TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2009

IN COMMON HOURS: THE FILMS OF ANDREW NOREN

SOMETIME IN THE 1970S, I attended a screening—I think it was at the Whitney Museum in New York—that included Andrew Noren’s Wind Variations (1968), an eighteen-minute silent meditation on the light play created by curtains gently blowing in the breeze coming through a Manhattan apartment window. I was struck, on the one hand, by the loveliness of the film and, on the other, by its ambivalent reception. When one viewer voiced his displeasure with how “boring” the film was, another told the complainer to shut up. The small audience’s continuing volatility provided a stark counterpoint to the visual experience. At that time, slow, meditative films were unusual. In more recent years, James Benning, Nathaniel Dorsky, Peter Hutton, Leighton Pierce, and others have not only expanded on the idea of a contemplative cinema (Dorsky has called it “devotional cinema”) but have begun to attract audiences willing to sit patiently and enjoy the measured pace of their films. In the mid-’70s, however, The Wind Variations represented a challenge to the expectations of even sophisticated cineasts—and a premonition of the work Noren would go on to make over the course of the next forty years. Becoming something of a high-tech Henry David Thoreau, who “travelled a good deal in Concord,” Noren, in an ever-expanding catalogue of films, has transformed explorations of his various apartments and homes and his short commutes between suburban New Jersey and New York City into a remarkable diary of light and shadow.

By the time of The Wind Variations, Noren was already a significant and recognized contributor to New York’s burgeoning underground film culture. Unfortunately, most of his early work was destroyed in a fire in 1970—including A Change of Heart (1964), an improvised fictional narrative about love gone wrong; a series of single-take, ten-minute films of friends and artist-colleagues (in one instance, George and Mike Kuchar and a puppy) bathing; and The New York Miseries (1966), Lumière-inspired, single-shot, hundred-foot rolls of 16-mm film in which Noren documented “absolutely every aspect of my life.”1 Only Say Nothing (1965), a thirty-minute, single-shot interrogation of an actress/character that hovers between documentary and fiction, remains from that early period. Noren’s reputation for documenting his personal life, and his implicit engagement in Say Nothing with the issues raised by the then-new documentary approach known as cinema verité, made him the primary model for the eponymous protagonist of Jim McBride’s canonical faux documentary David Holzman’s Diary (1967)—though the evidence suggests that Noren’s personal life was a good bit more interesting than Holzman’s.

In 1968, Noren finished Huge Pupils, a gorgeous, sensuous, sexually outrageous visual study of his daily life, and part I of an ongoing series he would come to call The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse. Now long out of circulation (one can only speculate that Noren later had second thoughts about the sexual openness of the film), Huge Pupils was the prototype for the eight largely feature-length Adventures that followed, the latest of which, the digitally produced Aberration of Starlight, was completed last year. It is this body of mature work that is the subject of “Andrew Noren: What the Light Was Like,” a retrospective opening on October 19 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Noren has worked at The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse with remarkable persistence for four decades. The second installment, False Pretenses, was finished in 1974, The Phantom Enthusiast in 1975; Charmed Particles (1979) was followed eight years later by The Lighted Field (1987), then Imaginary Light (1995), Time Being (2001), Free to Go (2003), and Aberration of Starlight (2008). The irregular completion of the Adventures, at least through the 1990s, probably had a good bit to do with Noren’s need to make a living. After all, many of our most accomplished independent filmmakers must, like poets, find ways of supporting themselves and their work. In 1972, Noren was hired as a newsreel and stock film archival researcher and licensing agent at Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries in New York, one of the world’s largest newsreel archives. During his twenty-six years at the firm, he rose to become director of archives, and when the company went out of business in 1998, he founded the Research Source, a visual research and copyright clearance company. Over the years, Noren has somehow maintained the balance he established in the ’70s between the demands of his job and those of his art.

While there is little direct evidence of the filmmaker’s workaday life in the Adventures, his continual encounters with raw news footage have not only created a context for his films but have probably sustained his commitment to making them. Some years ago Noren told me that at Sherman Grinberg the stock in trade was “war, murder, death, destruction, grief and weeping, disaster and degradation, greed, starvation, intense suffering, horrible human activities, crazed apes mad with blood lust! In short, news. Have you ever wondered why the news you get from TV and newspapers is all bad? Have I got news for you: there is no good news, none. The news is bad.”2 Noren’s film art is an answer to the news: His reverential engagement with the movement of light and shadow in the most mundane circumstances—precisely, that is, in what is not news—offers an alternative, an antidote even, to the terror of the larger world that the news can create, a way of being in the world, loving the world, without being overwhelmed by its catastrophes. Discovering and recording imagery seems always to have been an ecstasy for Noren, and his work has always been meant to offer viewers the possibility of ecstatic visual experience. For Noren, as for Stan Brakhage, filmmaking is a quest for illumination, for a way of seeing the Light, as well as the light, and of sharing this illumination with audiences.

Long before Noren embarked on the lifelong adventure of The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, the endless modulations of light in the everyday world had been a fascination. During his New Mexico childhood, he “came to realize . . . that light is alive and intelligent . . . the living thought of the sun, you might say. There’s a very real sense, a very literal, un-mystical sense in which this world and everything in it is made of the sun and by it. We are part of it. So my interest in light is quite natural. . . . It’s been one of the great passions of my life.”3 By 1968, light had become for Noren the essential cinematic subject. In his hands the camera is like a musical instrument for playing chiaroscuro, and during the past four decades he has become a virtuoso.

The works being screened at MoMA—chronologically, the program begins with Charmed Particles and ends with Aberration of Starlight—reveal both a range of consistencies and several major transitions. Constant throughout the series up through Time Being is a working method that has privileged the process of recording imagery over editing. Noren’s general approach in Charmed Particles, The Lighted Field, and Imaginary Light is quite consistent. As he moves through the familiar visual world that surrounds him, he usually shoots one frame at a time, re-creating this world by reanimating it. The particular rhythms of his single-frame shooting make it obvious that Noren never takes the easy way out. While a movie camera can be programmed to record individual frames one at a time at regular intervals and can create impressive effects in this manner—Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992) demonstrate some of the possibilities, as well as the popular appeal, of time-lapse shooting—Noren’s stop-action sequences are never simply demonstrations of what the camera can do; they are always records of Noren’s performance with the camera on the stage created by the continually transforming landscapes and cityscapes of his daily experience. Noren’s Adventures are not entirely made up of his particular handcrafted version of stop-motion shooting, though this has become the most notable tendency in his work. Each Adventure is made up of a series of relatively distinct sequences that are accomplished sometimes by stop-motion single framing, sometimes by in-camera editing of brief shots, sometimes by pauses in the action when a single shot is maintained for several seconds. There is modulation within each Adventure, though this modulation is nearly always con brio.

In Charmed Particles and The Lighted Field we are presented with relatively free-form arrays of distinct, intuitively arranged sequences: The series title’s reference to the Surrealist parlor game “Le Cadavre exquis” is fitting. In both films this array of sequences is framed by imagery that metaphorically references Noren’s enterprise in constructing the films. Charmed Particles is bracketed by a close-up of Noren’s eye examining a filmstrip and a shot of Noren and his shadow ascending a staircase to the doorway of his workroom. The Lighted Field opens with a rare, sustained reference to Noren’s labors as a film archival researcher: Diverse found-footage images—early X-ray shots, images of a hanging, a dog on the phone, a laser beam cutting through metal, a man being put into a block of ice—are juxtaposed in a surreal montage. Near the end of The Lighted Field, we see the man being removed from the block of ice. It is as if Noren sees the process of editing as a kind of entombment, as banishment from the Eden of shooting.

Imaginary Light has a more obvious structure than Charmed Particles and The Lighted Field. It involves three kinds of imagery, divided clearly into two central sections, bracketed by a passage of single-framed imagery of Noren (we see only his shadow) walking along a road through a woods. The first of the two central sections of the film begins with time-lapse imagery of shadows moving across Noren’s yard in Monmouth County, New Jersey, then switches to images recorded inside the house; the second half of the film is made up entirely of reflections in a creek. Imaginary Light is accompanied by a sound track—Noren’s first since 1967. The chiming of an old clock gradually slows and the intervals between the striking of the hours grow longer until, at the center of the film (just as the imagery shot inside the house ends and the imagery of light on water begins), the sound is reversed and the intervals now shorten. At just under thirty-five minutes, Imaginary Light is the shortest and most accessible of Noren’s recent Adventures.

At the beginning of Time Being, we hear footsteps coming closer and closer (there have been no visuals yet), then a knock on a door and the sound of a door opening, followed by the sound of wind (a reference to solar wind, I assume) and a blast of light and color. This opening passage introduces a spectacular color sequence of shadows flowing across Noren’s yard and home; then we are inside the house, where the camera tracks the movement of light across floors and furniture and cats. This spectacular opening represents a multileveled transition in The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse: not merely the return of color for the first time in nearly three decades but a switch to digital filmmaking, which has resulted in a transformation in Noren’s process and in the kinds of images his films present. Many independent moving-image makers have struggled with the issue of whether to continue filming on celluloid or to switch to a digital camera; Noren no doubt struggled with this too, but in the end he embraced digital imagemaking (as has Leighton Pierce, whose work over the past twenty years bears comparison to Noren’s).

The structure of Time Being—indeed, the structure of all three of Noren’s digital features (the other two are Free to Go and Aberration of Starlight)—is basically the same as the structures of the celluloid films: Once under way, the film presents an array of sequences during each of which a particular set of visual options is explored. Time Being looks both backward and forward: backward in an opening color sequence of shadows flowing across the yard and light flowing across furniture and floors, which evokes the opening passages in Imaginary Light; forward in its continual revelations of the new color palettes and ways of shaping light available to the digital camera. The pace of some sections of Time Being is a good bit slower than had become typical of Noren’s work, suggesting that he was so fascinated with the new camera that he wanted to take in its possibilities gradually. Also, more fully than any other Noren film, Time Being uses sound in conjunction with image in an aural design that adds a range of appropriate moods to the experience (including some humor, as when we gradually realize that the sound accompanying shots of Noren’s cats is, in fact, modulated purring). The sixty-three minutes of Time Being throw down a digital gauntlet, demonstrating that Noren’s technological transition is no cinematic compromise; as an exploration of what William C. Wees has called “light moving in time,” Time Being stands with Brakhage’s Text of Light (1974) as a masterwork.

In the two Adventures that followed Time Being, Noren continued to investigate the visual options of digital; and while both Free to Go and Aberration of Starlight attest to his remarkable work ethic, both features also retreat from the engaging sensuality and intimacy that have infused so much of Noren’s work. Indeed, if one charts his sensibility from Huge Pupils through Aberration of Starlight, one can hardly fail to notice an evolution from an early abandonment to the ecstasies of sensual pleasure toward an increasing asceticism. Some years ago, Noren described the metanarrative of his ongoing series this way:

The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse is a reworking of what has to be the world’s oldest story, “the fool’s progress,” how the fool became wise. . . . [T]he young fool leaves home to set off down the road of the world, hoping to find the great treasure that is hidden behind the veil of the world’s illusions, behind the screen of the movie of the world, as it were. After many dangers and hardships, and by the exercise of strength and cunning, the fool tears away the veil and discovers that what is behind it is “nothing.” This is valuable knowledge: it is the treasure, the “Pearl of Great Price,” and in recognizing this, the fool becomes wise, a wise fool, and can see the world for what it is. That is the larger framework of The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse: the individual parts function as lesser wheels that move within the larger wheel of the whole.4

On one level, the visual world Noren creates in Free to Go and Aberration of Starlight exploits the tendency toward graphic flatness that seems intrinsic to digital imagemaking; in these motion pictures, the movie screen does seem a veil, an illusion. However, while this particular development may visually confirm Noren’s commitment to the Fool’s Progress, his excitement about the possibilities of digital imagemaking, at least to the extent that it is expressed in the increased length of the digital Adventures, has also made this viewer’s experience of the work (at ninety-one minutes, Aberration of Starlight is the longest Adventure) less a challenge he’s excited to live up to than too much of a good thing.

Free to Go does include remarkable sequences—remarkable not only in what they reveal about the possibilities of digital filmmaking but also as sensual rewards. After a long, complex opening passage of multilayered black-and-white imagery of Noren’s travels into and out of Manhattan, a journey fundamental to the rhythms of his life and his filmmaking, the switch to color comes as a surprise, and the gold/yellow/white palette of the first part of this color sequence is stunning. The spiritual dimension of Noren’s work is dramatically reaffirmed in Free to Go in two startling moments: Midway through the film and again near the conclusion, images of people moving through Manhattan are twisted into abstractions that for me evoke yin-yang symbols.

Digital technology allows for the transformation of imagery at various stages of production, and this has changed Noren’s working process: “In the older work everything was definitely done in camera at the time of the shooting. . . . This was a point of pride for me then. . . . These days I’m delighted to use any digital tool available, and there are many, because it frees my imagination in a way that working in film never could. I think of the various digital editing systems as a great ‘visual piano,’ one that offers a vast and inexhaustible range of visual possibilities. . . . I have no interest in cheap digital tricks. What I want is mindful kinesis, and that is difficult to do.”5 The very title of Free to Go suggests that Noren is turning a corner, refocusing his energies in order to fully come to grips with the new technological options.

Aberration of Starlight (the title borrows an astronomical term for the distortion of a star’s position caused by the rotation of the earth) expands on some of the investigations pursued in Free to Go: Early in the film, Noren again works with black-and-white imagery of his commute to and from New York City, but he exploits the 3-D capacity of his camera in a manner new to his work. Aberration of Starlight is at its most impressive and dramatic in several sudden shifts to novel color palettes. One sequence well into Aberration includes a series of gorgeous not-so-still lifes of his living room that reference a range of Noren’s personal and artistic interests: We see several books, for instance—Joseph Campbell’s Way of the Animal Powers (seen within a lovely passage featuring Noren’s black cats) and Alexander Roob’s Alchemy and Mysticism, as well as an image of late musicologist and mystical animator Harry Smith, a figure long admired by Noren.

Throughout the Adventures, as viewers engage the continual subtle transformations of a particular scene or hurtle through space and time with Noren, they may glimpse a variety of allusions to, or at least evocations of, other films and of filmmakers who are Noren’s predecessors and colleagues within the avant-garde tradition of singing the beauty of moment-to-moment incarnations of the visible world. Noren’s fascination with the reflections of light on water recalls Ralph Steiner’s H2O (1929); in The Lighted Field, his imaging of a woman’s nude torso within a pattern of shadows recalls the images of Kiki de Montparnasse in Man Ray’s still photography and in his Le Retour à la raison (Return to Reason, 1923); and Noren’s depictions of New York City streets often seem in visual conversation with Brakhage’s The Wonder Ring (1955) and with Still (1971), by his longtime friend and colleague Ernie Gehr, whose early Morning (1967) seems a tiny premonition of Noren’s Adventures. It’s as if Noren means to celebrate the pioneering work of his colleagues by building on what they have done. His films are also consistently evocative of and allusive to other arts, especially painting, photography, and poetry. Indeed, Noren’s fascination with the manifestation of light in the world, and his sense of light as a kind of spiritual intelligence, points (intentionally or not) to another suburban New Jersey artist—the nineteenth-century landscape painter and mystic George Inness.

As fully as any of our most accomplished independent filmmakers, Noren has struggled with the issue of how to distribute his films. The wear and tear on 16-mm prints and the switch to digital exhibition in many venues has increasingly rendered good 16-mm projection a rarity. On the other hand, the ease with which digital materials can be duplicated has troubled many of those who have made the switch from celluloid, as has the widely varying quality of digital projection. During the past few years Noren has responded to this situation by keeping his 16-mm films largely out of circulation and by severely restricting the circulation of DVDs of his recent work. The upcoming MoMA retrospective, then, provides a very rare chance to see, and see well, a substantial body of cinema by one of the world’s most accomplished visual artists.

A visiting professor of film history at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, Scott MacDonald is the author, most recently, of Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration, Essays/Interviews (University of California Press, 2009).

NOTES

1. From an interview with the filmmaker, in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 180.

2. Ibid., 199.

3. Ibid., 177.

4. Ibid., 201.

5. Andrew Noren, letter to the author, June 29, 2009.