Being here: Barbara Sternberg’s midst by Rae Davis
In midst, Barbara Sternberg has made a lyrical film about attachment, integration, belonging. Many of the familiar elements of Sternberg's work are here: speed, pulsing rhythms, explosions of colour, light and shape, images of nature and the built environment. But the conflicted situations and turmoil of earlier major films like Through & Through ('92) and Beating ('95) are gone. Instead, the film focuses dramatically on an understanding' of the world through art, specifically painting, especially abstraction, here translated into filmic terms. Abstraction becomes the vehicle for taking on complexity, putting it all together in heightened moments of intense vision characteristic of 'seeing into' or 'being at one' with nature.
A strong analogy is drawn between the physical world - our habitat or medium, as it were—and film as a particular kind of medium for representing that world. Like Sternberg's iconic lone swimmer, afloat and moving purposefully in the enveloping water, life and art co-exist in a mix where one belongs to and is part of the other. In midst, the film itself builds sequences and moments of equilibrium where all that moves is held in precarious balance.
midst moves away from the vexed questions and polarizations explored in earlier films; it moves toward an acceptance and celebration of being in the world. Not in an easy, romantically vague way, but in an effortful, questing, and intellectually engaged way. A sense of human mortality is present and with it an acknowledgement of the splendors and intricate dynamics of our everyday environment.
Sternberg has never been one to be intimidated by large themes. Her tendency has been to take them on frontally, representing the fullness and density of experience rather than mirroring the whole through protracted concentration on the single small part. In midst, she works on a level where the grand scope of her enterprise is in perfect poise with her creative abilities as a filmmaker and, as an artist, a deep and compulsive 'need to know', a yearning for connection. To some kind of spiritual centre? To a higher consciousness exemplified by the workings of the great natural forces of earth, air, fire, and water? Possibly. But the film is open-ended. It creates a searchingly visual experience that reaches for balance, where everything in the landscape (or reality) is moving, but is at the same time still, held in an abstract composition. This paradox of 'the still point of the turning world,' like a held breath, like the almost magical nature of film itself where the light through a series of frames nails the single moving image to the screen, is the resonant heart of the film.
As I see it, midst is arranged, almost musically, with three major sequences, two long, one brief: an open field landscape as moving abstraction back to back with a beach/swimmer landscape differently framed and turned and, finally, a shorter sequence of superimposed breaking waves. Two transitional sequences, one introductory, the other providing a mix about 'passage' surround the three above. Then there is a short coda to end the film.
The bearded painter who looks like a poet appears early and reappears throughout the film; he is identified with abstract wall works and with the pure colour sequences that follow. (I asked Sternberg if she was aware of the painter's resemblance to Walt Whitman and she said 'yes' and that Leaves of Grass was a book important to her. The poet is identified, of course, with epic life-affirming work.) Bands of moving colour alternate with shots of the painter gesturing and pointing. As that sequence ends, his hands seem to melt and become softer. Sternberg connects the real life and environment of the painter with his art. Pure light, shape, and colour fill the screen, shifting constantly, one into another, just as the painter belongs to his setting, his looming silhouetted body moving against the changing light from a window.
Contrasting structures (the built landscape and the natural one) and spaces (narrow passages and wide-open ones) are also established in the introductory passages. Images of the human figure in nature rich with colour and movement are paralleled with passages of light, colour, and movement as things in themselves. Film becomes the medium for using abstraction, as a painter might, to render the world in its essentials, what is basic to its design, but with movement and time added.
Divisions of the screen into broad bands, horizontal and vertical, begin in this opening section, first briefly and then more intensively. These act in a number of ways simultaneously—as fragmentation devices (abstraction rendering the essential parts of a whole), as summaries (a gathering-up of the visual impressions of the natural world seen earlier), as expanding devices (a sense of extra potential in the image) and as a means of focusing (a sense of looking deeper into the image).
The introduction ends with a potent mix: white birches, leaves, body, river, island, winter/summer, dark/light, aged skin, water, waves, clouds-and then a blue colour sequence. A pulsing rhythm immersion, an insistence on a surrender to the experiential process of the film, all are preparation for the complex sequences ahead.
A low land/big sky landscape, reminiscent of representational paintings where the beauty of nature inspires awe, begins the first major sequence of midst. The screen image breaks up, splitting and dividing over the landscape, re-colouring the views with moving bands of colours, until the double exposures melt into a multi-layered screen exactly like the irregularly placed planes of abstract painting. But here each plane repeats earlier open field landscape images or parts of them; each one moves in different directions in
a pulsing rhythm.
The sensation, despite all the motion and pulse, is of something caught and held, still, poised, filled with luminous energy. To me, it's a kind of vision of where we are, our habitat, home—filled with light and colour that infuses, enriches, bleaches, defines. It suggests depth and energy beyond our immediate perception. Nature is framed through an abstract analysis, one that is specifically filmic, in an effort to get to the heart of it, to hold an idea of it for a few moments at least. Abstraction is a way to "pierce the deep wood's woven shade." (Yeats)
This view, it seems to me, is reinforced as the sequence ends. The screen breaks into a clear grid, simpler than what we've seen, firmer, more architectural, with larger planes. Two rectangles are connected at their end points, a fragile bond, but somehow stronger for all that,
a kind of affirmation of the still point we've just experienced with the multi-layered moving landscape planes.
The beach landscape sequence begins with a circular movement, a slow turn that takes everything in range with it. The circle rather than the square, the whole view turned, rather than the layered view moving in different directions. The specific scene, a swimmer coming toward us, a beach, suggests a larger canvas where the earth, turns on its axis, the planets on theirs, amid all the orbiting stars and galaxies of the universe. midst has to do with placement, belonging somewhere both small-scale and large.
A lit area of water and swimmer creates a screen within a screen,
then there's a return to the whole frame, then back to a central frame where the nature of the image changes with colour. This kind of exploratory, investigative movement, establishing the notion of a shifting point of focus or centre as the beach scene continues to turn gives the sense of seeing something intensely, but always with the understanding that it is always slipping away. So, while there is a somewhere, that somewhere is indefinable. The strength of this insight and the persistent delicacy with which it is conveyed throughout is one of the quiet glories of this film.
The superimposition sequences following (swimmer, aging hands, skin, caresses, domestic scenes) echo the earlier complex rendition of all-at-once. Pulse is felt again as the swimmer comes toward us, centred in light, pacing her strokes, her arms reaching with each stroke. Then we see a sleeping figure—the dock, hands, a towel—her two feet facing out from the dock as the swimmer comes in, like the earlier in and out movement of the camera seeking a point of view. The sequence ends with a thundering waterfall (I certainly heard it, though there is no sound) as if to underline the force of the gentle beauty and serenity of the sleeper immersed in dream and the swimmer in an edgeless expanse of water. Singular travelers who may never meet, but who share a connection and position in the world's flux.
The film, now established as rendering simultaneity through split-screen, works with this fuller medium to create a mix about passage-travel through space and time that constitutes our life journey. An extended transitional section begins, less intense, more fluid and open than the rigorous investigations of 'position' preceding. Coming up for air almost. Beginning with images of immense space, a narrow band of land, a big sky, the screen splits into a conflagration of colour and shape until returning to the landscape.
Like the swimmer patiently reaching out with her arms, there is a sense here of reaching for something, wanting to seize something, reveling in the mutability of everything before our eyes. As the screen splits once more, the camera seems to travel through and between one place and another, taking it all in, joining the flow of time and nature, and, with a beautiful passage of blue and white
and a flash of red, art.
Then comes a mixture of the domestic landscape (gardens, flowers, fruit, birds, a lone palm tree) and more rugged, untamed views (mountains, fire). The flash, pulse, and throb of the images give the sequence a visceral feel as soft, swift-flowing textures zero in on the pristine clarity of a flower. (I'm reminded of the binoculars in Through & Through.) We experience, as if it belongs to our own blood stream, the rush of the world, from clarity to ambiguity and back. A heightened awareness of the integration of all things (body and world) is present, the separate into the one, the one into the separate.
Energy builds with another version of the beach landscape. A palm tree in the bottom corner of the frame becomes an anchor, its flexible spine bending in the wind, while all the surrounding space moves and pulses, buffeted by a storm. The tree slips in and out of clear vision. This sequence of the tree in nature, clinging to the corner as it were, is reminiscent of the earlier more analytical one where superimposed planes over the landscape meet at a single point and hold. What was a concept framed in terms of art - an abstract analysis - is here embodied in nature itself.
The third major section begins with a brief glimpse of a calm water's edge. A breath-taking superimposition of lines of turning waves follows. The multiple breakers create a vision of the eternal turning and folding of nature, an affirmation of its grandeur, and an acceptance of its inexorability, here implying stability. This section with its simple arrangement and powerful visual image of many lines of breakers, impossible in nature, is a satisfying and memorable close to all that has gone before. Earlier nature was framed as art/abstraction; here nature is closer to being art. The joinery is subtle, but clear. The filmmaker's effort to make connections, to explore the vital tissue joining nature and art in order to discover and express a notion of where we are, what is 'home', has been realized. A short celebratory coda follows. An explosion of energy, song, and joy ends midst.
(written as programme essay for Pleasure Dome screening, Toronto Feb.6, 1998 and subsequently published in Cantrills Filmnotes, #89,90, June 1998)