Swimming in the Valley of the Moon


Ian here—

Peter Hutton died on June 25, 2016. I could tell anecdotes here about having him for a professor across three courses at Bard College, about things he said to his students, places he took his students, and the impact he had on me as a young film student. I’ll spare you that, though, for now. For now, I’ll just say that I am extraordinarily grateful to Jesse Malmed and Patrick Friel for programming White Light Cinema and The Nightingale’s retrospective of Hutton’s work this past Sunday. It is, if I’m not mistaken, the first time Peter’s work has shown in Chicago since I first arrived here in 2008. It was wonderful to revisit it, and I am saddened that it took Peter’s death for this to happen.

What follows isn’t analysis, just some impressions, as a way of expressing gratitude to the programmers. I make such extensive use of visual aids normally in my writing that it can be reinvigorating to write about films that are only distributed on 16mm, and actually rely on the author to describe their experience. (I apologize if I’m out of practice!)

July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971)

When this film started, I began by seeing. Peter’s films are silent. Why not concentrate on seeing? And so, I saw. I saw birds: first dead, then alive, then dead (the duck that was previously alive?), then plucked, then gutted. I saw an elevator moving up and down, like a piston. I saw the silhouette of a snail, looking like god’s most graceful animal. I saw dust illuminating a shaft of light (light illuminating a shaft of dust?). I saw a visual rhyme: a faucet to the right of frame, a stream of urine to the right.

And then I began to notice that visual rhymes weren’t the only thing there were to experience in the room. There were also also rhymes between image and sound.

In introducing the film, Jesse Malmed said that this was the first time he was going to watch it without Peter in the room with him. I think the same is true for me. (I think this must have been one of the films Peter was most comfortable showing students in class, especially in his “Intro to the Moving Image: Film” course.) But what I realized Sunday night was that another key part of my viewing of the film has been the experience of having the projector in the same room. And there, in The Nightingale’s tiny space, the same was still true.

So I stopped just seeing, and started seeing and listening. And I heard new rhymes.

I heard the clack of the 16mm uptake rhyme with the chain of Peter’s bike. I heard a Blue Line train rumble under our chairs, right as the daredevil takes off on his wheeled sled, rolling face-first down a Bay Area road. And, as Peter’s camera took off into the sky during the film’s the final shots, I could hear the hum of the plane’s wings adjusting. What was that sound? The projector’s fan? A heating unit starting up? My own imagination? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that this silent film had taught me, for a moment, how to hear again.

Study of a River (1997)

Wow, what a bow. (Of the icebreaker boat, I mean.) It is nice to be back in the Hudson River valley. It has been awhile.

A rowing crew rights the direction of their boat, fighting against both the current and their current trajectory. The whole assemblage resembles a bug, a centipede, perhaps, skittering across the water, trying to right itself, maintain buoyancy. Later on, the water itself becomes an insect. Light reflections jump across its surface, like a water skipper.

High-contrast photography of light glinting off the water’s surface. The legacy of Ralph Steiner … or of Ernie Gehr? We might as well be watching History (1970). As patterns appear and disappear, slipping down the screen, it looks as if the screen has transformed into a dying cathode ray tube black-and-white television, displaying an intimate, abstract documentary on pointillism.

Łódź Symphony (1991–1993)

Is the film slipping? Is this screening going to come to an untimely end? No, it’s just an image of a printing press. I had misplaced the mechanism I was seeing.

There is such variety of movement as we watch these images of machines. But although there are machines, we do not see laborers. It’s like Vertov, but without his beloved workers. Or Mark LaPore, without the piercing stares. Is this what fully automated luxury communism looks like? (Four years too late?)

I’ve reached the end of my notes. Thanks again, programmers, for the lovely screening.

And for this photo. I will cherish it forever.

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