PRINT January 2014


Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room

Still from Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room, 2013, 16 mm, color, sound, 19 minutes.

IN THE YEARS since Robert Beavers completed his epic cycle My Hands Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (1967–2002), which encompasses the seventeen films he made in Europe after leaving the United States in the late 1960s, he has realized three new works: Pitcher of Colored Light (2007), The Suppliant (2010), and, now, Listening to the Space in My Room, which made its US debut at the 2013 New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde.” Between 2002 and 2012, Beavers lived on the ground floor of an old house in Zumikon, a quiet Zurich municipality, just underneath his landlords, Cécile and Dieter Staehelin, a retired doctor and a cellist, respectively. Now ninety-four, they’ve been together since their late teens. Before he left, Beavers shot his new film, a lyrical ode to the Staehelins and to life in this long-shared place.

Listening to the Space in My Room binds inside and outside from the start: Birdsong joins the sounds of creaking floorboards, and the opening sequence of Dieter’s morning prepractice preparations—close-ups of fingers awakening and wrists remembering how to command a bow—includes images of a vibrating spiderweb and a single white flower. A shot of Beavers’s window-lined living space follows, along with the sound of his voice, a bracing but spare presence throughout, here speaking the line that lends the film its title. A pan up the darkened projection screen standing inside his living room gives way to a field of deep green spotted with color: Cécile half-obscured by a dense frame of long stalks as she waters her garden. It’s as if Beavers has separated the luminous image from the screen itself, offering a picture of the creative work made possible by this isolated place.

Listening passes freely through the house and the daily rituals performed inside. We see Beavers at his worktable with notes and film reels, recalling the window-side artist’s desk in his early film From the Notebook of . . . (1971/1998). One flight up, Cécile’s feet and broom move lightly across the kitchen floor, and she reads aloud from a German anthroposophic text. Above, in his attic music room, Dieter plays Bach, Vitali, and Brahms; we glimpse sheet music, a piano, and other instruments swaddled in cloth and wool.

But rarely do we know what room we’re in. Instead, Beavers articulates zones of permeability—between floors, between garden and interior, and, by analogy, between subjectivities. His handling of the threshold between two shots allows ongoing crossing. With a twist of the Bolex lens turret, images appear to fly off into blackness; upward pans and loose, insistent tripod shots, perhaps inspired by Dieter’s bowing, facilitate travel—though we may be unaware of it—up and down the house.

The central clarity of Dieter’s music is accompanied by muffled sounds—of footsteps, conversation—extending this meditation on separate and commingled space. And as Beavers honors the solitary, recognizable form (a glazed bowl, a teapot, single blossoms, oversize leaves), his attention to framing and mediating surfaces (the filmmaker at his worktable is reflected in the window; a graphic oval of moving blue sky is a circular mirror we’ve seen previously) suggests an image world born of interdependences. A through line of associative color work propels Listening; close-ups of sharply profiled flowers—asters, cosmos, sunflowers—recur, in dialogue with glimpses of a blue blanket, an orange floor, and shots stained by red and blue filters.

“I was awakened by a dream in which I spoke to myself in German,” Beavers recounts midway through the film. “‘Ich bin eine andere Person geworden’” (I have become a new person). The line reappears in ink on paper and anticipates the presence of Beavers’s partner, the German filmmaker Ute Aurand. A shot of her name rendered in a child’s careful script is followed by Beavers twice asking, “Who are you?”—first over a close-up of Aurand turning her head and then over one of a nasturtium leaf.

Zumikon is four miles from Uster, the site of the Temenos Archive, where Beavers’s films and related materials and those of his longtime partner Gregory J. Markopoulos (1928–1992) are kept; Listening clears new space beyond this famous association. It cannot be insignificant that Beavers’s own voice is heard here for the first time since he eloped to Europe with Markopoulos forty-six years ago. Perhaps the Swiss couple represent an alternative ideal. “Each responds to the other immediately and intuitively as if there were no obstacles of egoism or ignorance,” Beavers reads aloud from A. W. Price’s Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (1990). “Their lives become not the same, but at one.” Cécile and Dieter appear together in only one shot, but the film gathers around the model of their intimacy.

Beavers incorporates several sounds and images from his previous film, The Suppliant—including a shot of the eponymous statue’s upturned hands—indicating that Listening is a token of long-standing gratitude. His first postcycle film returns as well: The shots of Cécile tending her garden echo those of his mother in Pitcher. Both films progress seasonally, and Listening ends in winter, confronting loss and looking beyond it in the final shot: a patch of frost resting on grass, emergent buds just visible. Such gestures of intertextual tethering among his last three films suggest Beavers may be spinning a new cycle.

Rebekah Rutkoff is a writer living in Brooklyn.