Peter Hutton Films Screened at the Museum of Arts and Design
By: Malcolm D. Anderson
On Thursday, August 4th, the intimate theater at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) featured its fifth installment of the summer film series, Eye on a Director, spotlighting the legendary film distributor and archive, Canyon Cinema. The audience filed into the basement just before 7 PM for a presentation of four 16mm films by the late Peter Hutton.
After a brief introduction from Michael Renov and a request to forgive the momentary pauses between reel changes, the 99-minute screening began with July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971). An enchanting monochromatic tale, July ’71 slowly teased out a story of time well-spent in a subtle visual diary spanning 35 minutes. Flip-flopping from charming to abruptly honest, the affectionate film immersed the audience in the world of the filmmaker.
The people and places introduced by Hutton combined with the shifting perspective, film speed, proportion, pacing and length of each scene created a deftly woven piece to which the audience effortlessly connected. Long takes capturing the process of plucking and preparing a fowl for cooking jumped rhythmically to shots of bicycle wheels riding through the streets. A threatening handgun lying in the grass was humorously grasped by mere fingertips attached to an anonymous body and then an accelerated documentation of dough being woven into knotted loaves flooded the screen, a curious young girl watching and learning quietly. The film reflected a certain innocence and nostalgia for an era of small moments.
Seamlessly, the presentation segued from the unpredictable pacing and constant human interjection of July ’71 into the 16 minute New York Portrait, Chapter II (1981). The metropolis appeared quiet and tender, captured with extra-long takes in a truly breathtaking use of black and white. Hutton displays a slower side of the city, with each scene seeming to wait for a curious something to enter the frame and reward a patient audience. In one scene, two identical buildings with blocky terraces border the frame, with only two conversing silhouettes to contextualize the mise en scène. After an intense silence, the Goodyear blimp floated into the direct sunlight between the opposing balconies, delivering an incredible understanding of scale. The audience was audibly wowed. Another of Hutton’s drawn out moments follows a fire boat as it crept along a waterway, with the Statue of Liberty as its backdrop, showering water onto the crowd lining the banks. It was an unusual but no less gorgeous interpretation of the city.
The reels changed unceremoniously and transitioned into Landscape (for Manon) (1987), a film with an even more deliberate tempo, featuring slow scenes of Jacob’s Ladders burning ridge lines with light. Smoke, steam, dust, or some other unknown substance kicked up under the heat of a natural spotlight danced hauntingly and added whispering tension to elongated shots of the Hudson River Valley. It was an 18-minute study of weather and geography, a documentation of nature’s slow burn. Poetic and moody, the scenes switched between dark and stormy and light and playful, a style of editing and presentation which was consistent throughout the entirety of the evening.
The atmosphere was appropriately contemplative as “Skagafjörður” flickered on the screen, the frequent subterranean rumblings of the A, C, 1, B and D lines accentuated the quiet approval and expressions of awe amid the red velvet rows. Skagafjörður (2002-2004), commissioned by the Icelandic Film Centre and assisted by the Whitney Museum of American Art, captures the massive scale and awesome grandeur of Iceland in a 33-minute conclusion. Progressing at a ponderous pace, the film thrust color upon the chromatically deprived viewers. Iceland, in beautiful 16mm color. The powerful juxtaposition of color and monochrome scenes within Skagafjörður were crafted so calmly and so delicately. The final feature of the event captured the stillness of such a surreal horizon of that intriguing island in the Northern Atlantic.
Red-Green color blind, Hutton’s film of Iceland almost flawlessly depicts the color palette of the strange landscape and cold waters.
One of the most fantastic segments of the entire night is shot in color. Set back from the wooden frame of a weathered window and wrapped in the deep black of a dark home, woolen browns and vibrant greens of a cliff edge met the crystal blue of the Icelandic sky. The shot appeared like a peephole to a different world, floating unbelievable color and a magnificent landscape in a sea of darkness. It was the most visually stimulating moment of the night, even if it is a departure from his stunning understanding of black and white.
The screen flickered black and the house lights came up, and the second-to-last round of applause rose from the crowd, as did a few who did not wish to stick around for the Q & A with Renov. Comments, questions, criticism, praise and discussion bounced for less than ten minutes and then Renov quietly clapped his hands together and thanked the crowd.
A last round of applause rose from those who remained before the crowd dispersed, individually processing the carefully feathered hand they witnessed in 16mm. Thought-provoking, masterful and in no kind of hurry, the films of Peter Hutton received the tastefully modest exhibition they deserved in the bottom floor of 2 Columbus Circle, leaving each attendee extending a little more appreciation to the warm sky above.
Article © Malcolm D. Anderson