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Beyond Mystery: Peter Rose Meditates on Space and Time

Peter Rose has made more than thirty films, videos, performances, and installations since 1968. His films include formal studies of time, space, and perception; comic riffs on the nature of language and translation; and poetic studies of the gestural use of beams of light. His style combines meticulous craftsmanship, a comprehension of the complexities of translating between different frames of reference, and a sensual, bodily appreciation for the act of seeing. His work has been widely exhibited, both nationally and internationally, including in the Whitney Biennial and at the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival.

His 1981 film The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough examines the idea of distance from many perspectives, using strategies ranging from autobiography to structuralism. The film has won numerous awards, including at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Black Maria, Ann Arbor, Edinburgh, American, and Sydney Film Festivals. It has been broadcast nationally and is in the collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Image Forum in Tokyo, and Carnegie Museum of Art. Recently, CMOA installed the work in its film and video collection gallery, and Rose and I had a chance to discuss the film by e-mail.

David Finkelstein: In the film’s prologue, you tell an allegorical story about a man with an overwhelming physical craving to see faraway objects, which sets the central metaphor for the film. You tell this story in a fake “foreign language,” which is translated into English subtitles, a device you’ve used in several other films. Can you talk about your use of this device in the context of the prologue?

Peter Rose: I wrote the introduction many years before actually working on the film. I had been traveling in the Caribbean and had been much impressed by the light, the sky, and the sense of space, and I jotted the text down while hanging out on a beach in Trinidad. Later, while driving on a north/south road outside of Philadelphia, I became fascinated by the movement of my shadow, by the way it seemed to reach out and to pull back from the distance. Subsequently, I came to feel that the image and the text had something to say to each other and I thought of conjoining the two. But the problem was that listening to a recitation of the text seemed to me to pull the viewer away from the image, as if sound and image were too much to accommodate simultaneously on some neurological level.

At that time, of course, foreign films had established themselves and we were all used to reading while seeing, so it seemed intriguing to consider having the text visible, rather than audible. But then why were these titles being offered unless it was to translate some foreign language? What language then? No arguments could be offered for anything in particular, so I thought it would be cool to invent a language for the occasion. I took the rhythm and intonation of the English and I learned how to convert it into what I call “Yerbic.” It involved tapping into the musical, rather than semantic, recesses of the brain and I had a lot of fun with it.

When I put everything together—the projected shadow extending into and then retreating from the landscape, the spoken riff, and the discursive subtitles—I discovered, much to my chagrin, that it was impossible to pay attention to all three at the same time. But this was replaced, rather quickly, by the realization that this was indeed entirely consonant with the theme of the whole film-to-be: the difficulty of seeing “enough”! Or at least that was my rationalization for the conceit. Also, much of the film offers a meditation on the dialectic between “looking at” and “being in,” a dynamic that is enacted by the shadow of the car.

David Finkelstein: Also in the prologue, you say that the man is dismayed when he considers the idea of a curved universe, a universe in which light eventually returns to its source. Can you expand on this?

Peter Rose: If light returns to its source, if the universe is curved, then there are no “mysteries beyond mysteries” and all will ultimately be known. This is, as per the text, a cause for dismay. The whole film is a meditation on space, on distance, on “the beyond,” and on the tension between “here” and “there.”

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Still from Peter Rose, The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, 1981, 16mm film (color, sound), 33 minutes. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

David Finkelstein: In the first section, the triple projection of the circular-pan shot is followed by a single point-of-view shot of the man looking from the balcony railing in front of him, and then off into the far distance. A circular sense of both time and space is contrasted with a linear sense. Tell me more about this shot.

Peter Rose: I spent the good part of a year working on the triptych. There were many technical obstacles. I tried many different configurations of light and weather, my ambition being to conjure an image that was somehow outside of time. This obliged me to spend much energy looking at tiny images on a light table, and it was then somewhat of a shock to revisit the landscape the following year and to be in the space I had been contemplating at such remove. I was struck by the idea of incorporating that experience into the film, of somehow awakening in the space. So the camera twists and rises, and now one is looking into space rather than standing outside of time. Again, it is the dialectic between “looking at” and “being in.”

David Finkelstein: The film incorporates personal narrative, such as the story you tell in the second section, with larger concerns about our relationship to the world. The film itself attempts to make a bridge from the personal to the universal. Can you talk about your use of autobiographical material in the film, and the senses in which the film is and is not about your own story?

Peter Rose: When I was working on it there were two contrasting methodologies in play in the experimental film domain: there was the hard-core structural impulse, exemplified by the work of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and others, and there was a countervailing impulse to use newly available technologies—16mm at the time—to see the world from a more personal perspective than that offered by mainstream cinema. I wanted to integrate the two, to make a work that was both highly structural and deeply personal. So the story I tell is entirely true in all respects; I did walk to the pier on many, many occasions and I was, indeed, about to shoot the last shot when I learned of my father’s death. And as such, the later traversing of the Golden Gate Bridge was offered as a memorial. The personal in the film is, to my mind, ultimately absorbed into something much larger—that is what the section with the eclipse is about, an ecstatic sublimation.

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Still from Peter Rose, The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, 1981, 16mm film (color, sound), 33 minutes. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

David Finkelstein: When you mention your father’s death, it feels like it is given a lot of weight in the film, perhaps especially because you make no further verbal comment on it. The subject of death feels present in many parts of the film, although it is not referenced explicitly. For example, a solar eclipse can be seen as the death and rebirth of the sun. You said that the Golden Gate Bridge section is a memorial. The act of climbing the bridge is certainly a confrontation with a fear of death. Any comments on death as a theme in the film, as related to the more general theme of distance?

Peter Rose: In retrospect, I was rather consistently reflecting on and trying to provoke an experience of ecstasy, taking the word in its literal sense of “out of body.” As such, the death of self is never far from the topic, and is circumnavigated throughout the film. And yes, I thought of the eclipse quite directly, on a symbolic, Jungian level, as the death of the father.

Also, I had originally planned on climbing just the first tower of the bridge. To do more seemed quite presumptuous. But that would have made the film about conquest, rather than passage, so I steeled myself and headed across the entire bridge all the way to the other side. To the extent that the subject of the film, the “one who witnesses,” is all but invisible in the last shot (which was modeled on Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus), there is, on another level, a death of self.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1555, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. (Wikimedia Commons)

David Finkelstein: Does the site with the pier still exist? When were you there most recently?

Peter Rose: I went back to Whitestone about a half year ago to help my friend Fred Curchack close up his mother’s house—the last rationale for visiting the old neighborhood. It was with Fred that I had ambled down to the bridge so many times and with whom I ultimately climbed it. But the walkway to the pier is no longer there; it was carried away by Hurricane Sandy. I shot some 3D footage of the remnants. The time of our time there has come to an end.

David Finkelstein: For your installation at CMOA, this film will be shown as a looped projection, although in the past it has usually been screened theatrically. What do you think is changed by viewing the film in a museum exhibition?

Peter Rose: As I recall, there is something in twentieth-century music called “moment form.” My vague recollection of the term is that it means the avoidance of conventional dynamics, predictable harmonious resolution, etc., in favor of a more uninflected encounter with a musical idea. I was thinking about that a bit while making the film. While the overall arc of the film does embody a kind of double climax, a kind of pseudonarrative, each section is a bit more uninflected, a bit monolithic, even circular in some cases. So while the order of the sections is important to me, I think each section has something of the durational feel of an installation piece and it might very well be suitable to show them that way.

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Still from Peter Rose, The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, 1981, 16mm film (color, sound), 33 minutes. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

David Finkelstein: Speaking of music, the third section turns a solar eclipse into a rhythmical element, which is used to create a “phase study.” This could be seen as a kind of visual parallel to ideas that were being explored in music around that time, such as Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967). Was this style an influence for you?

Peter Rose: Absolutely. I had been working previously with time-delayed multiple images and made a film, Analogies: Studies in the Movement of Time (1977), in which the temporal displacements were fixed. But Reich’s music suggested that an algorithmic development of these delays might lead to a structure that unfolded in time. The trick was to be able to foretell the patterns that would arise so that something miraculous might seem to emerge.

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Still from Peter Rose, Analogies: Studies in the Movement of Time, 1977, 16mm film (color, sound), 14 minutes.

David Finkelstein: Reich also composed a particular kind of melody, in which some of the contours of the tune would jump out at the listener in certain striking ways as the melodies go in and out of phase with each other. It is not so different from Bach choosing a fugue subject in which you can pick out the broad contour of the tune from within all the repetitions.

Ideas such as this phase study are trivially easy to realize with today’s digital tools, but they were monumentally difficult to realize on 16mm at the time you made your film. You have now been working digitally for quite a long time. Superficially, one might be tempted to say that digital is easier to use and leave it at that. Was there a positive side to the technical hurdles you had to overcome in order to make this film? Is there a downside to the user-friendly nature of digital tools?

Peter Rose: Yes, “monumental” is the word. I was superimposing twenty-seven images onto the same frame of film, and if a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner went on at the wrong moment I’d get extra frames, so it was quite daunting. But this very impediment, the riskiness of the whole operation, the difficulty, made it vastly important to think very clearly about what I was doing. Digital media, I find, are more, can one say, “promiscuous”? There is no need for such a preparatory commitment; there is little at stake materially or financially and so one can shoot endless hours of material without as much thought. And then the problem arises of what to do with all of it.

David Finkelstein: In the fourth section, the camera does a 360-degree vertical pan, which is unusual. The sequence highlights the relationship between the sky, the source of the light, and the earth. What does the vertical pan bring to the film that is so different from the horizontal pan seen earlier?

Peter Rose: It is an extrapolation from the first section. It tries to encompass all of three-dimensional space rather than just the horizontal plane. There is a paradox, however, lurking within the structure: I positioned the camera so that it traced great circles starting at the horizon, tilting to the zenith, moving upside down to the opposite point on the horizon, passing through the nadir where the camera and I were positioned, and then arriving back at the original perspective. Then for the next pass I rotated the camera so that the new image adjoined the previous one on the horizon. If you do this five times on a clear, blue day, you get a spatially contiguous panorama image of the horizon, an invisibly overlapping image at the zenith, then a complexly fragmented array of images of the observer, and then, again, a continuous image of the horizon. So within one continuous shot we have an integrated image of the entire celestial sphere and a fragmented image of the observer—yet another riff on the relationship between figure and space.

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Still from Peter Rose, The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough, 1981, 16mm film (color, sound), 33 minutes. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

David Finkelstein: For the sequence climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, in the fifth and final section, you link the shots together using short bursts of black leader. Why did you choose to link the shots in this particular way?

Peter Rose: If I had linked the shots directly with each other the entire journey would have seemed a bit too synoptically continuous. By putting black between most of the shots, by introducing an ellipsis, the duration becomes indefinite. And that seems to make the space feel larger. Also, when you see one shot after another the vertiginous sense of it all becomes attenuated, but when you cut to black you allow the viewer to recharge their eyes. Then when the image comes back on, it is overwhelming again. This use of black as an image, of course, led directly to my next film, Secondary Currents (1982).

David Finkelstein: Please ask yourself and answer any additional questions about the film that you wish I had asked you.

Peter Rose: You haven’t yet explained where the idea of working with multiple images came from. I gather it took several years to design the equipment needed to realize the idea, but what motivated you in the first place? I can trace the idea back to several sources. I have a degree in mathematics and have always been fascinated by the idea of higher dimensions, altered topologies, etc. So the idea of seeing several moments at once from a higher perspective (which is entirely concordant with cubism) is a natural one. But the precipitating event, dare I say it, was an experience of altered consciousness I had in 1965, during which I looked into a napkin and saw thousands of Japanese couples making love in each of the interstices between the weaves of the fabric. It was significant that there were time delays between each of the images. This gave the whole thing an extraordinarily sensual dimension over and beyond the subject matter. I vowed to find a way to capture the form (but not necessarily the content) of the image. With the help of my father, who was both a highly regarded photographer and a brilliant electronics engineer, it took two years to build the requisite setup and I was then able to explore the idea.

David Finkelstein: Looking back at the film, 35 years later, how do you feel that the process of making it changed you? What did you discover that had a particularly fruitful impact on the directions your work has taken subsequently?

Peter Rose: There were several immediate implications that led, quite directly, to my next major project. I was intrigued by the experience of generating the fictitious language used in the prologue, and I was taken by the intervals of black used in the Golden Gate section. I wondered if it were possible to generate a whole suite of such vocalizations. I had seen a couple of other experimental films (their titles currently escape me) that avoided the use of image altogether, tending toward something closer to radio. Also, I had spent a total of eight years making The Man Who… and I wanted to make something cheap, fast, loose, and out of control. So the question arose: why not put the two together—invented language and a black screen—and make an imageless film in which the shifting relationships between voice-over commentary and subtitled narration would constitute a peculiar duet for voice, thought, speech, and sound? This was what led directly to Secondary Currents. The development of accessible video technology led me to more performative works with less of an emphasis on formalism, but this was superseded by digitalia, which led, ironically, to a return to a structural approach. My development as an artist since then has wandered far afield, but I’ve always felt an obligation to try to integrate the formal with the lyrical in as satisfying a manner as I think I did in The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough.

To read more about the film and video collection at Carnegie Museum of Art, visit the story archive.