I had the fortune last evening, unbelievably as part of my job, to see what is only the third screening of David Gatten’s new digital movie, The Extravagant Shadows. Gatten, who typically works in film, introduced his work and apologized in advance for its length. At three hours, the movie is a departure for the filmmaker, who typically works in short films. But “I play for keeps,” he said, “I put all my marbles in the circle.” I admire that.
While I am unfamiliar with Gatten’s other films, so can’t bring to it the kind of context I would like, I was struck by its musicality and thought it appropriate I write about it on the pages of Progarchy. It is a layered work, composed but also improvisatory, rhythmic and surprising. And, while it is difficult to describe in terms of story or narrative, its physicality is fairly simple: A song by Merrilee Rush — whose songs play at intervals through the movie, including her 1968 hit “Angel of the Morning” — plays over a blank screen, and as it fades out the frame is filled by a shelf of perhaps 10 or 11 books, their colorful spines revealing early 20th century editions of works by James, Dickens, Dumas, and others. Into this static shot slides a glass panel, and we briefly see Gatten and the DSLR he used to shoot the movie. The artist, and his tools, are present in this film, which subsequently became even more apparent, as a hand and a brush loaded with paint enters the frame, and proceeds to paint the panel. Over the course of 175 minutes this panel is painted and repainted, bright and muted colors blending, contrasting, drying and cracking, revealing layers underneath. Between new coats being applied text appears and disappears on the screen, stories and descriptions emerging, disappearing, running into one another, suggesting to me the magic realism of Borges or Pynchon.
For me, The Extravagant Shadows is also redolent of music, the layers of color and tonal shifts a visual instrumentation, the words, dense and thick and often at a disconnect (with intention) a lyric that presents a series of satisfying puzzles. Of course, the prime 1968 pop country of Merrilee Rush breaks the “great books” mood of the opening shot, freeing the work from formal convention, and while a joy to hear is also, I think, the least musical part of the movie. At the risk of sounding precious, the melody of light, hand and brush playing on the panel is where the action is. We learned from Gatten during the Q&A following the film that the subtle shifts in light and tone were provided by the Rocky Mountain sky above his home in Colorado. A rich palette of shadow and light, indeed. We’ve entered Brian Eno country.
Three hours, and make no mistake the movie is about how long it is. I found myself dreading the commitment prior to the movie, and thankful afterward for the opportunity for reflection. Yes, it’s a demanding piece, but also provides a kind of mindful repose, a relaxation into the ebb and flow of the work, itself a sort of treatise on noise, interference, clarity and fragility. Gatten’s generous movie has only been shown three times now, including at Lincoln Center and at the rare book room of the Rubenstein Library at Duke, and I think he holds it close, concerned that the projection and sound be just right, and also that he maintains a connection with his audience. So you won’t see it on YouTube or at a theater near you, but if Gatten comes to your town with his Extravagant Shadows, it is a movie, a book, a painting, a concert I’d encourage you to attend.