Peter Hutton: The Filmmaker as Luminist

By Macdonald, Scott | Chicago Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Peter Hutton: The Filmmaker as Luminist


Macdonald, Scott, Chicago Review


The new landscape mode expressed--and in turn shaped--a growing midcentury appreciation for nature as a complex organic realm surrounding the human world.... The aesthetic of atmospheric luminism was grounded...in an identification with nature rather than an insistence on one's physical separation from it.... Instead of temporalizing space through planar divisions, atmospheric luminism spatialized time. In doing so it freed landscape art from its loyalties to a narrative or literary meaning.

Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye (1)

Barbara Novak's famous distinction between two approaches to American landscape in nineteenth-century painting--"grand opera" and "the still small voice"--remains useful for twentieth-century film, and not merely as a theoretical construct that assists in distinguishing different kinds of work developing from different aesthetic sensibilities. (2) The two areas of contemporary cinema that conform to Novak's categories are responses to the same set of historical developments that produced the paintings her Nature and Culture surveys; and their positions vis-a-vis contemporary commercial culture are analogous to the positions occupied by the "grand operatic" painters and the "Luminists" with regard to mid-nineteenth-century commercial development. To a significant degree, the grand landscape epitomized by Frederic Edwin Church and the "Rocky Mountain school" (Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Hill) became, and has remained, the literal, as well as historical, background of epic commercial films, from the earliest attempts to interest filmgoers in natural scenes, to John Ford's depiction of Monument Valley in such films as Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), and The Searchers (1956), to more recent popular films such as Dances with Wolves (1990) and What Dreams May Come (1998); and it has played a major role in the history of independent feature filmmaking, from Robert Flaherty's Nanook the North (1921) to Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1984) and Robert Fricke's Baraka (1993). But the "still small voice" of Luminism is also alive, not as a major influence on commercial cinema, but as a sensibility of considerable use in coming to terms with a number of accomplished American independent filmmakers of recent decades, including Larry Gottheim, Nathaniel Dorsky, Leighton Pierce, and the focus of this discussion: Peter Hutton.

Art historians have defined "Luminism" in a variety of ways since John Baur coined the term in the 1940s, to refer to the work of John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Hugh Lane, and to selected paintings by some Hudson River school painters, especially Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. (3) Generally, Novak and others have described the Luminists as reflecting and offering a more meditative route to the spiritual than that provided by the awesome paintings of Church, Bierstadt, and Moran: "In contrast to the operatic landscape, Luminism is classic rather than baroque, contained rather than expansive, aristocratic rather than democratic, private not public, introverted not gregarious, exploring a state of being rather than becoming" (Novak, 32). Stylistically, Luminism is identified with a particular rendering of atmospheric effects--specifically, as Angela Miller puts it, "a resonant, light-suffused atmosphere [that] melded topographic divisions into a visually seamless whole" (Miller, 243), often presented in comparatively small compositions extended along the horizontal. Generally, the paintings betray little or no evidence of the artists' "labor trail" so obvious in contemporaneous, European impressionist painting and in modernist work in general.

There seems little point in exploring the origins of cinema for the progenitor of the Luminist sensibility evident in more recent, independent films. Film scholars are in the process of reconstructing early American film history, and while landscape has, so far, played little role in this process, a new generation of scholars has begun to recognize that even during the dawn of cinema history the depiction of landscape, or at least "landscape," was of significant importance. …

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