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: A Film by Robert Beavers

Tony Pipolo

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998) Beavers/Markopoulos

Unlike Efpsychi and Wingseed, two other films by Robert Beavers that are the the subjects of essays in this issue, Ruskin, in its present version, has not yet been publically shown in the United States. And while repeated viewings of all three of these films are undoubtedly necessary to do them justice, it is the purpose of this issue to draw attention to the increasingly impressive body of work of an American artist who--though largely unknown and unseen in this country--has been making films in Europe since 1966. Ruskin was, in my judgment, the most exciting film experience of 1997, and although what follows can only hint at its great beauty and richness, I am confident that when it is seen, it will, along with other works, testify that Beavers is as major a talent and voice as any of the celebrated figures of the American Avant Garde of the late 60s and 1970s. But while Ruskin may bear a kinship with films of that period--and so appear against the grain of recent avant-garde production--it defies the labels that were often attached to that work--such as "structuralist"--and sweeps into the present context as a fresh and invigorating breeze.

Beavers began filming Ruskin in 1973 and finished editing it by the end of 1974. This version was shown at the Asolo Film Festival in Venice where it won a prize. He then made a `coda'--the last fifth of the present version--which took a year to complete, and blew up the film from 16 to 35mm. In 1992, he re-edited the entire film and completed revision of its soundtrack in 1997--alterations that do ample justice to the grandeur and density of the film's subject and visual texture.

As with many of his films, Ruskin belongs to a group: it is the last of four works filmed in Italy and Switzerland and is preceded by From the Notebook of..., The Painting, and Work Done. While Beavers had already made films motivated by stays in various cities (his first film upon arriving in Europe was Plan of Brussels), he went to Venice specifically to make Ruskin, inspired by his reading of John Ruskin's monumental study, The Stones of Venice. The only film of his so intricately tied to a literary source, it is at once a magnificent tribute to the great English critic, a celebration of a great city, and an absorbing, revivifying filmic experience. Unlike the "city symphonies" of Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera) or Walter Ruttman (Berlin: Symphony of a City), however, Beavers' film is not an attempt to embrace the teeming life of a contemporary metropolis, but a vision of the past still present in the remarkable convergences of architectural styles that, for Ruskin, was the essence of Venice. On the level of cinematography alone, the filmmaker brings those stones to life.

The spirit of Ruskin's prose is evoked from the film's first images: long shots of the lone remaining Cathedral at Torcello, the island seven miles north of Venice, once--during the 12th century--a thriving commercial and cultural precursor to Venice itself. A shot of the Cathedral's reflection in the watery marshes that surround it immediately captures the sense of bygone glory that Ruskin describes. Many of the images in Venice directly document Ruskin's descriptions and provide uncanny verification of the writer's own meticulous drawings from observation. They range from medium shots and close-ups of architectural details: capitals and cornices; coats of arms; wall veil decorations; floral and vine reliefs; Romanesque, Renaissance, and Byzantine arches; early Gothic windows--to long or wide angle shots of some of the city's best-known buildings, such as the Ducal Palace. There is a stunning shot of the church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore taken from the Piazza di San Marco--its massive structure appearing ghost-like through a veil of mist. The shot of the Archivolt in the Duomo on the island of Murano confirms the accuracy and sense of color with which Ruskin rendered it in his drawing. Like Ruskin, Beavers restricts himself to the exteriors of the buildings and, in keeping with the writer's appreciative, contemplative stance, allows the viewer ample time to take in each view. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the film is its extraordinary balance between the value given individual images and the film's formative impulse.

For Ruskin is hardly a travelogue. Like its namesake's first tutorial volume on the principles of architecture, the film prominently exhibits and illumines fundamental features of the medium. While the daily activities of the populace recorded in other city symphonies are not Beavers' concern, filmmaking is--as it was for Vertov and Ruttman--the primary driving activity of the work. Underlining this point is the fact that Beavers' physical presence--which often meant his entire body in certain earlier `city' films--in Ruskin is restricted to his hands and registered only in direct relation to his source (Ruskin's books) and to acts of filmmaking.

Shots are framed with patient sensitivity to the colors, styles, and textures of the city's stones as these were best revealed at chosen hours of the day. And while the viewer may resort to inadequate labels--orange, red, umber--to identify the surfaces reflecting the sun's rays, the colors we actually `see' remain unnameable, the results of fusions, light, and the materiality of stones of different ages and densities. As in nearly all of Beavers' work that I have seen, colors are determining features; here they highlight architectural design as articulately as the masks he sometimes uses to isolate certain details. At times, the color may seem almost entirely invisible, shrouded in shadows--a particular area of interest for Beavers--and so made all the more elusive, as if the buildings themselves revealed one personality in sunlight and another in darkness. One shot of a narrow stretch of canal sided on the left and right by walls of stone hiding the sun is illumined solely by a jagged crevice-shaped glare that appears to literally rent the darkness and the center of the screen. Everywhere there is evidence of the filmmaker's attempt to render the grandeur of what he contemplates with an acutely cinematographic gesture.

No less measured and keenly felt is the editing. Cuts seem preternaturally timed and charged with the pulse of the filmmaker's attentions--no doubt a result of Beavers' untypical editing methods. Because every image seems privileged, we do not await its `transformation' through editing and are repeatedly surprised at what does succeed. It will take more viewings than I was fortunate to have to be specific here, for it is not only the cuts from location shots to various filmic interventions that warrant attention--e.g., the reflection of the tower in the very beginning is followed (if memory serves) by a masked image, and our first view of the book lying flat with its base facing us, which is then followed by shots of windowed buildings in Venice and a `wipe-like' device which is more than likely another use of a mask. The intricate interaction among these strands sets off the film's `themes' and motifs but hardly in any predictable way. More subtle are sequential shots of building facades, courtyards, and architectural details, which seem to be both documenting a particular site and/or replicating Ruskin's own observations.  

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As enunciative as the film's images and the editing are, they are never falsely calculated or distracting. This impression can only have been generated by the filmmaker's feeling for his subject and for the place--i.e., for Ruskin and for Venice--so that each decision seems tailored to its revelatory function: that balance again between privileging the material and the formative impulse. Nowhere is this more remarkable than in the soundtrack Beavers has reworked, which both enhances the vividness of many images and provides a sense of temporality to the film. Although most sounds--the fluttering of pigeon's wings, the lapping of water against stone, the approach of footsteps from off-screen--were recorded at and belong to the sites, they were placed and are experienced independently, deepening our perception of the space--at once articulating the life of Venice in the present, while serving as a counterpoint to the imposing architectural evidence of its past. The soundtrack thus heightens the viewer's audial sense as much as framing, masking, or the capturing of light heightens his visual sense. To these `naturalistic' sounds, however, Beavers has added another: a single chord of an organ which is heard increasing in volume throughout the film in relation to shots of Ruskin's book. Inevitably it lends a gravity and solemnity to the work befitting its cultural, historical, and religious resonances. But it seems equally apt--especially in the magisterial final moment--as an assertive audial metaphor of the two voices that govern the film: Ruskin's and the filmmaker's.

The terrain of Beavers' filmmaking persona, therefore, is as much the spectacle as anything in front of the camera. Indeed, removed from the climate and critical labels of the Seventies, which often predetermined perception rather than facilitated it, Ruskin's gestures can truly be seen, heard, and appreciated not as reflexive moves at all, but as the natural responses of a film artist--both physical and emotional--passionately engaged with his subject and his art.

This impression extends even to those gestures that cannot help but call for special attention--that, indeed, deserve to be considered signatory. One is the turning of the lens mount, an act normally performed between exposures of the celluloid (to switch, for example, from telephoto to wide angle) here made `visible' and physically pertinent to the construction of the film. While Ruskin decried any structure which appeared to "studiously direct attention to the way its stones are put together," he also said that "the divisions of a church are much like the divisions of a sermon; they are always right, so long as they are necessary to edification, and always wrong when they are thrust upon the attention as divisions only." Every "partition" in Ruskin is--as that critic said of a successful building--"alive" with the sense of invention and purpose--and with the handprint of the filmmaker. The turning of the lens is not only an articulation between shots, but a partition that places the whole concept of "between" in question. The sense that the image before us has suddenly dropped out of view catches us by surprise, as if instead of watching a film edited in the 'usual' way, we had been looking at early photographs through a nineteenth-century stereoscope and someone had removed one image and slid in another. The unmistakeable presence of the filmmaker's hand is here in two ways: through the manual changing of the lens and through the process of editing. In conflating the two, Beavers bridges the century and a half between the views of Venice one would have had in Ruskin's time and the ones made possible by the invention of cinema. That history is also alluded to in several striking black and white shots--not only of Venice, but of the film's two other locations: an Alpine landscape and Portland Place in London--often masked to resemble early photography as well as a device used in silent films. Beavers has said that one important effect of the turning of the lens is that it raises the question of what is horizontal and vertical in architecture in a way that early photography did not do. In this respect, the device--as well as others like the variously shaped masks--does something analogous with the film's images: by altering their shape, the screen appears to escape the limitations of the rectangular frame.

Yet beyond the allusions to early photography and the inescapable reflexivity that such a device as the turning of the lens connotes, there is, I think, an even more striking and more beautiful--if less easily describable--phenomenon to appreciate. It is that the moment of surprise and optical adjustment induced in the spectator carries the realization that this and all views before us are a result of another moment--the one when the filmmaker's feelings and inspirations moved him to perform such a gesture, as if to nudge an unseen companion at the scene, in Venice, and say, "and what if we looked at it this way?"--not necessarily with any preconceived notion in mind, but out of the sense of discovery, of experiencing the act of filmmaking as an ongoing adventure in assertion and response, that of the filmmaker's whole being, which the viewer is, to some degree, invited to share. It is a recognition of an altogether other space--one not reducible to the horizontal and vertical lines of architecture, or to the illusionist depth of film; a space, in fact, not physicalized at all, that remains potential, and therefore metaphysical, spiritual--in Gregory Markopoulos' word, intuitive--the only real space of value that the visionary filmmaker inhabits.  

A second signature element is the presence of the filmmaker's hand. It appears a number of times affixed to a book which it moves up and down, mimicking the horizontal and vertical lines of architecture. Balanced on the edge of a table, the wrist now flips the hand and the book on which it rests into a `standing' position, facing the viewer, and now lies atop the book on the table's surface. These images, shot in black and white and inserted at intervals, reaffirm the source and motivation behind this film, while the gesture itself--the hand inspiriting the book--constitutes a simple but original metaphor for the relationship between the filmmaker's persona and that of his mentor.

This relationship is stunningly confirmed in the film's coda--in which a book of Ruskin's stands with its pages open to the camera as they are flipped rapidly before the viewer. Since the edges of the frame are aligned with those of the book, the impression that the screen is being likened to a book, its images to a series of pages, is irresistible, especially since we hear the sound of pages flipping by apart from shots of the book . But there is another force at work. Having removed from the first version of the film a voice-over speaking lines from Ruskin's work, Beavers sought another means to represent the writer's `voice' and seems to have found it in the close-up image(s) of the pages flipping by noisily, as if self-animated, and as if `speaking' to us. Poised in this stand up manner of insistent address, Ruskin's book is truly personified, fusing for the viewer the acts of seeing, hearing, and reading.

Yet, there is an irony here, and it is not one that a viewer unfamiliar with Ruskin's writings can really appreciate. The natural assumption is that this book is the one we've seen all along and that it is The Stones of Venice. But, as it happens, it is Ruskin's Unto This Last, a much shorter work consisting of four essays on "the first principles of Political Economy." Even a viewer familiar with this text might find it difficult to identify words and passages as they rush by--although the same ones do so more than once. It is worth considering Beavers' decision to use this text rather than a volume of The Stones of Venice for his coda, especially in light of his elimination of the voice-over reading from Ruskin's book.

For Beavers, Work Done, the film immediately preceding Ruskin , represented an important shift from his earlier work, which "emphasized the particular qualities of an individual" to becoming "more aware of qualities which are common and shared and can be presented directly." One way of reading this is to see it as a move away from the isolation often associated with artists--which, in this case, may have real parallels with Beavers' chosen severance from his homeland and the different path he may have taken had he remained--to an embracing of art as another kind of endeavor, one that may be connected to "work done" by others. In the film so titled, as Beavers describes it, the editing makes links between various forms of human labor: (e.g., a tree cut down in the forest, book binding). I have not yet seen this film and need to study Beavers' work more closely, but it seems reasonable to see a certain parallel here between Beavers' shift and the `two voices' of John Ruskin--or, less schematically phrased, the "different emphases" that each book of the writer reflects. One is the lovingly detailed study of architecture by the artist/critic; the other a sober consideration of how Christian principles should be applied more diligently to the British government's social and economic policies.

Perhaps the relative invisibility of this text--that is, the improbableness of its being identified by most viewers of the film--makes any extended commentary parenthetical. Nevertheless, giving the last "word" to Ruskin, the social reformer, rather than Ruskin, art critic and historian, is somehow not an unfitting conclusion to a work that also strives to observe first principles--including those of justice and economy--concerning the production, edification, and usefulness of the art work.

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this article was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998) Beavers/Markopoulos