A clouded interrogation of texture and seeing
Fog Line — Larry Gottheim (1970)
This week’s newsletter has two inspirations. The first is a collection of five films by American filmmaker Larry Gottheim that have been brought together by the people at ULTRA DOGME. You can stream them until April 14th. Fog Line is not part of that selection, but you can easily stream it elsewhere. The second inspiration was a request by a reader (hi Andrew) that I write about fog. This is literally a film about fog. That'll do.
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— Fog. Simplicity belies complexity; a world patiently revealed. Nothing is actually that simple. Fog obscures, but it also reveals, or draws attention to that which can almost be glimpsed. Made in 1970, Fog Line is ten minutes and 57 seconds long. It is not the shortest film I’ve written about, but it comes close. Fog Line could be sixty seconds long or six hours long. It is shot on 16mm film, and shares all of the texture and imprecision of that medium. Barry Gerson describes it as a “perfect work”, seeming “unobtrusive or simple”. His argument is that it is not simple, at least not in its implications. But it is also—and this is important—a single, stationary shot of a landscape. Simplicity belies complexity.
— Larry Gottheim understood a good joke. Fog Line is—after all—a visual gag. It is a film in which there appears both fog and some lines (these stretch across the screen, tilting). The name determines the content, but not wholly. It is intentionally insufficient. After all, what we are looking at is not simply lines and fog, but their framing, their texture, what they disclose and reveal. It is photographic, the movement—or, say, the film’s evolution—occurring almost spasmodically, unpredictably. This is what renders it a very exciting film, and very akin to a kind of visual poetics. Things seem to erupt very suddenly. Then they depart, just as suddenly. You do not expect this suddenness, almost as if the eye is rushing to catch up with the imperceptible changes that are taking place within the limit of the frame.
— It is conceptual. On its surface, you could draw parallels with the contemporary work of the American structural filmmakers. But it is less interested, than they are, in the conditions of film as film; of bringing those things to the fore. It does not really draw attention to the madeness of film, though it shares the spasmodic patience of a work like Michael Snow’s Wavelength. But where Snow sought to draw ironic attention the narratology of the frame and its focus, Gottheim seeks something more ethereal, even indecipherable. Rather than the mechanics of looking, we’re walking through the territory of the end of film, and an interrogation of the eye. What can’t it show, rather than: how is this “shown". Not sure if that makes sense.
— Apropos of nothing, I had this very strong impression, while sitting down to write this piece, that Ivan Bunin—in his Dark Avenues—writes often about fog. Perhaps I am confounding fogginess with darkness. This seems a little backwards. After all, Fog Line isn’t even remotely a “dark” film. It feels as if seen in negative.
— What we are looking at, I think, are oak trees. The lines are probably telephone wires, witnessed without their supporting masts. In some senses, this cleaves the area of the observed frame into three stacked areas, with many of the trees clustering within the central (middle) area. Your attention is pulled forward, but there are also slips and occluded blossoms of tree appearing in the fore and background.
— Jonas Mekas wrote about Fog Line. As did Tony Conrad, puzzling over its “delicately positioned” metaphor(s), operating—for him—at a sort of structural/conceptual level: the raw and the cooked; town and country. Etc. Really this feels a little too analytical, where—in reality, I think—we’re offered an experiment simply in the programmatic poetics of framing (and how it can ‘mislead’) and the tonality and texture of film. Look, Gottheim seems to say, this film doesn’t really show anything at all. But then again, it does.
— Film needs these little experiments. Film needs a sense of humour. It is an interrogation of looking, the film asking us (our eye[s]) to think, patiently, about composition and texture, about the “emulsion” of film stock (Raymond Foery). Other of Gottheim’s conceptual films from this period inhabit a similar simplicity-complexity: Blues (1970), Corn (1970), Doorway (1971), Harmonica (1971), Etc.
— Fog Line is silent. Here’s further grist to the idea that this is really about looking (its potential and its lack). Sound would introduce only a distracting complexity that the film doesn’t need. It has (lazy Googling) been rescored by musician Sterling Mackinnon. I don’t really want to watch the film with sound. I’m not sure what it would add, except unnecessary ‘ambience’. Stop rescoring things!
— Helpfully, Gottheim’s website offers a nice little description or blurb about Fog Line. “For an attentive viewer the mental fog could also lift”. This seems to imply a desire to kind of activate the viewer. “It just shows a piece of time, a section of a process in the landscape and in the mind of the viewer”. So, really, it is like a mirror. He’s right. The image slowly, and then—as I understand it—spasmodically changes. It is more akin “to drawing […] rather than painting”. He continues: “the viewer is invited to explore the screen, looking here and there, each person following a different path”. Ok, Borges. We meander this way and that. We wander through its two-dimensional geography.
— There are horses. Very soft and hard to make out but, yes, there are horses. I didn’t make them out the first time I watched Fog Line. Gottheim admits that they’re the first animals to ever appear in his films. The world is very loud, but also very soft. This is a kind of tuning, or attenuation. We think into the film, rather than passively sop up the things it throws at us. Light doesn’t hit us, but we hit it. It’s reciprocal. I feel like I could continue writing about Fog Line all day, but I won’t.
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