REPOST: Can We See Philosophy? A Dialogue With Ernie Gehr

An interview with Ernie Gehr, one of the most influential avant garde filmmakers about his philosophical views was published in this New York Times article.

The common currency of philosophy is language. But does it have to be?

In other words, can a non-verbal, visual experience qualify as philosophical inquiry? Can philosophy be an act of seeing rather than a verbal one? Can it be a film? Can the vehicle of expression be light?

Not surprisingly — we are discussing philosophy after all —the answers to these questions vary. Some claim that a film can not do the “hard work” of philosophy — that is, the detailed, often complex reasoning that spoken and written language can perform so thoroughly. While distinguished written works in the 20th century by thinkers like Stanley Cavell established film as an appropriate subject for philosophy, the question of whether a film itself can be or do philosophy remains more contentious.

Ernie Gehr is generally considered one of the most penetrating and influential avant garde filmmakers working today. Gehr, who was born in 1941 and is often grouped with the “structuralist” filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton, creates non-narrative works — sometimes jarring or disorientating, often meditative — that naturally raise questions about the physical world and human perception. (This 2011 New York Times article by Manohla Dargis is an excellent general introduction to Gehr’s work.)

Whether or not one accepts the film-is-philosophy assertion, Gehr’s work falls firmly into the realm of direct experience and inquiry. According to the film scholar and writer Scott MacDonald, whose series of “Critical Cinema” interviews with filmmakers are a standard source in the field, Gehr is one of a number of filmmakers whose work is animated by the “idea of using cinema as a retraining of perception, often of slowing us down so that we can truly see and hear.” Works like his 1991 film “Side/Walk/Shuttle” subvert the viewer’s learned sense of motion, environmental sound and gravity. His most famous film, the 1970 “Serene Velocity,” uses a single drab interior — a hallway in an academic building at SUNY Binghamton — to do the same with our sense of perspective, space and light. Many of his more recent works (he has made nearly 50 since switching from film to video, for financial reasons, in 2004) pose the same challenges.

As a filmmaker, Gehr makes no particular claims to philosophy, but believes that the various components that go into the viewing experience, including the material of film and video themselves, are “all part of the experience of consciousness.” Film, he wrote in 1971, “does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind.”

With the idea that philosophy is connected to and enriched by and sometimes advanced by other arts, I interviewed Ernie Gehr for The Stone at his home in Brooklyn in September. The occasion for this talk is a premiere screening of five of Gehr’s new video works, all from 2013, to be held at Lincoln Center on Sunday, Oct. 6, as part the New York Film Festival’s “Views From the Avant Garde,” where 45 programs of avant garde films and videos are being shown this week.

Below are edited excerpts from our discussion.

Peter Catapano, editor, The Stone.
STONE: The visual diet of ordinary people — at very least the 2.5 billion or so who are connected to the Internet — has changed drastically in the past two decades. The amount of created visual language we consume — photos, television, movies and video clips — is exponentially larger and the pace at which we consume it much quicker. How do you think a young person raised in this environment would see your films?

E.G.: I don’t know. Most likely it would vary from one individual to the next. There are definitely differences — I wouldn’t say in languages but in techniques.

For example, movies from an earlier period, say the ‘50s or ’60, may now seem very slow to some people because the cutting or action was not as fast as in contemporary movies. The cutting was minimal, with some exceptions — 20 seconds, whatever. Now commercials and television have become great factors in people being able to just such switch channels. I’m using the term “commercial” in a really neutral sense; I’m not putting anything on it.

Likewise with sound. In order to keep people’s attention, movies use sound more intensely now than ever before. The idea of a moment of silence, for example — a producer would panic if a director would do that. It’s also played in movie theaters at a higher volume than it’s ever been. I just find it too much sometimes.

It doesn’t mean that people are picking up on things more rapidly than they did 40, 50, 100 years ago. I doubt it. It’s just that these rapid cuts — the best examples are contemporary coming attractions, TV commercials or MTV — are not involved with making you see something or reflect upon something.

Maybe if human creatures are around 1,000 years from now something will happen to our wiring. If things keep moving in the same direction, maybe humans will be able to pick things up faster. But I don’t think there’s much difference between now and 20 or 30 years ago, aside from the added stress in our daily lives.

I’m still very much involved in challenging myself and the viewer. I want to see. I want an experience of a work. Someone is making something — I really want to understand what that person has created. I want to have a sense of the work, as a human experience, hopefully making my life a little bit richer. And that takes time. It takes time to see things. It’s not that my vision is so slow. But I really need time, and I think so do other people.

Sometimes when some of my work moves slowly it’s to force someone in a way, including myself as a viewer, to actually look at what is there, to discover things. I don’t see everything I’ve recorded or put together or recorded till later on.

I find it really pleasurable. And part of it comes from looking at paintings and listening to music — over and over and over again. I’m talking about not songs but instrumental music, where I try to understand how a passage here may go with something that I might have heard earlier.

STONE: What sort of music do you listen to?

E.G: I listen to mostly, but not exclusively, classical music. My favorite composer is Charles Ives. He constantly surprises me. Here you have music, especially if you hear his work in a concert hall, you hear it almost for the first time. It’s amazing how much is happening. And if you don’t pay attention, it’s a problem.

STONE: A recent article in The Times noted how large museums are moving towards proving the public an “experience” — like the recent “Rain” exhibition at MOMA —rather asking them to sit and look at something static. Is it true that people want to be in control of an experience or is it more about capturing more people into a space?

E.G.: Numbers seem to play a huge role. The more people that come to a museum, the better — as far as the museum goes. And part of it, I totally understand. Museums are getting larger and larger, and employing more people and there are more and more expenditures and in order to survive, they need greater attendance. But it’s a dual thing — the more people you have, it’s like going to a shopping mall, and it becomes difficult to have an experience.

I sound elitist in that respect but I don’t mean it that way.

I used to enjoy going to museums very much because it was a place where … I’m not sure I would use the word meditation, because when I am focused on something I am actually quite tense. I try to see it with all my senses and that means I can’t think about myself so much but respond to everything that’s there as fully as I can. And that really requires time and concentration.

And people don’t have time now.

STONE: If you look at the very popular new age trend of meditation, of trying to slow down and reduce stress by finding quiet time — we find something akin to self-help versions of what a viewer might get watching some of your work, which is very focused on certain images and forces the viewer to pay attention. Do you think there is some sort of need for people to focus the mind in this way, even though they think they want more and more stimulation?

E.G.: The first work of mine that you saw was “Still” (1969-1971). Part of what I was interested in was going counter to the grain of the quick take. This was the era of the Vietnam War, and you would see films that were for or against the war. I always felt like these movies were at the time hitting me on the head telling me “this is good” or “this is bad.” I couldn’t think for myself when I was seeing any of these works. And I wanted very much some work that would just feed me information, just neutral, just report. I like to decide for myself. Because the world is made up of so many people, with so many different perspectives. We’re not going to agree on everything. And to tell me it’s good or bad is always, among other things, an oversimplification of reality. And by reality I don’t mean just world events but even what we are looking at. So “Still” was in part made with some of that perspective.

And if you look at it even in terms of subject matter — forget about how weird it looks for a second. Here you have a shot of a street [31st Street in Manhattan], fairly common, mundane. There is nothing special about it, nothing sexy, attractive about it. Some people are passing by. So if you sit there in this movie theater and you start looking, and let’s say you’re not interested in formal perceptual issues, you watch this minimal amount of cars passing. What is this image? It’s an urban setting. Buildings across the street. There’s a store, “Early American.” Next to it, Kastos, a soda/lunch place. There’s a tree surrounded by concrete. Nature exists in this way in an urban setting. We’re not in the country.

So it gives you time to reflect upon that. Also the concrete, the street, there’s just continual traffic. I know it’s horrible — the sound. So how good is that for human existence? Maybe you’ll think about that maybe you won’t. So without my telling you this is good or bad for you, it’s just presenting to you, just giving the continual take, no editorial, just showing you, not just the exciting moments. It’s just a continual take, letting you decide whether that is good for human existence.

STONE: In an attempt to respect the categories of philosophy, I looked into some views on the distinction between film criticism and film philosophy and came across this in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Whenever scholars attempt to spell out what film is (Is film art? How is it different from other arts?) their discourse becomes necessarily philosophical.” Do people who actually make films think about questions like this?

E.G.: Yes. That is an issue. What is it you are making? It’s always an issue.

In the late 1960s, I had recently completed my first two 16-millimeter films — a short piece called “Morning,” and “Wait.” Around that time, I went to see an Ingmar Bergman film called “The Seventh Seal.” These big philosophical questions about life and death. And I kept saying to myself, O.K, this is a big issue you’re talking about. But you’re not talking about film. I made these two little pieces that have to do with light, and the absence of light. Each frame is recorded at a different exposure so it’s either existing or not existing.

What is film? Why work with it? It’s like why do you use paint? Or why do you use paper and pencil or written language? It was very important, yes.

But things just happen. There was no particular course where one thing led to another. I didn’t start saying, “So what is film?” then came up with some idea. It was worked out intuitively, and a lot had to do with life experience with the medium of film, of going to the cinemas from childhood on and having different responses — to the place where the movies where shown, to the image and screen, to what the movies were doing to me, psychologically and especially emotionally, being kind of moved in different directions and finding that I had no control over them. So that molded to some degree my coming to film.

But another factor was coming across a flip book. It might have been before I was 10 or somewhere in my early teens. Somebody gave me this flip book, just sheets of paper and as you use your thumb to move those sheets, still images take on a life, they start to move, but you can move them forward and backwards, you can flip it around. If you take out the staple as I did in that point in time, and shuffled those images around you could get somewhat of a warped image from the straight look of what was there, say, someone jumping over a fence.

This was something I felt I could do myself. I wasn’t thinking “Oh, I can work with John Wayne in 35 millimeter!” This was real; it was exciting to me, the possibilities that were there. The relationship of a still to a moving image — that was so haunting. And I think my clearest articulation — thought not the only one — I made in that respect is the work “Serene Velocity.” It deals with space, and what happens on the plane, with the fact that you are working with this deep space and the same time with frames, no movement. It’s all in the way we see. It’s real. The experience of space is real.

It is a question that is always haunting me: What is it that I’m working with? It’s also, What is a film? What is a digital work? Is it the physical item? Is it the projector? The strip of film? The tape? The disc? It’s all part of it. It’s mixed media. And the way these things all interact tell us so much about human perception and experience and the way one sees anything in the world.

I do reflect upon that. And if that is reflected in the work it needs to come from within the work, rather than something superimposed.

STONE: Like in the Bergman film, where they ask the question or state the problem and we or the characters are meant to think about it? But you are using the language of the image instead.

E.G.: Yes. And it requires the viewer to lean forward and ask these questions. What are these 16 or 18 or 24 flickerings? What is meant by the “life” of the film? You pull the plug, and there is no film on the screen. You close your eyes and there is no film, even if there is one on screen. So these are questions that do weigh. How to articulate them with the medium? You need to reflect upon the medium itself. What are the characteristics of the medium and how can you make them come alive for someone else?

Photographic emulsions, those chemicals — they are so alive. Light strikes them and there’s this phenomenal thing happening. You have to respond to that. You have to imagine and try to bring that alive in a work. And that’s not easy.

Lou Habash believes that philosophy still has a place in this world. You can find more links to philosophy articles at this Twitter page.

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