Q&A: DAVID GATTENThis entry was posted on March 28th, 2013
By David Phelps
The pure products of America have to be compartmentalized—no zeitgeist seems more predominant for a class of bohemian riche (me too, cf. here) than classification, a kind of aesthetic of rational order without the hassle of rational inquiry, found everywhere from the Wes Anderson characters categorizing their personalities like the books on their shelves, to the Tarantino filing-cabinet plot of neatly-motivational sub-narratives catalogued in larger stories, each plotline an artifact of a gargantuan narrative archeology, to movie posters like this one. The system reigns—as Avatar and Inception have to give half their running times to tutorials explaining how their rules of their nonsensical universe work—and the sign is #reified: books are judged by their covers, as the world, in these films, is converted into a series of icons a click away. The crux of the whole trend is probably the iPad, whose iBooks app, simulating a wooden bookshelf on a flattened screen, conjures one’s personal canon with the touch of a finger. The perfect mind, repository of all the eons’ knowledge and unruffled by the nuisances of an outlying reality in an age of war, can be displaced into a user-friendly interface for anyone with about $700 bucks to spare.
But because things are never neat, it’s the all-analogue David Gatten, a man whose own filmmaking interests might be classified in hashtag-like thematics as nature, ink, and film, who’s made the digital The Extravagant Shadows, a movie whose own aesthetic initially seems straight-up iBooks: a shot of books on a bookshelf precipitates the pull-quoting of literary quotes (James, Blanchot, Stevens, etc.) on screen for the film’s three hours, as a hand paints over the bookcase swaths of single colors (each of these, too, might be neatly classified). As literary lessons, however, the quotes are teasingly inadequate: bastardized composites of different passages, the words fade in and out apart from their sentences as though half-recalled, half-reshaped suggestions of a system flaring in and out of visibility (Gatten wrote many of the passages himself). As always in Gatten, the film flirts with its own design, visual and otherwise, as a system: the human hand painting is, after all, both its author and its agent; the system itself is both a flailing approximation of an all-too-virtual mechanism and all-too-human consciousness. But the hints of a larger system signal both its infinite perpetuation as well as its semantic breakdown into its elements suspended apart from one another. The word outstrips the sentence, and the design outstrips the system: the virtual text takes on compositional weight, and the flattened colors of flattened digital take on a variegated texture across the screen. As an ultra-virtual movie, it turns itself inside out; what’s left is simply what’s there. I talked with Gatten around midnight last October at Views from the Avant-Garde in New York, a couple nights after the movie’s premiere.
Desistfilm: I was thinking maybe we could start with Henry James.
David Gatten: Very good.
D: I don’t want to make you give up any magician’s secrets—sources, etc.—that you don’t want to reveal, but the title “The Extravagant Shadows,” I believe, is taken from “The Jolly Corner.” And if I’m not mistaken, just going off my own recollections, a lot of the first material sounds like—or looks like—“In the Cage,” James’ story about the telegraph operator.
G: There are many different writers whose words I use in this piece—foremost among them certainly is James. If I had to do a percentage breakdown, I’d say that somewhere between 65 and 70 percent of it I wrote myself, but 25 percent of it is Henry James, 3 percent of it is Maurice Blanchot, and a percentage is Stefan Zweig an Wallace Stevens.
D: These are not the writers who are on the bookshelf, though, that we see at the beginning—only James.
G: That’s correct. They are not the writers’ books you see on the shelf.
D: So I’m trying to remember—the writers we see on the bookshelf are more skewed towards the 19th century.
G: And there’s also a range of different kinds of articulation of language. On the far left, there’s Henry James, which I consider to be as good as it gets: as articulate, as interesting, as labyrinthian—as careful a use of language as you can get to. We proceed through some classic love letters, Heloise-Abelard, a great sequence of love letters, Charles Dickens, who also I think deploys language in very beautiful ways to tell stories. But then we move away from people that we like to consider literary greats into more genre-type materials, and finally almost pulp materials.
D: And this is the progression across the bookshelf?
G: And this is the progression across. We have in the middle two works by Marion Harland, including one called His Great Self—which I will leave you to ascertain the significance of in terms of my overall body of work as a filmmaker, particularly in terms of my concerns with William Byrd. We then finally move into a sort of silly book, The Lover’s Replies to an Englishwoman’s Love Letters. So that bookshelf exists both as a visual representation of certain kinds of spines—it’s about color and texture—but it’s also about different kinds of language articulations, from the most complicated to the simplest.
D: But we’re not seeing those books suddenly come forth on screen.
G: We are not. No, that image exists as an idea on its own. The Extravagant Shadows, the words that come through the paint, are not from those books—they are from the larger book that is the collection of all Western literature. And it is in fact not all Western literature: there is a small passage from Liu Yichang’s 1972 novella Intersection, which figures in another, in my estimation very great, film of the 21st century.
D: Whoa—which film is this?
G: I will leave that also to your own research. It is a film from 2000.
D: I’ve got googling to do.
G: So I hope you will enjoy the search.
D: Hah, yes—each word leaves us off on a thousand signals.
G: But all of it comes back to James for me. And “The Extravagant Shadows” is indeed a phrase from “The Jolly Corner,” and I use many, many phrases from James throughout in what I call a “panel” of text, which is an entire screen or block of text. And in any given panel there are probably at least three James phrases, and many complete James sentences. And in fact the very first panel in the first story is entirely James, and the final panel of all of the text in the movie is James intact and untouched from a speech he gave at Bryn MawrIn between, I’m taking fragments of James, situations of James’, characters of James’, and putting them into new stories, and interweaving these stories through my own writing in, I believe, James’ voice.
D: It’s a very Jamesian thing to do, too, that kind of interweaving of these different consciousnesses. Well—part of what’s amazing about The Extravagant Shadows is that it takes up cinema as a hybrid of painting, literature, and music, each of which is atomized, each given their own place. So I guess we could start by thinking about it as a literary work, because that’s my background, and it’s always easier to talk about words.
D: But thinking about the issue of determinacy, which I believe crops up a lot in the film. What’s the phrase that keeps coming up? “The place of meaning”?
G: I don’t know!
D: Well, there’s another point in the film where it talks about a word that can only mean one thing—and that would be the ultimate word, because it only signifies a single thing and becomes the thing itself.
G: Yes—and that’s Wallace Stevens.
D: But this is the opposite of Henry James in so many ways—who will not approach anything directly but will only proceed through the metaphor and sometimes the metaphor of the metaphor. The Jolly Corner is a good example: a person walks around a house and it’s a detective story only metaphorically. And yet that abstraction of it becomes the subject itself whereas the thing that’s happening is only the excuse for the subject.
G: And in Stevens, the idea of “description without place” is similar—
D: “Description without place!” That’s the phrase.
Gatten: —but can be thought of as the flipside, I think. And in all cases with James, with Stevens, with Blanchot, I’m trying to follow a procedure that I’ve been working with for over a decade and that I call “condensation.” And that is taking an existing text and making a container that will pull things out of the air—that will extract certain essences from a text and reconstitute them in a different shape.
D: So it’s almost like a machine of meaning, that can take materials from all sides.
Gatten: Like a glass of cold water on a humid day. The water vapor in the air becomes liquid when it attaches to this container.
D: So it’s actual condensation.
G: It’s actual condensation. So what words come out of the air—how can I pull some words and ideas together. “Description without place” is a very long poem by Wallace Stevens, and I’ve condensed it to 24 lines to get at what I believe is its essence—now I’m leaving out a lot of nuance.
D: Which is always the accusation against cinema—that it takes literature and just bowdlerizes it to the essential.
G: And that’s—I’m comfortable with that. I don’t think that has to be bad. And that is the way I would attempt to make new meanings out of existing texts, as well as to misread existing texts.
D: So it’s almost like a reverse pun, where instead of taking one word and getting five meanings out of it, you take five meanings and find some way to bring them back to a single word, a single phrase, a single panel.
D: But this again goes against the other idea of the film in which we would find the word that is only the thing that it represents. There’s almost no mimesis, no imitation; nothing represents anything other than what it is—a color is just a color, and the color being painted is the color of the film. At most there are signals: even once you get the word, it’s just another signal.
G: So yes, you’re right—there are two very different ideas. But what they have in common is that they’re taking care with language. And I’m reluctant to pin down at this point what this film is about, but if I had to, I would say that it is most essentially about taking care with language.
Ds: Like the Heidegger term.
D: I’m sorting through this.
G: Yes, yes, please! It’s a lot to sort through.
D: It’s a lot to sort through. Let’s go on to the—visual?—if we can. I guess just to recap the film—I think it’s important to recap the film, because I have a feeling that when I recap it you might not agree.
G: Oh, that’s the most interesting thing there is.
D: So I’m curious about saying what seemed so obviously to be happening.
G: Good, good.
D: For example, I read some report that said it was three hour real-time painting, and I said, no, that’s not what it is, that’s absolutely not at all what I watched! For me, what I saw is: we have a song; we have a bookshelf, which is the screen itself, as the spines of the book compose the screen; a glass door closes on it, and we see your reflection filming; a paintbrush comes out and starts to paint, and what happens is that the vertical space that we had with the spines now becomes a horizontal space of a page and the painting; we stay in this horizontal space for the next almost-three hours as each new layer of play brings forth the words that were edited into it in post-production; they fade back in; another layer of paint is added, but that layer of paint is also fading in and out with the previous layer, so we have both the words and the paint itself fading in and out of the lower layer; another panel of words; and so on. There’s one song at one point, then one song at another point, then three songs at another?
G: A song at the beginning; a song in the middle; three songs towards the end. There’s five total. All from 1968, from a single album, all Merrilee Rush. “Angel of the Morning” is the album, and that is of course the most famous song from that album.
D: And finally the door opens back up, and we see the books again, and that’s the ending of the film. So my own sense while watching that is that we’re watching a highly edited film in which we’re seeing each layer of paint in a dissolve over the time it takes to dry, but there’s also some sort of editing that is bringing out the previous layer of paint in little dashes and strokes, and bringing them to the foreground to get this incredibly heightened contrast between the two layers of paint. So that at all moments we’re in between layers, even when we think we’re looking at a new layer, we’re still in between layers. Which for me works as a kind of amazing crystallization of the digital editing process—you work in Final Cut Pro, you work in layers, in “tracks,” and with each track you can change the opacity to make a mixture of two layers in which it’s impossible to tell which is on top and which is on bottom. And adding these layers of paint is a kind of form of editing in which we’re always caught between these two layers.
G: And that in fact is a function not of digital editing, but of the fact that I ultimately did layers of an oil-based sign painting enamel paint, what Eric Gill would have used to paint the window in 1926, with acrylic paints. And those do not like each other: they are not supposed to be used together. The acrylic dries much, much faster. We are in fact looking at things in real time. And I was doing all of the painting in Colorado, where the relative humidity up at 7,000 feet is extremely low in the month of June, and so I’m putting this paint on, and within seconds, it is drying, cracking, blistering, and revealing the layer underneath. So there is nothing that’s being done digitally in post-production to enhance that: that’s an actual physical reaction that occurred in front of my eyes.
D: So you made a Final Cut Pro-edited film without editing—that’s my theory.
G: There’s very little editing involved—
D: There’s a little bit.
G: There’s a little bit. I mean, there were moments when, because I’m using a camera with a certain size memory card, I had only a 20 minute take. And so the paint would dry, and I would already be applying the next layer at the four minute mark. So I could go maybe four layers of paint.
D: And you could actually paint while standing, and the paint is never dripping, it’s always sticking.
D: And you still have the panel?
Gatten: I have the single panel with all these layers of paint.
D: How thick is the panel?
G: It’s not super-thick. It’s not like an inch, or even half-an-inch thick—it’s like a quarter-inch thick. So it is literally putting the paint on and letting it dry, and depending how thickly I put on the acrylic, you get more or less of the enamel bleeding through. And when I put on the next layer of enamel, you don’t get a bleed-through. If I put the enamel on before the acrylic is totally dry, then you get a smearing, you get a different kind of visible layer in your paint. So I had to really learn how to work with these paints as materials.
D: Do you paint a lot normally?
G [laughing]: No, this was the first time ever! I learned a lot about painting in a very short amount of time. This was the third take.
D: And the font is stable, but their colors change.
G: The fonts—I use Eric Gill’s sans-serif font, “Gill Sans,” for most of it, and then I use “Perpetua” for some of it—which is another of Eric Gill’s fonts. And then there is one small section that is “Baskerville,” which both and “Perpetua” and “Gill Sans” used as an important precursor, thinking about certain proportions and shapes. So there are different typefaces for different voices in the movie.
D: But of course once you find the word, it doesn’t contain any meaning in of itself, but signals out. So as soon as you try to fix a meaning, it dissolves instead—which could be a description of the film itself. As soon as the color dries, it’s not fixed, but still dissolved. Even when the word is set in one typeface, it might have been set in another—which would have a different meaning.
G: That’s correct.
D: So the words are objects, which is what I love. Because the characters and words are looking to have a fixed meaning, and when you treat the word as an object, it is a fixed meaning, but one which might have been open up to infinite other forms and understandings. I know Tom Gunning’s mentioned Michael Snow’s So Is This—maybe the ultimate film to treat words as objects—as a predecessor, but I wonder how else you see yourself in a tradition.
G: I see myself very much in a tradition of the American avant-garde cinema. I think a lot about the work of Stan Brakhage, a lot about the work of Hollis Frampton. Those are for me two of the very important people whose cinema I admire and I’m interested in their ideas—they have very different ideas about how language functions in relation to perception, certainly. And ultimately I’ve fallen down on the Framptonian side of things. His work, particularly his film Gloria, I think are very important reference points, touchstones, for me, and his use of music in Gloria was a model for my use of music in The Extravagant Shadows. Because he doesn’t just use a song—he sets you up to have a recognition when that song occurs. Because in those 16 statements, one of them has his grandmother describing a song played at her wedding, that she says sounded like “the quacking of ducks,” called “Lady Bonaparte.” This is just one of those 16 things he remembers. And minutes later, we get a soundtrack with a green screen: a song called “Lady Bonaparte” that sounds like the quacking of ducks. And so it’s not just music that comes in, but music that means something to us in a memorial sense when it arrives.
D: So you could see this a couple ways. You could say that the words precipitate this moment, set it up, but you could also say—and maybe it’s the more obvious interpretation—that the song is not an extension but a break from the words, that the movie gives you these supposed facts, but that finally there’s something beyond fact.
G: Yes, yes. For sure.
D: Even though Frampton is still using these elements not as an experience of the thing itself, but as a language that points back towards his mother. So it’s a different version of the song, and instead of seeing her, we see a film of “Finnegan’s Wake” he found in the archives that becomes a language unit signaling beyond itself and signifying her. But then the whole thing shows a breakdown of fixed meanings into lived experience—how is Extravagant Shadows cuing us towards the songs?
G: The lyrics appear in the first half of the film—
D: No way—did I totally miss this?
G: —well it’s not that evident. And then they continue to appear after “Angel of the Morning” has played. And people definitely came up to me and remarked upon this. “And then when the lyrics started to appear!” People seemed gratified by that as a recognition.
D: It’s like a Pavlovian reaction. You trained your audience.
G: So in that way, the Frampton’s—it’s not just the use of music, but a very specific way of using music to let meaning accrue and to produce a recognition, to plant something that is going to flower later.
D: Off the cuff, since we’re talking informally, how would you pit Brakhage against Frampton in terms of language/image?
G: Well I think in general Brakhage was in search of a way of seeing, as he believed, as he stated in Metaphors on Vision, “how many colors are there in a field of grass to a crawling baby unaware of the word green?” He thought that language, the ability to name something, actually prevented you from seeing, because you had an idea, a preconceived notion, that prevented you from actually seeing a fully perceptual experience and seeing all the nuances present. Frampton replies, in Zorns Lemma, beginning his film in the dark, in which we hear the text read of The Bay State Primer, the first text used to instruct children in “the colonies” how to read. And once we have acquired language, we have an image. Our first image is the alphabet, 24 letters of the alphabet—the Greek alphabet, not the full 26—and then we are out into the world, and what we see in the world are words. Gradually, once we have acquired a facility with language, those begin to be replaced by images, without words in them.
D: So is an image a more determinate language, then, or a less determinate language?
G: We can’t see until we can name things. Brakhage thinks naming prevents seeing; Frampton thinks naming enables seeing.
D: But both of them are enamored of puns, right?
G: For sure—they both love language. There’s no question they both love language and poetry and all.
D: But a pun trusts a word to break its own boundaries and signal anything else, which is what any image can do, Kuleshov-effect-like: any image can mean almost anything next to another image. But you’re moving towards a language in which the system would be rigorous enough that the language would unfix itself—I guess we could say? Which would be very Framptonian.
G: I—I am at this point—I try not to think too hard about that when I’m doing something. I think that later, but that’s not what I think about that day when I’m at the studio.
D: Do you mean you painted, and then you found the words?
G: No, no—I spent 12 years writing the text. And, you know, the whole project was a 14 year project. So I spent a lot of time writing long in advance of making those specific images—I made other images along the way, on videotape, that I discarded. For 12 years, I was discarding things, while I was writing, and it was only really in the last 18 months, in the last 9 months even, that I started the painting, and became specifically interested in the architecture of those rooms that exist at the center of the film, where we actually leave the painted surface and enter into true architectural spaces for about 20 minutes when the sound comes in. Color and paint came in late to this project.
D: You mean when we hear the birds—and suddenly we’re in a figurative space?
G: Yes—so I like very much your reading of the film and how it relates to Frampton, but I try not to follow too much of a roadmap in terms of the larger conceptual and theoretical implications of the work.
D: Well it’s a mystery too.
G: Yeah: it’s a mystery to me how it all happens. And then—a year from now?—I will have a much clearer sense of what happened on Friday night and what this object is that I finally finished making. This was the first public screening for me, first public screening for the work, first time I’ve seen it projected large all the way through, so I am now becoming a viewer of this work myself.
D: And what’s your feeling?
G: Well I had a very good experience. I felt very happy about the room, and I had a powerful experience of the work myself. It did—it did what I hoped it would do, and then it did things that I hadn’t expected it to do.
D: Can you give an example?
G: I probably can’t.
D: Probably for the better—words only go so far.
G: But it—it cohered in my experience.
D: That’s probably a really good word to use for this sticky film—that’s both atomized and cohesive.
G: And I was pleased with that. Because—it’s hard to be sure. And in fact, I don’t want to be sure. Because I’m not attempting to churn out a reliable product. I’m attempting to initiate an honest exploration of something. And that exploration, that experimentation, will yield results, and it’s my responsibility to shake those results into a composition that says something meaningful, but I’m never certain what it is I’m doing, or how I’m getting there, and I try to protect a little bit of that mystery so that the unexpected can occur. If I’m just executing a vision, then it dies on the operating table. So, I’m—so that’s a long way of saying that I can’t totally answer the question about the Framptonian nature, or direction the project is taking.
D: And you are fitting this within an ongoing project, not within a break?
G: Yes, for sure. Yes, it keeps going.
D: Can you talk about why from the very beginning you wanted to do video and digital instead of film?
G: Yeah, because by 1998, I was very dedicated and interested in working entirely in 16mm after having worked in super 8 and videotape in the first half of the 90s, making work that I never released into public—that was when I was a student, exploring things. I knew that I was going to have very, very long takes for this work, and I wanted to be able to have a control over the appearance and decay of text that I couldn’t have working in 16mm film. At this point in 1998, I had a Bolex, which only shot 28 seconds, and I was working on a Model “C” Contact Printer—longest fade: 96 frames, four seconds. And a four second fade isn’t going to do it, for this idea of language staging itself extremely slowly, becoming apparent not over the course of seconds but minutes, and then receding over the same scope of time. So I knew that film wasn’t going to do it for me.
D: But there is this real break from your other films that there’s a flatness here, that’s a very digital flatness. It’s a vertical flatness at the beginning, it switches to a seemingly horizontal flatness, as if looking down on a page, but it’s the flatness of a medium that, I think, really struggles with dimensions. And what was amazing to me was to see both you accepting that flatness by taking up these flat surfaces, and then using the paint to give it texture, and almost bring it back to a film texture, by giving it an actual texture of the paint itself. Whereas in your films what we see is the film itself, and it’s not mediated through another surface.
G: The concern with the surface has migrated from the emulsion of the 16mm film to something in front of the camera.
D: It’s amazing because you dealt with digital’s problem of flattening everything to a surface simply by creating a new one, of the painting itself.
G: And—and the resolution of our current 1080p cameras actually depicts that surface pretty well.
D: Yeah, it can even capture the texture. Whereas in most movies it destroys the texture by flattening. I guess, if we can go back—the stereotype about film is that it’s the bastard art, what happens when painting, music, theater, and literature all have an orgy and generate this monstrous child, cinema. There’s no theater in here—
G: Well, there’s a little bit.
D: When the sound comes on?
G: And there’s the little flies.
D: Oh yeah, there are the flies you kill. There was gasping in the audience, like it was an Argento film.
G: Yeah, so there’s a little bit of melodrama.
D: So I take it back—so we get it all. Even narrative suspense: building of color, what the next color will be… the words, the mysteries, and even the question of when the next fly will get killed. So we have pulp melodrama and high literature and Henry James brought together with your everyday fly massacre.
G: Just like the opening image.