Document and lyrical biography, the work of one
of the American Avant-Garde’s finest film artists and a home movie,
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
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.