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The Cinema I: Mangolte Film

Film Programs

The National Gallery of Art’s film program provides many opportunities throughout the year to view classic and contemporary cinema from around the world.

View the current schedule here

stills from Four Pieces by Morris, 1993 (L) and Water Motor, 1978 (R), courtesy Babette Mangolte
and BROADWAY 1602 UPTOWN & HARLEM, NEW YORK

Performance

Here the films are chronologically organized, and they share the same utopian ideal that one film can encapsulate the moment of its making, which will be retrievable many years later in another historical time and bring back a sense of the concepts anchoring the past time of its first utterance.

The perfection of the body performing the movement at a given time is one primary reason to shoot a specific performance event. It will never be as wonderful as today and, maybe, it can never be seen again later. It is because not everything can be repeated that the compulsion to record the present action takes root. Film is based on this utopia of perfection that exists at only one time and the desire to keep a trace of it for the future. It is certainly the motivation behind the making of Lucinda Childs’s Calico Mingling in 1973 and Trisha Brown dancing Water Motor in 1978. Those were performances captured live. The fact that there are also films of them comes from the nontraditional way of documenting the event.  The spectator has the ability to reflect about what he sees while looking at the film.

The feature film Four Pieces by Morris is a re-enactment engineered by the artist Robert Morris of his seminal performance from the 1960s. I wrote two descriptions of the film, one from 1994 when the film was first released, and the second from 2004 for a retrospective of my films at Anthology Film Archives.

From 1994:

Four Pieces by Morris is a reconstitution of the seminal performance work done in the early sixties by the sculptor Robert Morris.

The filmmaker’s problematic was to create a film which, in the nineties, can give a sense of the aesthetics of another generation without debasing it by transforming it. In particular the modernism concerns of the sixties performance artists and dancers were centered on casual gestures and duration. Several of those concerns have been integrated in today’s dance vocabulary (like casual movement and untrained bodies), but some remain elusive, like the concept of theatrical time, which was totally renewed in the performance work of the period due to John Cage’s enormous influence.

Film is the medium of duration, but what we call duration is historically determined. The expectations of film spectatorship change greatly in different generations. My biggest question was how to represent another generation’s sense of time. I gambled that if I could create a sense of heightened presence of the performer on screen by restructuring the sound space of the image, I could use the distended time-duration of the sixties to my advantage and emphasize the importance of the performer’s body.

The film’s premises rest on maintaining the concept of art as displacement/art as a frame, which I thought was at the center of the impact these performances had when they revolutionized the new dance in the New York art scene of the early sixties.   

From 2004:

The making of the film was extremely pleasurable because the daily contact with Robert Morris was intellectually stimulating and fun. I also had all freedom to devise the complex tracking shots and gliding camera work, which are meant to be seamless and invisible. I trained myself to know the movement so well that I could guide the tempo of the tracking shot by pure instinct. The task was particularly challenging in Site and Waterman Switch. I also felt that showing two renditions of Waterman Switch was interesting, the first one emphasizing the proscenium effect of the choreography, the other using point-of-view shots and drawing the spectator into the narrative.

The sound track was the most interesting element to invent, for me. It is with sound that you create presence. I feel very grateful that Robert Morris gave me total freedom in the matter. 

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