Immanent Domain: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Peter Hutton

By Sitney, P. Adams | Artforum International, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Immanent Domain: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Peter Hutton


Sitney, P. Adams, Artforum International


FOR NEARLY FOUR DECADES Peter Hutton has been taking the measure of the cinematic image to delimit its powers of fascination and absorption. Over those years he transformed a diaristic mode of the filmic lyric into one in which subtle fluctuations in the visible field--of light, or figures and objects in motion, or slight camera movements--configure the ecstatic concentration of the filmmaker's attention. He marshals silence and the immanent rhythms of nearly still scenes, or slow vehicular movements, to evoke the pleasures of isolation, even of loneliness. If that sounds paradoxical, it is consistent with the oxymoron or catachresis in the title he gave his third film: Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-74). Within individual shots music, or vibratory energy, becomes soundlessly pictorial: A centripetal force repeatedly concentrates the intensity of scrutiny in prolonged, suspended moments that nearly efface the subjectivity of the observer only to have it resurface in the paratactic assembly of apparently isolated shots. The persona of the filmmaker looming within Hutton's work seems to go looking for loneliness, all over the world, in fact, as if convinced that beauty reveals itself most poignantly within the modalities of alienation. This would put him at the opposite pole of Jonas Mekas, the great film diarist who can never shake off the painful fissions of isolation despite the hectic whirl of social and familial life he records. In opposition to Hutton, he continually goes questing with his camera for what he calls "the ecstasy of old and new friends."

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Yet, despite this difference, both Hutton and Mekas are exemplars of the Emersonian spirit of the American avant-garde cinema. Emerson's declaration in Nature (1836) of the simple "mechanical" means of manifesting the fundamental dualism of self and the world offers a master scenario for many of the most important films of their tradition:

  The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a
  pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach
  and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The
  men, the women,--talking, running, bartering, fighting,--the earnest
  mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized
  at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the
  observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. What new
  thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quite familiar, in
  the rapid movement of the rail-road car! Nay, the most wonted objects,
  (make a very slight change in the point of vision,) please us most. In
  a camera obscura, the butcher's cart, and the figure of one of our own
  family amuse us. So a portrait of a well-known face gratifies us. Turn
  the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs,
  and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time
  these twenty years! (1)

The cinematic dynamics of Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, and many other of Mekas's and Hutton's peers follow the guidelines set down in this passage.

The full span of Peter Hutton's cinema, from 1971 until 2007, will be represented in a retrospective series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning May 5. Hutton shot some films before 1971, recording in 8 mm the performances he created as a graduate student in San Francisco, and he even completed a ten-minute-long film, In Marin County (1970), which I have never seen (and which will not be shown in the retrospective). With the exclusion of these apprentice efforts, his cinematic career begins spectacularly with July '71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971). In fact, I can think of no school-trained avant-garde filmmaker who made so auspicious a start. …

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