Hands Outstretched

On Robert Beavers's cinema of transcendence
by Rebekah Rutkoff  posted December 17, 2010
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Robert Beavers and Rebekah Rutkoff will both appear on a panel discussion about Gregory Markopoulos at Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm. At 3:00 p.m. that day, the Museum will present the U.S. premiere of Eniaios: Cicle 5, a recently restored three-hour section of Markopoulos's monumental 80-hour film Eniaios.

In September 1967, when Gregory Markopoulos (1928-1992) corresponded with the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna about screening his work in an upcoming "New American Cinema" program, he enclosed a note. In typewritten caps, he urged Peter Kubelka and Peter Konlechner, the museum's founders and co-directors, to take note of the work of an 18-year-old filmmaker named Robert Beavers (b. 1949), and to consider buying a print of his first film Spiracle for $200. "THE EXTRAORDINARY THING ABOUT MR. BEAVERS IS THAT HE HAS HAD NO OTHER FORMAL FILM TRAINING...THAN PICKING UP A BOLEX REFLEX CAMERA AND SETTING TO WORK...THOUGH VERY YOUNG HE SHOWS A KIND OF PERFECTION AND NOBILITY SELDOM SEEN IN THE NEW CINEMA: OR IN ANY OTHER CINEMA FOR THAT MATTER." Markopoulos taped three film frames, featuring his own profiled face superimposed on the landscape of Hydra, to the bottom of the note—an introduction to the new filmmaker's vision. "P.S. He has never been shown, to this date, by anyone!"    

Thus began a committed relationship. In 1969, Kubelka and Konlechner showed four of Beavers's films: Winged Dialogue, On the Everyday Use of the Eyes of Death, Plan of Brussels, and The Count of Days. Today, after the Temenos Archives near Zurich (the repository for Beavers's and Markopoulos's films and associated materials), the Austrian Film Museum holds the largest collection of his work in the world, and, in the final, snowy days of November, became the fourth institution (after the Whitney Museum in 2005, the Tate Modern in 2007, and Pacific Film Archive in 2009) to present four decades of Beavers's work in its entirety. Following Mark Webber's programming schema at the Tate, a week of six chronologically mixed programs gave way to the retrospective's final weekend: a complete presentation of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure, Beavers's 18-film cycle of completed works made since 1967 (many shortened and re-edited over the course of a decade, starting in the 1990s).

The registers of the title's "hand outstretched" are multiple, but it refers, in part, to Beavers's ongoing study of and identification with hand- and craftwork (his films feature intricate labors of sewing, bookbinding, cooking, stone chiseling) as well as to his reliance, in front of the camera, on the intuitive knowledge and gestures of his own hands—antidotes to the forces of intention and will. His films, lucid and delicate, are condensed odes to the pulsing vitality of both spectator and medium. They exist at what Susan Oxtoby has called the "intersection of structural and lyrical filmmaking traditions" in locations across Europe and Greece, in dialogue with the natural world and the work of artists both known (including Ruskin, Leonardo, and Borromini) and unknown. In Beavers's hands, the matrix of imagination and reality is one of startling integration: his is a cinema of transcendence but not one of disorientation or trance. Steadily grounded in the materiality of celluloid and camera, and objects both exalted and mundane, it offers an invitation to direct seeing without demanding exit from the recognizable and the real.

An intensely focused audience assembled last month for full immersion in Beavers's oeuvre—including not only noted figures of the Viennese avant-garde like Kubelka, Gustav Deutsch, Peter Tscherkassky, and the critic Harry Tomicek, but also artists and curators who had traveled from Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, and the U.S., and the young Viennese filmmakers studying with Beavers during a weekend workshop. There was a palpable sense of homecoming in the museum's intimate screening space over the three days of cycle screenings, and autograph-seekers huddled around Beavers afterward, cognizant of the rarity of the occasion.

Beavers's first experiments, made at 18 and 19, were self-portraits and portraits created at monthly intervals as he was uncovering the possibilities of camera and craft. Taken together, these Early Monthly Segments (1968-70/2002) constitute a silent prelude to the full My Hand Outstretched; they also reappear embedded within the cycle (this time with sound), side-by-side and in dialogue with the five films made concurrently. The Segments offer a glimpse into the itinerant life Beavers and Markopoulos shared after moving to Europe from the U.S. in 1967 (the two were partners until Markopoulos's death): in temporary domestic spaces in Switzerland, Germany, and Greece. But they also chronicle the emergence of Beavers's original film language, including his investigations of colored light and the construction of space within the frame—both of which became enduring fascinations. He created variously shaped mattes to obscure and contain aspects of the image, and placed colored gelatin filters in the space between the lens and aperture, producing subtle varieties of colored light that, in concert with focal changes, shift not only in saturation but in chroma. A diffuse field of hazy jewel-tones in one frame contracts, in focus, to a neat grid of primary-colored squares in another.

In his introductory remarks, Beavers compared these early experiments—the reflexive I-and-thou dialogues between camera and maker—to the first works of many filmmakers. "The only difference is I show it, month by month," he said. These first explorations are remarkable not only for their announcement of a unique poetics, but for their maker's willingness to articulate his own acts of composition and method, to make the dialects and heartbeat of the camera audible rather than simply showcasing, wizard-like, its effects. In one Segments sequence featuring a central square matte that interrupts the representation of deep space, Beavers sits at an outdoor table in Locarno and slides a glass-mounted matte into the camera compendium, so that we witness the joint, real-time work of fingers and camera in the arrangement of an image. We also encounter him at his editing table, covered only with coils of separated shots: Beavers edits not by repeated Steenbeck screenings but by internal composing. In fact, the frames Markopoulos enclosed evoke Beavers's special method of editing—he tapes two frames from each shot on paper for review and memorization, and then maps out an intended order by arranging them on a fresh sheet, adding handwritten notes as needed. His is a cinema spun from reliance on the mind's eye—both at the camera (he rarely looks into the camera while shooting, usually with a tripod) and the editing table.

As Early Monthly Segments inaugurated the start of the cycle on Friday evening, Beavers closed his eyes from time to time, able to follow its unfolding according to pulses of light. Immersion in the full cycle offers the opportunity to acclimate to the distinct rhythms of his work—one marked by quick cutting, and an ongoing back-and-forth between stillness and motion, silence and sound, abstraction and the concrete—as they evolve over the course of this extended arc of vision-in-formation. Beavers provided small arrows of guidance and orientation as the cycle progressed, noting a shift in his early orientation to personal and interior states to a later capacity to listen carefully to the outside world. His first films, Plan of Brussels and Winged Dialogue (1967-68/2000), multilayered and wildly energetic psychic explorations, quite distinct from his later works, give way several years later to the transitional From the Notebook of...(1971/1998), the first film made outside the bounds of Markopoulos's protective encouragement; he had urged Beavers, reassuringly, to set aside financial concerns in the name of developing his early vision. Set in Florence and inspired by Leonardo's notebooks and Valéry's writings about them, the film uses complex matting to mimic the turning pages of a book and includes excerpts from Beavers's own filming notes on light, shadow, and perspectival space. The figure of the book recurs as a central motif, especially in Ruskin (1975/1997), a meditation on reading and writing shot at the various sites of Ruskin's work. His only film to use intertitles, the dialogic Sotiros (1976-78/1996) marks the end of Beavers's use of filters and mattes, and the frenetically paced, fawn-and-ecru-colored landscape of Wingseed (1985) feels as if it inaugurates a kind of cleansing that's drawn out across the final group of films shot in Italy and Greece: The Hedge Theater (1986-90/2002), The Stoas (1991-97), and The Ground (1993-2001). Color returns with vivid prominence in Beavers's first of two films outside the cycle, Pitcher of Colored Light (2007). This film and The Suppliant (2010) were shot in the U.S. and so constitute a kind of coming back in both formal and geographical senses.


Two floors above the Austrian Film Museum, a Michelangelo exhibition at the Albertina—"The Drawings of a Genius"—hovered over My Hand Outstretched. It reminded me of a childhood story Beavers had recounted: an elderly neighbor showed him late-19th-century engravings of Italian frescoes and explained the special multiplicity of the Renaissance artist—someone who could be poet, painter, and musician all at once. Not only is the spectrum of Beavers's engagement and inspiration vast—including sculpture, architecture, painting, philosophy, and poetry—but he's explicit about his motivating desire "for the projected image to have the same force of awakening sight as any other great image." As we know, avant-garde cinema presents challenges to the markets and discourses of art: offering not objects but time-bound projected light, its masterpieces largely unknown and its geniuses rarely inscribed in our books of common culture. As the final screening ended, applause persisted, and Beavers rose and simply bid the audience farewell, saying, "We go onward." It was clear that Beavers had reached his spectators, and that it was time to keep moving.

Earlier that day, Beavers had met with a small group of students over coffee and tea at Friedl Kubelka's School for Independent Film. He pulled a square striped with bands of transparent color out of a small filter box. The students leaned in and marveled at this tiny graphic object responsible for luminous fields of projected color. "I have a question," one student asked. "How do you get the images to fly off the screen?" She was referring to the borderless exits and entrances of images into realms of black that function as primary transitional elements in many of Beavers's films. "It's quite simple," he said, orienting his Bolex toward them. "I simply turn the lens turret while the camera is filming." "Have you ever seen anyone else do this?" the student wondered. "Yes," Beavers replied, immediately and with a modest smile, neglecting to tell the students that he had been the first.

The Austrian Film Museum has published a catalog brochure in German and English on the occasion of Beavers' retrospective. 


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Photo Gallery: Hands Outstretched


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Rebekah Rutkoff writes fiction and essays about film and philosophy. She recently completed the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and was awarded a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

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