Peter Hutton was haunted by an old photo album of his father, a publicist who had once been a merchant seaman. It was precisely his father who advised him to spend a season working at sea, something the filmmaker did intermittently during his youth to pay for art studies. That experience as a sailor would substantially mark a filmography focused on observation, on finding the origins and myths of cinema in images stripped of artifice, on discovering the enigmas and paradoxes of light, shadows and time. Died in June 2016 at the age of 72, Peter Hutton (Detroit, Michigan, 1944 – Poughkeepsie, New York, 2016) is a key name in American documentary and experimental cinema, a teacher of filmmakers, contemporary heir to the tradition of the School of the Hudson River, whose pioneer, the English-born painter Thomas Cole, so influenced John Ford’s view of the American landscape.
Hutton is dedicated to Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, whose landscapes of Oregon also refer to the work of Cole. At the start of the film, Reichardt follows in the wake of Hutton’s cinematographic explorations of the Hudson River Valley with a shot that stops before the course of a river and a ship navigating its waters. The Filmoteca de Galicia has screened this June the three films that Hutton made about the nature of this river and the Cineteca de Madrid offers today another session to commemorate the five years of his death with two films from his first stage, Images from Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) Y July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon, both shot in 16 millimeters, in black and white (he was colorblind and also cheaper then) and, like most of his filmography, without sound, pursuing the music that emanates from the silence of the frame and montage.
“Peter Hutton represents, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, that very cinematographic myth of origin that we traditionally associate with the brotherhood of Lumière operators,” explains Carlos Muguiro, director of the Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola study and research center and curator of the retrospective that Documenta Madrid dedicated to the director in 2010. “This myth of the foundational powerfully articulates the history of cinema and Hutton’s career. But it is also concentrated, in a strangely coherent way, other primordial, and in some cases Adamic, traditions of contemporary culture. Hutton connects with the spirit of the philosopher and theologian Ralph Emerson, the landscape heritage of Fitz Hugo Lane, Thomas Cole and the pictorial Enlightenment of the 19th century, or the initiatory experience of Ishmael de Moby Dick”.
“They speak of my cinema as an avant-garde cinema, and I answer that I am rather in the rear,” said the director
“I think my work is a combination of patience, waiting and spontaneous. […] They speak of my cinema as an avant-garde cinema, and I answer that I am rather in the rear ”, affirmed the filmmaker, who in a long interview granted in that same 2010 to the film magazine Light he was describing a process of artisanal work, close to that of the painter or the photojournalist, and insisted on the importance of going out and simply stopping to look: “There is a great Wittgenstein coda that says: ‘At the end of the world, the most powerful telescope will be the human eye ”.
The cinema before the cinema
The two films that are screened this Wednesday at the Cineteca Madrid they respond to filmed diaries, notes that avoid autobiography to function as free verses of a stripped down and minimalist visual poetics. Images from Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-1974) collects observations of his life in Thailand, Laos and the rest of Southwest Asia and on the ship in which he was working at the time. Just 30 minutes of breathtaking beauty and mystery. On July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon, A Diary from Life the daily experiences of his life intersect in a commune hippie in the California of the sixties. There are naked bodies, strange ruins, bike rides or a skateboard race, caterpillars, ducks and a sleeping Afghan hound on a car trip. “With some of his images I have had the sensation of being before narratives that I love but in a state prior to their own existence,” says Muguiro. “The fiction before the fiction takes shape. One thinks one recognizes Billy Bitzer, Jacques Tati, Dziga Vertov or Jean Vigo, but also the miniatures and models that were used from the classic Hollywood cinema, for example in King Kong, which Peter Hutton adored ”.
A professor for more than 25 years in the Department of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson (New York), Hutton left a huge mark among a student body that today vindicates the powerful romanticism of his work and of his figure. On his way through Madrid, a decade ago, the projector of the Círculo de Bellas Artes jammed, burning before everyone a fragment of the 16-millimeter copy. “Peter ended up climbing into the booth, dismantling and cleaning the projector and finally projecting the rest of the program himself,” Muguiro recalls. “I keep the memory of seeing him lying on the cockpit window, staring at the screen, taking charge of his film, as if he were docking a ship in the middle of the fog.”
‘Peter Hutton: Have (and stop) time’. Cineteca Madrid. Wednesday 23 at 7:30 p.m.