Serenely anachronistic, 52-year-old Robert Beavers is a throwback to the heroic age of the old New American Cinema—if not to the high seriousness of an even earlier epoch. His aesthetic predates the scruffy, confrontational ’60s underground, which was at its Warholian peak around the time Beavers dropped out of prep school (the administration censored his film society) and moved to New York City to become an avant-garde filmmaker.
Beavers’s mentor was Gregory Markopoulos (1928-92), maker of densely edited, daringly elliptical updates of Greek myths. The teenage Beavers relocated to Europe with Markopoulos in 1967, in part to fulfill Markopoulos’s grand ambition to create a theater in central Greece devoted to screening his films. Several years after Markopoulos’s death, Beavers returned to the U.S. to selectively show his own (still undistributed) movies. The spirit of a vanished age, he emerged as a filmmaker of tremendous stature—a mini-retro at Toronto, the recipient of a special award from the National Society of Film Critics, and the only filmmaker with a solo program in the current Whitney Biennial (March 10 and April 6).
Running less than an hour, “Robert Beavers: The Architecture of Film” consists of Work Done and The Painting, two pieces made in the early ’70s and re-edited with sound some 25 years later, as well as The Ground, a 35mm film shown to universal acclaim at last fall’s New York Film Festival. All three works are characterized by highly musical structures in which particular, precisely framed images are repeated in varying combinations. Beavers creates additional internal rhythms within the overall montage by racking focus, masking parts of the image, and stopping down the aperture. (Most distinctive are the abrupt pans, a staccato effect apparently produced by the filmmaker sharply rotating his lens mount.)
Bracing in its simplicity, the 22-minute Work Done was shot in Florence and celebrates an archaic Europe. Contemplating a stone vault cooled by blocks of ice or the hand-stitching of a massive tome or the frying of a local delicacy, Beavers considers human activities without dwelling on human protagonists. The activities are archetypal; the connections are made associatively in the editing, as when Beavers cuts from a close-up of the ice to a limpid sylvan stream. That he is also a colorist is clear with the shock appearance of a filtered, greener-than-green meadow. Like many of Beavers’s films, Work Done is based on a series of textural or transformative equivalences: the workshop and the field, the book and the forest, the mound of cobblestones and a distant mountain. A pig—represented by a folk art butcher sign—is reduced to two pats of lard and a vat of impossibly red blood.
Shorter and more tightly focused, The Painting intercuts shots of traffic navigating the old-world remnants of downtown Bern, Switzerland, with details from Dirk Bout’s 15th-century altarpiece, The Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus. The painting shows the calm, near-naked saint in a peaceful landscape, a frozen moment before four horses tear his body to pieces while an audience of soigné nobles looks on; in the movie’s revised version, Beavers gives it a comparably rarefied psychodramatic jolt, juxtaposing shots of Markopoulos, bisected by shafts of light, with a torn photo of himself and the recurring image of a shattered windowpane.
Despite the wealth of allusion, Beavers’s films are not literary. (The Markopoulos opus closest to his disciple’s work is the non-narrative study of a soon-to-be-abandoned apartment, Ming Green.) Nor is Beavers’s vision precious. His fastidious visuals are typically rendered concrete through the use of ambient sound—in The Painting, it’s a combination of traffic noise, door creaks, and the sustained single note of an orchestra tuning. Oscillating between the everyday and the eternal, Beavers dares to harmonize with the spirit of the Renaissance. In some respects, his confident appropriation of the “European” suggests Alexander Sokurov. Beavers is not so much a formalist as a classicist—even The Painting is remarkably free of angst. (Stan Brakhage, by comparison, is a wild and crazy expressionist.)
An even blunter series of equivalences, The Ground identifies the rocky landscape of a Greek island with that of a man’s torso—gray chest hair equated with sea grass and lichens. A stone carver sits beneath a ruined battlement, methodically chiseling a brick in the course of a bucolic afternoon that might have already lasted a thousand years. These shots alternate with close-ups in which a man (the same man? the filmmaker?) rhythmically slaps his chest, creating a fleshy counterpart to the tapping. Beavers complicates this basic structure, which analogizes stone masonry and filmmaking, with screen-filling shots of the sky and the sea, and longer views of the hills. The Ground is about shaping something amid the ruins of time. Elegant and elemental, the movie exudes a sense of sybaritic, even stoned, well-being. A stray goat wanders past a cave. The faint sound of cowbells only accentuates the intensity of the noonday stillness.
Andy Warhol once joked about how fabulous it would be to have a movie of a medieval shoulder. The Ground is, in some ways, that movie. More sensuous than austere, it evokes the timeless, sunbaked Mediterranean world of L’Avventura or Contempt. At the same time, Beavers’s film seems far more advanced in its self-contained artistry and eschewal of myth. The Ground feels like the expression of another century—but is it the 15th or the 25th?