Thursday, February 16, 2012

David Gatten's Secret History of the Dividing Line

In a cinematic culture where words, whether onscreen or via narration, are commonly ghettoized as paltry emotional shorthand and "visual storytelling" is trumpeted as the pinnacle of the art form, David Gatten's films present an urgent retort. Having relished, dissected, and contemplated the printed word for almost twenty years now - and he plans to continue to do so for the rest of his career - Gatten has rediscovered the mysterious allure of typographic language in a specifically temporal context distinct from literature. The crux of this fascination is Secret History of the Dividing: A True Account in Nine Parts, a series of films initiated by Gatten in 1999 and prospectively set to conclude in 2028. Thus far, four films, all silent and black-and-white and ranging from 18 to 37 minutes, have been completed: Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing, The Enjoyment of Reading, Secret History of the Dividing Line, and The Great Art of Knowing. Together these films represent an astonishing, mysterious body of work with a distinctive approach to visual grammar, a shifting set of complex themes, and a loose, fragmentary narrative.

The inspiration for Gatten's series is a mesmerizing melodrama circling around the history of the settling of the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina in the early days of Colonial North America. William Byrd II, a government official from Virginia, is the focus of Gatten's historical curiosity. In a forgotten fragment of history, Byrd was one of the pivotal journeymen responsible for finalizing the colonial border, and subsequently wrote two volumes about the experience (one titled The History of the Dividing Line and another more suggestively deemed Secret History of the Line). These two pieces of literature were the seeds of an entire library established by Byrd of writings on the social, economic, and political landscape of 18th century America. However, this sizable repository of personalized knowledge, considered by Gatten to be in many ways the inauguration of American intellectual identity, was gradually eclipsed by a generation of more conventional libraries and has become, like its founder, a mere blip in the timeline of history.

Taking the lead of the supposed "secret history" that Byrd penned which was swiftly obfuscated, Gatten similarly mines the non-sequiturs, loose ends, and unglamorous areas of history. What results is a sprawling interrogation of the notion of historical accuracy, raising the question of what gets into history books to be taught to new generations and why. Part 1 of the series, Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002) - which was actually the third film released, adhering to Gatten's strange, achronological ordering - wastes no time elucidating these themes, opening with a single jagged scratch running frantically through the center of the frame as various dates flash by beside it. It's immediately clear that the scratch represents the border drawn between Virginia and North Carolina, but it becomes several other things in the process: a wavering timeline, a manifestation of the divide between what we know and what we can't know, between reality and fiction, and between life and death. The thematic import of this line weighs on the rest of the series, as Gatten is not so much nodding to the tidiness of the line as he is questioning how accurate it can be when dealing with the mysteries of time and existence. A subplot in Byrd's story is a spooky tale of William's daughter Evelyn, a woman with romantic hardships that plagued the final years of her life, and whose ghost has allegedly been spotted several times roaming around the state border. Gatten wonders whether a narrative such as this, seemingly only the stuff of folk tale, is any less vital, any less instrumental in the progress of history than, say, the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

The onscreen time allotted to each historical date running along the timeline of the scratch varies drastically. Some dates run only a few frames, appearing as indecipherable flashes of text that mirror the relative insignificance of single moments in such a vast stretch of time. Others, such as the date of the inauguration of Spiritualism in the Americas, or the birth of William Byrd II, show up legibly for a few seconds. Gatten is foregrounding those seemingly trivial aspects of history that are of importance to his project, and neglecting some of the more universally talked-about and written-about cornerstones of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In doing so, he provides subtle hints towards the thematic and narrative preoccupations that the series continues to explore in fragments. That these are merely hints and not full aesthetic discourses seems essential to Gatten, because the Secret History of the Dividing Line series traces the way a narrative and a work of art is pieced together over time, just as the ideas and stories being explored were nurtured throughout the course of decades and centuries. Further issuing this point, Secret History of the Dividing Line, the film, follows this opening timeline sequence with an extended progression of images of amorphous, gravelly textures, chiaroscuro concoctions smearing half the screen and evoking a primordial soup. It's a gesture that bluntly denies any further intellectual engagement, insisting upon a sensual relationship to the celluloid instead.

The Great Art of Knowing (2004), Gatten's second and most poetic film in the series, extends upon the project's relationship to the act of searching through history and excavating details. Here, Gatten's camera scours a library, revealing old, dusty books illuminated only by a tickle of sunshine sneaking through trees outside. Not only do these luscious close-ups revel in the ancient artifacts of preserved but ultimately defunct knowledge, they also savor the very idea of material aging, bringing dust, wrinkled paper, and archaic cursive writing into detailed view. One can practically smell the organic odor emanating from the old paper. These shots are all about the beauty of the handiwork involved in printing these books, and equally about a lament for the decline of the library or the archive and the loss of printed literature as a primary mode of research. To contrast the printed word, Gatten also reveals excerpts from some of Byrd's writings in onscreen text, begging the same question Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy raised so eloquently last year: is a copy of an original inherently any less authentic or moving?

Gatten juxtaposes his library imagery with the occasional burst of abstraction, like a wispy shot of refracted light or a microscopic view of shrubbery, all of which establishes the undercurrent of micro vs. macro running through the film and more gently through the entire series. The Great Art of Knowing explores both minutiae - the relaxed daily schedule jotted down by Byrd in his journals, the texture of old books, the play of natural light on objects - and grand imagery, such as a black-and-white lithograph of a Renaissance-era creation painting, or a glimpse of Byrd's full name and government rank etched majestically beneath a dramatic logo. The film is posing the comparatively mundane next to the decidedly iconic and searching for the dissonances, or lack thereof, between the two. One can also sense Gatten's interest in spirituality growing in stature; throughout the series, myth, religion, and ghost stories show up offhandedly as ways of glimpsing into the past with greater clarity, or, perhaps for Byrd, living life to the fullest. Philosophical concepts appear as jumping off points for examining and sifting through the vast landscape of history.

The first two films produced in the series - technically part three and four in Gatten's order - are Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing (1999) and The Enjoyment of Reading (2001). The former takes its name from writer Joseph Moxon's 18th century volume on the use of the newly invented printing press, which initiated a widespread proliferation of knowledge that was hitherto unheard of. It's fitting that Gatten would have started production of the series with this film, because like Moxon, it marks an attempt to assess and comment upon the current function and significance of written knowledge. Naturally, the film, as well as its follow-up, is filled with optically printed text, almost at the neglect of any conventionally filmed images, but the ways in which Gatten uses text become intensely and distinctly cinematic. In The Enjoyment of Reading, letters, enlarged and small, zip by on the screen in all different directions (Gatten rarely adheres to left-to-right movement, the standard method of visually depicting historical progress), transforming into pure abstraction. It's simultaneously a clever joke on the title (none of the text is actually legible), a representation of the chaotic progress of many different types of knowledge across history, and a gentle critique of the modern propensity towards speed, which so often reduces disciplined written work to mere visual noise. In Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing, sentences appear on screen slowly and legibly, but their meanings are obscured by nonsensical grammar, forcing the audience to admire the texture of the printed word instead.

This dynamic between admiration of the printing process and argument for the necessity of reading is only one of the many balancing acts on display in Secret History of the Dividing Line, which also negotiates the tricky terrain between progress and stasis, preservation and obsolescence, fiction and non-fiction, cinema and some kind of post-cinema, and life and death. Gatten has embarked upon a body of work that is perpetually shifting and expanding upon its core ideas, and that utilizes a narrative backbone that is broad and intriguing enough to warrant continued attention. Given the web of ideas, methods, and characters Gatten has yet to explore, there is practically a guarantee that future works will avoid redundancy. With its overwhelming accumulation of details and symmetries, the series requires and rewards the kind of devoted, solitary attention with which it was lovingly created.

No comments: