Tonight I went to a preview/press screening at Cinema Project in Portland in preparation for reviewing some films by 1960s-70s avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits. While there, I had a conversation with one of the curators, Autumn Campbell, about how the work of Sharits and another experimental filmmaker I love, Peter Hutton, is not available in any form on video—and intentionally so.
For Hutton and Sharits, the argument goes, transferring their work from film to video would irrevocably alter and thus spoil it. One thing Autumn said to me particularly comes to mind: that filmmaking is not just a representational visual image, but also literally, physically captures light. Any kind of video is by definition digital, and therefore is merely a representation of the light.
I understand and respect that the equipment used to capture, process and project images is an inherent part of the artistic expression. Sure, transferring the work to video represents a compromise, but I think it’s a worthy sacrifice in light of how many more viewers video distribution can bring.
Besides, challenging non-narrative, abstract work like that of Sharits and Hutton has enough of a hard time finding the proper audience. Showing their films only at individual screenings while rejecting video distribution means it is marginalized exponentially.
It reminds me of some of the great early jazz musicians who were suspicious about newly invented recording technology: Because they refused to compromise the sound their playing generated in a live setting, these musicians gave up the chance for their art to be preserved and heard. Big mistake, even if on some level they were right.
It’s too bad, because I love these guys’ films. Hutton’s are extraordinarily serene and beautiful silent depictions of natural places like the Hudson River Valley and Iceland, while Sharits’s are a kind of experiment on the viewer, a caustic kaleidoscope. Each one will have his work screened on one night in Portland over the next couple weeks in some cramped little space. And if you can’t make it then, chances are you’ll never have the chance again.
In a culture dominated by mind-numbingly formulaic and commercialized Hollywood fare, I think great artists like Hutton and the late Sharitz (he sadly committed suicide in 1993) provide an alternative that, at least in its small way, elevates the entire medium. And that's important, not just for them but for all of us.
I can’t fault any artist for insisting on preserving the integrity of his or her work, but I also think one should feel a kind of responsibility to consider one’s work not just as personal expression. Collectively what we express through our painting and writing and playing music is a tool in some larger struggle. Maybe it can’t quite be quantified or named, but nevertheless it's going on everyday in the streets, on the page, onscreen, and in our minds. I don't think you should turn your back on that.
But I can’t cast any stones, I guess. I’ve made four short films in the past year, and for the most part I’ve deliberately refrained from submitting them to local festivals. In my case it’s born from a fear of creating any conflict of interest with my film writing for Willamette Week. A good reason, I think, but surely Hutton and (if he were still alive) Sharits would say the same of their decisions.
Still, don’t be surprised if someday I make bootleg video copies of their work like those people sell on the street in a lot of big cities. But I’ll just give it away, and make the very distribution my own kind of artistic expression, like a rapper sampling a hook from an old song.