Camera lucida

Pub date October 13, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Film is not really a medium for perfection — too many moving parts, too much equipment. But then, Robert Beavers isn’t your typical filmmaker. For 40 years, he’s done everything by hand, off in the hinterlands of the avant-garde. It’s not every day, or year, that you encounter a retrospective like SF Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive’s co-presentation of Beavers’ 18-film cycle, made between 1967 and 2002, "My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure." The title is more literal than you might expect.

The evident perfectionism of the films (all blown up from Bolex 16mm to luminous 35mm) and Beavers’ relative obscurity are not coincidental. In 1967, he and Gregory Markopoulos fled the New York scene for Europe, where they could better exact a cinematic language in view of art history. One of the earliest chronological entries in the cycle, "Early Monthly Segments" (1968-70, revised in 2002), dates from these teenage years and threads a beguiling, if fragmentary, ode to love at the limits, filtered through the auburn and aqua scrims of Mediterranean sky and sea, with in-camera effects wavering the eye.

Though most of the "Winged Distance" cycle depends on a uniquely synesthetic coordination of sound and image, the silent "Early Monthly Segments" already demonstrates Beavers’ thrilling capacity for poetic association, mnemonic arrangements, and sensual representations and enactments of the filmmaking apparatus. In later work, the arresting beauty of his cross-fertilized cinematography and field recordings calms the mind; the alliterative rhythms of color, composition, and touch that multiply and encode that beauty make it race.

Besides being, in his words, "protected by solitude and the spirit that came from our dedication to filmmaking" in his life with Markopoulos, Beavers was able to immerse himself in the long trails of European classicism — its painting, music, literature, architecture. Scholar P. Adams Sitney writes of Beavers, "Nothing is more American than [his] fascination with the monuments of European culture." But the elegant still lives of these monuments are endowed with a weirdly interior, hieroglyphic weight that unbinds the visual patterns of tourism, whether aesthetic or geographic. In Beavers’ work, material touch conducts thought, the human body landscape.

Of all Beavers’ inspirations, it is architecture that best helps me begin to grasp his visionary artisanship. As with a cathedral or ruin, his films possess a beauty to behold and one that beholds you: you admire a curving wall, at a distance, and the space itself takes measure of your senses, curving sight and sound.


Thurs/15, 7 p.m.; Sun/18, 2 p.m.; Tues/20, 7:30 p.m.


Pacific Film Archive

2757 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249