Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ernie Gehr: Exploring the Senses

Central Jersey film lovers have a rare opportunity to see works by a distinguished director of short “avant-garde” films when Ernie Gehr screens several of his movies in Princeton.

Gehr, who has been making movies since the 1960s, is widely recognized as one of the best living experimental filmmakers. In the words of the copy for an exhibit of his work that’s currently running at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, his films “create a sense of wonder with their unfailingly lush, sensual image quality and minute attention to contrast and framing.“

His most famous, Serene Velocity, a hypnotic study of a hallway in which he switches between long shots and close-ups at regular intervals, adjusting the focal length just a bit with each shot to create the illusion of movement, is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. But none of his two dozen or so movies is available on DVD or video, so chances are you’ve never seen one of his eye-opening meditations on light, color, composition, and film as a medium, which function as a kind of wakeup call to our overtaxed, generally half shut-down senses.

Well, a few have popped up on the Internet, but Gehr advises against watching them there. “They look terrible,” he says. “The one on YouTube is even at the wrong speed. They’re totally misleading.”

Gehr’s November program will consist of recent work on digital video, including some films shown at this year’s New York Film Festival. Next week, he’ll kick off his showings with five older works on 16mm film: Serene Velocity, Wait, Rear Window, Passage, and Side/Walk/Shuttle. The last, which shows aerial views of San Francisco shot from a glass elevator as it floats up and down, was named one of the 10 best movies of 1992 by three of the Village Voice’s contentious critics.

Gehr began making movies after moving to New York and discovering filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinemateque. The film series showed movies by people working outside the Hollywood tradition, including Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mekas himself. “My education took place by going to see these films, again and again, and seeing the possibilities – that filmmaking wasn’t locked into a certain narrow direction,” says Gehr. “I was also looking at paintings and reading contemporary fiction by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and so on. These films seemed to echo that same tradition of exploring the possibilities of the medium.

“I was interested in cinema, but I didn’t think I would be able to make films,” he adds. “I didn’t have the personality, the connections, or the money to work in Hollywood. I’m a relatively shy person – or was. So when I was finally able to pick up a camera, and to find places where there were other people who would look at this work, it was very exciting. It really opened up opportunities for expressing myself.”

Gehr’s voice sounds a lot like Peter Lorre’s: quietly intense and lightly dusted with the Germanic accent of his youth. His parents were German Jews who survived WWII in Europe, moving their family to this country in the late ‘50s when Gehr was a teen. The family settled in Milwaukee, and Gehr has spent nearly all of his adult life in either San Francisco or New York City.

“I’ve lived in cities all my life,” he says. “Occasionally I would visit a friend in the country and stay overnight, hear the sounds of the crickets, but I don’t know what living in the country is like. I’m drawn to the city. It’s where human history is made, the environment that shapes us in so many ways.”

Perhaps that’s why city life is an integral part of much of his work -- even the main subject of some more recent films. Critic Tom Gunning has called Gehr’s films “a discovery of, and vivid response to, a range of visual phenomenon available in the modern urban environment,” saying they show the city as “a circulatory system, a channeling of flows.”

His work is also an exploration of the characteristics, strengths, and limitations of film itself, so switching to digital video at the turn of the new century was a significant change for Gehr. He did it with considerable trepidation, initially more for financial than artistic reasons.

“I make films, most of the time, with my own savings,” he says. “I do apply for grants, but I’m not very good at that, and since the NEA stopped giving grants to individuals in the mid-90s, it’s been difficult to find support. I make a living teaching rather than from the work itself.

“The problem with working with film now is the labs. To get a print that looks the way you want it to look, sometimes you have to ask for three or four additional prints, and you have to pay for every one. Before, they would just do it over if they didn’t get it quite right the first time.”

Gehr likes the control he gets from “processing” his own digital images in the computer, adjusting colors and so on. He also prefers digital sound quality to the compromised sound you get from converting 16mm magnetic tape to the optical sound used by virtually all U.S. projectors. But there are also things he prefers about film, which he still uses on occasion. “Video is not as dramatic as film,” he says. “The colors are more controllable in film. The image is sharper. The light is more intense. The fact that you have a flicker in the projector makes the image more tactile, more physical. Also, the image in film has the illusion of being more dimensional.

“One of the [digital] pieces that I’ll be showing in November in Princeton, Glider, accentuates that flatness of image,” he adds. “I bring it out rather than trying to hide the quality of video.”

In other words, the details may change in Gehr’s work, but the fundamental things remain the same. And perhaps most fundamental of all is what he calls “a certain responsiveness to the formal characteristics of the medium -- trying to bring them to the foreground and make them tactile, so they can be experienced pleasurably, as something with intrinsic aesthetic value and not just as an idea.”

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