TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 2012

film

Jerome Hiler’s Words of Mercury

Jerome Hiler, Words of Mercury, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 25 minutes.

Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Varying in subjects as the eye doth roll
To every varied object in his glance . . .
—William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

JEROME HILER belongs to that rare company of significant if almost invisible filmmakers of the American avant-garde cinema who have hidden their light under a bushel: For decades, Joseph Cornell was reluctant to show his films; Gregory J. Markopoulos withdrew his work from circulation for the last three decades of his life; Wallace Berman would not exhibit his sublime Aleph, which became available only after his death; Dean Stockwell still does not permit screenings of the films he has made. The very few people who have managed to see any of the handful of works Hiler has filmed over the past forty-eight years have praised his cinema highly—most of all Nathaniel Dorsky, who has been Hiler’s partner all those years. Filmmakers David Brooks and Warren Sonbert not only admired his work but evidently learned much from it. Critics Wheeler Dixon (also a filmmaker) and Scott MacDonald have briefly discussed him in their books.* Finally, in 1997, Hiler let the New York Film Festival show the camera original of his then recently finished ten-minute short Gladly Given, and last year he screened a new work, again at the New York Film Festival. That film, Words of Mercury, which he completed just in time for the festival, will be included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which opens this month, and a program of his and Dorsky’s recent works will be presented at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on March 15.

Hiler, a New York–born autodidact, at various times worked for a music copyist, assisted the society photographer Frederick Eberstadt (who commissioned his 2001 film Target Rock), and projected films at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque—all when he was living in New York and on Lake Owassa in New Jersey; in Hollywood, he and Dorsky worked on the exploitation film Revenge of the Cheerleaders (a cult classic from 1976); and ever since, he has lived in San Francisco, working as a carpenter, a caretaker of a convent, and a stained-glass maker; he recently directed, with Owsley Brown III, the documentary Music Makes a City (2010).

The latter project reflects Hiler’s obsessive passion for obscure domains of music—in this case, the impressive international roster of composers commissioned to write works for the Louisville Orchestra in the 1950s. Even as a teenager, he boasted an encyclopedic knowledge of medieval and Renaissance music; later, he devoted years to the study of French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarly, he is a scholar of stained glass, and he has lectured widely on it as the “cinema before 1300.”

The structural principle of Words of Mercury reflects that of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Notre Dame composers Léonin and Pérotin, who alternated Latin verses sung in complex polyphony with verses in plainchant. Their polyphony highlighted the melodic purity of the plainchant, while the monophonic lines made the multiple voices sound all the richer. In a similar way, especially in the opening half of this twenty-five-minute film, Hiler interlards lengthy superimpositions with one or two shorter shots in a rhythm of alternating polyoptic and monoptic phrases. The superimpositions almost always employ camera movement, and the monoptic shots are typically static. The effect parallels that of Notre Dame polyphony: Following the elaborate superimpositions, the still shots acquire a stressed intensity, giving a distilled concentration to the unobscured movement of reeds in the wind, the flight of birds, or the frolicking of dogs in the ocean. That, in turn, sensitizes the eye to the intricacy and wonder of the next set of superimpositions. The turning point of the film is a monoptic panning movement around a bronze-colored statue of Neptune, incongruously abandoned just outside the fence of a truck lot.

The weathered head of this forsaken god separates the images of winter from those of spring. Since the film was shot primarily in the Bay Area, the seasonal distinctions are subtle. Although there is one monoptic shot of snow in the mountains in the first part of the film, the patterns of hue and tonal value play primary roles in distinguishing the film’s two parts. In the spring poem, the interludes of monopsis nearly disappear. Hiler told the New York Film Festival audience that he sometimes forgot what he had filmed on the underlayer of superimposition, or even that he had already laid down a track of shots, so that the developed rolls of film were a revelation to him. The contrapuntal rhythm of the finished film transfers and sustains the excitement of the filmmaker’s discovery of the in-camera polyopsis, as the long, superimposed compositions slowly unfold. The monoptic shots, too, are carefully timed, with handmade fades that poignantly recur just before the polyoptic sequences have exhausted their charges.

In a note he wrote to accompany the film, Hiler remarked, “I generally shoot first and ask questions later, but I’m struck at the influences that I see in Words of Mercury because they reach back to the very first times that I saw great 16mm films in the early Sixties: Marie Menken, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brakhage, and my lifetime companion Nathaniel Dorsky.” Hiler’s confession of influences is accurate. Menken pioneered the handheld somatic camera, concentrating on and transforming everyday urban life. By running the camera at a slow speed and sweeping over streetlights and neon signs, she created “night-writing” in her Notebook (ca. 1942­–70). The opening superimposition of Words of Mercury similarly layers a dance of jittering lights over a crepuscular landscape, as if the pencil-thin white and colored lines of light were swarming midair before a barely discernible background of trees, as night falls. When the layer of night-writing vanishes, the trees remain as soft-focused patches of light floating through the foreground, suggestive of the camerawork of Stan Brakhage and his brilliant adaptation of Menken’s cinematic rhetoric in Anticipation of the Night (1958). In fact, the very play of the superimposition owes a debt to Brakhage, who used two layers, constructed largely by chance operations, in his Prelude: Dog Star Man (1962). But unlike Brakhage, Hiler composed his superimpositions in the camera, spontaneously. In this respect, he was preceded by Markopoulos, who made both Lysis and Charmides in the camera in 1948 and refined the technique in 1966, with rhythmically staccato superimpositions, for Ming Green and the portraits of Galaxie. In-camera superimposition provides a more vivid palette than multitrack printing, and perhaps the most obvious debt Hiler owes to Markopoulos is his color sense.

Viewers familiar with Dorsky’s films who see Hiler’s work for the first time might conclude that his greatest influence has been Dorsky’s mature cinema. For instance, the first monoptic shot—ten static seconds of a field of overgrown weeds before a bramble of brush—sustains the poetic charge of the previous three-minute-long polyopsis in the manner of Dorsky’s stanzaic “open form.” Yet one might, with equal justification, claim that Hiler has been the primary influence on Dorsky. For many years, their filmmaking practice consisted largely of showing unedited footage to each other and to a small circle of friends. Dorsky withdrew from public exhibition in 1965. When he resurfaced, in 1980, the open-form lyric mode he had developed brought him a degree of recognition he had not known with his earlier films; this was especially true after 1998, when he began to issue one or two new works each year. What Dorsky calls “open form” and “polyvalent editing” characterize Hiler’s films as well, and evidently were as much his invention. In “Tone Poems: The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky,” an essay published in these pages in November 2007, I described this mode as “organizing the shots and rhythms of a film so that associations will ‘resonate’ ([Dorsky’s] word) several shots later.” The structural or generic similarities between Words of Mercury and Dorsky’s films bring into focus their fundamental differences. The rhythmic tension between polyoptic and monoptic images is unique to Hiler. He is also the more sophisticated colorist. At the New York Film Festival’s screening of Words of Mercury and Dorsky’s The Return (2011), I was seated beside the German filmmaker Klaus Wyborny, who had never seen films by either man. Deeply impressed, he offered me his first impression with an apt analogy: “If Hiler is Monet, Dorsky is Sisley.” Unlike Dorsky, who has a keen eye for human gesture, Hiler nearly eliminates people from his film. The distant figures of two men walking their dogs on a beach, in the winter half of Words, minimally inscribe human presences almost to underline their absence from the rest of the film. The result is an undertone of gorgeous melancholy in which the power of cinema to wring sheer beauty from loneliness becomes a compensation for the mortal, solipsistic consciousness of the isolato behind the camera.

Shortly before editing Words of Mercury, Hiler saw Love’s Labour’s Lost three times. At the end of Shakespeare’s most word-intoxicated comedy, “as the cast is frolicking around,” or so Hiler puts it in his note to the film, “a messenger comes in to announce a death, which brings a sudden shift to the very end of the play. One of the most comical characters, now newly sober, ends the play with a quick dismissal of the audience: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way—we this way.’” In short, the words of Mercury bear the message of death. By extension, in the images of Hiler’s silent film, the visual-rhythmic “songs of Apollo” are tinged with the “words of Mercury.” These images, as if delivered by the gods’ messenger, Mercury-Hermes, are at once mercurial and hermetic. Their connotative penumbra is the most elusive and daunting aspect of the film for a critic daring to write about it. At the risk of putting too much weight on the title (and on the filmmaker’s note), one is tempted to read the conclusion of Love’s Labour’s Lost as a clue to the delicate moods of the film. In the play, the “songs of Apollo” are the two performed just before the end, “Hiems” (Winter) and “Ver” (Spring), which neatly correspond, though in reverse order, to the two seasons of the film. For Shakespeare’s frustrated, aristocratic lovers whose labors are lost because of the message of a death, the cuckoo in the song of spring heralds the specter of cuckoldry in that season’s erotic frenzy, while the owl of winter wisely oversees the “merry” consolations of the humblest aspects of domestic life. Hiler’s film proffers the wisdom, in turn, of a visually luscious acquiescence to time and to nature’s mortal and erotic betrayals.

Jerome Hiler and P. Adams Sitney will conduct a dialogue at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on March 18 in conjunction with the filmmaker’s participation in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

P. Adams Sitney, the author of Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Film­makers and The Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008), is currently writing a book on cinema and poetry. He teaches at the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University.

*Wheeler W. Dixon, The Exploding Eye: A Re-visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).