PRINT November 2014


Robert Gardner

Robert Gardner, Benares, India, 1984. Photo: Jane Tuckerman.

IN 1987, shortly after the death of Basil Wright, a pioneering figure in British cinema, Robert Gardner wrote a brief tribute praising Wright’s “truly transforming cinematic vision” and dubbing him the “quiet poet of film.” A generation and an ocean apart, these two nonfiction filmmakers had nevertheless shared a deep commitment to recasting documentary practice, ostensibly the most normative form of film, into a vehicle for personal expression. In an elegant turn of phrase, Gardner wrote of his profound gratitude for Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934), which revealed “how moving, moving pictures could be.” Yet at the same time, he could not help wondering whether Wright had ever been properly acknowledged by the British “film establishment,” which—like its American counterpart—was “almost wholly preoccupied with the ‘story’ film, its stars, its budgets, and its gossips.” While he tried to dismiss such concerns (“all beside the point”), one senses the personal stake Gardner had in this aesthetic dilemma.

Gardner was himself at this moment in the middle of the most fertile period in his career. After a hiatus in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, during which he had completed only one substantial film—Deep Hearts (1981), an hour-long documentary on the nomadic Bororo of central Niger—he released Forest of Bliss (1986), a feature-length portrait of the Indian city of Benares (now Varanasi) that eschewed contextualizing intertitles, voice-over narration, or even subtitles for the Hindi speech periodically heard on the sound track. By the time of Wright’s death, Forest of Bliss had become the subject of heated debate within the anthropological-film community, which, according to ethnographic filmmaker and scholar David MacDougall, had responded with “a kind of corporate outrage” to Gardner’s unapologetic aestheticization of his purportedly anthropological subject (“the City of Death”); to their minds, it served only to reinforce misconceptions about Hindu society. By then, Gardner was no stranger to controversy. His first feature film, Dead Birds (1964), a meditation on ritual warfare among the Dani of West Papua, also had been attacked for its alleged privileging of art over ethnography. Here, however, the complaint had been that the film explained too much—with voice-overs that revealed the tribesmen’s inner thoughts and with editing more befitting a fiction film than the documentation of anthropological fieldwork. Undaunted, Gardner continued to work and in 1988 completed Ika Hands, an intimate portrait of a people, once thought to be descended from the Maya, whose “constant industry” of handiwork and whose ritualized gesture were vividly captured in resonant close-ups that far exceeded the needs of mere documentation.

Though Gardner will no doubt forever be associated with this singular form of ethnographic film—what he called “chasing the chimera of isolated people”—he was as often as not focusing on the subject of art. His productions took him to some extraordinarily remote parts of the planet (the highlands of New Guinea, the scrublands of southwestern Ethiopia, the Sierra Nevadas in northeastern Colombia), yet roughly a third of his films were made within the more familiar environs of artists’ studios, museums, galleries, and installation sites. If part of his practice seems to have addressed a personal need to deploy the anthropological gaze in the service of discovering aspects of his own humanity, the time he spent in the company of artists (Joan Miró, Christian Boltanski, Sean Scully), poets (Octavio Paz), and architects (Josep Lluís Sert) may well have provided aesthetic models that informed his vision of the moving-image medium. Like the great French film critic André Bazin, Gardner seemed continually to be asking, “What is cinema?” and reporting back with each subsequent production.

No account of Gardner’s life and times can neglect the family into which he was born or the community in which he resided. His great-aunt Isabella Stewart Gardner, who died in 1924, a year before his birth, amassed in her lifetime an extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and textiles that she displayed for the citizens of Boston in a lavish Venetian palazzo built adjacent to an Olmsted-designed park on the Fenway. The family’s prominence in the community may have been a key factor in the young Gardner’s decision to head in precisely the opposite direction—out west—after graduating from Harvard. Initially settling in Los Angeles in an attempt to find work as a “semi-aspiring or aspiring semi-actor,” he soon moved up to Seattle, where he shifted to the other side of the camera and started making films. He secured a teaching appointment at the College of Puget Sound, began graduate work in anthropology at the University of Washington, and hung out with the artist and avant-garde filmmaker Sidney Peterson, with whom he planned to make a feature film about the golden era of the Kwakiutl. In the end, he completed just three short works, two focusing on a small, impoverished community of Kwakiutl living in British Columbia (Blunden Harbour and Dances of the Kwakiutl [both 1951]) and the third, from 1952, an experimental portrait of the American painter Mark Tobey, who was then residing in Seattle. Already visible was a template for the bifurcated subjects of inquiry—artisans and artists, remnants of old cultures and harbingers of the new—he would pursue throughout his practice.

Moving back east in the fall of 1952 to complete his graduate studies in anthropology at Harvard, Gardner immersed himself within a robust community of social scientists, writers, and artists, often finding himself in the company of poets, including Donald Hall, Stanley Kunitz, and his cousin Robert Lowell. In 1957, shortly after completing his degree work, he founded the Film Study Center at Harvard, not merely as a program for the study of film but, more important, as a catalyst for the use of the medium as a tool for studying the world. This pioneering program would become the base of operations for his work over the next four decades (he stepped down as director in 1997), as well as a resource for his students and colleagues at Harvard and, most certainly, a factor in the emergence of the Boston area as a burgeoning center for nonfiction filmmaking: from the influential program headed by the cinema-verité filmmaker Richard Leacock at MIT and the feature-length (and longer) projects of the law professor turned documentarian Frederick Wiseman to the iconoclastic documentaries of Errol Morris.

As much as he strove to capture the extraordinarily diverse forms of life on the planet, Gardner also left a moving-image legacy that includes a surprising number of meditations on mortality. In some ways he shared Bazin’s view that cinema is at heart a form of mummification; for Gardner, all actuality imagery, as he put it, “will surely end in death.” This, of course, would come to include the demise of the film medium itself. Visceral images of death and dying emerged in his films: protracted scenes of an elderly !Kung woman, abandoned by her village, somehow evading her inevitable fate; images of the corpse of a Dani warrior seated in a crudely made “funeral chair” during a mourning ritual. The magnum opus in this arena, however, was Forest of Bliss, Gardner’s immersive portrait of the quotidian aspects of the funeral rites that seem to dominate every sector of the city of Benares and the adjacent countryside: the harvesting and transport of marigolds, the laborious shipment and selling of the heavy wooden branches burned on funerary pyres, the construction of ladderlike bamboo litters used to bear the dead in processions down to the Ganges, and the myriad temples and shrines in which prayers and rituals are performed from morning to night. Whereas most “city symphonies” celebrate life, Gardner’s was the first to fix its gaze so resolutely on death.

Death, of course, was part of the lives he was drawn to, and he saw in the particularities of the cultures he attempted to capture recurring features amid the seeming differences. The Dani people of New Guinea, the subjects of Dead Birds, lived a nearly Stone Age existence, and yet he found in this remote group of indigenous people common ground: “They dressed their lives with plumage, but faced as certain death as the rest of us drabber souls.” With this work came the early realization that he was no longer engaged in the practice of social science, nor was he committed to making ethical judgments or to earnestly using the medium as a means to “improve the human lot.” He was a filmmaker. Inspired as much by the examples of the Italian Neorealists (especially De Sica and Rossellini) as he was by the emerging American avant-garde (Deren and Brakhage), Gardner determined that his camera would serve not as a tool of “passive observation but as an active agent” in a practice that, in the end, was art, not science.

Herein lies a dilemma that Gardner set up for himself: how to embrace a form of nonfiction filmmaking while questioning all of its inherent premises. This confrontation speaks as much about “Gardner’s doubt” (to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Cézanne) as it does about the field and the unresolved questions Gardner raised about his mentor Basil Wright. In a world awash with “stars,” budgets,” and “gossips,” how can we assess the achievements of Robert Gardner, and how do we reconcile a career that, from its very start, was conceived in defiance of the standard modes of cinema—fiction, nonfiction, and experimental alike? The indifference of narrative cinema (the “movies”), the “corporate outrage” that poured forth from the gatekeepers of nonfiction, and the episodic embrace by the disparate realm of the film avant-garde are inadequate to the task of defining his art or establishing his place within the history of cinema. He was perhaps most in accord with the cinematic outliers (he cited Jean Vigo and Hiroshi Teshigahara) and with the community that he built for himself of painters and poets, architects and sculptors, artists and writers. Gardner was an expansive personage, a man of deep convictions, and a moving-image artist at work in an era with scant comprehension of his uncommon ambitions. As the camera arts continue to gain greater acceptance in the halls of culture, however, Gardner’s films may yet find their proper home in a darkened gallery, adjacent to an artwork such as Wright’s Song of Ceylon.

Bruce Jenkins is a professor of film, video, new media, and animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.