Robert Beavers at Tate Modern

Tags: London, Review, Tate Modern

Reviews / 07.07.2007
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'I think of filmmaking like architecture,' Robert Beavers writes in the program notes for his month-long retrospective at Tate Modern (2007), where the complete cycle of his films (save his very first and two others he destroyed) were shown in a rare series of screenings. Beavers is an American filmmaker who moved to Europe in the early 1960s with his mentor and lover, Gregory Markopoulos. His films, made between 1966 and the present and re-edited in the 1990s, reveal a rigorously formal - indeed, architectural - exploration of the nature of filmmaking, coloured by a visual language of particularly Continental beauty. His frames show, to borrow from Roland Barthes, 'Europeanicity' - the facades of Italian cathedrals, the canals of Venice, verdant Greek gardens and narrow streets buzzing with scooters.2 However cinematically beautiful, Beaver's work suffers in the end from his careful control of the medium, never daring to upset the impeccable logic of each film's construction.

Beavers work tends to reference art and art history in his effort to link film to greater European cultural traditions. From the Notebook of... (1971/1998), a crucial film in his oeuvre, is inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as by Giorgio Vasari's biography and Paul Valery's essays on the artist and his process. The film presents what is perhaps the most explicit example of Beavers' self-reflexivity, verging on a purely conceptual work. While many of his films depict the practice of filmmaking using metaphors of skilled labor such as tailoring a suit, sewing a buttonhole or hand-stitching a book, From the Notebook of... is even more direct, and seems to methodically enacts itself. The film opens with a series of instructions, written by Beavers in neat blue script: 'Close the window shutting to a crack, film my reflection in the mirror as my hand moves in front of the mirrored light.' In the next sequence, the actions are performed for the camera: Beavers opens and shuts a window, and his face moves in and out of the light. This same effect of rhythmic obfuscation and revelation is achieved through the frequent use of props such as mattes or color filters, which frame and tint the field of vision. These techniques metonymically reference the camera's own framing and representing function.

Beavers's foregrounding of process serves to demote the subjective, narrative qualities of his films. By pairing the use of props with sequences that mimic the same effect by different means (passing a matte window over the camera lens and physically moving in and out of sight, for example) Beavers suggests an equivalence between the camera's illusion of movement and actual movement recorded by the camera, where the emphasis is on this relationship of equivalence rather than the subject depicted, or how it is depicted. The key to Beavers's films is in their construction: he edits by cutting out frames from the reel and pasting them onto white paper. He then shuffles these fragments, and it is only when run through the projector that they trade the physicality of film stock for the immateriality of images flowing through time.

Still from the 35mm film From the Notebook of . . . (Robert Beavers, 1971/1998, colour, sound, 48 minutes). © 2007 Robert Beavers

Although made over a period of thirty years, the films hew close to each other in style and formal rules. The shots are joined paratactically, in an incantatory rhythm, with sequences connected by formal similarity, directional resemblance or semiotic significance. The Stoas (1991-97) explores shape: the rectangles formed by a flight a stairs, cooking sheets stacked upon one another, hallways and alleyways; or roundness, of loaves of bread and rocks held in a boy's hand. Not to be mistaken for the romanticism of Stan Brakhage, Beavers's films evince the flinty clarity of an Aristotelian taxonomy: the observation, organization and classification of details; the relation of part to whole, and universal to particular. Similarity is privileged over difference, and governs his visual logic: this results in the tight, impassive coherence films, despite their mosaic-like structure. Moments of difference fall like rain in August - rare and welcome. InAMOR (1980), a pattern of lateral movements across the screen is broken by a pair of hands swiftly pulling out of a thick hedge - an unexpected moment that is both breathtaking and, of course, sexual.

The fact that such a gesture is erotic within the context of his film suggests the nuance but also the austerity of Beavers's practice. They are admirable films, but seldom try for the complex turbulence and drama that characterizes the tradition from which his work emerges. Beavers can leave you cold and lusting for failure. In this respect the early Plan of Brussels (1968/2000) stood out as the most exceptional and compelling of the cycle. The film, which Beavers made soon after moving to Europe, wails with a grating recording of Michel de Ghelderode's macabreDuvelor, Ou La Farce du Diable Vieux (1931) and teems with grotesquerie - actors in heavy make-up, jolie laide women, soldiers in lock-step - as Beavers curls up, naked, on the single bed of a cheap Brussels hotel.3 It carries an exhilarating dissonance, a doubly exposed and thrilling depiction of the vulnerability and youthful terror of one who has not yet fallen into the luxe, calme and volupte of his later accomplishments.

- Melissa Gronlund

Footnotes
  1. Tate Modern, London, 2 February-25 February 2007, http://www.tate.org.uk

  2. See Barthes's use of 'Italianicity' in 'Rhetoric of the Image', Image Music Text, London: Fontana, 1977.

  3. The re-edited version of Plan of Brussels, shown at Tate Modern, incorporates the three-minute Winged Dialogue (1967/2000) at its beginning.