Larry Gottheim on ‘Natural Selection’

In anticipation of of a new streaming program, ‘Natural Selection: Five Films by Larry Gottheim’, which premieres on Thursday, March 31st and runs through April 14th, Ultra Dogme presents an excerpt from Gottheim’s forthcoming book on his life’s work, ‘The Red Thread’.

by Larry Gottheim


From the outset I made some films with students. The film ALA was made with the first group of Black and Latino students who came to Binghamton under a special program. Another project was about Harpur College, made with some students in my English Department class in cinema. Almost all the imagery was made by them.

Many years later, alongside the regular filmmaking classes, I started to have some advanced production seminars. I wanted the students to be involved with the concept and development of the project. This began with a challenge. While staying for a few days at a student’s apartment that had a view of the George Washington Bridge I became fascinated by the bridge. I thought of a challenge: to figure out how, using the single frame capability of the Bolex, to make a strip of film which, if held up, would show the bridge continuously, the frames lined up horizontally so the span of the bridge would be continuous over a sequence of frames. Normally film is exposed with consecutive frames on top of each other, rather than beside each other as with a still camera. This created a conceptual challenge as it would require going one frame at a time, rotating the camera in the correct position for the next frame. I wanted the students to appreciate the role of the sprocket holes and the role of the camera and projector mechanisms.

This led, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, to constructing two large wooden frames on stands. We attached gauze to them. We placed a screen behind them and two projectors would project images onto it. The images that resolved on the gauze would also show through the gauze to the screens behind. We developed ideas for film material combined with live action suitable for this situation. It became CHAPTERS FROM ‘THE PERILS OF SPACE” that we presented at the Collective for Living Cinema and elsewhere.   

The selection of forms and subjects that were the foundation of my films was due to a series of associations and intuitive decisions coming to me without my full awareness of the implications. I now wanted to see how such a train of associations could take place with other minds, the minds of the students. So I conceived of another filmmaking seminar that would at the same time give them experience with sync sound filming, lighting, and other technical skills, as well as allow them to make contributions to the ongoing development of the project.

Train of associations.

I include this film in my own works because it represents a developing notion of “teaching” that would be a mutual adventure of discovery between me and my students. It includes material that I shot and recorded, and was edited by me.

At the start we explored interesting empty spaces in the Binghamton downtown, which was undergoing major redevelopment. Students improvised scenes in some of these abandoned locations. One was in an abandoned warehouse. There a few students struggled to improvise something to do when the camera was turned on. They seemed somewhat lost in front of the camera. They could only think of breaking the windows and eventually they climbed out a window.

These awkward actions were full of meaning for me. In HARMONICA the harmonica penetrates the border between the inside and outside of the car window. Windows have an important role in HORIZONS and MOUCHES VOLANTES. In the surveying section of FOUR SHADOWS the old glass of the window gives special meaning to the events outside. In the Cézanne section the harlequin figure steps out of the frame in the diagram. It is not a window but it has a similar function because it implies a plane that separates inside and outside. The impulsive actions of the student actors, breaking and then climbing out the window, related to my own concerns. The students had come up with these improvised actions that somehow resonated with motifs that had been important in my most personal films.

Inside another abandoned building a Japanese student and his American friend read their poems in their native language. Each tries to translate the other’s poem. This was their idea. Other students played with reflecting the sunlight on the performers. Some of the poetry sessions took place on the roof of this building. The students themselves came up with these ideas without reference to my particular interest in other languages and accents. Invisible threads linked their intuitive ideas to mine.

We also went to a sheep farm, where students took turns filming. Animals have a special role in my films, and this is one of the major examples. The students and the sheep naturally developed some close relationship.

My friend Alfons Schilling, the Swiss-Austrian artist, introduced aspects of altered vision in his works. He told me he had made large sculptural viewing devices that he could put over his head and see through. Each one would enable him to see in a way not possible in normal vision, for example how things would look if our eyes were wider apart than in the human head, or seen through a revolving shutter, or imaged like a pinhole camera.

He was looking for places to test out these devices. He wanted to do so in nature. We brought him into our project. He would come almost every week bringing a different device each time. He used the devices in several of the locations where we had already filmed. The students took turns filming him, usually with a moving camera, as he explored his experience from within the devices, an experience we could not share. Part of his project was the sculptural nature of these devices. In them he became a performance artist. That was all the camera could record. It could never see what he saw.

Alfons had gotten me interested in many subjects including the use of visualization in feats of memory. Another subject was the relationship of the shape of medieval and Renaissance cathedrals to the forms of music in those periods. There was a certain Renaissance aspect to his construction of these devices. They were conceptual sculptures, but they also had a formal aesthetic look as objects. I remember a gallery show of his in which the viewer would look at stereoscopic views through viewers on pedestals. They might have been able to be viewed with hand-hold viewers, but it was important for him to have the physical nature of the devices themselves be part of the artworks. The devices were reminiscent of some of Da Vinci’s projects.

He was the only person who was inside the devices. What the students filmed was only from the outside. Except for the location on the roof of the abandoned building, the other locations were in nature, so the world of landscape was in the images students were filming. They were transformed by the devices Alfons was seeing into altered landscapes.

During the period when these filming sessions were taking place, we would meet to discuss various issues. The students were asked to come up with a theme for each meeting. One of the subjects that took hold was of glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Perhaps the poetry translations led to this association. For me it connected with my interest in language and the mind. It became the principal focus of the project.

Glossolalia often arises from damage to the brain. This theme also connected with my interest in physical and emotional disorders that went back to THE INNER WORLD OF APHASIA, and PARANOID CONDITIONS. We visited churches where speaking in tongues was part of the worship, and a hospital that had patients suffering from brain damage, though we couldn’t have direct contact with the patients.

It was another dimension of the theme of altered language that arises in many of my films. The dislocation of language and language-like sounds was similar to the transformation of vision through Alfons’s devices. In the students’ effort to translate each other’s poems, their difficulty was not only in their fully understanding each other’s language, but of the essential essence of poetic language that can never be completely carried over into another language.

Someone told me she had attended a brilliant discussion of glossolalia by a Canadian scientist who worked with this issue. He was André Roche Lecours, who headed an institute in Montreal for the study of glossolalia. I corresponded with him and he generously invited us to come to Montreal.

Our visit to the institute began with a discussion with some of the staff. It took off from my correspondence with Roche. We asked whether we could film some of the actual work of the institute. He said there was a need for privacy for those whose utterances were going to be analyzed. They were subjects with brain damage, so we were not allowed access to them. It was finally decided that one of the students would speak in an improvised simulacrum of glossolalia. His improvised speech was entered into a computer and transcribed into a written text just as the utterances of the patients would be. Noah agreed to perform, speaking in a made-up language. He sat at a desk and performed a monologue that was completely spontaneous. His improvised performance was a parody of a professor. This would be another comic avatar of me as the professor, though as you can see from these projects my actual teaching was far different.

The speech was transferred into a computer. That was a normal part of the institute’s research. A cooperative staff member played parts of the recorded speech over and over and transcribed them. The sound of the tape recorder running forward and back made a haunting sound. The backwards sound linked back to the reversal in MNEMOSYNE MOTHER OF MUSES. Andrea, one of the students, listening to the tape playing a phrase over and over, thought it began to sound like a phrase in Swedish she had learned from some visitors. She thought it meant “I love you.”

It was somehow very appropriate for this phrase to emerge at the heart of the glossolalia scene because I myself was entering a new relationship. It was a message hidden in the depths of meaningless made-up “language” transposed into another dimension. It emerged by a process of natural selection.      

At the end of the semester it was agreed that I would make a film out of this material over the summer. This presented a problem because the material was really the work of the students. But it also fully engaged me. It was a challenge to figure out how to respect the students’ work yet make it something that had a connection with me far beyond my role as the teacher.

The material I had to start with was material I hadn’t shot. It included sound material that came from the discussions in Montreal. I didn’t think that any of this could become a formal framework against which other material could be edited, as in my last films. If I succeeded this would be my first edited sound film that was not organized according to an invariant pre-existing text.

Josh [Gottheim’s son] had been selected for a summer program for high school students at Cornell University. In preparation, the students were assigned to read Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species; by Means of Natural Selection.” We read this together, chapter by chapter. I had not read it before. I was struck with how poetic much of the writing was, and how much of it resonated with my own concerns. This was similar to what happened long before, when I heard Angeline Johnson’s narrative, and when I happened upon a selection from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”.

Darwin’s writing is both a scientific discourse and one whose poetic passages often opened up dimensions seemingly beyond the essential drift of his argument. Previously when I selected external material for a film I had an intuitive feeling that something could be discovered that could lead to cinematic and philosophical ideas that would enrich the film. I assembled a selection of passages in Darwin that exemplified the concerns I was developing.

Darwin’s key concept of “natural selection” was rooted in his providing an alternative to theological dogma. He demonstrated that the existence of all the numerous types of organisms was not the result of the will of a super being. Goethe’s notion of “elective affinities” took chemical phenomena out of the realm of science to let them into the world of social relations, and of discourse about art. That’s how I wanted the selections from Darwin to function.

The deconstruction of his text was itself a result of a kind of natural process. The structures I adopted let this happen. I didn’t want things to be arranged according to a purpose. I hope this book will have some of the same result. I let my mind wander back to these films and hope it allows readers to make their own thoughts and associations, just as I want the films to do.

There were five viewing devices that were filmed with Alfons, so I decided to make the film in five sections. Each one would have a title that came from a phrase in Darwin, Those words would resonate with the film as well as with my other films. “A distinct origin” points to the start of a process that led to each of my films. “Intellectual powers” are one side of the conflict between mental activity and intuitive feelings. The “ideas” and associations that are stimulated by the films come from processes like “manifesting” rather than pre-existing philosophical arguments. “Beautiful ramifications” are what can emerge from the experience of the films from just following the demands of the structure. It’s revealing that Darwin uses the word “beautiful” in this context. “The habitual train” is the other side of this conflict, the frame of received ideas that are challenged by stepping out of the frame. It especially echoes the train in FOUR SHADOWS. “Almost endless cycles”, of course, connects with the implication of forms of repetition that I have been drawn to use. It reminds me of the bicycle in FOUR SHADOWS.

Having these titles painted rather than printed confirms their existence in the realm of art. I filmed the actual page from Darwin that includes the title selection and shows it in the context of flowers. It is like the page from Loran’s book in FOUR SHADOWS that is seen in the context of foliage.       

Each of the five sections includes scenes from the Montreal material and from the students translating their poems as well as the scene of the breaking of the windows and the sheep in the snow. Each section contains footage of Alfons in one of his viewing devices.

I started with material that was external to me – the quotations from Darwin and the filming by the students. This material was accepted, as was Angeline’s narrative, the Wordsworth poem and the PARANOID CONDITION film. The scene with the breaking windows, and those with the poem translations, have a certain awkwardness. I accepted that, just as I had accepted the stilted documentary about paranoia.

In my editing I wanted to honor the work of the students. I introduced the materials from Darwin during the summer, when the students were away.

I felt free to include other elements of my own. One was an interview with Arnold Schoenberg I had found on a record. He discusses the relationships for him between his music and painting. This linking of music and visual art is parallel to the linking of language translation and visual translation. Interestingly Schoenberg doesn’t discuss his music, but rather his painting. He is proud of his ability to draw a straight line and a circle.

Once more the line.

These are interspersed with Roche-Lecours’ discussions of glossolalia. I wanted to complement the role of Schoenberg with references to Beethoven. I included a recording I had made in Beethoven’s house in Bonn, Germany. Beethoven would come up much later in KNOT/NOT.

Into this musical context I introduce the sound of the visitors walking on the very squeaky floor of Beethoven’s house. I wanted to introduce sounds that had an element of noise into this musical context. The tour took us to a place where Beethoven’s small piano was kept behind some protection. I asked if I could hear what it sounded like, and the guide played a note that I recorded. Somehow this one note on the archaic piano has a central role in the whole film.

I like these sounds that are introduced into the normal role of language, like the sounds of Charters’ wire recorder, the sound of the glossolalia scientist’s recorder running forward and backwards, and the squeaky floor.

I also include images I had filmed in the mountains of New Mexico of ancient petroglyphs and colored patches drawn on rocks, a language of pictures. They are brought to mind much later by the paintings and patterns on the wall in KNOT/NOT. These are marks that have an element of written language that escapes meaning, just as the music of the apes and night creatures in FOUR SHADOWS have an element of singing and speaking that we can’t understand.

Some viewers may have difficulty with all the talking in the film. There is a lot to keep track of. It is necessary to find one’s own selection of meaningful elements in the thicket of language. This is another film where its essence does not lie in the visual experience alone. Something is hidden, elusive. It is like Alfons partially hidden in his devices, experiencing what only he can see, and we can’t.

Partially hidden.

The pencil transcription of Noah’s speech is another representation of writing. The scenes of poetic translation connect the sounds of words with the ambiguous meaning of those words. Something already hints at that in the readings of the Wordsworth poem with different accents\by the readers in FOUR SHADOWS. The words of the poem are invariant in the various readings but the sounds and the meanings change. The speech of glossolalia is like the voices of the apes in TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. In his discussion Roche-Lecours speculates that there is some connection between the physiology of speech and the production of images.

Of all the screenings of the film, the most important audience was when I showed the edited film to the students who returned in the fall. They loved it. That was the best part.

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