Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Passenger: A Video in Four Movements

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Passenger: A Video in Four Movements

Article excerpt

Passenger: A Video In Four Movements, directed by Robert Gardner, 1998, 25 min. 1/2" VHS. Distributed by The Film Study Center, Harvard University.

Robert Gardner's recent experimental documentary Passenger: A Video In Four Movements is the videotaped observation of a painting being completed. Famed American artist Sean Scully is shown creating a hanging painting, also entitled Passenger, in a Barcelona studio, June 16-22, 1997.

If there is a story to the video, clearly the surface narrative is about how a great modern abstract artist conceives and births a major work. Those audience members who have wished "If only I had been a fly on the wall when one of the masters had painted" will be satisfied. At this surface level, Passenger serves an archival purpose-we follow Scully around the studio-now thinking, now painting, now reclining upon the floor for a better angle, now throwing paint in the garbage, now conducting the music heard from his tape cassette player, now rethinking, and finally repainting. The audience also hears the sounds of brush strokes, paint mixing, Scully's footsteps, and other natural synch sounds including Scully loading and playing music cassettes by pop singer Neil Young.

However, this narrative structure is but an outer frame to the film, just as Scully's painting itself has a black and whitish outer "frame" to its color interior. In this regard, Gardner uses the narrative shell like a master or establishing shot in traditional cinema-both give the viewer orientation, spatial continuity, story line, and visual order.

As with jazz, once this primary melody has been established, the musician is free to improvise, ad lib, embellish, and experiment with and occasionally against the grain of the theme. Gardner, with expert collaboration from cinematographer Robert Fulton and Ryan Bradley, begins to insert more jazz-like riffs within the larger classical structure of process documentary.

First, Gardner lets us know with numbers and subtitles (e.g., 1 Just A Dreamer ) that each movement is discrete and that, as with symphonic structure, although there may be overlap and repetition, each movement has singular mood, tempo, and personality. These titles and substructure signify the permission he has given himself to exercise imaginative poetic license with time, space, tone, and technique.

Such license permits the video to pole vault to other levels at which Gardner the artist and Scully the artist co-mingle. For example, Gardner chooses occasionally to intercut slow-motion out-of-focus moving images which somewhat parallel Scully's point of view. Since controlled ambiguity may heighten artistic effect, it is worthless to wonder what each out-of-focus shot means-but somehow their cumulative effect has to do with the trancelike state or heightened perception of the artist, with Gardner himself rising to a Level of abstraction like Scully, with the need for subjective, emotive camerawork to balance the all-tooneutral, neutered world of synch sound, and with intangibles one had best not reduce to words.

A jarring, arresting editing effect which Gardner uses involves quasi-time lapse photography with matched sound. …

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