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Ernie Gehr: For Daniel

Tony Pipolo

From Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (Fall 1999): The Digital

Document and lyrical biography, the work of one of the American Avant-Garde’s finest film artists and a home movie, For Daniel is, for its maker, just that: a gift of remembrance of the first four years of his son Daniel’s life. At a modest 72 minutes, the film seems an amazing distillation of what one assumes must have been twenty or thirty hours of footage taken over four years by a doting father; but this turns out not to be the case. Following its screening (at a retrospective of Ernie Gehr’s work at the American Museum of the Moving Image in March of 1998), the filmmaker explained that in fact the film comprises about half of the footage he actually shot. This is a remarkable fact, given the subject matter, even more so a testament to the inherent virtues that characterize Gehr’s “official” work. Here, it seems that two of those qualities – clarity and concentration of focus – result not from the paring away of waste or repetition – or material perhaps of interest only to parents – but from the singular attunement and consciousness of this particular filmmaking father. According to Gehr, whatever he did cut was in direct response to the distress that Daniel expressed while watching the footage with his father.

Gehr disclaimed having any grandiose plan in mind beforehand. He was determined not to “formalize” what he was doing or even allow himself to shoot Daniel’s activities in any way that would intrude upon his space or draw attention to the filmmaking. He was, he says, thinking of very early cinema – especially that of the Lumieres – which privileged what was before the camera and adopted a single angle from which to film it. This is especially evident in the earliest section of the film when Daniel is, in fact, a helpless – though not exactly inactive – infant. Shots of Daniel yawning, sleeping, crying, gazing into space, or simply being are framed to reflect the physical restrictions of his situation. Gehr makes little or no attempt to animate or enliven such footage by panning or zooming, or to contrast it with adjacent footage which is often another angle or moment of the same material. Nor does he attempt to articulate – through a more encompassing shot or by crosscutting – the symbiotic relationship suggested by the presence of an arm when Daniel is held by his mother.

But it is this very restraint that allows the viewer to adopt the same mode that prompted Gehr to pick up the camera whenever he did. Locked into a frame and generally unvarying point of view, we are invited to look more closely at what it is an infant does within such confines. When awake, Daniel’s head and face are anything but static, his eyes squinting, his mouth agape as if it could on its own reach out, appendage-like, to incorporate the world. Alone on a surface and unbound by excess wrapping, Daniel’s body enacts the drama of biological transition – now curled up in fetal recall, now stretching forth with an ease and fluidity even the fittest gymnast could not manage.

It is this uncompromised observance of limits – the infant’s, the filmmaker’s, and the viewer’s – that allows us to experience the evolutions in Daniel’s life for the dramatic leaps they are – none more wonderfully, in the early section, than the moment he sees and tries to follow the colorful mobile gently turning above his crib. Whereas the mouth was the prominent organ in the earlier shots, the eyes here are as engaging as they are engaged. Shot from above, with the figures of the mobile passing along the upper frame, Daniel’s face is alit with wonder, his mouth involuntarily forming the smiles that betray the pleasure of perception through what he sees. Of course, we cannot know what he sees, only that he does, and that his engagement with the world has grown accordingly.

From this moment, the film jumps to Daniel as a toddler, now looking up more and more consciously at the camera – or rather at the man holding it. As his world expands, so do the camera’s distance from its subject and the limitations of the frame: we watch as Daniel – now an active body in space – crawls and climbs up on furniture, steadying himself as he goes, unsuspecting that he rules the images we see by this very behavior. At one point, Gehr inserts in the midst of these shots – perhaps out of nostalgia for a time already lost – two or three returns to the infant Daniel. At another point, there is a lovely and fleeting moment when Daniel, looking at the camera, perhaps about to bound forth on one of his walking adventures, turns back to his mother behind him before proceeding. It is a moment from a period about which countless words have been written by clinicians and psychologists, and the simplicity of it here – Daniel given the simplest of nods, both encouraging and reassuring – speaks eloquently. This “theme” is picked up in the second reel in the fluctuation between shots of Daniel’s jumps and leaps and two-shots of him with his mother at quieter moments.

The second part of the film is devoted to Daniel’s increasing physical activity – from his stumbling efforts and success with walking, to venturing outdoors to work with his mother in the garden, riding his bicycle with training wheels, and later throwing a tennis ball. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental, then, that this second reel begins with two or three shots of Daniel from an unusual – one might even say, Gehr-like perspective. As Daniel assumes a posture prepared to do a somersault, the camera shoots him from above, the angle placing him on the upper part of the frame as the carpet fills the lower. As a result, he seems to be not so much grounded on the carpet as defying gravity. The effect is a momentary disorientation not incompatible with the upside-down view Daniel himself is experiencing.

Gehr was asked whether he considered making this a sound film and answered that he would have done it had it been technically feasible. And it is true that especially near the end the absence of sound is more striking when we see Daniel clearly having an animated exchange with one or both of this parents, or when he is seen in the more public setting of a classroom (daycare center?) working on puzzles or cutting out paper figures. That said, however, the silence seemed right to me, both more intimate and more compelling. I take Gehr at his word that the film should not be approached as a formalized work, that his aim was to efface himself and his artistic bent as much as possible. But it is also true that he was responding to specific, visibly discernible movements in his son’s development. It is not surprising, therefore, that I came away from two viewings of the film touched and impressed by the line Gehr seems to have walked between the loving father’s stare and the selective filmmaker’s look.

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