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At the Frontier of Knowing: The Films of Peter Hutton

Three Landscapes (Peter Hutton, 2013)

EssayPart of Issue #13: So This Is Silence

In the summer of 1925, Meher Baba took an oath of silence that he preserved until his death forty-four years later in 1969. Universal culture in his lifetime remained rife with speculation about the gesture. Droves of his followers – called masts (the ones lost in euphoria) – wondered what the leader was trying to indicate, what was his lesson, what, after all, was the meaning behind it all. There is no documented evidence that the Baba himself ever revealed the answer to these questions; most records relay that while he made routine promises to his followers that he will in fact, break the silence one day, he did not, ultimately. His passing away only enriched the intrigue around his decision – he left as his legacy a perpetual cliffhanger.

This anxiety – which accompanies a collapse of signification – is endemic to the era of human history we find ourselves in. Civilization is belaboured by collective pareidolia: a hysterical desire to catalogue the ungraspable. Meher Baba recognized himself as an avatar, an incarnation of God, but this must not immediately assume an absurdist tenor, for the notion of the divine is rendered differently in cultures that are essentially pagan, essentially animist. A skew of philosophies that have emerged from the region and which are now broadly classified under the umbrella rubric, ‘Indic’, think of the somatic body as the sole instrument by which to realize god; an ultra-rational machine capable of extreme sensation, and therefore, in perpetual alignment with material reality. This embroidery of thought includes the schools of meditation as espoused by the Buddhists, but is also resonant in Vedanta, which advocates a rupture of the duality between the observer and the observed (an idea built upon by theoretical physicist David Bohm through his multitude of interactions with the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti). In this, the body in and by itself becomes a device that generates perception – and bereft of the overlay of a linearity forced upon its experience by ‘culture’, subsumes itself in the inherent formlessness of the universe. These posit that in a world ridden with intrinsic chaos, language is not merely unnecessary, but also, a distraction – for how does a framework of words, phrases or vocabularies even begin to resolve the seemingly disordered world of pure experience? It may be that therefore Meher Baba did not really deprive his followers of an answer – instead, it was his silence that was the answer.

In an interview with La Furia Umana, Peter Hutton was asked as well about his relationship to the body – more specifically, about the notion of the body as an instigator of the creative act. ‘Are you someone like Brakhage or Mekas, who create with their eyes, through their senses, or it may be that you are like Snow, a seeker of ideas, who creates through his mind?’ Hutton, equipped with a quizzical modesty typical of those with a resolved consciousness, responded, ‘I never quite know… I don’t think of myself as an artist at the level of these filmmakers.’ His nonchalant response may make the question seem slightly bizarre or outlandish, but the truth is that it serves to highlight strife that exists at the very heart of his practice. Over forty years and across twenty films, Hutton attempted to cultivate symbiosis between two scales of existence: the homocentric context within which people engage in a collective vocation and attempt to generate value, and the cosmic context of nature itself, as it permeates through all there is, entirely indifferent to notions of relevance, in the grip of its own is-ness.

June 1971, Beach Street, Somewhere in San Francisco

A larger awareness of this purpose already percolates his 1971 film, July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of Moon – a title as composed of diaristic banalities as any other in the cinema. Hutton films from inside of a counter-cultural commune as he establishes an alliance with its other residents. This is a relationship founded upon shared labour – an arrangement he remained exceedingly familiar with owing to his professional start as a mariner. As an early demonstration of a tendency that would reach a radical resolution in the films of the twilight of his career, Hutton films bodies at work; engaged, trying. The film is suffused with the abiding influence of Robert Frank or Rudy Burckhardt (in a latter interview, Hutton acknowledged that his films share a genealogy with the photo-album: ‘…you see an image, then turn the page, there is darkness, then you see another.’): the manner in which individuals are presented exists at the curious intersection of portraiture and choreography. Even at this early stage, the filmmaker is already attempting to locate in the banality of the commune a poetic metre. He tries to diffuse the cosmetic markers that define his compatriots by filming them in a state of repose, engaged in odd pursuit, naked and young; he swish pans, tilts, moves his camera in violent circles – indications of a desire to cultivate and sustain rhythm within material removed from each other in context or meaning. There is a penchant for the ‘spectacular’ that does not afflict his latter films – an extended scene where fowl is skinned is evidence – but most of all, Hutton desires to locate a certain, quiet symphony within the industrial act. In the most astounding image of the film, his body becomes the vehicle that carries both the camera and a cycle up the stairs in close contact – an image as meaningless as it is profound in how it allows him to totemise an intersection that would inform much of his later work: between a machine possessed by motion and another that observes it.

The body is often imagined as a site of primal wisdom – modern therapeutic or performance schools that belong to the lineage instituted by the meditation practices of yore declare, ‘your body knows when it knows.’ A similar state of intuitive manufacturing permeates through all creation; when Rick Rubin checked with Pharrell about the force that propels his creative process, the latter claimed an earnest ignorance: ‘I am not certain, but it seems that our bodies are antennae and we the mere recipients.’ If we were to define silence not as the absence of a voice, but that of a palpable meaning that it evokes, one can observe that the body is the laboratory where this is verifiable. In his book, Weaving Attention, filmmaker and author Amit Dutta uses radical imagination to engage with Vijñyānabhairava, an ancient text that advocates the use of our primary senses to center awareness, and distills from its tenets a set of technical exercises for young film practitioners – in this, he establishes continuity between the body’s innate, most naïve functions, and a conscious exercise in creation. While Hutton remained elusive throughout his life and claimed a pastoral unknowingness about the mechanism that yielded his work, it may be that in attending almost impulsively to the embroidery of light, shadow, form, lines, movement and metre that laid in front of him, his body had attuned itself to the ritualistic murmur of the chaotic universe. The silence that remains observable in his films therefore is not because of a purposeful withdrawal of his being from the context of his filming, but instead, due to a complete deference to it.

Boston Fire (Peter Hutton, 1976)

1976, Boston

These traits are visible also in Florence (1975) but find an incredible summation in Hutton’s 1976 meditative masterpiece, Boston Fire. In an interview he gave in Madrid in 2010, he claimed that he enjoyed the ‘form of a sketchbook’ – its stillborn quality, the accommodation of roughness, its documentation of a process in media res. Boston Fire endures as a record similarly of a sensibility in a state of transit. As a young camera operator, Hutton is still encumbered by the stated function of his station: to create accurate facsimiles of events in his environment – and the film begins with a journalistic enactment of this duty. He begins to construct a video-report on a fire in a Boston locality, even as firefighters struggle and strive to bring it to extinction. Slowly, however, a curious turnaround transpires: Hutton begins to lose sight of the entireness of the event (the so-called ‘palpability’) and instead chooses to protract certain details in the scene by severing them from context. At a site where a grand fire continues to rage, Hutton begins to locate somatic pleasure in fluid plumes, serpentine smoketrails, the sheen of light and the dense silhouettes of the machines employed by the firefighters. He abstracts an actuality to arrive instead at a heightened version of it – there is still the event, but preserved only for its sensual essence. Hutton sublimates – though I suspect not consciously yet – the aspect of the reportage and arrives instead at a poetic portmanteau of the environmental and the industrial that he will spend the rest of his career attempting to perfect (and will, with At Sea (2007), his penultimate feature).

In a discussion of Dṛg-Dṛśya-Viveka (a seminal text of non-duality by ​​Vidyaranya Swami), the mediator refers almost continuously to the philosophical problem of the ‘the rope and the snake’ – the idea that it is our cognitive apparatus that can illuminate an essentially inanimate or meaningless universe with our consciousness – render it sentient, enlist it within a narrative. It however also highlights the failure of language itself; we cannot talk of our experience directly, but only through analogy. The mediator meditates upon the incompleteness of our descriptive capacity by evoking another metaphor, when he says, ‘the ocean is not the foam that rises to its surface.’ Hutton’s filmography is laden with images that aspire to this state of pure experience – they cannot be discussed, except through oblique allusion. The images in In Titan’s Goblet (1991) seem as if the sky tore up and heaven leaks in through the new schism, while those in The Study of a River (1996) assume a sinuous flow; the cosmos placed upon a conveyor belt. Similarly, the only comment on a terrible but beautiful print of Skagafdordur (2001) on Youtube reads: ‘…unreal’.

When asked about 4’33 – a conscious gesture which has generated as much hypothesis as Meher Baba’s forty-four year exile – John Cage responded in an interview, ‘…I worked four years on the piece. The intensity of available silence makes possible the opportunity for the audience to realize that the universe is full of incidental music – as rich as that played by an orchestra on stage…’. Interestingly, it is believed that Cage’s turn towards the epoch of 4’33 resulted from his engagement with Gita Sarabhai, a musician who initiated him in Indian aesthetics and proffered, ‘the purpose of music is to quiet and sober the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences’.

A similar realization arises from the silence Hutton ferments too – by draining the image of associative signification and choosing instead to depict it in its most fundamental, most irreducible form – his films cultivate a sensorial resonance within the bodies of their audience that can then tendril into a subjective fabric of ideas, memories, similes or emotions.

1986, Near (Probably) Annandale-On-Hudson

Landscape (For Manon) depicts the universe as if placed inside of a fishbowl – forms have been rendered fluid, sinewy, flexible; stricken by a whim. The clouds collect light and the trees accumulate wind – there is resoluteness to its purpose that is witnessed again in Hutton only in Skagafdordur (2001). Much like the latter film, Landscape… depicts a multicentered, sutured diegesis that is imbued with an intense intrigue by the intensity of the gaze trained on it. Hutton’s career as a filmmaker is identifiable by a trajectory that travels across scales – he begins by being interested in the human, then turns his attention towards the cosmos, and eventually arrives at a distinct harmony of the two.

Fifteen years into a career, Landscape… betrays no appeal for either the anthropocentric, or the anthropocene: its primary interest is in an exhibition – a mimicry – of nature in its most vulgar, relentless splendor. Cascades of geometries rush across the screen as a celestial beam of light charts a path across the landscape – there is nothing else apart from this, and while one may still evoke an analogy, it will only encircle and make more audible the silence that resides in the nucleus of the film.

When asked about what his films are about, Hutton responded, ‘…nothing…’ – a version of which also finds home on the gravestone of Yasujiro Ozu, whose films a young Hutton admitted to being effectively enamoured with. In the aforementioned interview with La Furia Umana, he claimed that it was Ozu who ‘taught me the importance of understatement in the cinema.’ Often in the films of the seminal master, a sequence potent with emotional tension – a domestic squabble, the discovery of infidelity, destitution, the death of a loved one – would be suffixed with an inbetween image (the so-called ‘pillow shot’) of a distinct object from within the urban landscape. This could be a lighthouse, foliage, a bottle, a chimney, a corridor, a vase – a litany of the seemingly insignificant. As is the trend with all gestures of silence or pause in a world laden with perpetual noise, this stylistic choice as affected by Ozu has also generated much conversation: ‘why’, ‘what is the meaning’, ‘what is the idea’? And yet, perhaps the answer lies in the platitude: it is what it is. The dispersal of a tense situation within the larger cosmos, which Ozu accomplished through editorial punctuation, relies on an abiding faith in a human being’s default alignment with the eternal forms that come to compose our universe: shapes, colours and geometries, woven into specific rhythms.

In this, Hutton belongs to a tradition of artisanal artists who are touched by a gentle naiveté in their practise: Nasreen Mohamedi and her skeletal traces, Eleanor Ray with her essential paintings and Ram Kumar with his smudged forms – individuals who abstract reality or render it ‘hyperreal’ to in fact, reveal it anew.

Lodz Symphony (Peter Hutton, 1993)

1993, Lodz, Poland

Hutton ventures into post-Communist Poland to construct Lodz Symphony (1993), an elegy of loss – in a land stricken by trauma, tenses suffuse and become one. The city confronts him with a challenge: how does he integrate an ethnographic document within a larger body of work based on a sublimation of specific detail? This friction will come to compose – as Miguel Gomes declares, ‘this friction is cinema’ – the very organizational structure of the film. Hutton can no longer construct a city-symphony in the vein of his trilogy of New York Portraits: Lodz is a city afflicted by a burdensome past and he must strike a balance between the study of its intrinsic typology and an acknowledgment of its grief. An interesting confluence results: the film is full of images bursting at their seams, attempting to escape the index. These are records that seek seepage into the sky, but are bound by an intense ‘reality’ that hinges them nonetheless to earth. Hutton combines his impressions of architectural features that are prolific in the historical city with direct images bereft of poetry: portraits of the dead, documents of deceased, records of filth and workers as they discharge their duties. In this, he tries – not always successfully but even so – to create an archive still defined by poetry: as such, lament permeates through the film and even if Hutton attempts to diffuse anthropology, it is a film where statues also cry.

Ego presides over the human reception of and interaction with the world – their cognitive design can nurture within them a peculiar delusion that nonetheless shapes their engagement with the vital schemas that surround them. In a talk delivered by Udayan Vajpeyi as part of a commemorative event for the The Raza Foundation, he mentioned as a response to the contemporary liberal resistance against ecological ruin, ‘Don’t worry about nature – it will outlast you. It will take back all the houses and the buildings it leased to you in its own midst.’ This lure for control, through the imposition of an arbitrary organizational structure – institutionally mandated by religion, market, morality, politics, romance or civilization itself – upon a universe in a state of constant flux, forms much of the chief impetus of narrative cinema. The films prepared by Hutton depart consciously from this yearning for logic and resort instead to a state of radical observation, not in the sense of an aesthetic category, but as a spiritual stance. The great scenarist, Alexandre Promio, whose tendency to film from atop moving vessels finds continuity in Hutton, was the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to dilute its ethnographic inclination. He was, as his artistic descendant seventy years later was, the conductor of films that one may categorise as a travelogue. As an employee of the Lumieres, he was commissioned like many of his fellow cinematographers were, to voyage across the colonies and draft a ledger of postcards meant to be seen by the paying patrons back home. Instead, Promio violated the brief and collected a set of majestic impressions: mystical and hypnotic; propelled as if by an odd, internal motor. The greatest accomplishment of Promio was that he refused to see things for what they were ought to be, but instead received them with a tremendous intensity for what they actually are.

Hutton infused his films – ‘observations of a time, of a certain place’, as he framed it – with a similar lack of foreknowledge or bias. By subtracting his interiority from the production of the images that constitute his filmography and allowing instead for his environment to register a sensorial imprint upon him, he collected images that are not subject to or a subject of, drained of psychology, association, meaning, or nostalgia – and exist, instead, as ‘them, themselves’. In this, Hutton mounts a remarkable tribute to attention itself, for even as one may think of his films as an inventory of objects, things or events, it emerges as a fantastic archive of birth, evolution, mutation, decay and then extinction – a temporal exercise where each shot runs until it reaches a point of saturation and then dies (his filmography is a cemetery of images that were once alive; eulogised by a blank, black screen that will stay until the cycle of birth begins again in a few seconds).

2013, Detroit, Michigan; Mekelle, Ethiopia; Hudson River Valley, New York

The question thus of the human figure and their relationship with the cosmos endures in Hutton up until Three Landscapes (2013), his very last film, and where he arrives at a certain response by its end. Throughout his filmography, he continues to enlist the human body by itself within the larger dance of the universe – it is permeated by figures bereft of a specific identity and therefore anonymous, with the locomotion of their bodies recruited in the overarching rhythm of the universe. As such, the people in Hutton move, walk, sweep, clean, build, dance, love – verbs whose performance is beset by the audible song of the universe. While Hutton adopts this method in his final film, he also acknowledges the contrasts that belie the industrial and the elemental: in the third segment of the triptych, he films uncharacteristic close-ups of herders at work, thereby isolating them within their vocational framework, severed from the drastic, arid environment that exists around them. He inculcates a similar approach for a few minutes, before resorting to a set of images more typical to his filmography. As herders move in a file across the width of the composition, their figures lose solidity, blur and are absorbed within the topography of the frame – one with it, indistinguishable from the background. Other examples of a similar, utopian expression of a synthesis between the body and cosmos abound in the film: in a sequence elongated by the use of various magnifications, Hutton films the bodies of workers as they move forward along a suspension bridge, and infuses the entire film with the rhythm of their cautious amble.

However, in the most astounding example of this desire for a perfect alignment, Hutton resorts to an aesthetic strategy almost entirely unprecedented within his entire filmography, marked as it is by a personal commitment to the intrinsic autonomy of each image. He violates the sacrosanct borders of the frame by enforcing a startling superimposition upon it: as workers continue to labour in the field, he lets the image lose its opacity and mix with another image of the clouds in the sky. Through a literal maneuver that is still not bereft of elegance, he finally attains the confluence of the somatic with the celestial. No boundaries remain and the skin is now porous. By establishing therefore the body as the site upon which the cosmos enacts itself, Hutton exercises the perfect prototype of silence, for as Meher Baba revealed and then Cage – when there is no resistance anymore, what else needs to be said.