Avant-Gardist Robert Beavers, at Lincoln Center
As with the best avant-garde filmmakers, Robert Beavers crafts unique experiences of space and time that defy easy verbal description, eschewing typical movie storytelling for pleasures borrowed from other arts: the luminescence of painting, the shifting tempo of music and the casual imagist structures of poetry. His 16mm films, shot in Old World sites of great rustic and architectural beauty, are airy yet profound, conceptually complex while formally elegant, and confident in referencing their own production without devolving to mere textbook self-reflexivity. Despite parallels some might see with the work of other artists of his generation?the geometric camerawork of Michael Snow, the lush acoustic landscapes of early James Benning, the sun-dappled light studies of Nathaniel Dorsky?Beavers' filmmaking constitutes a sublime world all its own.
Although he has been making films for three decades, Beavers' works had rarely been shown to the public in North America, until recently. The New York Film Festival presented a short program of three films in 1999, his film Ruskin screened as part of the Whitney's "American Century" program soon after, and the Toronto Film Festival ran a mini-retrospective of eight works last fall. This Sunday, May 6, Lincoln Center will present three previously unseen short films as part of its increasingly active Image Innovators series, which has become one of the most important showcases for experimental work in the city.
Raised in the small Massachusetts town of Weymouth, Beavers became interested in film as a high school student in the 60s. After coming to New York and visiting Jonas Mekas' Filmmakers' Cinematheque?then center of an influential and dynamic underground film boom?he decided to drop out of school and focus on his own development as a filmmaker. He also met Gregory Markopoulos, who had been making avant-garde work since the 40s and was already established as a major artist in the movement. The two developed a relationship that spanned three decades, until Markopoulos' death in 1992. The pair immigrated to Europe in the late 60s, where Beavers has remained since, visiting the US only sporadically in recent years.
Still Light, the first work in the Image Innovators program, was created in 1970 when Beavers was 21. Beavers re-edited the work in 2000, slimming it from an hour to a trim 25 minutes. Re-editing his own catalog is an ongoing process for Beavers, a project he began in the late 80s. "I simply had the impulse to do the work over," he says. "It's a question of seeing certain things very clearly, and still trying to reach them, and feeling that you can get closer to it by approaching it again."
It's also a creative luxury rarely available to commercial auteurs, and pertains particularly to Still Light, which is itself an audiovisual song of innocence and experience. The first half of the film explores delicate nuances of lighting, color and depth as Beavers shoots the face of a young man in various locales on the Greek island of Hydra, using a variety of customized masks and filters. The environmental sounds of surf and countryside rise and fall, as the camera's depth of focus shifts in and out of the red-blue-green-yellow filters, creating glowing color fields and shimmering penumbrae. The man's face remains constant throughout, surrounded by iconic elements in the landscape, like a pulsating Renaissance portrait.
Still Light's second half was shot in the London flat of art critic Nigel Gosling. Disassociated snippets of Gosling discussing Beavers' films are laid over carefully composed images of the critic's bald head, his burning cigarette, books in his library, and a space heater shoved in a marble fireplace. The two halves of Still Light bring to mind any number of structuralist binarisms: youth and age, creation and criticism, action and reflection, living landscape and mummified text.
Beavers distilled the 26-minute Sotiros in 1996 from an original 50-minute trilogy. Filmed in Athens and Peloponnesus in Greece as well as in Austria, much of Sotiros is structured around another binarism: two repeating intertitles marked "He said" and "he said." Each title introduces a set of visual phrases with loosely parallel camerawork. The images are careful and delicate studies of light patterns in a hotel suite and at a cafe, rolling hills populated by a lone shepherd, Eurostyle modernized storefronts, a blind man begging in the street. The film's title refers to one of the appellations of the Apollo, in his role as savior or healer.
In the course of shooting the original Sotiros trilogy, Beavers endured a serious traffic accident, and the end of the film records some moments of his convalescence, including images of a long scar on his leg. Markopoulos appears briefly in the film as well. Images of twin mirrors, each with its own sink and shaving kit, index yet another unspoken set of two.
Previously screened as a work-in-progress at the 1999 New York Film Festival, the final version of Beavers' The Stoas will make its world premiere this week. It's perhaps the most subtle and elusive of the works presented. The title refers to the colonnades that led to the shady groves of the ancient Lyceum, here remembered in shots of industrial arcades, bathed in golden morning light, as quietly empty of human figures as Atget's survey photos. The rest of the film presents luscious shots of wooded streams and hazy glens, portrayed with the careful composition of 19th century landscape painting. Again, humans are largely absent, referred to only metonymically, when the sounds of distant workers' hammering fills a tiny valley, or metaphorically, as the heavy branch of an overhanging tree leans gently down to kiss the face of a sparkling stream below. An ineffable, unnamable immanence flows through the images of The Stoas, a kind of presence of the human soul expressed through the sympathetic absence of the human figure.
Discussing the works of Carl Dreyer, Beavers hits on a description that might serve as well for his Stoas. Dreyer, he says, "has an intuition, which combined with the restraint of the composition give the spectator something that is very rich and peaceful. It gives the spectator something which is the exact opposite of the clutter of the 'well-made film.'" The Stoas also gives the viewer the fruits of Beavers' lifetime project of sussing and summoning rare bits of captured life through hand-made cinema. "Younger filmmakers are totally enraptured by the techniques of art," he remarks. "You'd be very surprised if a young filmmaker ever thought about this other quality that I'm trying to speak about. First comes all the pleasures connected to technique. Then comes... the special, essential sweetnesses."
My Hand Outstretched: Three Films by Robert Beavers plays Sunday, May 6, 8:30 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St. at Broadway), 875-5600.
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