The Pixel and the Brush: David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows

One somewhat liberating aspect of an existence on the margins, we might suspect, is courage of one’s convictions. It seems likely that the compromises that most of us make on a daily basis, those adjustments, slight or perhaps larger, to our personal vision, in order to accommodate the reality principle, are just not worth it once you cross over into a certain thicket of rarified obscurity. If you are making highly formal, intensely intricate experimental cinema, with virtually no aesthetic overlap with the banal contours and passcodes of commercial film, why make concessions to “accessibility”? In such a context, what would that even mean? However, we’re currently in a cultural moment steeped in post-postmodern glad-handing and overeager identification with those elites who denigrate culture in the name of “anti-elitism.” Too many media artists, even in the so-called avant-garde, work hard to cater to miniscule attention spans and a narrow horizon of aesthetic engagement. Rather than push an audience to really hang with an image or an idea, some recent filmmakers prefer to flood their films with a bevy of empty stuff. It’s the cinematic version of quantitative easing.

David Gatten is one of the key film artists of our time who has consistently held fast against this trend. Where most contemporary filmmakers and critics have identified the experimental film world from the 1990s onward as a piecemeal patchwork of small endeavor and local knowledge, Gatten has somewhat unfashionably committed himself to grand conceptual projects more in keeping with the heyday of high modernism. His ongoing, multi-film Byrd Project, begun in the late 1990s, is an exploration of human knowledge as compiled and instantiated in the collected volumes of William Byrd II (1674-1744), the early American government official, founder of Richmond, Virginia, and proprietor of the U.S.’s first notable library. Gatten’s process has been the partial transfer of text from the books onto celluloid, which fades in and out onscreen as a sort of intermediate object of knowledge, poised between text and image. His films exemplify austere beauty and concentration, and most cases serving to visually literalize the very concept of “close reading.”

What’s more, in their combination of loose, gestural mark-making and firm conceptual organization, these films of Gatten’s have charted a path that is deeply personal and idiosyncratic while deeply indebted to experimental film tradition. Works such as The Enjoyment of Reading (2001), The Great Art of Knowing (2004), and The Matter Propounded, of its Possibility or Impossibility, Treated in four Parts (2011), exhibit the highly personal, even esoteric inwardness of Stan Brakhage in combination with the objective structures of Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow. Previous generations of filmmakers have understood these modes – the “mythopoeic” and the “structural” – to be fundamentally at odds. (And of course, many members of the current generation have looked elsewhere, finding solace in more popular forms.) But what Gatten’s work shows is that these varied strands of the 1960s and 70s experimental cinema world shared a basic interest in broad (if finite) cosmologies and phenomenological frame-building. How can cinema serve as an organized, time-bound framework of images and sounds that asked its viewers to reorient their way of perceiving their world, even if only for the length of its running time?

Taken as a whole, Gatten’s work over the past eighteen years has been an ongoing inquiry into cinematic knowledge, its connection to, and its role as a part of, the broader history of human knowledge. Although his individual films have been relatively short compared to film history’s most expansive avant-garde endeavors – Brakhage’s The Art of Vision (1965), for example, or Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew (1974) – they have tended to operate in series, as modular components in a broader examination of the pinpoint moment, for the viewer and for Gatten himself, at which text becomes image. Last year, however, Gatten threw even longtime admirers for a bit of a loop with a new “film,” his first feature-length effort. This strange new work is undoubtedly a continuation down the formal and phenomenological pathways forged by the Byrd films. And yet, Gatten is undeniably up to something brand new. The Extravagant Shadows (2012) is the first addition to Gatten’s filmography to be created not with celluloid but with digital media. Yes, “another one bites the dust,” if you want to look at it that way – David Gatten has made a video, one clocking in at nearly three hours.

Now, unlike so many 16mm experimentalists who have abandoned the cause, Gatten is still a filmmaker. He has already completed a new film work, with the very Byrd-like title What Places of Heaven, What Planets Directed, How Long the Effects? (Gatten completed it in 16mm, although indeed, he is world premiering it digitally.) It is rather unclear at this point whether The Extravagant Shadows is a kind of “side project,” or the beginning of a parallel career in digital filmmaking. However, what is clear, and crucial, is that Gatten is one of a handful of contemporary experimentalists who have made the move to digital, not by attempting to surreptitiously replicate their celluloid-honed aesthetics in the new medium, but by grappling with the specific parameters, the heart and soul of this second language.

As a result, The Extravagant Shadows is a masterwork – open, expansive, intellectually capacious. It is big, and not only because of its length. Like the Byrd series, The Extravagant Shadows is unafraid of delineating an all-encompassing perceptual space for its audience to enter, generating its own “time zone,” as it were, wherein its internal connections demand a radical shift of perceptual expectation. In order that we might live and breathe with Gatten’s highly unique visual field, and the fragmented textual relationships he invisibly conducts across the running time, we need to “get with the program,” as they say. The Extravagant Shadows, somewhat unfashionably, asks us to meet it a bit more than halfway, at least at first. However, as compared with similarly enveloping films, The Extravagant Shadows achieves a kind of placidity, becoming more seductive as it unfolds. It is an open field of relations, not an obstacle course.

But in all this discussion, I have thus far left a vital question unanswered. What is The Extravagant Shadows? In the simplest terms possible, it is a three-hour video of text and paint. More specifically, Gatten opens the film with a close-up of spines of books on a shelf (a fairly direct emblem of his customary work, but here depicted as a surface badge that will not take us “inside” as usual). Almost immediately a pane of glass slides into place in front of the books, and by extension, the camera lens. From this point on, the entire visual field is subsumed by the glass, which Gatten begins using as a surface for the application of paint. The screen is continually painted with color after color of fast-drying latex paint, the filmmaker’s brush applying broad swaths of pigment across the glass / screen / visual field in real time.

As Gatten himself has joked in the press notes, he has taken the opportunity of his very first feature – and his first digital work, at that – to fully instantiate one of the great critical shibboleths of our time (generally attributed to Gene Hackman’s character in Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves, regarding Eric Rohmer). The new David Gatten film isn’t just like “watching paint dry;” that’s actually what it is. But of course, that’s not all that it is. For one thing, Gatten isn’t simply painting the glass over and over, with a maniacal monochrome intensity. He is generating impromptu colorfield “canvases,” the relation of each subsequent color chosen not only for its stark contrast and vibrancy against the previous one, but for the way in which, during the time of drying, the inconsistencies will produce cracks and fissures between the two pigments, a layered relationship that at times looks scraped, at others like an abstract landscape. In every case, Gatten asks us to observe differential between the rapid action of his loaded brush and the (relatively) slow motion of the wet paint bonding with the dry, forming a new, somewhat unpredictable expanse.

In the midst of the color application, Gatten uses the digital technology to bring up and fade out full-screen texts. This use of language as both a communicative medium and a visual motif is, of course, very much in keeping with Gatten’s earlier work in celluloid. But again, rather than attempt to replicate the one medium with the other, Gatten explores how digital tools permit him to alter his working method. Whereas in his Film for Invisible Ink series, works seem to come out of the white field of projector light, and them slip back into the three-dimensional space of the celluloid, in The Extravagant Shadows blocks of text, short phrases or sometimes even a handful of single words, gradually come into view onscreen, as if they are “drying” on the glass at the same pace as the paint. Similarly, they disappear from view once the new layer of pigment has situated itself, found its level upon the thick synthetic impasto of the film, making way for the next set of maneuvers.

And what of the texts themselves? Unlike other Gatten films, which have often been explorations of very particular books or sheaves of letters, The Extravagant Shadows is highly circumspect about its sources. The books we see in the beginning and end may provide certain clues – The Count of Monte Cristo, Nicholas Nickleby, Leon Edel’s edited collection of the stories of Henry James, and other key literary tomes –Gatten’s texts (which seem to be an amalgam of original and appropriated material) give the distinct impression that an actual story is developing. That is, The Extravagant Shadows is not just a feature, but it is almost a narrative. And what is it about?

These textual fragments are preoccupied with two key elements: emotional connection and various methods of communicative transmission. Two figures are trying to make contact with one another, and we are receiving a highly attenuated, semi-epistolary modernist story about lapses in the media that are supposedly in place to allow us to convey our thoughts and desires across time and space. (If there is a work in Gatten’s filmography to which The Extravagant Shadows bears direct comparison, it would be his highly idiosyncratic 2007 film How to Conduct a Love Affair.)We read of the mails, the telegraph, the selection of books, the distance between nations. Eventually, the speaker (or speakers) seem to doubt the efficacy of writing altogether. As the film enters its third hour, we read the following: “I am not frightened of the truth. I am not afraid to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked. I know this guile is a warning; it would be nobler to leave the truth in peace.”

Gatten, of course, never gives up on the struggle of his interlocutors to find both the language and the conduit by which to make the necessary connection. (Gatten has indicated that The Extravagant Shadows was in part inspired by his university teaching, which afforded him the opportunity to engage more deeply with experimental narrative cinema, the films of Jacques Rivette in particular.) There is no resolution to their interwoven narrative conundrum, just as the painterly frankness of The Extravagant Shadows’s visual track permits of no logical finality. But as we emerge, like Gatten, on the other side of this three-hour journey into fragmentary meaning and radiant visual simplicity, we have found that the medium itself has been rather thoroughly explored. Video’s electric flatness has found an analogue in the quick-drying latex paint, which lights up the pixels and then allows them to slowly dim, at a regular and observable pace. And the narrative, if that’s really what it is, adheres to digital media’s nonlinear, database organization (the open field of meaning) while also, in its overt content, engaging with the very question of the materiality of media, and how they condition or even thwart our most precious interpersonal missives.