In December, UnionDocs hosted Cheap Peter Hutton, one of the avant-garde’s most accomplished filmmakers, for an evening of four films: three old pieces, and footage from a work-in-progress. Since the late 1970s with the first New York Portrait (1978-79), most of Hutton’s films have been short place portraits, structured unsystematically, and typically rather short. He has focused his efforts on documenting cities (the New York Portraits Purchase Pills , Budapest Portrait (1984-86), Lodz Symphony (1991-93), and the current work-in-progress about Detroit), and rural landscapes — often, befitting a former merchant seaman, bodies of water (Landscape (For Manon) (1986-87), In Titan’s Goblet (1991), Study of a River (1993-94), Time And Tide (1998-2000), Looking at the Sea Pills (2000-01), and Skagafjördur (2002-04)). In these works, location serves as the sole organizing principle. Hutton shoots scenes as they come to him, arranging them in poetic or lightly rhythmic sequences, often as discrete units separated by black leader. The films are completely silent. People are rarely present. Hutton’s camera trains directly on the scenery.
During the Q&A after the screening, Hutton told film scholar Scott MacDonald that his art making is driven by a desire to “respect the process of looking”. A masterful cinematographer with an acute sense of timing, Hutton is a perfect guide through the places he gives us to behold, always finding the most suggestive angles from which to depict them, and the best natural light to illuminate their drama. He holds the shots long enough to allow an eye to move through the image, but never so long as to become an exercise in stamina. Without story or assertion guiding our viewing experience, there is nothing to do but look.
In 2007, he completed his most ambitious film, At Sea , which has since become his most celebrated. It traces three stages in the life of a container ship, wrapping Hutton’s landscape imagery in a much tighter narrative casing. Though At Sea is a very good film, the relative familiarity of its design made clear how special Hutton’s more modest films really are. At Sea’s structure suggests something like conventional documentary. Here, Hutton provides a record of how something happens — a container ship is built, used, and destroyed for scrap. In comparison, the oddness and inutility of the earlier works is striking.
The style of the older films is not totally unprecedented. They fit comfortably into the the avant-garde subgenre that Michael Sicinski, citing Bruce Bailee and Chick Stand, has glancingly identified as the “imagistic, non-argumentative cinema of fact.” And less obscurely, these mute, partial documentary records of space recall the actualités of the Lumière brothers and other early pioneers of cinema, as well as proto-cinematic devices like the camera obscura and the magic lantern that dazzled audiences simply by transforming the hard realities of space into a projection of light. Hutton exemplifies of a common irony: often the films that are called “avant-garde” are those most informed by the medium’s history — an irony noted by many film scholars, perhaps mostly frequently by MacDonald himself.
Despite the obvious influence, Hutton’s films cannot be called actualités. While he borrows something of their affect, his films do not depict events of interest beyond their presentation. Nor does his camera inhabit the objective viewpoint implied by those early non-fictions. Hutton shoots his vistas from a discernible first-person perspective. I have not seen any of Hutton’s earliest work (July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moo (1971), New York, Near Sleep (For Saskia) (1972), and Images of Asian Music (1973), but my understanding is that they are diary films à la Jonas Mekas. While he never explicitly invokes the diary in the later films, the division of the shots, and the catch-as-catch-can nature of their recording suggest something like diary entries. It seems that even more than tributes to a general process of looking, Hutton’s films serve as accounts of what one man has looked at, the fades in-and-out that bookend the shots in many of Hutton’s films acting like eyes opening and closing. MacDonald has elsewhere compared the grainy quality of Hutton’s images to the Impressionist techniques of Seurat, Monet, and others.
Phenomenological subjectivity, however, does not explain the non-documentary effect of Hutton’s work. The drowsy eye movement suggested by the fades also evokes dreaming, and in this reading, the parade of landscapes takes on the dry-mouthed discombobulation of fitful consciousness. Dreaming has, of course, long been associated with the cinema, but not the rather prosaic works of its inventors. While Hutton’s direct, unadorned non-fiction makes him an obvious heir to the Lumières, his films also conjure all the strange, tenebrous magic associated with George Méliès and his acolytes. The most persistent myth of film history holds that early in its development, the form split into distinct poles represented by its earliest innovators — the realism of the Lumières and the illusionism of George Méliès. As stated by Sigfried Kracauer: “Lumiere appealed to the sense of observation, the curiosity about “nature caught in the act”; Melies ignored ignored the workings of nature out of the artist’s delight in sheer fantasy.”
Hutton’s best work emanates from the cross-roads of these supposedly distinct traditions. For him, catching nature in the act requires locating the sheer fantasy that already exists within its workings. In New York Portrait 1, the city is frequently shown in silhouette, rendering the concrete presences of the city’s skyscrapers as a distant play of shadows. In Study of a River, he transforms the pale blue water and the green banks of the Hudson into a stark, silky black and white whose shimmering tones have few real life analogues. A travelling shot captured from the bow of the ship makes it seem as though the camera is skating on black ice. Hutton’s resistance to structural logic also allows him to disrupt our serene appreciation of landscape with the most casual of gestures; the upside-down shot inserted towards the beginning of Pills Study of A River, the abrupt change in scale that marks the interior shots that appear in the final third of New York Portrait 1 Order , the washed-out, low-angle view of a chimney sweep that opens Lodz Symphony.
Moments such as these undermine any feeling that Hutton’s films exist to simply transmit the beauty of the physical world. The mysticism that informs these works is not the spiritual reverie provoked by long contemplation of the landscape, but instead reality sublimed by disjunction and legerdemain. Hutton downplays the importance of editing to his films. He doesn’t even work on a flatbed, but instead strings his shots together piece by piece with rewinds and a viewer. But though his aesthetic was most certainly developed as a cinematographer, it is Hutton’s minimal editorial interventions that give his films their gnawing, otherworldly stamp (blurring the boundaries between another entrenched opposition of film history: mise-en-scene vs. montage). This was clear from the recent footage of Detroit that Hutton showed at UnionDocs. While the images are no less sumptuous than usual, the haphazard arrangement of the work-in-progress lacked the beguiling power of the completed films, in which Hutton places the camera’s unvarnished, indexical record of real space on the same plane as what he calls the “subtle manipulations” of the apparatus. Their equal co-existence, and the hazy, intoxicating disorientation that results could be called “the Hutton touch”.