PRINT April 2013


David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows

David Gatten, The Extravagant Shadows, 1998–2012, HD video, color, sound, 175 minutes.

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH David Gatten’s new work (which premiered last fall in the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde and will return to Lincoln Center this month), the text of a protracted narrative appears on the screen, in which a woman carries an eagerly purchased book to her room to read in private. Sensing the shadowy but “palpable presence” of the novel’s author (a former lover?) when a page turns without manual assistance or the stir of a breeze, she begins to “search,” turning pages slowly and then with increasing speed. Despite—or perhaps because of—the prolonged rhetorical suspensions and insinuations of the text that we follow, the upshot of the woman’s search is never fully disclosed. Her manner, however, surely mirrors the viewer’s increasing engagement with this mesmerizing meditation on language and the moving image—with its peculiar textural beauty, preoccupation with literature, and provocative glosses on the nature of authorship.

The projection of letters, words, and texts on a screen is idiomatic of Gatten’s films, but it is more lavish and inventive than usual in The Extravagant Shadows, a 175-minute digital work (his first) in which a good number of the texts are written by the artist himself, or are what he calls “condensations” of different works—for instance, several of Henry James’s shorter fictions are, in Gatten’s words, “knitted together” with “connective tissue” and pronoun adjustments; more radically, Wallace Stevens’s long poem “Description Without Place” is compressed to one-sixth its length. Such nonconsensual fusions may trouble some viewers, but creative dividing lines are a theme of Gatten’s work. He describes his series What the Water Said (1997–98/ 2007), which comprises rolls of undeveloped raw stock that were submerged in the Atlantic Ocean for varying durations, as a “collaboration” between himself and the sea. One might interpret both collaboration and condensation as unconscious manifestations of that anxiety of influence purportedly borne by gifted poets and filmmakers in relation to their predecessors. In this work, though, Gatten not only dares to walk in the paths of his precursors; he boldly summons their company, evoking their presences and speaking in their voices. Extravagant shadows, indeed!

The first image to appear on screen is a handsomely displayed shelf of old volumes of literary classics with vividly colored spines. When a reflection of a figure passes by, we surmise that the shelf lies behind the window of a rare-books store. An area of this window is then painted over, creating the “frame” that constitutes the background against which individual panels of text will appear. While the painted plane bubbles up now and then with globs of paint, suggesting perspectival depth—as does the painter’s hand (Gatten’s) on occasion—we experience it essentially as a “canvas” aligned with the screen’s frame. Of course, projecting narratives onto painterly surfaces has unavoidable critical implications, which Gatten may or may not have intended, given that spectators of paintings and films—even, or perhaps especially, avant-garde works—often do precisely that. While Gatten seems to preempt the viewer in this case, interpretations of what he does would no doubt yield other forms of nonconsensual “collaboration.”

As if in defiance of the painted frame’s usurpation of the bookshelf, large chunks of prose begin to “fade in,” as in old movies, pushing insistently through an increasingly dense palimpsest into faint legibility, filling the frame top to bottom, left to right—appropriate to the exhaustive nature of their literary pedigrees—only to recede moments later into the penumbra of equally fading painted backdrops. This shared fate of rich texts and vivid colors is not only the primary structural dynamic of the work but very much its raison d’être. Indeed, while the texts are precious remnants of the past, or pastiches of past literary styles, the colors repeatedly coat the surface before they, too, dry, pale, and leave the stage to be replaced by others. The very gestures of the painter would seem pure folly, but that they speak eloquently to the overall sense of obsolescence that haunts this work and that all art is pitched to escape.

The movie is not so much a nod to nostalgia as an act of love—albeit tough love, in that it demands inordinate attention and tends to induce eye strain. Of course, reading on an illumined screen is by now commonplace, rendering Gatten’s gesture itself extravagant—as if he wanted us to experience the video not as an extension of our everyday negotiations with a wired culture but as something old-fashioned, subject to the laws of film grammar and to film’s impure relationships with the histories of literature and painting. It is less the digital precision that impresses than the inexplicably moving way in which the pulsating organism of this video ritualizes the generation and evaporation of texts and colors as equal partners in a prolonged colloquy. To suggest loss, elusiveness, and ghostly presences in a product of advanced technology is as paradoxical as it is willful.

Faced with such a work, we understandably indulge in trifling, even compulsive, scrutiny: When the brush seems to miss a spot, we are impatient for its return to fill in the frame edge to edge. However disproportionate this investment might be, it is clearly induced by Gatten’s fluctuating appeals to the cerebral and the sensual. There is as much tactile satisfaction in following the brush’s broad, strong vertical strokes, evoking a sense of lushness and plenitude, as there is squinting frustration when a less forceful gesture results in spotty, streaky applications, as if the artist were, like the viewer, fighting off encroaching weariness.

More intense are our anticipations of the “next” color and gauging its success, or not, at saturating the frame to sufficiently conceal the underlying hue. Often, the latter refuses to die quietly, as thin, jagged cracks peek through and require further attacks of the brush. However repetitive this process, we are unprepared for its moments of startling, eye-opening beauty—as with the first introductions of blazing crimson or deep blue, or the juxtaposition of brilliant white and antique gold. Such feasts are rewards for the strenuous labor of deciphering texts as entangled in their shifting backgrounds as hieroglyphs embedded in eroding stone.

Since The Extravagant Shadows is essentially an immersive experience—aesthetically, psychologically, and texturally—any shift in approach risks breaking the spell. Thus, while Gatten’s language games—for example, the breaking-down of syntactical possibilities of commonplace words and phrases—are easily absorbed, the popular songs inserted midway tend to disrupt the mood without offering compensation.

The texts Gatten condenses are clearly important to his art and suggestive of the autobiographical dimension of his work. It is no coincidence that some of them deal with missed opportunities, protracted courtships, and unrealized yearnings. On the card announcing the video’s premiere, the authors cited share the “cast” list with the chosen colors. Thus, “Reflex Blue, Hamilton Blue, Lapis Lazuli” is followed by “Gard, Blanchot, and Lau Yee-cheung.” Without such a guide, one might assume that the row of books displayed in the opening image was a clue to the filmmaker’s sources. It turns out that of the writers whose volumes appear on that shelf, only Henry James is cited in the work itself. The choice is telling not only because James embodies so many qualities associated with consummate authorship and experiments in narrative point of view—subjects relevant to The Extravagant Shadows—but because his shorter fictions, from which Gatten chose his excerpts, are exemplary fusions of invention and autobiographical disguise.

Though many people are impatient with the density of James’s prose, Gatten is obviously attracted to this very feature. Nevertheless, he acknowledges, near the end of The Extravagant Shadows, a poignant paradox concerning an obsession with language—including, no doubt, his own—when he quotes a writer bemoaning that the “essence of the tale” he tried to tell could be related in ten words. “That is what makes it so awful. There are but ten words to say. . . . But how to arrive at those ten words?” It has been theorized that James’s short works tell one long story, that they are efforts in various directions, forever circling without landing on the key revelation. In excerpting and conflating half a dozen James stories, Gatten affirms this view.

Like so many works of art that painfully evoke the inexorable passing of time and existence, The Extravagant Shadows consumes a good deal of both. When the “motionless movement” of its own long story (to paraphrase Gatten’s quote from Maurice Blanchot’s Awaiting Oblivion) comes to an end, the image of the bookshelf returns with all its radiant hues. Just before that, however, there is an affecting envoi, from a graduation speech by James, dissolving like everything before it, except for five short phrases that linger a heartbeat or two: “our speech,” “our writing,” “our words,” “our language,” “our existence.“ One is tempted to add “our moving images” in recognition of the art form that has dominated our culture for more than a century, and that, through the work of artists like Gatten, has, ironically, reasserted the centrality of language. In refusing to subjugate words to images, he extends the means and pathways of cinematic endeavors, which, however ephemeral and tentative, illuminate the endless nights of our lives.

The Extravagant Shadows will screen on April 29 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.

Tony Pipolo is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press, 2010).