Ernie Gehr’s Cotton Candy

Peter Carter

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents

If we try to understand and to explain the means by which music exerts its powerful effects, we do not reach our goals by describing the structure of the piano and of the violin, or by explaining the physical laws of sound. We must proceed to the psychology and ask for the mental processes of the hearing of tones and of chords, or harmonies and disharmonies, of tone qualities and tone intensities, or rhythms and phrases, and must trace how these elements are combined in the melodies and compositions. In this way we turn to the photoplay, at first with a purely psychological interest, and ask for the elementary excitements of the mind which enter into our experience of the moving pictures.
- Hugo Munsterberg, The Psychology of Photoplay, 19161

It could be argued that Ernie Gehr has made the question of cinematic essence his project since he first began making films in the late 1960s. From canonized early works like Serene Velocity and Still through more recent excursions such as Side/Walk/Shuttle, his meditations on light, motion, and time are evidenced in singularly distilled forms. As a film that documents carnival toys, Cotton Candy (2001) might seem to be something of a departure from this body of work, and it is; although we find that this "comic musical" (as Gehr has described it), in examining the nature of modern attractions, invariably situates itself in the company of its maker’s previous ontological cinematics.

Cotton Candy was shot at the Musée Méchanique in San Francisco, and it begins with a pre-cinema moving picture entertainment, the mutoscope (think of a rolodex file with images on paper cards). Normally, the full frame of the image would be visible at all times, but here the camera is positioned slightly lower. We start with a view of the stack of cards and the image gradually increases, top down, one horizontal line at a time, as each card is flipped. There is elegance in the demonstration, but also an ominous reference to the scanning of an electronic screen.

Cinema relies on the repetition of images in series for an illusion of movement, and the mutoscope exemplifies this effect without the use of projection. As Gehr features various mutoscope reels, he takes the liberty of stopping, starting, and advancing them at different rates. One reel takes place aboard a houseboat during a storm. A man inside opens the door to check the weather and a giant wave is there to greet him. Then suddenly the motion is gone. The action is not resolved; it simply halts on the last visible frame, leaving the wave hanging in mid-air and the man‚s face caught in expectation. Slowly, the reel continues, and as the cards are turned, Gehr savors the transitions and the intermediary states. The wave crashes into the room, stops, showers the man, and stops. Still images leap to life and life freezes into photographs.

The coin-operated carnival is depicted in a similar collage of starts and stops. After the opening mutoscope we see an automaton woman sitting on a bench. The previous reel featured a beautiful young female star—a mortal made eternal through photography, while this woman’s paint is fading and her limbs have deteriorated. There is a carousel, a community band, boxers, food vendors, a Ferris wheel, and an airplane ride. The miniature collection suggests the fascination of Calder’s circus, but the amusement park has long been dethroned by the movie house. As if in response to the resulting neglect, the gorilla rages behind bars, yet he will never escape from his cage. A mother rocks her baby carriage, but the carriage is empty. For these automatons time has passed.

The film’s soundtrack includes ambient arcade noise and circus music provided by the carnival itself, as well as selections like "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" and Satie’s first Gymnopedie. But rather than casually guiding the viewer, the soundtrack divides its time between unifying and disrupting the ongoing montage. When a single song plays, the shots appear to build on each other, formulating a narrative. However, Gehr often uses whatever sound was recorded with the original shot, cultivating disjunction. In one sequence we see a dog panting, then from another angle a man eating an ice cream, then from another angle we see that these two characters are in fact responding to each other. With continuous sound, these shots would accumulate predictably, but here the third shot is an unexpected summary. Like the varied motion of the mutoscope, the discontinuous sound draws our attention to the cinematic grammar we have been schooled in since our first movie.

In the same room as the carnival and the mutoscopes there are video games. Foreshadowed on the soundtrack, the lens finally allows us to see them, altering its focus and peering through the edges of the carnival as if parting the brush for a rare glimpse of the species in its native habitat. At first bordered by pieces of the carnival and later given the full frame, the game Gehr chooses is a car race. The change in tone is jolting. The game is fast and demanding and the car flies at full speed, nearly out of control. This image is not broken down for us. The video game is a non-stop blockbuster action spectacle with the viewer strapped to the driver’s seat and digital imaging at the wheel. This is the future and it is now.

Video is also the medium in which Cotton Candy was made; it is Gehr’s first DV film. Here we find that the same revolution in technology that ensures the demise of past entertainments has produced the innovation that will preserve them. Unlike the carnival, digital video will not fade over time. And it does not have frames that will wrinkle or tear like the mutoscope.

In a more fundamental sense, Gehr’s film asks us what happens at the end, what happens when things stop. We watch the wooden figure of a woman swinging from a bar and we indulge the illusion of an animated gymnast. But when the motion stops and the lights go out, the woman returns to her lifeless state. If you turn the mutoscope crank fast enough, Harold Lloyd dances on a skyscraper’s beam, hundreds of feet above the city. But seen at a slower speed, each frame is cold and distant.

In the showman’s tradition, Gehr leaves his audience with a song. The black and white keys of a piano jangle away, but of course it is a player piano—the mechanism of the music-making keys is invisible to us. This ending is joined by a shot moments before (having appeared throughout the film) of an automaton standing beside the carnival’s photo studio. There are samples on the outside wall, but the supposed portraits of automatons are photographs of actual people. The man stares off into the black hole of the entrance to the studio. Is he privy to the secrets of the medium or is he blind to the process? Is he pausing after an exit or awaiting an entrance? Is he looking into the future or the past? He lingers on the threshold.


1. Reprinted as The Film: A Psychological Study, “The Silent Photoplay in 1916,” New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970, p 19.