Better Living Through Cinema: An Interview with David Gatten

David Gatten, Lecturing Fellow and Artist in Residence in Duke’s Arts of the Moving Image program, is one of the foremost filmmakers of his generation. Since 1996, his work has been shown throughout the world, in dozens of solo exhibitions and over 1000 group shows. The 2011 exhibition Texts of Light: A Mid-Career Retrospective of Fourteen Films by David Gatten is a testament to the consistent quality and impact of his work. After its opening at the Wexner Center for the Arts, it travelled to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and other major venues on both coasts. In 2012 he made two “fifty best” lists—Cinemascope named him one of the year’s “Fifty Best Filmmakers Under Fifty,” along with Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. In Film Comment, his new film, The Extravagant Shadows, appeared on an international film critics’ poll of the “50 Best Undistributed Films of 2012.”

Gatten’s work is typically described as experimental, and the word turns out to be unusually accurate. One of his earliest films, for instance, answers this question: what happens if, instead of putting my film in a camera, I throw it into the ocean for a while? That piece, What the Water Said, reflects his fascination with the film’s surface. His other consistent interest, the printed word, is expressed in an ongoing series of films drawing on the library and life of William Byrd II, the 18th-century Virginian who founded the city of Richmond. “Using traditional research methods (reading old books) and non-traditional film processes (boiling old books),” Gatten writes, “the films trace the contours of private lives and public histories, combining philosophy, biography and poetry with experiments in cinematic forms and narrative structures.”

Gatten joined the Duke faculty in 2010, with a Visiting Artist Grant from the Council for the Arts that turned into a permanent position. It was something of a homecoming—Gatten was born in Michigan but spent most of his childhood in North Carolina, from age seven through his college years at UNC-Greensboro. His wife, filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie, is on the faculty of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and they divide their time between Durham and their studio in an old gold mining cabin in Colorado.

At Duke, Gatten has proved to be a dedicated and innovative teacher. He has been a key presence guiding and inspiring the inaugural cohorts in Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program. At the same time, he has developed new film-studies courses for undergraduates with the same “rigor and attention to creating an indelible experience that characterize his own filmmaking,” as Holly Willis wrote in Filmmaker magazine last spring. The courses are conceived as semester-long compositions that present cinema in dialog with music, poetry, literature, and philosophy.

One evening in December, I dropped in unannounced on the final meeting of one of those courses, Introduction to the Arts of the Moving Image: Better Living Through Cinema. Gatten couldn’t have been more welcoming, but when I told him I wouldn’t be able to stay long, he warned me that when the class started the lights would go out, and if I didn’t stay for at least 25 minutes, I wouldn’t hear him say a word. The room went dark, as promised, and music from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd emerged from the classroom speakers. After five or ten minutes, the soundtrack changed to something more contemporary and electronic. It was an evening during the last week of classes, the room was full of students, but I saw none of the telltale glow of phones or laptops. Everyone sat in the dark and listened.

The next day, I joined Gatten among scattered filmmaking equipment and strips of film in his office/workroom in Smith Warehouse. He explained the thinking behind the class, the continued relevance of film in a digital age, and the way he translated interests he’s long expressed through film into digital video for his most recent work. We talked about his role at Duke, and he told me the story of his highly unorthodox introduction to filmmaking.

Gatten is not an artist who caters to his audience, so I was struck by his willingness to explain and illuminate, not only in our conversation but also in other interviews (see below for links to further reading). He does this, I think, for the same reason he designs his courses with such elaborate care—so that others might have an experience of cinema nearly as rich as his own.

—Robert Zimmerman

Gatten threads film through a projector in front of a group of standing students
David Gatten in the Spring 2012 Intro to the Arts of the Moving Image class. Photo by Yumian Deng.

How did you end up at Duke, and how would you describe your role here?

The way I first came to campus was through Josh Gibson, who invited me to come do a workshop and a screening. It must have been 2008. The workshop on hand-processing 16mm film went very nicely, and a lot of students came to the screening that night. That’s when I was approached with the idea of a coming back to join the faculty.

At the time there seemed to be a lot of energy around experimentation and the experimental, which was part of Duke’s overall arts initiative. The film and video program was changing to the Arts of the Moving Image. The MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts was being developed, and it launched soon after I came. I now spend a lot of time with the MFAs, teaching film history, theory, and practice.

That is a familiar role for me, teaching people how to make films. A new role I’ve taken on at Duke, that’s been particularly interesting and rewarding, is teaching students like the ones you saw in my class last night, who will not be filmmakers but will go on to be doctors, or scientists, or lawyers.

Fundamentally, though, whether I’m teaching aspiring filmmakers or non-majors, I believe that my role is to confuse people. I think I was brought in to confuse people, toward the end of expanding their ideas of what’s possible in the moving image, and what has occurred, and what still might occur.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to stick around long enough to get truly confused, though I certainly have some questions about listening to music in the dark. But let’s start with the big picture. The class is Introduction to the Arts of the Moving Image (AMI101)…

Yes, and the subtitle is Better Living Through Cinema, and I believe that. I believe that by looking at cinema one can have a better life, that cinema is a vehicle for practicing philosophy, and that you can be enriched by careful viewing of it.

The focus of the class is on responsibility. Certainly at a narrative level, we see films in which there are questions of ethics, upholding or betraying commitments to other people. But also, in what ways are filmmakers responsible to their work? In what ways are viewers responsible to it? How is that work responsible to the history of the medium? How is one shot responsible or not responsible to another shot? Is it possible to articulate the responsibilities of a cut to the shot before it and the shot after it?

How does the music fit in, then?

Doing things that are unexpected, like listening to music without knowing why, is a way to produce confusion. And as I just said, I believe that the first thing you do in a classroom is produce confusion, and then over the course of both the individual class period and the semester, you relieve that confusion, in a way that allows the students to transmute it for themselves into understanding—most of it. A small percentage should remain as mystery. That’s what propels them into the next class period.

The course is structured as a series of nested parentheses. Each class builds on the one before in the usual way, but in my design, the first seven weeks also open a set of nested parentheses that are closed in the second half of the semester. So, weeks one and 14 speak to each other, weeks two and 13 speak to each other, the ideas, emotions, images that occur in week three resonate in week 12. Seeds that are planted early in the semester sprout up in unexpected ways later, allowing for recognition to occur.

The music that we begin each class with sometimes has a direct relationship to a movie. Sometimes I speak about that and tell the history of a particular piece of music, as I did with the Britten last night. Other times the music is there to set the emotional tenor—its relationship to the movie is to indicate that we’re in a certain emotional place and we’re going to stay there for a while. And music is only one element. The students also read poetry, and philosophy, and a novel—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami—which is important to the design of the course. They read film history and theory, as well. All of these things resonate.

After the music plays, I may start immediately talking about philosophy and then I might read a poem, and that’s how I introduce the movie—not with title, artist, date, but with a piece of music, a poem, and a philosophical writing. I’ll talk about title, artist, date afterwards, and about the production history and the way the movie was received, and do some analysis of it. But first, before the explanation and analysis, I want the students to experience the interrelationship of different fields of cultural production.

It’s a highly structured thing, and everything has got its place. I tend to write out the lectures and then memorize them, so they become a kind of performance. There is still room for discussion, although with a group of 40 people, it tends to be more question and answer than discussion, but I want things to happen in a very particular way.

Teaching this class and its sequel, which is called Matters of Life and Death, has been a fantastic experience. I’m at work right now on the third part of the cycle—a course called Experiments of the Moving Image, which is intended for the MFA students, though it will be open to undergraduates, as well. In Matters of Life and Death and Better Living Through Cinema, as I’ve said, we watch the full range of cinema. This new course will be more about experiments in narrative structure, experiments in non-fiction form, and the history of experimental and avant-guard cinema. But it will, I hope, continue to resonate with the other two courses.

Here’s a question that will probably show my ignorance, but, why work with film instead of digital video?

The reason is simple—they’re completely different mediums, just like watercolors and oil paints are completely different mediums. Film and digital video are both forms of moving image, but in terms of their mechanics, their phenomenology, the way they’re experienced and the way they’re engaged in the studio, they don’t share much else. There’s a common perception that one form of moving image is replacing another form of moving image, and that’s certainly true at the industrial level, but it’s not true at the level of art practice.

How long do you think film will be around? I feel like over the past few years I’ve come across a number of news stories about companies that are getting out of the business of making film.

Artists working with cinema have always had to follow in the wake of industrial cinema, because that’s where the materials and the apparatus comes from. So, yes, there are fewer film stocks than there used to be, but there were fewer film stocks 15 years ago that there were 50 years ago. It’s continuing to narrow down. At some point it will no longer be financially feasible to manufacture this stuff, except for studios to preserve their assets. All digital cinema is now preserved on film, because film lasts way longer.

So, one of the great things that we’re able to do at Duke in the Arts of the Moving Image is provide the opportunity for students to understand and experiment with a range of moving image mediums. It’s also great for film-studies folks to have the original material around, because the history of cinema is in film.

I work both with 16mm and with digital—my new 175 minute feature is one hundred percent digital. I don’t believe there is a right way to make cinema and a wrong way to make cinema. The generation before me fought the film and video wars, but for me it’s not an interesting argument. Why not have both?

And the emergence of the digital has freed film to do something else, in the same way that photography freed painting to be non-representational. In the same way that word processing, when it took hold in the 80s, freed handwriting, creating a sudden interest in calligraphy. When I was in school in the 90s and video and digital image were starting to emerge, people started to think about what qualities are specific to film.

I assumed at the time that I was going to be working with the electronic image, with video. But when I encountered film, I was compelled by its surface, which is similar to our skin. When we get a scar, we’re marked. It’s not always possible to interpret the mark, but usually it’s possible to. Film is the same way. It has a skin that holds the evidence of its passage through the world, which is different than the photographic reality, but, to me, equally interesting as a recording.

Can you say more about that realization and how you developed as a film person?

I started out as an art history and media studies person at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, which is down the road. While I was there, I worked for a film festival, the Carolina Film and Video Festival. That exposed me to all kinds of cinema that I’d never heard of before. My parents showed me interesting movies when I was growing up, but I had never seen experimental film or video art, and I found it very exciting.

Then one of the filmmakers whose work had been in the festival invited me to Canada. He said, “we’re going to do a film workshop, why don’t you come? It’s a week long and I’m inviting ten filmmakers. Some of them have made 20 films. Some, like yourself, have made no films. I’m going to give everyone a camera, film stock, access to processing—everything you need.”

This sounded fantastic to me, so I raced off, expecting to be at a film studio. I had a very particular idea of the proper way to make a movie and the proper studio to make it in. But I got there and it wasn’t like that at all. It was a giant farm with a stone farmhouse, and I thought I must be in the wrong place. But in the barn, there were, in fact, ten Bolex 16mm cameras, ten tripods, ten light meters, and some chickens and some cows. And in one corner of the barn, black plastic trash bags had been hung to form a partition, and that was the screening room. The other corner of the barn was encased in black plastic, and there were three tubs of chemicals on the floor—that was the darkroom.

They weren’t very specific on how to process, though. I didn’t know anything about photography, so I asked which chemical I should put it in first. Well, try it different ways, they said—see what happens. I quickly learned that you don’t put it in this thing called fixer first, or else you’ll have clear film. So how long do you leave it in? Oh, till the song on the radio is over.

At first I thought, oh, this is a disaster! My film has fallen on the floor and the dog is chewing it! Now I’ve stepped on it! My movie’s ruined! Then I projected it, and I was amazed to see not only the photographic record of what I pointed the camera at, but also these marks that I could identify as the dog’s teeth and the grain of the barn’s floorboards that I’d rubbed into the emulsion with my foot. That’s when I realized that film has a skin.

It was like learning to cook without a recipe. We were using an orthochromatic black-and-white film stock meant to hold the optical soundtrack for 16mm film. It’s very beautiful but also very cheap. So I shot a lot of material, learned how to process it, and even how to add color using toners and tints made from crushed berries.

And that’s how I started as a filmmaker.

That’s probably not a typical story.

No, it’s not. It was transformative. It completely expanded my sense of what was possible in cinema. And I thought, oh, if there’s this whole area I haven’t thought about, what else haven’t I thought about? It led me to do all other kinds of research and explore other areas.

Philip Hoffman’s Film Farm

The next thing I did was the What the Water Said series, which was made by putting film stock into a crab trap, tying one end of a 50 foot rope to the trap and the other end to my ankle, going into the ocean, and letting the chemical reactions of the salt water with the emulsion, the physical interaction with the waves, the sand, the shells, the fish, and the crabs make the movie. Because 16mm is an optical sound format, the ocean was able to produce not just the image but also the sound, all without a camera or a recorder.

So when you work in digital, what interests are engaged on that side?

In some ways the same interests, but they’re rendered very differently in the digital medium. This interest with the surface has persisted in my new work, The Extravagant Shadows. It’s almost like a good one-liner joke—three hours of watching paint dry.

In many of my other movies, I don’t use a camera a lot, or I’m using a close-up of books, or I’m lifting ink off pages with old cellophane tape, fixing it on 16mm film and then contact printing directly from that—that’s the Gutenberg Bible, which I took apart, and placed on to film.

In The Extravagant Shadows, my interest in materiality has been transferred from the surface of the film to the thing that goes on in front of the camera. The paint is drying and I’m layering two different kinds of paint, acrylic and an oil-based enamel, that don’t like each other—one dries faster than the other and that creates cracks and fissures. It’s actually quite dramatic, because I was working in Colorado where there’s no humidity, so the paint dries in seconds and cracks begin to form.

As the cracks form, words begin to appear. There’s also three hours of reading, basically a novella, partially the words of Henry James, partially things that I wrote in the voices of Henry James, Maurice Blanchot, Wallace Stevens, some other people.

This interest in text as image is the other main thing that unites all of my work, both digital and analog. What happens when you put text on screen? What is the line between the legible and the illegible? What happens to a piece of language when it can no longer be read but it’s still recognizable as language, and it has to then be processed for it’s other formal qualities, shape, gesture, rhythm, texture—what do we do with that?

So The Extravagant Shadows deals with language in that way and with the interaction of materials when placed in proximity to each other.

I was about to ask how you relate as a teacher to documentary filmmakers, and then I realized that you’ve been talking about a kind of documentary, documenting three hours of paint drying…

…and I consider What the Water Said a documentary. It’s a documentary of what happened underwater.

Right. But if someone comes to you with, can I say, a traditional documentary? How do you engage with that?

I like lots of traditional documentary, and I’m happy to work with those kinds of filmmakers, as well as people who want to tell stories. I love narrative film. It can be an incredibly pleasurable experience, to identify with the protagonist and get wrapped up in that world for two hours. A lot of undergraduates here are interested in that sort of narrative filmmaking, so I teach that too.

With the MFA students, they’re in a program in experimental and documentary arts, so they’re usually interested in the intersection of those two things and already have a broader idea of documentary and non-fiction work than you’re likely to see on PBS—though of course PBS sometimes shows very interesting things.

Are students of the YouTube generation different than they used to be?

As viewers they’re not that different than when I was in college. They’ve seen a lot of big-budget industrial cinema—things that are popular-culture based, with a large advertising budget. They do know more about what their friends are doing, and a lot more is available online, but in terms of my teaching, the project hasn’t changed dramatically since I started in the 90s—it’s still to make people acquainted with the full dimension of what the moving image can do, and the history of what it’s done.

The challenge is not the movies that come off the screen and envelop you, the challenge is the kind of movie that I make and the kind I show in class, that comes three or four feet off the screen, that you have to approach, so meaning can be created in the space between you and the screen. Even though the technology is very different, the main project in moving image education is the same as 40 years ago—helping students to understand that sort of work, to know how to approach it and have good experiences with it.

Students today are certainly more savvy about moving image technology. Five years ago, when I first got to Duke, half the students had access to a camera that could make a moving image, a quarter of them had edited moving image before and uploaded it to a server. Now, it’s virtually a hundred percent. They’ve almost all recorded and edited movies and uploaded them somewhere.

So with filmmakers the focus is less on the technology and more on how to best use it to make something articulate and meaningful. We’re not just teaching them to make movies, we’re teaching them to make the necessary movies, and to leave the unnecessary ones unmade.

How do you manage the split between teaching and filmmaking?

For the first three years, I was at Duke in the spring semester and in my studio in Colorado in the fall. Last year was a crucial time for the MFA program, when it reached its full compliment of 30 students, so I was at Duke full-time for both semesters. This year is the same. Next fall I’ll be away completing a project, and it’s very nice that Duke has allowed for that flexibility to happen. It’s important, too. If you want practicing artists to be here, then you have to allow them to practice.

I’ve found that the five month-seven month balance is a good one, and I’ll continue to do that when possible. While I’m at Duke, I can concentrate completely on the classroom and on individual meetings with students, without worrying about my studio, because I know I’ll be able to give it my full concentration when the time comes.

Under those conditions, I’ve found that I get as much satisfaction out of designing these courses as I do in making a long movie. In fact, I couldn’t have made a three hour movie if I hadn’t been designing my courses as long-form compositions. I think of the semester as a 14 week composition and each meeting as a three-and-a-half hour composition—as narratives that better have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that better produce confusion, relieve confusion, transmute confusion into mystery, and allow for epiphany to occur.

And that’s what I most want, for students to be able to have epiphanies, which means that I can’t tell them what just happened, I have to arrange for them to see it and feel it for themselves. I have to set up the right conditions, by the structured interplay of sound and image, of ideas and emotions, of my words and the works on the screen.

For more in-depth discussion of Gatten’s work, see “The Secret of a Happy Home: David Gatten on The Extravagant Shadows” (an interview by Aaron Cutler, concentrating on Extravagant Shadows), “The Pleasure of the Text” (an interview-based article by Holly Willis that considers Extravagant Shadows in relation to Gatten’s earlier work), and this more abstract, analytical piece in Cinemascope by Michael Sicinski, with a title too convoluted to safely quote.