Rep Diary: Gabriel & Creation
To an extent, Agnes Martin’s Gabriel (76) is the kind of work you might expect from a great painter making her first and only foray into filmmaking: loose, clumsy, often seemingly incomplete, like an exploratory draft punctuated by moments of sharp, polished clarity. It doesn’t have the tremulous, needle-fine precision of its maker’s famous grid paintings—nor, I think, was it meant to. Despite their apparent order and symmetry, Martin’s canvases tend to be thrillingly unstable, their tight, geometric structures set askance by wobbly, uneven edges, irregular lines, blurred margins, and/or boundaries slightly transgressed. In Gabriel, the structures have, for the most part, collapsed altogether—or rather, all the blurring, quivering, and wavering has become its own kind of order.The closest thing Gabriel has to a guiding structural principle is the aimless course of a 10-year-old boy as he explores a small stretch of rural New Mexico, but Martin refuses to let even so wide and roomy a grid hem in her roving, curious eye. Often, she abandons Gabriel for close-up studies of flora and fauna, sun and grass, water and rock, letting some images come shakily in and out of focus and others stretch on for long spans of half-dead time. Every shot operates in the same delicate, luminous register: clusters of river-flowers with furry fringes lit up by the sun, individual blades of grass caught mid-sway in the breeze, rocks bathed in thin sheaths of water by the receding tides. It’s hard to take in all at a time without letting your mind occasionally wander off—which is fine, since one of Gabriel’s biggest strengths is the way it lets you drift away, only to yank you back when you’re most susceptible to its effects.
Gabriel screened last month at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in a cleverly curated program that also featured Stan Brakhage’s recently restored, rarely seen landscape film Creation. The contrast between the two films—and between their makers—is striking. Where Martin’s art is gracious and patient, almost to a fault, Brakhage’s is essentially, gloriously solipsistic. To me, his dictum that “all that is, is light”—drawn from Ezra Pound, who got it from 9th-century philosopher Johannes Scotus Erigena—seems of a piece with the immaterialist notion that things are only insofar as they’re perceived; that the world exists, quite literally, in the eye of the beholder. (Which raises the question: is the beholder, too, nothing but light?)
Even when Brakhage tries to burrow into the perceptual habits of others, it’s as an “adventure in perception,” an attempt to model his own way of seeing after that of, say, infants, worms, or cats. Brakhage very rarely allows for an impersonal, objective view from nowhere; rather, he tends to conflate the process of seeing and the nature of the thing seen until they’re beyond distinction. The world only appears as perception. (The paradox is that, in Brakhage’s films, objects, bodies, and landscapes have a degree of weight and texture and thing-ness that would make most so-called objective filmmakers green with envy. His movies are anything but immaterial.)
Creation is cut in Brakhage’s signature jagged, disorienting editing style: many of its shots last under a second, some only a handful of frames. It’s as if he wants to cram as many different sights as possible into one lone moment in time—an eternity’s worth of impressions condensed onto the head of a pin. There’s something equally admirable and frustrating about Brakhage’s unwillingness to exist patiently in the world; to submit willingly to the passage of time; to observe objects as they change and mutate and refuse to be conflated with his own neurological emissions. (In this respect, Creation is the polar opposite of another short screened in Anthology’s program that evening: Ben Russell’s The Quarry, a fixed-camera landscape film documenting a single, mountain-capped patch of field on Easter Island over four minutes of almost-real time).
Brakhage was a kind of old-fashioned Romantic genius, so caught up in the gorgeous flames of light and color flashing behind his eyes that he was liable to take them for a higher kind of truth. This is a dangerous impulse. The romantics who manage to find language precise and expressive enough to describe their own “adventures in perception” tend not to bother much with finding a language for anybody else’s; in extreme cases, everyone else is just another splotch of light, another wisp of hair, another patch of body texture. Eventually, the individual’s poetic genius becomes its own justification, its own ethos, and its own kind of ultimate moral law. Knowing this, it’s tempting to be skeptical of Brakhage’s particular kind of poetry, which is ultimately about the joy and thrill and terror and madness of seeing; seeing as a way of life, a kind of religious vocation. The catch is that those who adhere to this risky conception of seeing are often best equipped to teach us how to see.
In contrast, Gabriel is a film about ceding to the world; about giving into the repetitive, looping rhythms of a region or a place; about letting one’s attention drift in and out of focus and one’s energies diffuse out in all directions. In Brakhage a river might be split into a thousand jagged shreds of light and color and gurgling momentum, until it’s been transformed from a physical thing into a perceptual event. In Martin, a river is a river. It’s not on us to subsume it or create it; our only job is to watch as it flows and swirls and shifts in time—to watch it exist, and, just as importantly, persist from one second to the next. Somehow, that makes Gabriel feel both more and less static than Brakhage’s films, which contain very little movement over time but pack every instant with a great deal of tension, struggle, and release. Gabriel does just the opposite: it drags its 76 minutes out like a long exhale, lingering on the same reeds, flowers, meadows, hills and brooks in shot after shot, advancing slowly, then regressing, circling around, or doubling back.
In some respects, Gabriel is a vision of perfect contentment. The world is beautiful and stable and sure, the weather balmy, the air cool. (The only question is how long it’ll last.) In other respects, the film suggests how desolate a thing contentment can be: for that lonely, faceless boy, Martin’s paradise is also a kind of purgatory, a site for aimless, restive wanderings where every sound hangs in the air, every flower blooms again and again in precisely the same way, and the weather’s always equally nice, which is to say, it’s always just the weather. It makes you realize how long a little contentment can go.