Black Maria Essay Series


by Rebekah Rutkoff

I can't be certain, but I think Leighton Pierces 50 feet of string (1995) was the first experimental film I ever saw. A sequence of perceptual re-orientations travels through its first shot, three minutes long, forecasting the work of the 52-minute film. Out of a blurred, shallow compositional field  a round white shape atop a mossy green backdrop  material facts quickly emerge: striking droplets of water produce a focal plane and announce a pane of glass that is angled slightly away from us. This delicate surface of crowding circles comes into increasing focus as the water accumulates, and pink undertones, previously sleeping under the fog of green, make themselves known.

The shot, which is also the first of the films 12 segments, persists: Gradual rack focus drives the droplets back into blur, and the round white object in the foreground comes into name-able view: a black compass whose directional alphabet (SE, SW, E) is spelled out as the globe rotates  responding, it seems, to motions and turns beyond the scope of our diegetic understanding. The plastic compass is shiny and slow-moving enough to catch the silhouettes of trees on its turning surface, a link to a world beyond the particular spatial confines of the shot. When I re-visit the film today, this moment of tree-catching reminds me of a childhood experience of perceptual confusion and pleasure: when I brought the aquamarine stone of a gold ring up to the edge of my eye, one of its minuscule octagonal-shaped facets contained a replica of the room in which I sat; it could even capture the yard outside, legible and perfect. Childhood discontent can open one of the senses extra-wide as the body searches for substitute satisfactions; in my case, vision overdeveloped and was accompanied by a barelyexistent sense of sound.

Perhaps because image and sound hadnt yet found sync, and because my optical demands were so particular, cinema was not a reliable pleasure for the first twenty years of life. It was foreign. As a teenager, I stoically complied with social demands: I rented Faces of Death for my 16th birthday party, and feigned interest in speaking back to The Rocky Horror Picture Show screen in a local gym. I liked General Hospital, Tootsie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but I didnt amass a private archive of moving images and cultural heroes as a means of linking my identity to the world. I learned that the absence of womens names in a films opening credits signaled that the film to come would likely be about jungles, gorillas, baseball, soldiers and/or detectives and that it would be difficult to find a way in. (In retrospect, I think my older brothers tastes drove film selection in the already-contracted scope of offerings in rural Ohio.) Fiction film fantasies didnt echo mine and the worlds were too far away. The thrills werent givens; absorption wasn't automatic. I couldnt follow the plots. I made it through college with barely a film in sight: I remember seeing students stream out of a screening room in the basement of the library and thinking it odd  as if they had signed up for something dank and pointless like racquetball. I didnt understand what was going on in that dark room.

I came to film late and accidentally. My first job after college was as a researcher for an infinite PBS documentary series on the history of Jews in America: I located archival photos of Jews panning for gold in Denver and traveled to Richmond, VA, to dig up dirt on Judah Benjamin. It was a safe job, familial and unexciting, so when an acquaintance said that his photographer friend needed a new assistant immediately, I accepted the position over the phone. I had emerged from college with a hazy but pressing wish for art to be at the center of my life, and the job promised to align me more securely with that wish. On the first day of work, the photographer answered the door of his Bethune Street loft in boxer shorts, and began rattling off the kinds of things hed need me to do while he was in London for an upcoming fashion shoot. I began to dissociate after he mentioned that Id have to prepare his taxes, and early the next morning, I trudged through the snow to a payphone on the corner of Union Street and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn: Im so sorry, but Ive just been diagnosed with mono, I said. Later that day, I returned to the Jews in America. And shortly thereafter, since I was, technically speaking, working in the film industry, a friend handed me a postcard advertising the Flaherty Film Seminar, a yearly week-long non-fiction film seminar in upstate New York, and I registered. Thats where I saw 50 feet of string.

corner of the eye
lawn care
white chair
50 feet of string
two maples
.29 inches
lawn care 2
pickup truck
red-handled scissors

Pierce constructed his film in the form of 12 intertitled sections (listed above)  discrete poems that produce a rhythm of absorption and release. He produced visual material according to a general constraint that limited shooting to a distance of 100 meters from the kitchen of his then-home in Iowa City (sound was gathered from a more varied field). 50 feet is dominated by a visual viscosity  shot at a high frame rate, its images are slow and heavy  and by meticulously-composed, color-driven abstract compositions that alternate with pictures that promise the photographed real. Under the auspices of focal change, nonfigurative compositions deliver unexpected revelations of scale, depth, and recognizability: a stop sign, shovel, window, chair, children, curtains, lawn-mowing, grass-cutting, blowing leaves, a passing bus.

The film must have rhymed acutely with tendencies of perception already long in place. Its shallow, aqueous paintings resonate with a psychic-spatial ecology of containment, constraint and the resulting microscopic awareness of ones local surround, but also issue a demand  express a willfulness  to locate excitement and pleasure, even drama in this contracted space. The string of the films title appears in most of the segments; arranged diagonally and facilitating the perception of deep space, it is the de-articulated signature of the artist who reminds us that he has made these images and this film.

All these years later, I would say that 50 feet taught me about possible dynamics between states of sleep and awakeness  in myself and in relation to the world. At the most elemental level, I received a set of messages from 50 feet that would dramatically impact the course of things to come:

  1. No inherent opposition exists between painting and film.
  2. Other humans exist who not only want, with color-arranging specificity, the same images I do  but have the will to make them.
  3. If the imagination is born in solitude, coming to awareness of its specificity is not a ceaseless and simple contraction into the inner caverns; such awareness can facilitate the necessary discovery of what, literally, to do with the imagination in the world.
  4. Drives born of psychological necessity can come to take on poetic value, even gain an ethical aura.

I have dramatically under-mentioned sound in 50 feet thus far in order to stay true to the enlargement of my 22-year-old eyes. But, among other developmental prods, the film must have also unfolded my ears. Returning to the first shot: the sound of opening  door, a shutter  accompanies the introductory green blur of the film. A crisp reality touches an amorphous haze. This combination  staccato in one sense dimension, smear in another  is itself bracing, awakening. The tension between lost and found-ness that is so central to 50 feet recurs not only internally in the image  the moments in which a previouslyambiguous object or orientation resolves; it is also dispersed, with tremendous variety, across image and sound as they make contact. But the sound design of 50 feet is not a collage of contrasts; Pierces embrace of continuity editing and diegetic sync (the sound of a passing car accompanying a traveling shape is integral to our evolving perception of the depth and scale of the first shot) means he is working within multiple zones of cinematic magic-making at once. This is a film of multiplicity beyond its obvious 12 sections; its many balanced, serene images belie the enormous affective range contained in its full sensory being: there are notes of forceful assertion, refusal, and violence among ones of transcendence.

When I watch the film today, I notice the morphology of my own impulse to name with respect to sound. I turn to identifying tags at first  door opening, children playing, car passing  as a way of using sound to part the fog of visual indistinction. But over time, this naming-game stops working; it opens up neither me nor the film. I begin to hear the sounds as deliberately as I see the pictorial flux: when I allow a creaking sound to lose its identity and express its full range, it becomes a voice composed of guttural dashes. It feels as if a spine has been revealed to be made of vertebrae.

And in this process of sensory slowing, it becomes clear that sometimes when a sound and image pass each other, a small eruption occurs. When, for instance, in lawn care, a transparent, polka-dot curtain undulates on top of a Venetian blind, the visual interface is itself a thrill: the vertical stripes and the circles gently contact and leave each other, producing a grid of compositional satisfaction. The sound here  barking dog, outdoor noises  generates a momentary form of containing documentary space. But as the light shifts, a heavy shadow surrounds the window frame (as if performing a graphic exaggeration, or instinctual capture, of this compelling tableau), and a sharp metal clanking sound marks the end of the shot. The lull of non-fiction just there- ness recedes as the filmmaker returns in the form of the metal strike: he has been making this painting all along. In such moments there is a jolt, a torquing of possibility, a true poetic enlargement as chance and will collide. This film/my mind/the world is more spacious than I thought; one desire, or a necessary image, might simply be a pebble on the path to more complex potentials.

In retrospect, I can see that inside the 100-meter radius surrounding the filmmakers house, I had, at last, found a cinematic home  and an appetite for film. 50 feet offered a form of footing, a point of entry, into a vast universe of moving images that had previously felt foreign. 50 feet of string by Leighton Pierce received the Jurors Citation Award, Black Maria Film and Video Festival Tour, 1996.

Rebekah Rutkoff is the author of "The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions" (Semiotext(e), 2015) and the editor of "Robert Beavers" (Austrian Film Museum, 2017). She was a 2013-14 Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Hellenic Studies and a 2015-16 Princeton Arts Fellow at Princeton University and is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

 *  Terms of Use *  Privacy Policy  *