Robert Beavers is so defiantly old school, he’s Old World. In an age of cinevisual excess and decentered authority, his films are a clear and present alternative. A program of three recently completed gems at the Walter Reade (May 6 at 8:30) aspires to a state of such chiseled perfection it’s impossible to imagine any shot trimmed or lengthened by a single frame, any sound/image collision altered by a split second. Far from airless exercises in technique, they are drenched in the atmosphere of specific locales and indelible human presences.
The filmmaker took off for Europe in 1967 in the company of avant-garde legend Gregory Markopoulos, with whom he lived and worked until the latter’s death in 1992. Beavers resurfaced on the American scene several years ago with a backlog of nearly 20 films subsumed into three projected cycles. Each film in the program has a distinct two-part structure in which concluding sections reformulate previous themes. The progression traces subtle trajectories: from portraiture to landscape; from complicated images shot through filters to comparatively simple views of a burbling river; from concern with human fixity and variation to a humbling recognition of absence.
Framed against the hills and village streets of a Greek island, the facial features of a handsome young man in Still Light (1970/2000) are continually recast by artificially imposed color, focus pulls, and fluctuations in light. Sotiros (1975/1999), shot during Beavers’s long convalescence after being hit by a bus, builds an elliptical double portrait out of small details in two light-struck hotel rooms. Nearly identical pairs of sinks, beds, and windows stand in for the couple’s bodies (glimpsed in fleeting close-ups) and are punctuated by title cards reading “he said,” as if an unheard intimate dialogue were taking place. Indicative of one of the most unsentimental yet emotionally resonant filmmakers ever to squeeze a camera, Sotiros swells with an insistent longing that could make a Hollywood melodrama blush. The Stoas (1999) balances static views of an empty industrial arcade in Athens against the utterly peaceful flow of a rural scene. Like many of Beavers’s greatest films, it works as an elegant crypto-travelogue minus the usual monuments, mood music, and beach bunnies.