There are so many reasons why terms like "avant-garde" or "experimental" are painfully inadequate for describing so much of the artwork that ends up getting labeled as such. Strictly speaking, an avant-garde is an advance tear or vanguard, leading an aesthetic charge into the future, blazing a trail that, presumably, all others will eventually follow. And experimentalists, so it seems, would be those who are pushing against the limitations of their chosen media — coaxing as-yet-unheard sounds out of the trumpet, for instance, or collapsing the division between bodily movements coded as "dance" and everyday gestures — to find out just how far those media can bend before they break.
When we hear the term "experimental film," it has become a kind of historical catchall for anyone who is not working within the tradition of narrative cinema, with its conventions of actors, performance and written scenarios. But not every filmmaker is equally invested in overturning each and every aspect of the medium as we have grown to understand it. Maya Deren, for example, retained elements of performance and even character, but chose to communicate through poetic repetition, rhythm and dreamlike condensation of symbols. Bruce Conner, the maestro of found footage filmmaking, adopted the fundamentals of montage and associative editing to generate critical, ironic salvos about 1950s and '60s America, to undermine the affirmative bromides of Madison Avenue. Even Stan Brakhage, in some respects the most radical cine-modernist of his generation, spent the first half of his career grounded in an exploration of the problem of point-of-view, a concern he shared with advanced Hollywood practitioners like Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk.
Robert Beavers, who will present a selection of his films at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema on Thursday, is a major figure in the history of American experimental film whose films, to a large extent, are not what we might call experimental or avant-garde. In terms of their sense of harmony and structure, Beavers' films actually have much more in common with Renaissance or even classical Greek aesthetics than with the high modernism typically associated with the cinematic avant-garde. These works often feel like artifacts from another time, as if stone carvings had left a photographic residue suddenly discovered like a fossil, or we had somehow managed to recapture the light and space and dust particles between the domed ceiling of a Borromini church and a pair of 17th century eyes.
This program is a rare opportunity, because Beavers' works are rather difficult to see. We are fortunate to live in an age in which at least partial accessibility of non-narrative cinema has increased considerably. As recently as 10 years ago, individuals outside of a few key urban centers, or the academy, were unlikely to know very much about these works, and if they read about them, the chances of actually seeing them were slim indeed.
Now, of course, many significant filmmakers' works are being issued on DVD and Blu-ray. This is a dual-edged sword, since the films in question have often banked a great deal of their aesthetic meaning on the specific properties of 16mm celluloid projection. Film looks different than even the best digital projection; it has a plasticity of light and tactility of space that 4K cannot replicate, and home video cannot touch.
Naturally, life is full of trade-offs, and none but a few diehard purists would argue, for instance, that it is somehow preferable to never see a Kenneth Anger or Hollis Frampton film than to see it in degraded form on video. Trouble is, the increasing availability of avant-garde film in digital formats has gone hand-in-hand with the decline in 16mm rentals and the institutional upkeep of projection equipment. Many universities, which had been this non-industrial medium's lifeblood for years, are abandoning 16mm altogether. Nashville is very fortunate that Vanderbilt is committed to bringing in world-class artists such as Beavers, and presenting his work as it was intended.
For his part, Beavers is not going gently into the supposed twilight of 16mm celluloid. That he has not made, and to all appearances will not make, his films available digitally is simply a given. But even more than his contemporaries, Beavers has devised a model of relative self-sufficiency, distributing and presenting his films in his own way. Whereas other key films from his generation are falling into disuse, his films remain in demand, largely because they are so exquisite and spiritually illuminating, but also because the filmmaker has kept their exposure limited. They remain relatively scarce, coveted objects of optical desire in a universe of visual saturation and promiscuity.
This approach seems based in artisanal practices and Old World aesthetics, rather than any political program per se. Beavers and his mentor and life partner, the late Gregory J. Markopoulos, moved to Europe in 1967, making the continent their home until Markopoulos' passing in 1992. Beavers hasn't just created a foundation for the preservation and exhibition of his and Markopoulos' films. He has established a one-of-a-kind sylvan amphitheatre called the Temenos, near Lyssaraia in Arcadia, Greece, where Beavers has mounted yearly screenings of extended portions of ENIAIOS, Markopoulos' massive "film cycle."
Beavers' own films, shown as separated works as they will be at Sarratt, are also part of his own extended masterwork, collectively known as My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure. Originally Markopoulos and Beavers conceived the Temenos as a space for sharing both their films in an intimate sylvan setting, but thus far Beavers has used the annual gathering only to display the art of his late companion.
The films of both Beavers and Markopoulos are marked by a deep saturation in Western art historical models, in particular the relations between antiquity and the high-art explorations from the Quattrocento through the Baroque periods. While Markopoulos' works tend to explicitly engage with classical modes of myth and the romantic hero, however, Beavers' have distilled the European tradition into a set of formal gestures that are both sublime and, in an almost alchemical sense, sublimated. The logic and atmosphere of painterly space and classical architecture are compressed into Beavers' frames in profound, preternatural ways — resulting in films that truly seem to emerge from another time altogether.
And yet the mastery of their construction displays not only Beavers' hand at work, but the interface between earlier approaches to seeing — sometimes orthogonally exact, sometimes overgrown and elemental — and the cinematic apparatus. A film such as The Ground (worked on between roughly 1993 and 2001 — Beavers is deliberately circumspect about his dates) is a perfect example. In making a study of the rocky terrain of the island of Hydra, Beavers' editing and use of careful refocusing results in subtle, unforced but highly persuasive visual parallels. Most of his shots are at a straight angle to their subject, but Beavers frequently reframes his images by apparently adjusting his lens or resituating his camera in relation to the subject. So, rather than roving with a mobile camera, or fragmenting the objects with harsh edits, Beavers seems to take us gently along the X, Y and Z axes of the visual field.
What's more, Beavers doesn't typically move us from shot to shot of a single subject. His films are almost all sestinas or villanelles on a set of related motifs. The Ground interlaces the landscape with, for example, a stonecutter and a naked male torso with a cupped hand, moving toward us in a gesture of offering or supplication. When we see Beavers' frame circle into darkness, as if he's changing the lens plate, it's another image that slides into place. While this is a highly unique formal maneuver all on its own — given that it essentially primes the viewer to anticipate a closer view of what we are looking at and then, by giving us something else, makes Beavers' poetic condensations palpably felt — this approach is also part and parcel of the European aesthetic into which Beavers, it seems, is trying to induct the seventh art.
As art historian Heinrich Wölfflin explained, Renaissance visual thinking was characterized by, among other things, a unified field in which multiple elements maintained their identity, hanging together in compositional tension. In a way, Beavers may have found an alternative to montage, the system that always makes each part of film a mere function of the whole. In his films, everything hovers, moves away, and then closer — and yet it always stays right there with us.
Robert Beavers will attend a screening and discussion of his films "The Stoas," "The Ground," "The Suppliant," and "Pitcher of Colored Light" 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21 at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema.