Perched on the bow of a freighter, 18-year-old Peter Hutton peered into the dark skies over the Gulf of Siam. Looking out for storms on night watch, the merchant seaman schooled his eye in the drama of light. Thirty years later the filmmaker says, "It was a huge influence to really pay attention to the weather. Thrust into nature like that, you become really very reverent. There's an innate respect for the forces of nature, since you're much more vulnerable to weather on a ship than you are on land."
Today Hutton is a landscape artist whose entrancing movies string together still-life moments of shadow and incident. He composes sublime views of skies and streets, rendered in sensual, silent black and white. He harmonizes smokestacks and sunsets. Honoring 19th-century tastes in landscape, his craft might appear radically anachronistic in avant-garde quarters.
His New York and Budapest portraits evoke the urbane agendas of photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Eugene Atget. His most recent film, In Titan's Goblet, forsakes the metropolis for the Hudson River Valley, home of a school of landscape painting that inspired him.
Hutton's oeuvre is devoted to visual pleasure in a meditative vein. His editing betrays a Zen-like relish for anecdote. New York Portrait includes a study of silhouetted high-rise balconies in which a Goodyear blimp traverses the frame, trespassing on the revery. In another scene a white-shirted man, knee-deep in a flooded street, wades through black water with a long stick seeking a clogged drain. Hutton records the hypnotic op-art vortex the man soon creates. But his viewpoint never victimizes, even when he peers down on a curbside dice game or at paramedics working over a man who's fallen.
It isn't easy to find a 19th-century landscape in the 20th century. In In Titan's Goblet an elegant vista is revealed to be a smoldering dump. Then a bulldozer in the background is swallowed up by billowing white clouds. One scene in New York Portrait opens on a smokestack at dusk spilling its inky emissions into the sky. Hutton likes to let swirls and streams of clouds, fog, smoke, and steam paint the screen. He finds his brushes for his grainy canvas in storms and traffic.
A key trait in Hutton's work is the richly tactile surface of his imagery. In one sense, all he shows is scenery. In another sense, all we see are silver particles. The granular texture of film stock shows up on the screen as pebbly (big grains of silver) or glossy (small grains). To some audiences grainy images look crude and muddy; to their eyes a more perfect illusion comes from grain too fine to be noticed. Others scrutinize film grain as religiously as brush strokes in oil paintings. And Hutton is a master of luminous grain.
Tiny events can be spotted inside his still-life scenes that resemble grains of film--particles with ideas and trajectories of their own. A flock of birds pepper a skyscape, and as they bank into the sunlight their undersides catch the bright rays. The body of each bird looks like a large grain of film in flight. Changing course, the little specks of light turn black and melt into the dark sky. In other scenes an angular speck suspended in high scaffolding abruptly comes to life as a worker shifts his posture, and what looks like a gargoyle turns out to be a person on a rooftop who soon returns to stillness.
Although Hutton's black-and-white silent travelogues may seem preciously antiquarian in the 1990s, their 19th-century forebears struck Russian author Maksim Gorky as grotesque. Instead of marveling that the Lumiere brothers' cinematograph had captured motion in photographs, this man of letters despaired at its deficits. He reviewed his first motion picture in 1896: "Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color. Everything there--the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air--is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre."
French director Rene Clair later decried the extinction of silent cinema after its three decades as an entertainment industry. He termed sound tracks a "new toy" and a "barbaric invasion." In 1929 he wrote, "I have observed people leaving the cinema after seeing a talking film. . . . They showed no sign of the delightful numbness which used to overcome us after a passage through the silent land of pure images. They had not lost their sense of reality."
The animated grays in Hutton's films are far from the ghastly tones that startled Gorky. Hutton is a romantic exulting in purified light, not a nihilist eviscerating the visible world. After a lifetime of noisy TVs and overpowering Dolby, today's audiences can rediscover Clair's "delightful numbness," transfixed in the dark, undistracted by auditory illusions.
"I love the elimination of the element of sound because it forces people to use their eyes more," Hutton says. As a teacher at Bard College he has observed that "the visual vocabularies of my students are so tied down to television they don't even trust their eyes. Most of them lack a strong visual instinct." His solution is to assign his beginning students to film the night.
Budapest Portrait, New York Portrait, and In Titan's Goblet will be screened at 8 PM Saturday, January 18, at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $4; call 281-8788.