Happy Birthday

by Claudia Siefen

A time may come when the films and pictures which we admire today will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets, thinkers and filmmakers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases. But since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

Throughout his films, Schwartz developed a beautiful rhythmic pattern with his in-camera edits and intuitive use of the variable shutter. There is a musical quality to the way brief clusters of shots, complete with flash frames, leading into gestural pans. The manual fades that he employs often in the same shot, invokes a series of revelations, a feeling further amplified by his cuts to color footage. Schwartz shares his process of discovery: the films constantly re-energized new explorations of the architectural space. The stream of consciousness of his films is centered through diversionary edits – the moment he cuts away from a construction site to take in the beauty of a surrounding park or to admire a sculpture or a pond.

These serve as markers of time passing, brief allusions to the changing of seasons, as well as the art it will contain. Often highlighted in these moments is a formal precision, where Schwartz finds an echo in nature, or the pure action he is following. What it also does is link the past to the present, by connecting art and artifacts that the nature holds to the present tense in the space nature always inhabits, providing a sense of continuity that mirrors the audience’s desire to merge the film with the rest of the screen.

A Certain Worry

In both his travel films and his more diaristic work Schwartz draws influence from certain traditional approaches to observational filmmaking as well as from mentors Saul Levine and Mark LaPore. The soundtracks to his films are stitched together from rich textural field recordings and subdued sync-sound that slides above the images. In Den of Tigers, filmed in Calcutta, India, the clang and hum of an outdoor marketplace gives way to a quick jam of tablas and chengilas, or a man’s voice explaining that perhaps “…where you are sitting right now, it might have been the den of a tiger.” But what we see are haircuts performed on the side-walk, books stacked floor-to-ceiling, eggs boiling in a broad black pan. The perceptual experience is condensed by layering images and sound from different moments, but in the very same way it is expanded and a third space created through the happy montage.

Where one moment in Nothing is Over Nothing an open door is abruptly closed by a disembodied hand, in another the filmmaker himself is smiling into the camera and offering flowers; this perhaps it is an unspoken reconciliation between the intimacy of shared personal experience and the slight melancholy of being in a foreign place. In other works, like his 33 1/3 series of in-camera edited films, the aural and visual attention paid to color, shape, and texture is more explicit. What remains familiar throughout is the lyrical sense of editing and the opaque layering of sound and image.

The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted. It is impossible that all this loveliness of Nature and Art, of the world of our sensations and of the world outside, will really fade away into nothing. It would be too senseless and too presumptuous to believe it. Somehow or other this loveliness must be able to persist and to escape all the powers of destruction.

A Preface to Red

“There were other places where the lord fell, and others where he rested; but one of the most curious landmarks of ancient history we found, on this morning walk through the crooked lanes toward Calvary, was a certain stone built into a house – a stone that was so seemed and scarred that it bore a sort of grotesque resemblance to the human face. The projections that answered for cheeks were worn smooth by the passionate kisses of generations of pilgrims from distant lands. We asked’ Why?’ The guide said that it was because this was one of “the very stones of Jerusalem” that Christ mentioned when he reproved for permitting the people to cry “Hosannah!” when he made his memorable entry into the city upon an ass. One of the pilgrims said, “But there is no evidence that the stones did cry out. Christ said that if the people stopped from shouting Hosannah, the very stones would do it.” The guide was perfectly serene. He said calmly, “This is one of the stones that would have cried out.”  Mark Twain: Innocents Abroad

But this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may none the less be true. I could not see my way to dispute the transience of all things, nor could I insist upon an exception in favor of what is beautiful and perfect. But I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.

So Schwartz suggests that we’re all playing roles, but it’s hard to stay faithful to our roles, let’s try that again from a different angle, a different inflection of the voice. What does it mean to be faithful to your mask, to your costume, to your whole put on made up carnival of a self that you’re supposed to swear allegiance to every morning. What is the first fiction, the first story, the first picture they made you believe in? Do you have all the accessories you need, have you learned all the lines, the behavioral tics you’ll need so that you can pass as a member of…what? The way you’re sitting in the chair right now, in this room, in this moment, are you successfully performing your mask?