Re-Vision: Robert Beavers and "The Sparrow Dream"

Genevieve Yue, Notebook , March 24, 2023
The filmmaker Robert Beavers writes in a notebook every day. In and of itself, this is hardly exceptional; the journals of important artists can be found in plenty of museum archives. But for Beavers, one of whose major works is entitled From the Notebook of… (1971/1998), the practice is very much part of the films themselves. The act of writing also appears frequently in the films proper, including shots of his tidy and elegant script, and the closely-miked sound of scribbling. The notebook is a space where his artistic impulses are worked out, and a surface on which his thoughts and sensations are inscribed. 
Take this entry, from April 1, 1998, as Beavers was re-editing Notebook: “First reel is nearly complete. Has it already become too cluttered, too heavy? The only moment of delight is when the bird’s wings are heard with the view of the camera shutter in action.” [Robert Beavers, cited in Luke Fowler, “In the Shadow of a Sound,” in Robert Beavers, ed. Rebekah Rutkoff (Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2017), pp. 46–58, citation on 54.]
I find a few things astonishing here. First, the fact that after nearly three decades, Beavers chose to return to his earlier material and painstakingly rework it. Second, in the process, he admits to encountering doubt and uncertainty. And third, that he was guided by sensation—specifically, the search for delight. What confidence is needed to cut up footage previously considered complete, then to open it up! To return, seriously, to one’s youthful creative self and introduce new questions and feeling, without any guarantee for when and how the process would end. 
This retrospective openness is one of the most remarkable things about Beavers, an American avant-garde filmmaker most closely associated with Gregory Markopoulos, with whom he moved to Greece and Switzerland in 1967. For many years, Beavers films were all but unavailable: he and Markopoulos had withdrawn their films from US distribution in 1974, and they showed their work only rarely in Europe. It is only in recent decades that Beavers has begun to receive his due, including with the 2017 publication of an Austrian Filmmuseum anthology of essays and a packed house screening of his films at the First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image. Most artists entering their later careers (Beavers, now into his 70s, was 49 when he was reworking Notebook) have already settled into the deep grooves of their practice. For his part, Beavers has described himself as committed to the “non-finito,” joining the company of artists who, like Henry James, Wordsworth, Coppola, and Degas, return to much earlier works and revise them. Along with Notebook, over the course of the 1990s he revisited most of his earliest films, shot in the late 1960s, and re-edited them, often with newly recorded soundtracks. But there is a deeper sense of unfixedness that characterizes the temperament of his work. I can think of only a handful of artists, among them Godard, Bob Dylan, and Ken Jacobs, who have made the very act of unsettling the substance of their work. Occasioned by Beavers’s many references to Greek antiquity, I envision Penelope, whose nightly unraveling is as important as the tapestry she weaves by day.
Despite this, there is an unmistakable core to Beavers’s films. His signature technique, rapid transitions accomplished by the turning of the lens turret, is present as early as Early Monthly Segments (1968–70/2002), made between the ages of 18 and 19. Film scholar Rebekah Rutkoff, who edited the Filmmuseum anthology on Beavers, describes this as a “new grammar and formal language [expressed] fluently at the very moment he is learning to speak it.” [Rebekah Rutkoff, “He Made this Screen: Toward Robert Beavers’s Poetry,” in Robert Beavers, ed. Rebekah Rutkoff (Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2017), pp. 35–44, citation on 40.] It is difficult to convey how incredibly young and aesthetically mature Beavers was when he began making films. The same technique is present in The Suppliant (2010), as decisive as ever as it vertically pans up to a window view of New York, then back down to a rumpled bed. In these films, the lenswork is complemented by edits as delicate as brushstrokes, painting a suite of azure blues in Listening to the Space in My Room (2013): a vellum page in a book, a wool blanket, a woman’s faded checkered dress. This way of looking is almost creaturely. I confess that I have often imagined Beavers as a small bird, resting briefly on a branch, its head abruptly tilting, alert to every distraction, and then, stirred by the slightest breeze, alighting again.
Beavers’s process of revisiting earlier films, moreover, points to his central concern of memory. This is expressed in the many geographical and filmic returns in his recent cycle of films, beginning with Pitcher of Colored Light (2007). For what is memory but the work of reworking? Remembering is an activity of attention, which from Beavers’s (birdlike) perspective, darts quickly between sound and image, sometimes spanning great shifts in scale. It hops from the almost rude sound of a heavy chair being scooted across a wooden floor, to the distant din of traffic, to the yawn of a cat lazing in a bed of leaves. Beavers could have added to any of these impressions the phrase “I remember…”: I remember the soft tuft of poodle hair, I remember a shadow puddled under a bowl. But instead of its recounting, like Jonas Mekas might do, we are in the gears of memory itself: a crystalline composite that coheres into a film. 
“Sleep, thought, memory.” Beavers’s voice repeats these words like an incantation in his newest work, The Sparrow Dream (2022). They could describe any of his films. How is sleep like thought like memory? The answer is in the interplay between lush sensation, on one hand, and the processes of language, patterning, and abstraction on the other. This is a cinema of the mind entangled with the world. What we see is a highly complex choreography of fragmentary sounds and views, multiplied, and repeated, sometimes across films, sometimes over decades. The stout red comb of a ceramic rooster, for example, catches the eye (it is perhaps the closest thing to a scene-stealer in all of Beavers’s films) in several shots of Pitcher of Colored Light, then returns, fifteen years later, in The Sparrow Dream. This is not really a coincidence—The Sparrow Dream is explicitly about returning to various homes, including that of Beavers’s mother, in Weymouth, Massachusetts—but still it registers as a surprise. The benefit of a program like the one that screened at First Look is the condensation that can occur when seeing a suite of films together. Films as delicate as Beavers’s do not tend to fare well in group programs of the sort that often occur at experimental film festivals. To grasp their internal logic of sensation, to feel their reverberations with each other, requires immersion and enclosure.
The paradox of a camera is that it is oriented both outward and inward. It is both a view and a room (room being the word’s meaning in Latin): a chamber for looking. Beavers literalizes and spatializes this dynamic. He shoots most of his footage indoors, in a study or a living room. There are windows, of course, but sometimes Beavers is more interested in the objects sitting on the sill as what is visible outside. His films are like the cello played by Beavers’s friend Dieter Staehelin in Listening and Der klang, die welt…” (2018), a resounding chamber where sounds reflect off one another, deepening their tones. Despite the sometimes fugue-like density of the montage, the films maintain a lightness and precision, just like the flutter of the bird’s wing described in his notes. Natural light is abundant, as is quiet—how else to hear the ASMR-closeness of a page being turned? I could be wrong, but it seems the windows are always open. Beavers’s films are not only rooms, but sanctuaries, places where breaths can be taken and heard.
There is something about Beavers that can appear out of time: he hails from a previous, heroic era of avant-garde film, frequently evokes ancient Greece evoked in is films, and, in addition to his filmmaking, he has run the Temenos, a pastoral site near Lyssarea, Greece, where, every four years, restored installments of Markopoulos’s Eniaios cycle are screened outdoors to an intimate audience. (Markopoulos passed away in 1992) It is true that Beavers films at a remove—most of the time he doesn’t even look into the viewfinder of the camera!—but his work is deeply concerned with matters of time, specifically the interactions between the past and present. As rooms, his films are antechambers to the scenes of history, places where memory reconfigures the past in the present. In The Sparrow Dream, he returns to places where he previously lived in Germany and Massachusetts. He films a Prussian monument in Berlin, pages from his children’s edition of the Odyssey, his partner and filmmaker Ute Aurand, her silhouette elongated along a gravel road. “In one place, speaking of another. In one time, speaking of another,” he muses in voiceover. “What holds it all together?”
There, again, is that same questioning. Observing the chasm between places and times that span his entire life, he remains open to what might be resolved at a later point, or what might yet be revealed. In this Beavers has always been singular, even among his avant-garde contemporaries. He seems to see farther than anyone else. His films are imbued with incomparable patience, and with it, the wisdom to wait and watch.