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Potential Energy in Landscape Portraits
With documentaries constantly at war with themselves, ‘documentary’ effectively fails as a genre label. ‘Objective’ is an absolute fallacy so long as human hands guide the camera and an individual can be credited with authorship, but in an effort towards it, some popular examples of the form have tended in recent decades to fall into the same patterns – leaning ever further from actually documenting life as it is. The general trend in American-made documentaries is leaning away from observers like Frederick Wiseman (despite the presence of Ex Libris on the 2017 Oscars finalists shortlist, it wasn’t nominated) and toward the idea of constructing crime-focused studies built around narrative-style beats and hooks with shocking reveals. I think The Imposter (2012) is the last example of this that I actually watched, though I’ve avoided numerous Netflix docs that offered a whiff of something similar. Paradoxically, the films which seem to best fit the idea of documentary, of truth, of closely documenting the lives of their makers, are those most often relegated to the fringes of moving image culture; diary films from Jonas Mekas (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches aka Walden ) to Anne Charlotte Robertson (Five Year Diary [1981–1997]), first-person location studies from Robert Beavers (From the Notebook of… [1971/2000]) to Su Friedrich (Rules of the Road ).
(L: L’eau de la Seine )
If we consider a documentary to be a document of a certain space at a given time, then allow us to consider the ways by which experimental film takes this concept to its logical conclusion and formally re-figures its very parameters. A great deal of experimental film meets the basic definition of documentary – according to Oxford: a non fiction film which ‘document[s] reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record’ – although how the space is documented rarely matches with our preconceptions of how it should be photographed ‘correctly’ in order to present the space objectively. The question becomes whether or not a diary or otherwise stylistically subjective vision of the world qualifies as ‘maintaining a historical record’.
That is to say, though visually radical, Mexican filmmaker Teo Hernández’s L’eau de la Seine is certainly a document of the water in the Seine river in 1983, despite not being a traditional image of a body of water; Hernández’s camera captures late-afternoon sunlight reflected on the river in a rapid fire continuous movement in all directions, with low-shutter speeds causing the glistening light to streak accordingly. Likewise, Nathaniel Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle captures the San Francisco Arboretum near his home for 2 hours, without any single, obvious wide-shot of the entrance or any site-specific manmade indications of where we are. So if I have seen the film, have I seen the arboretum? Certainly not, though I have seen what the arboretum means to Dorsky; the largely out of focus close-ups construct an external projection of his interior understanding of the landscape. In some instances, the images are almost unrecognizable as plants, though the fact that they are still discernible as plants tells us they are filmed without true abstraction in mind, meant instead as a small re-calibration, just as valuable (or more valuable) of a document of the arboretum as any visually straightforward showing of it.
(Top: still from Coda, Bottom: still from Monody, both 2017, from sections of the Arboretum Cycle)
Such roads of questioning eventually lead to James Benning, whose documentations of space early in his career meant traveling through various geographies nearly without altering the frame (The United States of America  co-directed by Bette Gordon), bringing images of Oklahoma oil wells to New York (Oklahoma, 1978), and looking for topographical indications of what might provoke murder in a small town (Landscape Suicide, 1987). Eventually his work slowed into static landscape studies, spending prolonged periods of time with smaller stretches of space; 13 Lakes (2004), a patch of sky in FAROCKI (2014), a single field in L.COHEN (2018). Though Benning’s images are minimalistic, they are often loaded with inferred emotion (look no further than the last two mentioned titles, odes to fallen friends – FAROCKI offers a static shot of the sky, as a billow of clouds pass overhead for nearly 80 minutes, and L. COHEN shows us a static landscape for 45 minutes, interspersed with a brief eclipse and the Cohen track ‘Love Itself’. Avant-gardists seek to not only represent a space, but really show us what those spaces are made of – to forego the physical in search of the emotional. What that emotion looks like is up to its maker. That is to say, clouds, however traditionally photographed they might be, are never only clouds, yet the degree to which they may embrace headspace depends on the filmmaker’s formal decisions (in this case, Benning’s insistence upon a singular image). In the case of Dorsky, it’s through an unorthodox engagement with traditional lens functions: focus and aperture. There is potential energy hidden in the land, energy which requires skill in order to be found.
The work of the aforementioned Teo Hernández is a great example of re-contextualizing how we think of physical properties onscreen. His camera constantly performs the impossible, rarifying objects, people, and structures in a warped spiral flurry; shooting at low shutter speeds, sometimes single frames, and constantly zooming rapidly in and out. The effect is one of hyperfocus and constant surprise. As we adjust to the whiplash, we watch closely so as not to miss an image. While Hernandez disassembles reality before our very eyes, we are amazed by our own eyes’ capacity to still recognize the fundamentals of the objects being altered. In Midi (1985), he shows how one can move actual mountains; physical properties as we know them are only façades separating any given landscape’s potential energy from our perception of it. While the camera constantly spins, twists, zooms and elongates physical properties, and the (what seems to be edited entirely in-camera) montage cuts most moments down to flashes of impressions, the spaces remain legible. In fact, they arguably make stronger impressions as we struggle to catch them flashing by than they would if we had a longer and clearer view.
The films also hold fleeting moments of unfiltered clarity, like when the incessant motion pauses to recognize the blood spat by a bull in a fight in Midi. Travelogues like Souvenirs de Florence (1981) and À Montpellier (1988) document relaxed vacation travels – though always filtered through Hernandez’s agitated fidgets. Statues, dogs, shops and tourists all fly by, subject to Hernandez’s physically-rearranging whims. In the former film, his gaze finally settles for a prolonged and sober look at a hunched-over old woman begging her way through the sparse population of a shaded veranda held up by Roman columns. In the context of a body of work built primarily from shots lasting less than a second and focused on playing with architecture, this full minute and a half dedication to human struggle on the streets is startling (though handheld, it is nearly stoic for Hernandez). Then 15 seconds of stoicism dedicated to a man asleep on the street. Another flurry of city shots, and a third pause on a young girl beggar, holding her baby brother, largely ignored by the crowd. These are devastating moments of documentary, a reminder that looking does not always equate to seeing.
(Stills from Souvenirs de Florence )
It occurred to me some time after writing the text that I would be remiss not to mention some of the many film festivals that actually show experimental work in a ‘documentary’ setting, including but not limited to: True/False, Sheffield Doc/Fest (who actually screened Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle), Open City Documentary Festival, and many more.