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PRINT October 2016

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Peter Hutton

Peter Hutton, New York Portrait, Part II, 1980–81, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 15 minutes. © Estate of Peter Hutton.

PETER HUTTON, who died on June 25 at the age of seventy-one, made motion pictures that are above all extended exercises in the rapture of looking. He specialized in long takes—of landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes—in which the motion is subtle, fleeting, gradual, capillary. His movies, always shot on film and completely silent, invite sustained contemplation as well as spacing out, daydreaming. They lure the viewer into the frame, where the images can be absorbed by the body while the mind goes on a little vacation. They are “austerely romantic,” as J. Hoberman wrote in his New York Times obituary on the filmmaker. They are full of hard-earned knowledge of the world—the natural as well as the human—and yet they always seek to return to first principles, to vision unmediated by spectacle, to rhythms primarily informed by weather and the earth’s rotation.

Peter was one of my best friends at Bard College, where he started teaching in 1984, and we overlapped across seventeen years. He was a regular guy, toothpick forever in a corner of his mouth. (We shared a lengthy struggle with nicotine, which is what eventually killed him.) Peter didn’t talk like an academic, possessed a constant buoyant sense of humor, and loved to hang out. He was a proud issue of Detroit, which is virtually the first thing I knew about him, and he maintained a midwestern openness and a factory-town lack of bullshit to the end. He loved all the visual arts, but film was of supreme importance in his daily life. Dinner at his house was invariably followed by a screening—always an actual projection—either of something he was working on or of some cinematic classic from the college’s collection, of which he was the most frequent and enthusiastic patron.

He was the complex product of his complex formation. His father, Don, was a New Yorker who brought bohemian inclinations with him to the Motor City, among other things starting a film club, where he showed a lot of Jacques Tati. He also encouraged Peter to do as he had done and join the merchant marine as part of his education. Peter shipped out for over a decade, going all over the world, logging multiple passages through South and Southeast Asia. He moved to Honolulu (and eventually to San Francisco) to be closer to the freight traffic, and while studying in Hawaii came under the influence of Asian art teachers who inculcated in him a meditative visual discipline. He was as influenced by painting and sculpture as he was by film—he practiced sculpture in particular, as well as performance. He came to film in that heady mid-1960s period when it briefly seemed as though underground and experimental movies would come to play a major part in mass culture. In New York City in the ’70s he engaged in guerrilla screening, projecting films from his window or other places onto outside walls.

The three parts of his New York Portrait (1976–90) are latter-day city symphonies, with dazzling modernist sequences (the ballet of a group of men pitching pennies, shot from directly above, comes to mind). Budapest Portrait (Memories of a City) (1984–86) and Lodz Symphony (1991–93) are melancholic journeys through dark, ruined metropolises on either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Study of a River (1994–96) involves long takes shot from the prow of an icebreaker on the Hudson as floes drift this way and that against the black water, forming a kind of animated abstraction. (Once, in the ’90s, he projected the film directly onto the surface of the river in summer from the terrace of a waterfront bar in Kingston, New York.) Skagafjorður (2002–2004) contemplates Icelandic landscapes—bucolic and pastoral or Nordic and majestic—for blissful eternities in which nothing moves but the occasional bird or blade of grass. At Sea (2004–2007) shows three stages in the life of a freighter, from high-tech construction in South Korea to transoceanic passage (a city of varicolored containers crowding the foredeck of a vessel so big it looks like a landmass) to demolition, on a beach in Bangladesh, by skinny workers wielding hand tools, like ants taking apart a watermelon. And that list represents less than half his oeuvre.

Peter’s stubborn insistence on silence and celluloid, his disciplined ability to throw away the clock and look hard, his championing of visual beauty sometimes in aggressively unbeautiful circumstances—these were the things that made him a throwback and a prophet, a crank and a romantic, a great teacher and eternally a student of the world.

Luc Sante is the author, most recently, of The Other Paris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Read P. Adams Sitney’s essay on the films of Peter Hutton (May 2008).