One man filming alone in a corridor for eleven hours overnight, editing in camera, taking--so he says, and why not believe him--only a five minute rest? This is what Ernie Gehr did with Serene Velocity, which I (finally) saw the other night for the first time, in its very beautiful 35mm blowup print. Fatigue? Two kinds--the first is Gehr's, which involves, and as he said himself, when he made the work (in 1970) he eventually lost track of how many frames at a time he would shoot--he would aim for four but slip up occasionally, which produces very subtle shifts in the rhythm that we may not detect consciously but which we likely perceive nonetheless. The other fatigue is the viewer's (maybe). Around 23 minutes in length, Serene Velocity invites a really intense viewer participation. One can stare at--study--the frame almost like it's a rapidly alternating still picture. Or one can enter into the accordion-like, vertiginous horizontal space of the corridor, let oneself feel jolted and transfixed by all the weird and slowly evolving perceptual shifts in this quarter- or semi-flicker film. (I alternated between viewing modes; the lines blurred, predictably.) The immersive properties of avant-garde film are a field rarely tilled: hopefully we can work on this. Optics and other sciences; painting; music; architecture; sex; death and decay; birth and life; poetry; all these things intersect literally or philosophically with experimental cinema as with other cinema. Why not jump in? Poetic cinema has more than two registers ('critique' & 'contemplation'), and if we don't recognize all the possibilities, no wonder it seems like a boring sham to people who don't know what to think about this whole world of films and videos.
Scott MacDonald wrote on this film:
"For many first-time viewers Serene Velocity is infuriating. Given their conventional training, they have no idea of what they are supposed to be seeing, other than a relentlessly repeated shift between two versions of the same space. On the other hand, if they can allow themselves to actually look at the film (certainly one of the first tendencies in many viewers, when confronted with powerfully critical films, is to shut down the eyes and/or mind: One can "watch" the films without seeing them), a set of developments in the seemingly unchanging image become apparent. As the zoom lens gradually moves us back and forth along the hall, the doors, ashtrays, and other details of the hallway move in and out of the image: At one focal length we may see a certain door; a few moments later and a few increments further along the focal range of the lens, the door has disappeared. While all changes in the hallway are created by the rigorous procedure Gehr devised for the camera, near the conclusion of the film we can see, from the light in the glass of the doors at the far end of the hallway, that it's dawn."
This is all true. People are generally conditioned to watch and process moving images in certain prescribed ways, and Gehr's work challenges these habits, and to an extent the onus is on the viewer if they want to appreciate a film like Serene Velocity. But what about the actual benefits of re-training the eye and mind (and sometimes the ear) for these purposes? Are a-g advocates doing it so that we gain brothers in a fraternal cult? Are film critics social workers? (I think actually Pauline Kael made a famous quip charging this in a different circumstance; someone who knows & likes her work better than I do can enlighten me on the exact source, maybe?) Are we here to embiggen the souls of philistines?
I would like to think instead that those of us who advocate for a-g cinema, or specific a-g films, are not trying to reproduce a vanguard to which only a happy few may join (i.e., I don't want to be part of a recruitment campaign for an elite). I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone. And the directions to that room, the advocacy for this kind of cinema, should not be openly or tacitly about building a clique, but about relating certain kinds of knowledge and experience even in an a priori limited capacity.
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My goal: to make this my last post arguing in defense or support of experimental cinema as a whole. I hope, from now on, to simply assume that anyone who reads what I write about (say) Serene Velocity will simply be interested, period, and that those who won't will know when to skip it. To watch a film like this one involves a certain level of "breaking in." But the idea is not to break oneself into being able to watch it, but to know just why--for beauty, love, hatred, people, art--one should wish to break anything down in the first place.