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Through the Looking Glasses

Through the Looking Glasses

Midway through “In the Stone House,” Jerome Hiler’s document of a late-sixties sojourn to rural north Jersey, one of the film’s subjects holds a shard of blue glass up to the sun. The camera dives into the object, bathing the screen in blue, and an invisible cut introduces a procession of statues – each one suspended among tiny pinpricks of light. After a few seconds, we’re zooming back out. It’s a nice optical trick, but also a touching grace note coming from a film so obsessed with time and its passing: it’s not hard to read those weather-beaten statues as dispatches from the distant past, and the camera’s intrusion into their tinted world a way of making concrete the slippery sensation of memory. More striking still, though, is the camera’s (apparent) passage through a divider of solid glass: Hiler’s lens, it seems, doesn’t always respect the jurisdiction of its peers. 

My last post dealt with Abbas Kiarostami, Nathaniel Dorsky, and the way both address what Dorsky calls “question A for the poet” — how to commune with a world from which you find yourself excluded, by circumstance or choice. It ended in a stand-still: the filmmaker, trapped behind his impassive lens, trying to scrounge up whatever consolation, and connection, he could find. “In the Stone House” picks up the problem where Dorsky’s pair of films left off, and even offers a tentative solution. Hiler, like Dorsky, films his life, real and unadorned, but with a markedly different emphasis: whereas Dorsky’s recent work seems derived from the filmmaker’s solitary ramblings and late-night meditations, Hiler’s is a portrait of a community. Friends — Dorsky chief among them — drop in and out. Young poets lie side by side under canopies of trees. When Hiler does turn his gaze away from his companions on the occasion of a complete solar eclipse, he’s careful to show the gang preparing for the event together. There aren’t many impermeable barriers in Hiler’s work — not between people, and certainly not between the filmmaker and his world. 

This is cozy, intimate cinema, in which the filmmaker seems just as much a part of the onscreen action as any of his subjects, if not more. “In the Stone House” is first-person as few films know to be: with the insertion of frequent strips of black leader, it even blinks. Dorsky’s films, of course, are first-person too; for that matter, like his close friend and peer, Hiler is more than willing to linger over, and abstract, details culled from the natural world. 

But take a scene like the one midway through Hiler’s “New Shores” — his follow-up and companion piece to “In the Stone House.” A young Hiler, standing at the top of a beautiful vista, slowly pans across the landscape until his face sneaks into the frame. He stares straight into the camera, eyes glinting, before casually directing the lens away. It’s the sort of moment Dorsky never would’ve filmed, shattering as it does the filmmaker-audience barrier he seems at once to resent and respect. Connection between the two parties is certainly possible in Dorsky, but it comes about when we inhabit his gaze, when we make his (camera-)eye our own. In Dorsky, to be separate is to be divided; only in Hiler is it possible to feel close to the filmmaker, without being him.  

We find the same logic at work in “Age Is…,” the final film by veteran avant-gardist Stephen Dwoskin. In fact, the one thing people seem to agree on about Dwoskin’s cinema is that it’s intimate — punishingly, unrelentingly, maybe liberatingly. His life’s work was an extended attack on the maxim “Don’t look at the camera.” Even when his subjects aren’t staring his lens in the face, they’re taunting it, seducing it, imploring something of it, inviting it in or pushing it back. You couldn’t imagine the Dwoskin of “Age Is…” turning his camera from a face to a landscape. Faces are his landscapes, and in the case of “Age Is…,” the faces in question belong to a small handful of elderly men and women — their lined, creased expressions providing plenty of ground for exploration. The scrutiny, though, goes both ways: Dwoskin’s subjects are only too happy to return his camera’s stare, and with full-eyed curiosity. Dwoskin treats his camera as if it were another eye, roving, active, willing only to play the role of the detached spectator if commanded to do so — and then begrudgingly. 

Many of us will expect death to make itself felt, whether as a presence or a threat, at some point in “Age Is…” But death isn’t the emphasis here: the men and women on display stare at us so intently, it’s as if they’re fighting to assert their presence, to remind us that they exist in this moment, neither as relics from the past nor as walking dead. Perhaps Dwoskin felt the need to block death out of the picture, to grab hold of only that which stares and pulses and breathes, precisely because he sensed how little time he had. There’s an urgency to “Age Is…” that manifests itself not in the rhythm of its montage or the pace of its shots, but in Dwoskin’s worship for the human face and body. He’s the anti-Dorsky; instead of rarifying or abstracting, his camera founds itself drawn, whether by love or lust or friendship, into physical proximity with others. 

One need look no further than “Age Is…” for proof that the camera doesn’t have to isolate the man (or woman) behind it, that two people can converse across a lens just as well as if there was nothing at all between them. If it seems otherwise, it’s maybe because the camera, by its very presence, marks the scene before it as something impermanent, ready to be consigned to the past, and the man behind it as one who oversees and documents that process of relegation. “In the Stone House” is just as rich with longing as any Dorsky film — but it’s a longing for that which is distant in time, not space. The whole affair takes on a somewhat gloomier tone when you imagine Jerome Hiler in the editing room, confronting his emulsified memories after a gap of more than forty years. 

Here, too, the filmmaker is offered a (partial) way out: bottle up enough of your present on film, and you’ll be able to re-live the impressions, gestures, and events of your youth long after they’ve faded into the past. It’s one of the greatest paradoxes of the movies that the filmmakers who stand the best chance at preserving their experiences for posterity, and for themselves, are those who pay no mind to time’s passing, who — whether by virtue of their inclusion in or exclusion from the social world — devote themselves to the present intensely, desperately, single-mindedly. The resulting films might, then, have the chance to serve as more than memento moris. Perhaps they’ll give their makers something more even than a way to commune with the audience or the people behind the lens: a chance to re-live the distant past. 

Max Nelson studies philosophy at Columbia University, where he is the co-founder of the undergraduate film journal Double Exposure. He thinks everyone should be excellent to one another. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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