camera indicates his presence interacting with the crew and gazing at the sea. The subjective movement culminates in a rickshaw ride through the streets of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Subsequently, the camera stills itself in rapturous contemplation of the Southeast Asian landscape of temples, rivers, and jungles, or of the light falling on the meager furnishings of his hotel room.

When he returned to America, Hutton took a series of teaching positions and fellowships that determined his creative geography for at least twenty years. While at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, he made Florence (1975), an invocation of the nearby town in which he lived when not in Manhattan, where he was completing New York Portrait, Part I (1976–77), the first of what he initially thought would be a ten-part series. Teaching at Harvard, he finished Boston Fire (1978) and New York Portrait, Part II (1980–81). As the guest of Hungary’s Béla Balázs Studio, he translated his unique urban vision into Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984–86). When Hutton accepted a permanent position at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, he fixed his attention on the Hudson Valley, making Landscape (for Manon) (1986–87), In Titan’s Goblet (1991), and Study of a River (1994–96). During those years he also brought to a close his ambitious series with New York Portrait, Part III, 1990, and, accepting another invitation to film in eastern Europe, he made Lodz Symphony (1991–93).

With his masterful three-part New York Portrait, Hutton achieved maturity as a filmmaker. In these urban meditations, he cultivates a nostalgia for loneliness and a melancholic poetry immanent, but repressed, in his earlier work. Abandoning the alternating rhythms of engagement with others and contemplative isolation that oscillate through July ’71 and Images of Asian Music, he gradually moves from the observation of atmospheric conditions, the flight patterns of birds, and glimpses of isolated figures in the nearly empty city of Part I, to snow blowing on the beach at Coney Island, sleeping tramps, flooded streets, and the slow passage of the Goodyear blimp through the skyline of Part II, while Part III abstracts and distills the imagery of the earlier sections and culminates in a sequence showing a man wounded or dead on the street.

Those shots of the man on the sidewalk, with a small crowd gathering to watch the paramedics attending to him and finally carrying him on a stretcher to an ambulance, like many in the series, were photographed from high above, so that the film’s final image of a lone, hooded man on the edge of a roof stands in for the unseen filmmaker. Hutton’s vision of New York resonates with the overwhelming melancholy evoked in the comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer of his friend Ben Katchor. Hutton’s camera sucks in the atmosphere of a place he observes, to make palpable the lonesomeness he craves. I suspect his experience as a twin, which can deprive a child of the pleasures of isolation, may have contributed to the filmmaker’s aesthetic, his persistent quest, in film after film, to transform quiet and loneliness into pictorial beauty. In his two films of Eastern European cities, Budapest Portrait and Lodz Symphony, he discovers even deeper pockets of sadness than he found in New York.

By the time he made the city portraits, Hutton had ceased to be a cinematic diarist, for there is very little of his daily life in his mature work. Seeing the films one wouldn’t know he was married twice and raised a daughter, although her name appears in the titular dedication of his exquisite Landscape (for Manon), the first of his explorations of the landscapes of the Hudson River valley that would dominate his career for two decades. The shift of subject and mood, from the lyrics of urban isolation to the ambivalent contemplation of light as it strikes the sylvan environment and the industrial development of the river, reflects his settled life as a permanent member of the Bard College faculty. He successfully transferred the wonder he had conveyed in shooting the forests and cities of Southeast Asia to the trees, bridges, factories, and cliffs of New York State while adapting the dynamics of filming at sea to the gentler rhythms of the barges and tugboats that carried him up and down the river; for he used his considerable personal charm and his experience at sea to strike up acquaintance with river pilots and bridge keepers and thereby gain extraordinary access to vantage points for filming.

With the title In Titan’s Goblet, he pays homage to Thomas Cole, the master of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School, whose eponymous 1833 painting depicts a monumental drinking cup, so large it holds a lake with sailing vessels on it, resting on a cliff. Hutton intimates that we dwell within the goblet, attempting to ascertain the world through smoke, mist, and clouds. He began filming it during a raging fire of automobile tires in Catskill, New York, drawing exquisite beauty from an ecological threat, as he had done in Boston Fire. While rejecting the painter’s mythopoeic vision, Hutton utilizes Cole’s dramatic sense of scale—a recurring feature of the filmmaker’s Hudson River meditations.

Landscape opens with a shot of a train running parallel to the river, filmed from so great a distance that the train seems almost a toy. Study of a River continually plays with our sense of scale: Hutton films raindrops hitting a mud puddle so that they become squiggles of light in a microcosm, and juxtaposes those shots with images of massive constructions filmed from a high bridge spanning the river. Even though he unconsciously repeated a startling trope from Stan Brakhage’s Creation (1979) when he inserted an upside-down shot of ice floes, he does not invest his film with any of the mythic aura Brakhage gave his trip amid Alaskan icebergs by systematically alluding to the stages of creation in Genesis. Instead, Hutton stresses the autonomy of each shot as a concrete locus of natural power and precarious human intervention. He is as often enthralled by the massive engineering of a ship or a bridge as he is by the energies latent in water, rock, and vegetation. The intensity of his absorption makes the individual shot a self-contained monad recalling, as critic Tom Gunning first pointed out, the initial films the Lumière brothers made at the end of the nineteenth century.⁵

The proverb from which he drew the title phrase Time and Tide (2000–2001) asserts universal mortality and the inexorable demands of nature. Appropriately, then, it is his statement on his fate as a filmmaker. Opening with a primitive fast-motion film of Hudson River travel from 1903, Time and Tide marks the filmmaker’s “inevitable” transition from black-and-white to color cinematography. Recourse to citing films made in the first decade of cinema had been a topos of the American avant-garde cinema since Ken Jacobs initiated it with his masterpiece Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). Following suit, Hutton acknowledges his resignation to the history of his medium, bracketing a brief return to his rich black-and-white river imagery between the quotation of the now scratched and faded Billy Bitzer film and the lush color that will characterize his future films. Hutton finesses the transition spectacularly by giving us a series of images of ice breaking from the point of view of a moving boat. Then he follows the series by showing a seemingly vertical white expanse of the frozen river into which a rust-colored barge moves, retrospectively cueing that the ice had been filmed “in color” all along. After the barge cuts through the frozen surface and passes out of the screen, the white plane recongeals. The next shot, of the azure and gray deck of a boat shot through a rain-spotted window, confirms that we will see the whole film in color, as it moves between Bayonne, New Jersey, and Albany, from the vantage point of a tugboat. By shooting through portholes in the tug, or on overcast days when the river has a gray hue, Hutton locates zones of white, black, and gray within the colored matrix in several shots, before he fully embraces the rich hues of the riverscape and its boats.

Color plays a central role in Two Rivers (2001–2002), initially an installation piece combining footage shot on the Hudson and the Yangtze rivers, commissioned by Minetta Brook’s Watershed Project. Hutton capitalized on a technical mistake: When he discovered that the Chinese footage he thought he had shot on black-and-white negative film stock was actually made on black-and-white reversal, he decided to go ahead and process it as negative anyway, and then had it printed on color stock, resulting in a sepia-toned print that evoked much of the traditional landscape painting on silk he had been looking at in Shanghai museums at the time. Consequently, the saturated, predominantly blue tones of the material shot on the Hudson in the first part of the film contrast sharply with the thinner sepia of the Yangtze images, thus preserving the polarity of the initial two-screen installation.

Skagafjörður (2002–2004) and At Sea (2004–2007), Hutton’s most recent work, bear a similar relation to Time and Tide that the two Eastern European city films do to the New York Portraits. For Skagafjörður, Hutton accepted an invitation from the Icelandic Film Centre (and further funding from the Whitney Museum) to film the coast of northern Iceland. In At Sea, he shot the construction of an immense cargo ship in Korea and the dissembling of similar boats on the shores of Bangladesh. He composed the Icelandic film of some thirty-six static shots, of sumptuous beauty, with barely a vestige of human presence. Bands of mist or clouds, and the line of the calm sea from which islands protrude like submerged cubes of rock, create strong horizontals throughout the film. The frequent crepuscular hours of filming often push the color cinematography toward the filmmaker’s earlier achievements in black and white. Still, the nuances of the observer’s frame of mind so subtly rendered in many of Hutton’s earlier films evade Skagafjörður and Two Rivers. In these films Hutton has been examining how the grounding of the cinematic image in color reconditions the moods in which the landscape and its objects can be apprehended.

Thus, At Sea represents a departure from his previous work in several ways. Hutton no longer separates the shots with fades, but cuts directly, as if to accentuate the awesome labors of construction and destruction depicted in the film. He even uses for the first time the slightest zoom movements to stress the birth of the Brobdingnagian vessel or the dangerous work of its dismembering. People abound here, dwarfed by the massive construction. In the first half of the film, they are absorbed into the color-coded mechanisms of cranes and scaffolding, and at the end they appear as threatened figures, struggling with ropes, almost as scavengers, amid the peeling and rusty ruins of the sea monsters, until in the final black-and-white images they command a human scale when they peer with curiosity into the camera lens.

A complete retrospective of Peter Hutton’s films, organized by Joshua Siegel, will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from May 5 through May 26.

P. Adams Sitney teaches at Princeton University and is the author, most recently, of Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008).


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836), in Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 33–34.

2. From a telephone conversation with Peter Hutton, January 2, 2008.

3. Interview with Peter Hutton in Satori, vol. 2, no. 1 (Spring 1989), 14.

4. Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 252.

5. Tom Gunning, “The Image and Its Eclipse: The Films of Peter Hutton,” Spiral, no. 4 (July 1985), 7–10.