Natural Selection: Five Films by Larry Gottheim

curated by Your Fellow Traveler, Ruairí McCann and Maximilien Luc Proctor / images courtesy of Larry Gottheim and Your Fellow Traveler

Made in 1987, The Red Thread is a film by American avant-garde filmmaker Larry Gottheim. Its title not only refers to a literal thread but a conceptual one, woven throughout his body of work—and indeed, life. It is also the title of his completed (but not yet published) book. Now 85, his filmography began with Blues (1970) and ends with Knot/Not (2019), his self-declared ‘final film’. Many familiar with Gottheim’s work know him best for the early shorts, Fog Line (1970) in particular. Yet beyond these first works, built on surfaces of uniformity, there is a dense undertow of entirely different aesthetic sensibilities. Gottheim divides his own filmography into five periods. In this program we are screening the films of the third (Natural Selection, Sorry/Hear Us) and fourth (Mnemosyne Mother of Muses, The Red Thread) periods, plus an outlier title made before the first period began, ALA (1969). The two films of the third period, alongside ALA, are all collaborative efforts, made together with Gottheim’s students. 

On the sole basis of the first period of his filmmaking, one would assume Gottheim to be a strict formalist—but once his propensity for handheld moving shots comes into play (starting with Harmonica (1971), although it is rendered ‘smooth’ by the fact that it was filmed from, and limited to, the backseat of a car, and Barn Rushes (1971), also filmed from a moving vehicle, though it  goes by so slow that each movement is rendered as a subtle stroke rather than a jittering hand) one sees another side of the filmmaker. The style in these collaborative films (of the third period) is loose, open to an active engagement with the world, though hardly lucid on first viewing. The ‘anything goes’ attitude lends a certain mystery as to what is really ‘going on’, and the inclusion of human figures caught up in playful dialogs pushes us further into a narrative-puzzle mindset. But naturally, there is no narrative, no grand scheme to unlock. Wider intentions behind the scenes, sure, but these films work splendidly whether you ‘figure it out’ or not. “Invisible threads linked their intuitive ideas to mine.”

Bookending this program are the fourth period films, twin works which speak the same visual language; extremely rapid cutting and ceaseless movement, “a rapid disjunctive filming style”. The first is completely in color, the other largely in black and white.

Two passages from The Red Thread:

The filming style in THE RED THREAD is often still rapid. I had a desire to have everything go by rapidly, to cut abruptly from one element to the next group of images and sounds. The sounds and images would have a general feeling of appropriateness, but then something in the sounds would grab onto something in the images in a tight synchronization. It is quite a contrast from the languid pace of the early films. It is another kind of lyricism.

Much as I have been influenced by examples of minimalist music, I also love examples of modern music and jazz that is “maximal.”

While THE RED THREAD departs from the formal structures of most of my previous films I wanted to refer to aspects of them. The film is divided into “Acts” or “Chapters.” I include material from all the subject areas in each section of NATURAL SELECTION. A similar distribution of material appears in each section of THE RED THREAD.

I was struck deeply by a passage in Heidegger about memory. Trying to delve into the significance of memory he makes reference to the early Greeks, He often turns to them for insight into the original concepts of being before the Western tradition of metaphysics distorted them. For them, he says, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was conceived as the mother of the muses, of art. For him, art was at times exemplified by the work of the German poet Hőlderlin. Hőlderlin was also drawn to the early Greeks. For Heidegger, behind the works of those Greek artists and thinkers was the conception of true being.

A note from Larry:


It had to start somewhere so it started here. Cathy, the muse of the project, read us a poem of hers. Nice enough but I wanted go beyond the words and the sounds. The first part of the film shows some cinematic playing with it, but I wanted to go further. In frustration I decided to play it backwards, related to the backwards in other of my films and to the variations in twelve tone rows. Happily this turned her “Sorry” into something like “Hear Us” but also “Eros” that hovers within it like the discovery of “I love you” emerging out of the glossolalia in NATURAL SELECTION.

Listening over and over, the backward meaningless sounds started to sound almost like new words or phrases. We made a list of them. The students were then challenged to think of a series of images that somehow were suggested by these new words. The student who thought of an image had to film it by an imaginative association. This led to a series of images. Then they were challenged to come up with a sound suggested by each image, and create and record it. The original series of images were played with the new sounds. The sound films in my Elective Affinities series all involve a series of transformations between texts and images, so this continues that aspect of my work by involving the students.


I’m happy this program includes two of my films plus films made with students. Martin Heidegger, in “What is Called Thinking,” itself made from lectures given to students, wrote: “Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” My films provide opportunities for the viewers to each find their way into experiences that expand something in their depths. They are not lessons. If anything, they are anti-didactic. Despite the structural work, the viewer is free, not manipulated.

The students in ALA were not my students. In fact I didn’t start teaching cinema classes until later. They had come to the school under a special program, and somehow I befriended them. The words and actions were what they chose to do. The filmed sections were what they suggested, and they are in them. We discovered things together. More than 50 years later some are still friends.

There are very many elements in NATURAL SELECTION. The students filmed everything except a few shots I made in New Mexico and the titles from Darwin’s book. I added important sound material. It was an adventure that we shared. They were able to experience sync sound filming and improvising, and many of the ideas of what to film were theirs. I edited it. It is “my film” but I honor them.

SORRY/HEAR US was similarly open to the suggestions of students in another class. The associations that led from one section to the next came from them, and they filmed them. I recently heard from Cathy, whose poem begins the film. The title comes from her reading, transformed. I told her she was the muse of the project.

Larry Gottheim
March 2022

Natural Selection:
Five Films by Larry Gottheim

The Red Thread (1987) — 16 minutes
ALA (1969) — 12 minutes*
Natural Selection (1983) — 35 minutes
Sorry/Hear Us (1984) — 8 minutes
Mnemosyne, Mother of Muses (1986) — 16 minutes

Total runtime: 89 minutes
*made with Rodney Young, optional subtitles included

Sorry/Hear Us was digitally restored from a new 2K scan specifically for this program.
This is the third screening of ALA since its premiere in 1969. Both were digitized by the University of WisconsinMadison.

Special thanks to: Larry Gottheim, Rodney Young, Amanda Smith, May Nash, and Christian Flemm

Watch the films individually via Vimeo or as a single uninterrupted program via YouTube:

This program was made possible through funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Department for Communities, Northern Ireland.

If you enjoy this streaming program, please consider pledging to our Patreon, to support our continuing work publishing insightful texts on stimulating cinema. 100% of our Patreon support goes toward paying authors and filmmakers as much and as often as we are able, and to make projects like this streaming program possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *