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* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Paul Glabicki.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Warren Sonbert.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Ernie Gehr.

One of film’s richest veins has been the American avant-garde or “experimental” movement. These films are made on very low budgets, usually without dramatic narratives, and frequently by a crew of one–the filmmaker–who films the actual world before him rather than constructing sets. Every two years, the Whitney Museum of American Art selects a package of programs of recent independent work. These three films make up one of the programs in this series, all eight of which are being shown in Chicago this month.

In any such package series, some films will prove of more interest than others. Paul Glabicki’s animation Object Conversation, although witty and well made, betrays a trendy interest in image and language without exploring these issues in any depth. The shortest film on the program, it seems slight and superficially cute; the other two, thankfully, are masterpieces.

The Cup and the Lip and Signal–Germany on the Air each creates, through composition, color, camera movement, and editing, a particular vision of the world, a new way of thinking about reality. For me this is almost the definition of a film masterpiece. Yet the reader should be forewarned that the Sonbert and Gehr films are plotless, characterless, and antidramatic, at least in the usual senses of those words; few would call them “entertaining.” They are also very different from each other, and do not benefit from being placed on the same program. This is especially true because of the dreadful way that the three films have been mounted on one large reel, allowing for only the shortest of pauses between screenings.

Warren Sonbert’s The Cup and the Lip is a silent film that contains images from all across the United States and Europe. The shots are intercut in a way that emphasizes the difference between them; the film’s silence encourages the viewer to concentrate on the rhythms of the imagery and editing. Most striking is the way in which Sonbert juxtaposes images that demand very different kinds of attention from the viewer. We see shots from moving cars, amusement-park rides, trains, and airplanes; the hand-held camera moves through crowds. We see a funeral, complete with the lowering of the coffin, and a lush peacock. We see European cathedrals and a man playing with a cat. There is footage of Italy and of Chicago, of Spain and San Francisco. Mayor Washington and former mayor Byrne peer into Sonbert’s camera in footage that resembles TV news; a little girl gazes into the camera in the manner of a home movie shot. We look down at a fog-obscured Oak Street Beach from a nearby high rise; we peer voyeuristically through a tenement window at a resident.

Each image implies a different kind of relationship between subject matter, filmmaker, and viewer. In the home-movie mode, for instance, a child’s disarming gaze encourages one to forget the artifice of the cinema image and establish direct contact with the person, or with one’s memory of the person. The studied, media-directed posturing of politicians denies such directness; directness is replaced with a constructed image, made up of pose and gesture, in which the subject seems to do its own unique kind of dance with the camera and viewer. An overhead shot from a plane is distant, reflective, even scenic; a moving shot taken while walking through a crowd is engaging, involved; one even feels a little vulnerable. On one level, then, The Cup and the Lip inventories the sights of the Western world and, on another, the different possibilities of the filmic image.

Sonbert’s images are not held on the screen for very long. Indeed, he frequently will cut away just at the point at which something seems about to happen, as if he doesn’t want any one image to become too involving. Yet he will frequently return to the same or similar images again and again; for instance, there are several very brief shots of an el trip around the Loop. However, when Sonbert returns to an image, he rarely gives us much more than what we saw before. Whatever had been happening is still happening; there is no progression, no sense of completion. Further, Sonbert frequently interposes short moments of darkness between his shots. This prevents the images from merging with one another, via their juxtaposition, to make a new entity, as happens in the montage of an Eisenstein film. Instead, each shot retains some of its separateness, its uniqueness.

By combining such diverse imagery in this way, Sonbert creates a film that is in a continual state of suspension. His cinematography is brilliantly, deliciously sensual; each shot is offered just long enough to be savored, but never long enough to be swallowed. “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip,” the old saying goes; Sonbert has made a film in celebration of such “slips.” On the most obvious level, we are given images that contain humorous and absurd contradictions; we zoom back from a helicopter in the blank sky to see it flying incongruously above the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the nearby cathedral. But Sonbert’s photography and especially his editing also create a more profound dialectic between involvement and distance, sensual contact with the seen world and alienation from it.

If The Cup and the Lip is his best film to date, it is in part because of its combination of contrast and concision. Others have found it a dark film, but I suspect what is unique about it is not its sometimes oppressive subject matter but the never-consummated state of suspension that Sonbert achieves. In this film’s universe, the cup must never reach the lip, for if it does, the party is over; the cup’s contents, once ingested, are digested, and thus destroyed, never to be seen again. Sonbert’s implied argument is that the pleasure of looking at, of dancing with, even of flirting with a thing can endure forever, whereas a consummated union is a form of death. Thus the camera turns about things in every way it knows how, and we are given a spectacular spin of sights and sounds, a particular way of experiencing the world.

One of the central characteristics of American avant-garde film has been the primacy it gives to formal elements of expression. In The Cup and the Lip, for example, a way of living a life is expressed not through a story but through imagery and editing. Similarly, although the subject matter of Ernie Gehr’s earlier films has always been important, his films have tended to do most of their work through cinematic devices. Field, for instance, is primarily a blur of tiny flecks of black and white, a film composed of camera movement so rapid that the subject matter’s identity is obscured.

It is apparent from its opening image that Signal–Germany on the Air is something of a departure, both from Gehr’s earlier films and from the whole formalist mode. In addition to the title, we see portions of German military helmets. Thus from the outset, history is invoked. Whatever follows will be stalked by the awful shadow of Germany’s Nazi past.

What does follow seems disarmingly nondescript at first. An intersection and adjoining streets in a quiet, mostly residential district in West Berlin are filmed from a variety of angles, accompanied by street and radio sounds. The imagery is not especially “aesthetic” in composition or color. Very little of any obvious significance occurs on these streets. Yet through some subtle composition, editing, and use of sound, Gehr creates an overwhelmingly powerful work.

Images are often composed to emphasize the natural barriers present in the city. The tubular metal structures that prevent pedestrians from crossing streets at the “wrong” places appear prominently. In some shots, litter baskets and other small structures occupy the foreground. The intersection itself has none of the rectilinear openness and resulting distant views that characterize a gridlike city like Chicago; instead it is twisted, curved: streets veer off into the unknown, almost as if they will eventually turn back on themselves.

Gehr has certainly confronted European urban space; but it is in his editing patterns, more subtle and harder to notice at first, that he has lodged the deepest aspect of his expression. In Signal’s first few cuts, pieces of the scene depicted in the previous shot are visible in the next, so that it is clear that Gehr is cutting between different views of the same space. In most of the cuts that follow, however, the images cut between contain no parts of each other. They may be of areas adjacent in space, and sometimes our memory of the overall area tells us where they are, but it is often difficult to be sure. And at times, Gehr clearly does take us away from the intersection to other parts of the city.

When we cut between two shots that share common material, we feel spatially secure. The viewer knows where each shot’s space is in relation to the previous shot’s. But to cut between shots of the same setting, whose spatial relationship is less certain, especially without the usual narrative motivations (such as following a character), creates an inevitable insecurity. This form of editing sometimes causes the viewer a twinge of fear; one is never sure where the editing will lead.

This form of filmic development creates a forever-expanding mental image of the urban structure. Each view of the city leads to another nearby, until the small parts of the city with which the film begins gradually seem to evoke the whole. When Gehr moves his mostly static camera, he pans horizontally. By anchoring his movements at the pivot point of a tripod, Gehr denies his camera the freedom to move through space independently. Nor does he ever pan downward to an abstractable street or ground (as in Field) or upward to a transcendent sky. Instead the film’s development is relentlessly horizontal, following the spread of man-made structures out across the land, in a small way mimicking the expansion, earlier, of an empire. Using none of the technical flashiness of most previous “city symphony” films, Gehr has nonetheless given us one of our greatest views of the city as mechanism, a maze of streets and buildings, vehicles and people, forever growing in the mind.

At some points Gehr leaves this urban network to show us some more open areas, apparently nearby. Here explicit Nazi references in an awful way justify the “twinge of fear” subtly suggested by the editing. We see a former Gestapo building; the word “accusing” is heard on the sound track over a shot of railroad tracks, followed by the sound of a moving train. These images are very important, for like the title shot they impart a social and historical dimension to the film.

In “personal” filmmaking, we frequently feel that the film represents its maker’s point of view, as if we saw in it the world directly through the maker’s eyes. Obviously true of the Sonbert film, it is just as true of Signal, despite the absence of a hand-held or otherwise expressionistic camera. In Signal, the artist gazes into pieces of the city, searching for meanings. He realizes that a single storefront can tell us little, so the film’s pattern is to gradually expand its points of view. We see each piece of the landscape in terms of a constricting urban whole; we also feel that that whole is continually growing, following us wherever we go, like an unstoppable machine. And if we go far enough away from our point of origin, not only do we not escape, we come face-to-face with a ghost that had been haunting the images all along: the Gestapo.

Gehr is arguing here with past avant-garde filmmaking, including some of his own. He declares in Signal that no image can be seen alone, formally; every shot contains objects that have their own social and ethical dimensions and history. At the same time, while reintroducing social concerns, Gehr is nonetheless remaining true to his own filmmaking heritage. Signal does not give us facts about the Nazi period or present-day Germany; such admittedly important tasks can be left to other modes of filmmaking, such as the great documentary Shoah. Gehr’s film is instead about a form of thinking. It addresses the mental processes that might govern looking at a Berlin street, rather than literally explicating present or past.

The filmmaker’s use of sound adds yet another dimension. His track is a rich collage of music, speech, and natural sounds, much of it recorded off the radio. The sound provides a further context for what we see, reminding us that the anonymous streets are themselves part of a society. But the sound track also expands the film’s space, not horizontally in the manner of the editing but through the addition of a new dimension, which surrounds each shot with a larger, unseen field. The film’s full title reminds us explicitly that the radio sounds we hear are the voice of a nation “on the air.” Through his use of sound, his editing, and his historical references, Gehr has encouraged his viewer to seek wider contexts for the images onscreen.

Classifying films tends to oversimplify them, for a film can do several different things at once, even include a position and its opposite. Still, it can be said that Signal–Germany on the Air is less a film that sees the world as a function of the filmmaker’s private sensibility and more a film that seeks to open up the film image, to offer wider contexts for it, to reenvision reality as an ever-expanding network of possibilities, some of them mysterious, some horrible.

Yet there is a sense in which those wider possibilities are also vitally personal and specific. However one may explain Gehr’s techniques by the objective facts of the modern city, or the specifics of the Third Reich, there is something hauntingly private about his film. One constantly feels as if every corner of the seemingly anonymous street radiates radio signals, or is somehow about to explode, or will in some way lead one right to Gestapo headquarters. Every grain of this film is alive with a hidden, not fully comprehensible, but altogether terrifying intentionality.

I used to think that artists’ biographies were irrelevant to their art; that if the work was good, its meaning would be contained within it. But a few facts about Gehr may impart an additional dimension to this work. There is a famous statement about the photographer Eugene Atget, to the effect that Atget photographed Paris streets as if they were scenes of a crime. When another critic applied this statement to Signal, Gehr responded that in the case of Berlin, there is no “as if” about it.

Berlin, of course, was the capital of the Third Reich. And while Ernie Gehr is an American, born in the United States, his parents were German Jews who fled Berlin and the Nazis in 1939. Had they not fled, they would probably have been killed, and Gehr would never have been born. These facts may enrich certain aspects of the film already noted: that the filmmaker’s gaze is extraordinarily concentrated, and that the film’s editing suggests a particular constrictive yet seemingly endless space. Gehr’s particular vision in Signal–Germany on the Air is doubtless inflected by the deep emotions he must have felt in trying to view a city that at one point in its history would have denied his parents life, and him birth.