A man of many worlds, Robert Gardner is a descendent of Boston aristocrat Isabella Stewart Gardner (as in the Museum), the founder (and funder) of Harvard’s Film Study Center, and mainly the globetrotting ethno-aesthete of American cinema—a filmmaker whose documentaries have been hailed by the avant-garde’s godfather Stan Brakhage and anthropology’s grand dame Margaret Meade.
Shot in the highlands of New Guinea, Dead Birds, the 1964 feature that established Gardner’s reputation—and opens his week-long Film Forum retro on Friday, with the filmmaker on hand—is an amazingly bleak and undeniably beautiful vision of human existence made in the course of an expedition whose other members included novelist Peter Matthiessen and the later-to-vanish Michael Rockefeller. Dead Bird’s sense of downbeat, almost psychotic otherness, if not quite that of a culture predicated on endless feuds and vengeance murder, was recapitulated a decade later in Rivers of Sand (1974), a contemplation of spousal abuse and survival skills among the Hamar tribes people of drought prone southwestern Ethiopia.
As visceral as Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand are, Gardner came into his own as a visionary with the exquisitely shot Deep Hearts (1980), a shamelessly expressionistic documentary of the annual political convention cum beauty contest held by the Bororo herdsmen of the upper Niger. (By Gardner’s request it was first shown at Film Forum with Peter Kubelka’s avant-garde Unsere Afrikereise.) The Bororo have an idea of themselves as “an exclusive and beautiful people.” Using a wide-angle lens and super slow motion, Gardner makes his subjects even more exotic than they are—at the very least, it’s impossible to draw a line between his aestheticism and theirs.
Even headier are Gardner’s two Indian films. The fiercely lyrical Sons of Shiva (1985) records an elaborate four-day ritual that temporarily effaces caste differences among the hash zonked Shiva-worshippers of West Bengal. Its fauvist color schemes are exceeded only by the hues of Gardner’s 1986 masterpiece Forest of Bliss, a portrait of the gaudy Ganges-side necropolis Benares that includes an astonishing catalogue of images: carrion-seeking dogs, flaming orange garlands, toothless healers and hawkers of sacred fire. Is it authentically Indian? Who knows?