The Pleasure of the Text
By Holly Willis
Avant-garde filmmaker David Gatten transforms writing into cinema, one word at a time
I have here a small notebook filled with notes scrawled in blue ink.
a line… speech… words… our existence… it changes everything… please… serif font now… a line of thread… light… glass… plausible answers… the rupture...
The words stack up page after page after page, often indecipherable, one phrase written over another in crooked, slanting lines. I will never know for sure which is a quotation, which a description, observation, recollection, synopsis, or note to self.
It is silent… blue paint… lines… his hand… the audacity! The idea is one of contingency…
However, to quote David Gatten—who is also the cause of this textual muddle—this is as it should be.
The notebook is a collection of traces of the extraordinary experience of viewing the 14 films that comprise “Texts of Light,” a retrospective of Gatten’s work, as well as his recently completed three-hour digital-video project, The Extravagant Shadows (12). Organized and curated by Chris Stults of the Wexner Center for the Arts, the three-part retrospective traveled across the U.S. last year, with Gatten often in attendance, and offered an opportunity to experience a body of work that is fundamentally concerned with words and things, with language and meaning, and with knowing and being. These films are revelatory expeditions to the edges of film as a medium, and they conflate the normally distinct acts of reading and watching; they are works both read by a viewer and viewed by a reader within a dynamic flux of interpretation. But, even more significant, they create the possibility for an ardent, sumptuous experience of being fully present in the dark before the screen that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. It’s no wonder my notes remain odd fragments: I was trying to jot down the ineffable.
The Extravagant Shadows
Gatten grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, earned his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now teaches for half of each year at Duke University in a program devoted to the art of the moving image. The other half of the year he lives in an old mining cabin in Colorado’s Fourmile Canyon (“10 miles from Boulder geographically, but 80 years back in time,” he says), where he makes movies and, with his wife—filmmaker, writer, and editor Erin Espelie—presents screenings for the local community as part of the Four Mile Film Society.
Since 1999, Gatten has been working on a nine-part film cycle based on texts written by William Byrd II, a historical figure in colonial America known for his humor, erudition, writing, and large collection of books, many of which were acquired by Thomas Jefferson and then the Library of Congress, contributing to the core of the United States’s intellectual history as a nation. One of the texts in particular that has inspired Gatten’s work is titled The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, which chronicles a trip made by Byrd in 1728 as he surveyed the boundary between the two states. However, Byrd also wrote another, satirical account of that trip titled The Secret History of the Dividing Line. Together, the two works immediately invite reflections on the nature of words, texts, histories, and boundary lines, the very elements that constitute the dazzling films thus far completed for the series.
In the 20-minute Secret History of the Dividing Line (02), viewers encounter a white line dividing a black screen, and a timeline with dates passing by, some quickly, some slowly; the stripes that split the screen are so striking that they create an afterimage effect, and we begin to see grooves that are not actually present. As the film progresses, we also begin to see the texture of the lines, which expand into rifts and fissures akin to those of a jagged landscape.
The words on screen often pass by too quickly to read or comprehend in full, and in other films we view words as inscriptions, textures, and forms, not as transparent carriers of meaning. In his introduction to the first screening of the retrospective in Los Angeles, Gatten helped assuage some nervousness about this inability to fully grasp everything that appeared on screen. “There will be a lot of words in these films,” he explained, speaking with characteristic precision. “You won’t be able to read all of these words. I expect that this will provoke anxiety. That is as it should be.”
The Great Art of Knowing
This anxiety, Gatten explained later in an interview, is significant: “The enjoyment of reading and the anxiety of not being able to read are the two sides of the coin: you can’t have one without the other.” Gatten said that much of his early work was dedicated to the play of that pleasure and discomfort, but notes that his later films address visual language differently.
“I have moved in a few of the re-cent works to language that is not difficult because it is not available physically; it is that it’s more abstract. The questions become, ‘How does one get from one piece of legible language to the other piece of legible language?’ and ‘How does meaning accrue between those legible things?’ It’s less now about physical, visible legibility and more, I think, conceptual legibility or illegibility.” He added: “I don’t know where that’s going to go.”
Gatten’s work weaves together disparate influences, including the philosophical explorations of systems, linguistic paradoxes, and ontological queries characteristic of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, and Maurice Blanchot. “Cinema can be a process, a tool for the practice of philosophy, as practice for life,” he explained. He also seems to share a fascination with a sense of the everyday, not as in the quotidian so much as in the practice of “dailiness” articulated by Gertrude Stein and central to the Modernist literary tradition, and he speaks of the pleasure of working slowly, “in a considered way,” as he puts it.
Gatten is also connected to several traditions within American avant-garde film history. His fascination with systems links him to filmmakers as diverse as Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, for example, each of whom also crafted large-scale film cycles that promised a conceptual unity, only to systematically undermine it. The precise structures of several of his films have affinities with the work of James Benning and Sharon Lockhart. He also joins a long history of avant-garde filmmakers dedicated to an exploration of the medium itself—Ernie Gehr, for example—and he is deeply attuned to the material act of the filmmaking process.
Gatten recalled one experience when he was working on his first film, Hardwood Process (96): “I was making some cement splices and some tape splices and I saw that in one of my tape splices when I was looking at it frame by frame there was a tremendous amount of dust over the course of three frames, and it made this beautiful little burst of energy. So I started taking lengths of cellophane tape and going around the apartment in Chicago and lifting up dust off of the floor, off of the sofa, wherever it was. I was using tape to gather this stuff and then making contact prints in the darkroom. So I had long passages in Hardwood Process that are produced entirely by dust.”
This unusual strategy was extended when one of the pieces of tape came into contact with a bit of newspaper and black, inky words appeared on the clear cellophane. “That was the eureka moment,” Gatten said. “I spent the next year with tape and the Sunday Tribune making these ink-and-tape emulsions where the tape goes on the paper, I rub it down, I soak it in warm water, and, after an hour or two, the pulp starts to fall away and the glue from the tape soaks up the ink and that is now the negative. I register that on clear film leader, go to the darkroom, and make a print of it.”
He continued: “I didn’t have any ideas. I just had a process. But I enjoyed the process. It was a therapeutic weekly reading ritual with the Sunday paper and I started thinking about print culture and book collecting and this process led me back to Gutenberg’s printing press, and to movable type, and it seemed that the appropriate text to dismantle was Gutenberg’s bible, to go back to that moment when he fixed the word in a particular way and then to unfix it.”
The process produced a film, Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing (99), which is based on Joseph Moxon’s 1703 account of the printing press. “I was thinking about the transition in print culture from scribal reproduction to mechanical reproduction as a way of thinking about what was happening in the late Nineties in terms of the transition in moving-image culture from sprocketed media to digital media,” Gatten explained. “I wanted to look back at this earlier transition, and to work with the material through this process.”
The Great Art of Knowing
Gatten’s experiments with tape led him to use the scraper of his cement splicer not to edit but to make images—the ragged landscapes in Secret History of the Dividing Line, for example, were made by scraping. “The idea of working physically with editing materials—with the tape and cement splicer—to actually produce images, not to edit, was for me a revelation.” Gatten added that this experimentation occurred almost simultaneously with another adventure. “That was when I was also throwing the first batch of film into the ocean and letting the emulsion itself register the world,” he recalled, referring to works in the series titled What the Water Said (98-07), which indeed were made by throwing film stock overboard and letting sand, rocks, waves, and crabs “make” the movie. These experiments were followed by Gatten’s exploration of the potential of an optical printer, which he used not for rephotographing imagery but for registering things like pine pollen and small flowers (as in the imagery for 2010’s Once Upon a Time in the West, part of a series titled Films for Invisible Ink, which also explore word and image).
But how does a man who happily spends his days scraping and taping individual frames of film stock to make quiet short films end up making a three-hour digital feature, one that is punctuated by four pop songs? Gatten answered by recalling his interest in computers as a teenager, but went on to explain that he knew he would eventually work with video because he wanted to work with very long takes, and with very slow fades. Video formats came and went between the project’s start in 1998 and February 2012, when Gatten totally reshot and reconceived the entire project using a Nikon DSLR.
The result, The Extravagant Shadows, is nothing short of stunning. It opens with Merrilee Rush’s hauntingly wistful “Angel of the Morning,” which plays in darkness. The song ends and we see the colorful spines of a line of books: The Count of Monte Cristo, Nicholas Nickleby, The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise… Something seems to wipe across the frame and the image clouds slightly, and then the blurred reflection of Gatten can be glimpsed, on what appears to be glass. A hand with a paintbrush appears, and paints across the surface of the image with light yellow paint. The paint dries slowly, its sheen diminishing and the color slowly fading. The hand and brush reappear, and blue paint covers the surface of the image. The paint dries, the shine dulls, the color dims. Then words begin to fade in as if from beneath the paint, and then fade out. The words are bits of philosophical musing, and later, a dramatic account of love and loss drawn from the works of Henry James.
“I had no intention of making a long movie in 2012,” Gatten admitted, noting that he was far too busy with the retrospective and his teaching. However, the digital workflow allowed for an entirely new kind of process. “I didn’t have the satisfaction of the dark room and the rewinds and the splicer, which to me is this very satisfying physical process that goes alongside the aesthetic thinking and conceptual work of a film,” he said.
“This was sitting at a computer and it was clicking things, and that was not poetic but it was satisfying in its results and in the level of control,” Gatten continued. “I have bad handwriting, and I don’t write in a journal—I write on the computer. So working on a computer on images made me feel like I was in that writing realm, but also the material resistance is so much less in the digital realm. Film can be a royal pain. It can be very beautiful and very satisfying, but it can also be very frustrating. I felt like I was able to go directly into some conceptual realm and that I wasn’t having to fight through the material resistance of celluloid, and that threw the focus of the work onto the actual writing.”
He concluded: “There is a lot of writing in The Extravagant Shadows, and working digitally gave me the space to develop that writing; I hadn’t had the space or the inclination to do this working in celluloid.”
The Extravagant Shadows layers a deep awareness of what’s happening off screen with what we’re seeing on screen, and of what we imagine to be the digital manipulation of the image with the addition of the text. In this way, it represents the concatenation of spaces and times that comprise a digital culture. But rather than inviting the distraction and browsing that often characterize the digital interface, the film provokes a profound experience of presence. We are called forth as subjects, and as beings uniquely able to make connections, understand relations, and produce meaning. We are no longer spectators, witnesses, viewers, readers, or users. We become entirely present: upright, astute, yearning, human.
We become present.
We become as we should be.