Films akin to poetry - light years away from Hollywood
New York — ''Still'' is a film about a street. The view hovers at eye-level for nearly an hour, one image superimposed on another. Not much moves. You can feel the concrete.
''Field'' is a movie about motion. The filmmaker shot an outdoor scene with a fast-moving camera, then spliced the footage into a rapid-fire blur. It streaks across the screen.
''Shift'' is about traffic. Seen from above, it comes and goes in bright colors and unexpected patterns. Sometimes it's upside down.
''History'' is a film about film. Shot with no lens on the camera, it has no content but the dark, swirling grains of pure emulsion on celluloid. See it any way you like - as a bore, a bold experiment, or a glimpse into the heart of photography.
All these works are by Ernie Gehr, a major figure on the independent film scene. His style is rigorous, his aims are ambitious, his results are more complex (and sometimes infuriating) than my thumbnail descriptions can convey.
In short, he is not an ''easy'' filmmaker. Yet his reputation has grown steadily, and his movies have become increasingly visible. All 15 had a recent run at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. Many are in the collections of museums and universities and have been screened in cities from London and Paris to Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. His next one-person show will be a ''Cineprobe'' evening at the Museum of Modern Art here on Dec. 5, at which he will be present.
I took advantage of the Whitney retrospective to delve more deeply into Gehr's work and met him there one afternoon to discuss it. A modest and soft-spoken man, he talks with the same quiet precision that typifies his films. His seriousness and sincerity, while leavened with humor, leave no doubt of the deep commitment he brings to his art.
In his use of film, Gehr has more in common with modern poets and painters than with Hollywood-type directors. Though his works are diverse in many ways - some use color or sound, for example, while others don't - they share a fascination with the basic vocabulary of cinema, exploring issues of motion and perception that can be probed through film as through no other medium.
Often his efforts are austere and demanding. One critic has written of their ''wintry light,'' a phrase that captures their overall tone. Yet some have a surface beauty that makes them remarkably accessible. The delicate and rhythmic ''Eureka,'' for instance - Gehr's reworking of a documentary made around 1905 on a San Francisco trolley - has a strong human and historical dimension. An untitled work from 1981 presents a dense montage of fleeting gestures and textures caught on a Brooklyn street. Another untitled work distills a world of harmonious color and motion into one exquisite shot of snow falling against a distant wall.
As a group, Gehr's films reflect a shifting balance between pure cinematic form and other, more ''human'' elements. He grants that some works concentrate on ''formal concerns like time and space,'' pursuing them single-mindedly. Others, he says, involve ''so-called life situations where I'm interested in the people, the place, the times.'' Even here, though, formal issues are a main ingredient, and the filmmaking process itself is an important part of ''the overall texture.'' In any case, all the films - however rarefied some may seem - are profoundly ''concrete'' in his view. ''I'm basically dealing with experience ,'' he insists.
At the heart of Gehr's work is a preoccupation with how we see. This explains the duration of his films as well as their images. ''I'm interested in vision,'' he says, ''and that takes place in time. You can recognize a thing quickly: boy, girl, chair, red, green. But it takes time to really appreciate a thing for what it is in itself - to go past the barrier of just saying 'I know what that is,' and really look at it.''
That's why Gehr may focus on an empty corridor (as in ''Serene Velocity'') or a still life (as in ''Table'') for what may seem a long while. ''This is an aspect that makes some of the films a little aggressive,'' he admits, ''or challenging, or seeming to go on forever. Actually, though, I'm as impatient as anyone else! I don't like things on-screen any longer than I need them to be.''
The key, he says, is for viewers to approach his work in the proper spirit. ''Certain everyday, routine ways of thinking and functioning have to be put away when you see these films,'' he says. ''They're like meditative works. The clock you use for normal living has to be left outside the door. . . .''
Gehr became a filmmaker after a rainy day in 1966, when he escaped a downpour by ducking into a ''cinematheque'' that happened to be showing works by Stan Brakhage, a leader in the independent field. He didn't quite grasp Brakhage's radical style at first, but he was tantalized. He also saw that personal, noncommercial filmmaking was within his grasp, whereas ''I didn't expect Hollywood to call and ask me to direct Elizabeth Taylor.''
He has stayed cinema-struck ever since, teaching film production and history at schools and universities as well as making his own works. Like many independents, though, he is frustrated at the marginal status of nonnarrative film. He notes that thousands of books are available on modern painting, but few can be found to educate viewers in new or challenging cinematic forms.
As a result, Gehr points out, audiences have trouble understanding films that fall outside Hollywood conventions. Most critics have the same difficulty, failing to school themselves ''because the assumption is that if you know how to look at one film, you know how to look at everything else.'' Another trouble with critics is that ''they forget a filmmaker can be an artist, working in a medium that happens to suit his needs or ends.''
Gehr presses on despite such problems, however, forging in new directions that sometimes take even his admirers by surprise. ''I'm not interested in projecting an image of myself or pursuing a particular line,'' he says. ''Every day I make notes on many things, though most won't actually turn into films.''
There are even advantages, he finds, to being an artist in a field that's not very commercialized. ''I can pursue whatever I want,'' he says. ''If a painter did that, the galleries wouldn't be able to sell the work. . . .''