Of all the experimental films I saw during my undergraduate "studies" at SUNY Binghamton (an avant-garde film hub - the dept. was founded by New American Cinema's eminence grise, Ken Jacobs), Peter Hutton's work is always the first to leap to my memory when I think of those lonely gray days. I think it was "Time And Tide" that set the hook, a bleached out look at ice-breaking ships, structured around meditative, static long takes. It required patience and an active eye - and the climax was worth it: this B&W world is shown to be shot in color in a beautiful slow reveal.
I always kept my eye out for his work, but to no avail. Now the Museum of Modern Art is here to solve all my problems with a wonderful retrospective that kicked off with a conversation with the director this past Monday night, moderated by Luc Sante. Hutton, currently a professor at Bard College, joined the merchant marines when he was 18, and then traveled by water for ten years. His films are heavily influenced by this experience, often taking the passive perspective of a man on a ship, just viewing the landscape as it passes. Hutton traces this aesthetic to the Lumiere Brothers, who, he says, fucked everything up by dabbling in fiction with that water hose movie. An even greater influence, he says, was Gaston Melies, brother of Georges, who traveled the world filming actualities which were then screened to the local audiences. Gaston's motto was "the whole world within reach", which Hutton engraved on his first 16mm camera.
Evasive about his process of working - he brushed off questions about his editing technique by saying he "ends shots when the film runs out" - he was expansive about his reasons for shooting, which involve dreams of sinking ships (he wants to "save the images before they dissipate"), and above all a photo album. His father was also a merchant marine, and told him stories of his journeys growing up. Without a TV, his dad's photo album became his entertainment, and he went on to draw a connection between his use of black leader between shots and the way he read the album - each shot/photo is a discrete image with its own story to tell.
It's a cinema of patience, and for those who seek it, incredible beauty. Go see Skagafjordur for his obsessive views of the Icelandic coast, Two Rivers for a compare/contrast between the Hudson and Yangtze, the New York Portraits for a Hutton version of a noir (no people really, but their traces), and Images of Asian Music for an impressionistic jaunt through his seagoing days in Southeast Asia. Good times all around.
Glenn Kenny, proprietor of the most entertaining film blog around, In the Company Of Glenn, has just had his contract terminated by Hachette, the publisher of Premiere Magazine. This is, of course, bad news for those impressed with his broad wit that hid an equally wide breadth of knowledge about film history. Well, it's bad news for those who like smart writing at all. But luckily (for us) he's already started another blog, entitled Some Came Running, after the sublime Vicente Minnelli film. More and more, it seems like intelligent film criticism will end up being a part-time gig. Hm.