New York

Steve Doughton

Maybe film is finally in a position to fulfill its destiny of becoming art. With the advent of video and digital media, amateurs have a cheaper, more readily accessible technology at their disposal; the same is increasingly true of professionals as well. As a result, the medium is moving further and further away from its origin in popular culture. How shocked the Bressons and Tarkovskys, the purists of yesteryear, would be to see their dream realized in such a fashion. Now only the most dedicated hobbyist or the most obsessed artist will ever handle celluloid—balky, fragile stuff that it is.

Steve Doughton is one of these holdouts. Based on Circuit, 1999, his new film composed of ten short 16 mm color segments (transferred from Super-8), it might seem that Doughton is trying to camouflage whether he is amateur or auteur. But even if you haven’t seen his earlier, more stylized efforts, it shouldn’t take long to tell. These fragmentary travelogues may affect the jittery, aimless, undisciplined quality of home movies, but only someone steeped in cinema could have made them.

What they share with footage of Uncle Ernie’s vacation scenes is how little they reveal about their ostensible subjects (places in Ireland and Israel, spots in North America ranging from Montauk to Doughton’s native Oregon). Where they differ is in their intentionally being about something else: the beauty of film, of the material quality of the image itself. Exaggerated paleness or saturation of color points toward a painterly autonomy. The blue sea in the Montauk segment, like Antonioni’s red desert, looks as if it has been dyed as an expression of the artist’s will—though presumably the effect was found in the interaction of equipment and setting. At the same time, qualities of depicted things continuously reflect on those of the film image as such. Water and air evoke film’s transparency and (illusory) fluidity, stone and earth its graininess. Trees render the moving camera’s subliminal flickering. Even the now-rare sound of the buzzing projector becomes not an extraneous annoyance but an inherent music, although it also takes on something of the image’s representational quality when, in one sequence, it seems to “translate” the noise of a helicopter on-screen.

Who hasn’t thought of filming the view from a moving car? Reason enough for most filmmakers to avoid the device like the plague, but Doughton makes such shots one of Circuit’s central features. They become a device for analyzing layers of movement within the frame. The camera is fixed as steadily as possible (not very) on a far-off object (the setting sun, a mountain) that appears motionless, while objects in the foreground zip by almost unrecognizably and those in the middle ground pass at a, well, middling speed. There’s a metaphysics hidden in this, or a critique of one: Didn’t the ancients posit that Being is one and unchanging, appearances many and transitory, because of the way distant objects seem still from a moving vantage point? These films of next-to-nothing turn the ephemeral into something precious and poignant.

Barry Schwabsky