Ernie Gehr b. 1943
Serene Velocity (1970)
1970, Runtime: 00:14:52 (-according to other sources it's 23 minutes, but... well it's what I could get - fitz)


In representational films sometimes the image affirms its own presence as image, graphic entity, but most often it serves as vehicle to a photo-recorded event. Traditional and established avant garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing. But film is a real thing and as a real thing it is not imitation. It does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind. It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space. —Ernie Gehr, January 1971

-"SERENE VELOCITY is a literal 'shock corridor' wherein Gehr creates a stunning head-on motion by systematically shifting focal lengths on a static zoom lens as it stares down the center of an empty, modernistic hallway. Also plays off the contradictions generated by the frame's heightened flatness and severe Renaissance perspective. Without ever having to move the camera, Gehr turns the fluorescent geometry of his institutional corridor into a sort of piston-powered mandala." —J. Hoberman

In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.



Ernie Gehr Serene Velocity
Scott MacDonald

For Ernie Gehr, as well as for Ono and Snow, making movies is a way of creating experiences that are so different from conventional movie experiences that they become critiques of the conventions. But while Ono and Snow are artists who have used the motion picture camera to broaden their repertoire and to expand their audience, Ernie Gehr is more precisely a film artist. While Ono and Snow are generalists, Gehr is a specialist. By the late 1960s, film's increasing prestige as a medium with which fine art experiences could be created had led some filmmakers to an interest in the intrinsic qualities of this particular medium. Just as many 1960s painters and sculptors were concerned with exposing the "essential," theoretically irreducible conditions of the experience of painting and sculpture, filmmakers began to attempt a "metaphysics" of the cinematic apparatus. Ernie Gehr was in the vanguard of this project. Each Gehr film is a voyage into the particular conditions of the film's production and a discovery of the immense untapped visual and conceptual potential of these conditions. The results dramatically demonstrate the narrow parameters of conventional moviemaking. Although the scope of this discussion does not allow for a review of all Gehr's films, Serene Velocity is best understood as one of several cinematic investigations of three elements of the motion picture camera: the camera obscura, the lens, and the filmstrip.

Gehr has always been unusually reticent about his life, and as a result we don't know a good deal about how he came to make the earliest of his films currently in distribution; but, by the time he made Morning (1968), he was clearly a sophisticated filmmaker, capable of using the film experience as a means of exposing and considering specific elements of the mechanical! chemical apparatus of cinema. Morning is a brief (4'/-minute) visual interpretation of a portion of Gehr's apartment at dawn: The end of a bed and the legs of someone presumably still sleeping and a cat are visible - but the personal elements are basically a context for the film's focus on light. The camera points toward a window that opens onto an alley; by working with the single-framing function of the camera and the aperture, Gehr takes control of the light this window lets into the space: We can see - or seem to see - its actual substance.

Of course, the moment we consider what is actually occurring, as the light seems to flood the space one moment and to reveal it in an ordinary way a fraction of a second later, we realize that the actual "room" into which the light flows is not the apartment, but the camera box. Gehr reminds us that the movie camera is, essentially, a "room" into which light is admitted through the "window" of the aperture. This is more than metaphor; it is a witty encapsulation of the history of a crucial element of the cinematic apparatus. Still and motion picture cameras developed as miniaturizations of the cubical rooms Western people have traditionally built as living spaces. In fact, the original camera obscuras were rooms in which the influx of light was more intensively controlled than the light through the windows of normal rooms. Morning reveals a conventional room space and the technological intensification of it which ultimately made still and motion pictures possible. A second dimension of Gehr's evocation of the evolution of cinema becomes evident if one notices that the powerful flickering of the light flooding through the apartment window is reminiscent of the experience of looking directly at a movie projector while it's running. In a general sense, the rooms we live in are theater-like, as well as camera-like. Each morning, the light of the sun projects into our living space, revealing our physical surround. The movie projector is merely one important development among many in the long history of the technological domestication of lighting. As we sit in a theater watching Morning, we are face to face with the two historical processes - the development of the camera and of the projector - which came together at the dawn of cinema history in the Cinématographe.

In the years since Morning, Gehr has completed a series of distinguished films, each of which throws the extreme conventionality of industry cinema - and its continual pretension of newness - into relief. More than any other film, however, Serene Velocity established Gehr's reputation, and, despite the remarkable films he's made since 1970 - Eureka (1974-79) and Table (1976) most notably, perhaps - it remains his best known film, and for good reason: Serene Velocity creates an experience that is rigorously simple (even minimal), but visually fascinating and conceptually fertile. The film's simple structure combines elements of Muybridge and the Lumières in much the same way Wavelength does. Basically, all the viewer sees, for twenty-three minutes, is a single, bare, institutional hallway (specifically, a hallway in a classroom building at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where Gehr taught for a time), filmed by a stationary camera. While the view of the hallway is continuous, however, it is far from uninterrupted. When Serene Velocity was first shown to audiences, viewers were often puzzled about how Gehr had produced the film's pulsating, super-active image. In fact, the means were not complicated, though it took a filmmaker entirely free of preconceptions about how movies are made to think of them. Having positioned his camera to look down the hallway, Gehr filmed the space four frames at a time, beginning midway along the focal range of his zoom lens and adjusting the zoom first in one direction, then in the opposite direction from the lens's midpoint, in equal and progressive alternating increments, until he had filmed the space from virtually every position between the midpoint and the two ends of the lens's focal range. The resulting film is serial, grid-like, both graphically (the hallway is all squares and rectangles within squares) and temporally (the film maintains its pulsating four-frame beat throughout); it allows the viewer to study the way in which Gehr's procedure transforms the space and the viewer's experience.

For many first-time viewers Serene Velocity is infuriating. Given their conventional training, they have no idea of what they are supposed to be seeing, other than a relentlessly repeated shift between two versions of the same space. On the other hand, if they can allow themselves to actually look at the film (certainly one of the first tendencies in many viewers, when confronted with powerfully critical films, is to shut down the eyes and/or mind: One can "watch" the films without seeing them), a set of developments in the seemingly unchanging image become apparent. As the zoom lens gradually moves us back and forth along the hall, the doors, ashtrays, and other details of the hallway move in and out of the image: At one focal length we may see a certain door; a few moments later and a few increments further along the focal range of the lens, the door has disappeared. While all changes in the hallway are created by the rigorous procedure Gehr devised for the camera, near the conclusion of the film we can see, from the light in the glass of the doors at the far end of the hallway, that it's dawn.

As in Morning, the "subject" of Serene Velocity can be seen as a metaphor (and more than a metaphor) for the particular element of film technology that allows the "subject" to be recorded in precisely the way we see it: The hallway is to the building what the lens is to the camera; both are long, narrow spaces that provide access to other spaces. Or, to put it another way, the zoom lens is the "hallway" through which light travels from outside the camera into the photosensitive darkness. If the camera box is a miniaturization and intensification of the rooms in which we live, lenses are miniaturization and intensifications of the spaces by means of which these rooms are accessed. Even the fact that the window at the end of the hallway becomes light at dawn might work within this parallel: In many movie cameras the end of a roll of film is signaled by a light one sees in the viewfinder.

Serene Velocity does more than develop an ingenious parallel between its ostensible visual subject and the particular means by which this subject is revealed. The silent evolution of the imagery of the hallway makes available a wide range of different film experiences, some of them, paradoxically, the opposite of others. In fact, the film's journey through the hallway/lens is an axis along which these other experiences are ranged. Of course, to a degree, what anyone sees during a screening of Serene Velocity depends on that individual's personal state of mind, and yet I would guess that any reasonably attentive viewer who watches the entire film will discover several different experiences. Perhaps the most obvious has already been mentioned the feeling of being thrown relentlessly backward and forward four times each second (the lens was readjusted every four frames; the film is screened at sixteen frames per second). Since Gehr was moving incrementally away from the midpoint of the zoom lens focal range toward the extremes at either end, the perceptual gap between successive four-frame units of the film grows continually greater for twenty-three minutes. Of course, most of us do not maintain our attention on Serene Velocity at a single, unvarying level. Indeed, as violent as the successive changes in image can feel, they can be instantly transformed by the eye/mind into a very different visual experience. If one does not attempt to see the successive images of the hallway as individual three-dimensional spaces revealed in Renaissance perspective, if one doesn't rigorously focus in on the successive images, Serene Velocity can seem to be a fiat, graphically distinct, nearly abstract image which regularly flashes between two states, like a neon sign. In fact, if the viewer sees the image as the two-dimensional space it really is, rather than as the three-dimensional space of which it is an illusion, the film can seem quite meditative: The square-within-square organization created by the lines of the doorways and light fixtures is reminiscent of classic mandalas. In other words, the film is simultaneously violent and meditative, depending on the nature of the visual experience the viewer decides to participate in at any given moment.

Once it is evident that Serene Velocity is proceeding in a specific, predictable direction at a uniform rate, and that there is no one correct way of looking at the film, some viewers experiment with the specifics of their own apprehension of the imagery: At some point during my second viewing, I began blinking my eyes so as to try to see only one set of images of the hail, or to focus on a specific detail visible in only one set of the alternating images. Of course, the very opportunity for the viewer to choose how to see a particular film is itself an implicit critique of the assumption of commercial film-going, that each specific movie should be apprehended in one particular way and that within the film each individual cinematic moment has a precise function in ensuring that this one form of apprehension occurs. Viewers may refuse to participate in the particular series of emotions a director may try to orchestrate, but, if they do, they are aware that they are "reading" the film "against the grain."

The fact that Gehr is able to energize one of the dullest contemporary spaces (what is duller than an institutional hallway?) into a complex visual! conceptual experience is more than a tribute to his imagination; it dramatizes his esthetic position. For Gehr, the magic of the movie camera is its ability to free us from visual habits, especially those we've developed at the movie theater. The industrial history of film has impoverished our sight by endlessly reconfirming a narrow range of in-theater experiences, in which each narrative moment is a means for delivering us to the film's conclusion; in Serene Velocity, Gehr transforms a space designed for the purpose of delivering students to the rooms where they have educational business (a space which in a conventional film would have much the same function vis-Č-vis the characters) into a highly energized, multifaceted visual experience.

If none of the films Gehr has completed since Serene Velocity has achieved that film's reputation, several are of equal interest and all are worth seeing: a new Gehr film remains something of an event. Morning can be said to encapsulate elements of the prehistory of cinema; Eureka, which Gehr worked on from 1974 through 1979 (sometimes under the title Geography) - deals ingeniously with the medium's subsequent history. To make Eureka, Gehr used a brief film made between 1903 and 1905, presumably to be shown on the front of a Hale's Tours coach: the camera is mounted on the front of a trolley and records the trolley's journey from the moment it turns onto Market Street in San Francisco until it reaches the Ferry Building and the end of the line (where a wagon with "Eureka, California" printed on the side crosses the image). By re-photographing the original single-shot film a frame at a time, Gehr stretched the original trolley ride and allows us access to at least two levels of cinema history. On one hand, we confront the social history of the early twentieth century, within which the history of cinema was beginning (the date on the Ferry Building - 1896 - is suggestive in a film-historical context). The original film must have emphasized the excitement of a fast-moving trolley ride down Market Street; Gehr's slowed-down version retains the exciting moments (people move across the tracks so close to the front of the trolley that we can't imagine they won't be injured), but allows us to examine the environment of the street and the ways in which the people who saw the camera responded to it. Market Street circa 1903 seems to have been a model of functional anarchy: The roadway is crowded with all manner of vehicles and pedestrians, all of them vying for space, True, the vehicles on the right side of the road generally move in one direction; those on the left, the opposite way; but, beyond this, it seems a case of every vehicle for itself. The energy of the street, the collision of the many different worlds represented by the varied vehicles, and the pleasure people take in performing for the camera make Eureka a period piece with as much resonance as the most elaborate contemporary recreations of that era - Coppola's Lower East Side in The Godfather 2 (1974) for example.

But while Eureka allows us to experience San Francisco at the beginning of the century watching the film is reminiscent of rides at Disney World and Epcot Center - Gehr's painstaking re-presentation of the original footage reveals a different form of history. In the years since the original film was shown, the prints that remain have decayed, so that the contemporary viewer must experience the original imagery through a curtain of scratches and other forms of decomposition. The journey down the trolley tracks in Eureka is also a trip through the time that has intervened between then and now, as that time is represented indexically on the filmstrip. The fact that the original film was recorded from the front of a trolley makes this other historical process particularly suggestive, since the essential mechanical technologies at work in trolleys and in cinema - and their shared limitation: friction - are historically related.

Of course, although Eureka is an elegy to a lost age and a decaying technology, it also reconfirms the remarkable power of cinema. As a result of the combination of the technologies explored in Morning, Serene Velocity, and Eureka (and Gehr's other films), we can still see these people; they are alive as we watch. As we travel along the filmstrip and along the "strip" that was Market Street, they gaze at us and we at them through time and space, by means of a "corridor" that simultaneously allows them access to the "dark room" of our consciousness and gives us access to the world in which they lived and moved. Gehr demonstrates that the cinematic apparatus is, like us, part material and part something more.


NOTES

1. Another experience is suggested by the joke Ken Jacobs made about Serene Velocity when he introduced the film at SUNY-Binghamton the first time I saw it: Jacobs said he found it a sexy film. Of course, on one level nothing could be less sexy than an institutional hallway, and yet, if one focuses on the red "EXIT" sign above the doorway that bisects the hallway, especially near the end of the film when the gap between the successive images is particularly dramatic, the exit sign seems to thrust forward toward us, as though it were a phallus.

2. For information on Hale's Tours see Raymond Fielding, "Hale's Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre1910 Motion Picture," in John L. Fell, Film before Griffith (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 116-30.