By Sitney, P. Adams
Artforum International , Vol. 50, No. 7
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
Varying hi subjects as the eye doth roll To every varied object in his glance ...
--William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost
JEROME HILER belongs to that rare company of significant if almost invisible filmmakers of the American avant-garde cinema who have hidden their light under a bushel: For decades, Joseph Cornell was reluctant to show his films; Gregory J. Markopoulos withdrew his work from circulation for the last three decades of his life; Wallace Berman would not exhibit his sublime Aleph, which became available only after his death; Dean Stockwell still does not permit screenings of the films he has made. The very few people who have managed to see any of the handful of works Hiler has filmed over the past forty-eight years have praised his cinema highly--most of all Nathaniel Dorsky, who has been Hiler's partner all those years. Filmmakers David Brooks and Warren Sonbert not only admired his work but evidently learned much from it. Critics Wheeler Dixon (also a filmmaker) and Scott MacDonald have briefly discussed him in their books.51" Finally, in 1997, Hiler let the New York Film Festival show the camera original of his then recently finished ten-minute short Gladly Given, and last year he screened a new work, again at the New York Film Festival. That film, Words of Mercury, which he completed just in time for the festival, will be included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which opens this month, and a program of his and Dorsky's recent works will be presented at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on March 15.
Hiler, a New York-born autodidact, at various times worked for a music copyist, assisted the society photographer Frederick Eberstadt (who commissioned his 2001 film Target Rock), and projected films at die Film-Makers' Cinematheque--all when he was living in New York and on Lake Owassa in New Jersey; in Hollywood, he and Dorsky worked on the exploitation film Revenge of the Cheerleaders (a cult classic from 1976); and ever since, he has lived in San Francisco, working lived in San Francisco, working as a carpenter, a caretaker of a convent, and a stainedglass maker; he recently directed, with Owsley Brown III, the documentary Music Makes a City (2010).
The latter project reflects Hiler's obsessive passion for obscure domains of music--in this case, the impressive international roster of composers commissioned to write works for the Louisville Orchestra in the 1950s. Even as a teenager, he boasted an encyclopedic knowledge of medieval and Renaissance music; later, he devoted years to the study of French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarly, he is a scholar of stained glass, and he has lectured widely on it as the "cinema before 1300."
The structural principle of Words of Mercury reflects that of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Notre Dame composers Leonin and Perotin, who alternated Latin verses sung in complex polyphony with verses in plain-chant. Their polyphony highlighted the melodic purity of the plainchant, while the monophonic lines made the multiple voices sound all the richer. In a similar way, especially in the opening half of this twenty-five-minute film, Hiler interlards lengthy superimpositions with one or two shorter shots in a rhythm of alternating poly-optic and monoptic phrases. The superimpositions almost always employ camera movement, and the monoptic shots are typically static. The effect parallels that of Notre Dame polyphony: Following the elaborate superimpositions, the still shots acquire a stressed intensity, giving a distilled concentration to the unobscured movement of reeds in the wind, the flight of birds, or the frolicking of dogs in the ocean. That, in turn, sensitizes the eye to the intricacy and wonder of the next set of superimpositions. The turning point of the film is a monoptic panning movement around a bronze-colored statue of Neptune, incongruously abandoned just out-side the fence of a truck lot. …