Credit: Courtesy of Ernie Gehr/MoMA
by Joshua Peinado Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Ernie Gehr: Mechanical Magic in the 21st Century

March 25, 2024

A woman speaks French as the top third of the image reveals itself to the audience, the rest of the screen blank. A man in the left corner looks down, but at what? Before any more questions can be asked, as if stuttering, the woman repeats the same phrase as the bottom two thirds of the frame fill in. The man is on his phone outside a cafe, a couple walks by, and mid-step they are interrupted by yet another formal challenge to their presence: the middle third of the screen has scrolled, as if a horizontal video flipped through, and their feet have suddenly outpaced their bodies, while the French women is saying that same phrase again. A face, separated from its body, walks past the top third of the frame, before the same top third scrolls and suddenly the face’s body emerges in the lower third, swiftly followed by its torso in the middle. InRO contributor Paul Attard aptly calls it “rubix cube cinema,” but Ernie Gehr just calls it a Sunday in Paris (2016). 

Gehr, a filmmaker whose career has spanned over 50 years and nearly 100 works, began making films after a chance encounter with the cinema of Stan Brakhage on a rainy day, a theatre offering reprieve from the storm. Often associated with the structural film movement, Gehr’s earlier works reinforce their form. Film critic P. Adams Sitney wrote that structural films function this way: “wherein the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape that is the primal impression of the film.” Take Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970), which is composed of a single vantage of a basement hallway in Binghamton University. Gehr’s only flourish in filming this hallway was interchanging lenses — editing a rapid change between the focal lengths to achieve the feeling of a sustained and instantaneous teleportation between two points in space and time despite no movement having taken place. 

The Museum of Modern Art recently spotlighted Gehr in their program “Mechanical Magic,” curated by Francisco Valente, highlighting 22 of Gehr’s 21st-century works, in addition to a number of his older ones. Despite Gehr’s status, many of these newer works had flown under the radar, and several had never been screened until their inclusion in the program. Despite his increasing age, Gehr has remained as prolific as ever and is continually producing great work that completely upends what one thinks of as “an Ernie Gehr” film. Gehr’s “mechanical magic” enlightens its audience to the possibilities, not only of film, but of vision. 

Credit: Courtesy of Ernie Gehr/MoMA

Gehr certainly isn’t wanting for any new techniques. Across the new works featured in the “Mechanical Magic” programs, Gehr utilizes a myriad of new editing processes, accounting for roughly 14 different “styles.” Bon Voyage (2015) is a triptych film that uses three different colorways to illustrate the same kaleidoscopic scene of a boat leaving harbor; both What’s Up! (2023) and Lisbon Views (2022) see Gehr experiment with the colorways of his films — inverting, heat-mapping, desaturating, all to great effect; New York Central’s (2020) shots are layered one on top of itself three-fold, the center frame holding the shot as is, the second shot behind that a color-inverted and flipped version, and the final background shot an exact recreation of the first. The achieved effect is marvelous, particularly when a person in the train station moves past the camera, which carries the visual force of a storm when multiplied thrice-over. Though the composition and exact effects of the three frames vary throughout the film, the effect on the viewer remains more or less the same throughout. 

Some of the most exciting developments in Gehr’s cinema are his use of motion, mirroring the techniques of the experimental Super 8 filmmaker Teo Hernández. The key difference is that where Hernández often used quick cuts to supplement his dashing camera, Gehr more frequently lingers on a single shot for minutes at a time. Pedestrian Activities (2023) takes this method to the streets of Manhattan, Gehr’s camera whipping back and forth, mapping a blurred city symphony from the sidewalk. Gehr is one for his strolls, and in New York he’s allowed his unusual frenzied shooting, especially given his advanced age. Gehr noted, “With no fancy equipment or gadgets, I go about my business and try to blend with the crowd. Yes, sometimes I encounter resistance, and a ‘no-no’ gesture, but most of the time I’m left alone, especially in my old age — ‘that crazy old man.’” While most of the film is soundtracked only by the muffled sound of pedestrian traffic and the clicking of Gehr’s camera, occasionally this sonic static is interrupted by a passing comment to the filmmaker, usually inquiring as to whether or not he’s “okay.” 

In Medicine Cabinet (2022), Gehr takes the idea of whipping his camera across an environment to the natural place a structural filmmaker would — one single shot across 15 minutes; the subject matter never makes itself clear, but there are glimpses of leaves implying a bush or a garden. For the most part, the shot is illegible. Wherein Pedestrian Activities Gehr occasionally stopped to take reprieve in the hustle and bustle of the city, Medicine Cabinet is an entirely sensory experience. The name could be attributed to the sound of the camera shake, which sounds something like pills in a bottle. Gehr said in a Q+A after the film that, not knowing what to call it, he named it after the first thing he saw in his home. The highlight of this movement is found in Carroll Gardens (2023). Gehr called the surrounding area home for some time, and his familiarity with the neighborhood translates to tenderness. It’s a silent work where Gehr’s fondness for the mechanics of film and light are on full display. Red brick peaks out from behind branches, obfuscated by Gehr’s rhythmic jolting, which colors the entire picture with the light behind the trees. 

Credit: Courtesy of Ernie Gehr/MoMA

Glider (2001) cements itself as Gehr’s most miraculous 21st century work in the programs. The longest film of the program, Glider is composed of several seascapes churning cyclically, distorted through something resembling a fisheye. The total effect on the viewer is remarkable; at once both incredibly meditative and yet entirely thrilling, it feels like one of the most important revelations in the structuralist film movement since Michael Snow’s La Régione Centrale (1971). Conversely, Back in the Park is lax in its motion. It’s a still life from Gehr, and his most accomplished among the number selected for the programs. Shot in Bryant Park, Gehr’s camera takes note of the shadows of relaxing patrons, positioning itself upside-down so the shadows appear upright. To the degree that any of Gehr’s films have stories, Back in the Park is a drama. And the film’s rhythms are reminiscent of another great experimental filmmaker — Nathaniel Dorsky; Gehr’s shadow-work only serves the comparison. 

Gehr also makes great use of shadows in Delirium (2020), which is composed entirely of static shots of shadows on a fence. His camera only ever shifts its position between shots, yet there’s still an incredible dynamism to the work. Shifting light dances along the white beams as wind gently bobs around the frame. Aproposessexstreetmarket (2018) sees Gehr take a look at the titular market in one of the longest films of the program, operating in pure spectator mode. There are no tricks, and very few movements. There are a couple quick pans that sing out their creator’s name, but otherwise it seems Gehr here tries to interfere as little as possible. There’s a coherent geography Gehr maps out in the store, of not just the space, but the people within it. 

Gehr’s commitment to the small moments and movements in the work finds him striking out a new path that somehow exhibits even further promise for the filmmaker. But nowhere is Gehr’s knack for “small moments” illustrated better than in Chambers of Time (2010). The film takes place during a snowy day, where the filmmaker and his (presumed) grandson build a snowman. The camera calmly takes in the scene, though occasionally Gehr will get up to his antics and start whipping the camera around the flurry of flakes flying toward them. It’s silent for all but the last minute, when the sound of snow hitting the ground is interrupted by Gehr wondering aloud, “Hey Daniel, where are you going?” as the boy disappears into a hole he’s made in the snow. The film resolves with their snowman, smiling, and a dedication to Daniel. Chambers of Time illustrative of a lot of the impact of the 21st-century Gehrs. There’s rarely a lot to grab onto, and a lot of both the fun and weight of the work comes from imagining the man behind the camera: Gehr, who is now 82, taking his camera out to record a snow day with his family, or elsewhere rapidly spinning around the busy streets of New York. It’s in these moments where he invites viewers behind the curtain that his films are realized in their most intimate and emotionally rich form, beyond the technique at hand.