Credit: Anthology Film Archives/Barry Gerson
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A Survey of Anthology Film Archives’ Windowed Worlds: The Films of Barry Gerson

June 7, 2024

Appreciating the work of Barry Gerson in recent years has been somewhat difficult. His work remains noted in high regard when it’s shown and mentioned, but it has been seldom played due to his withdrawal of most of his films from distributors such as the Film-makers’ Cooperative and Canyon Cinema. Recurring praise from major figures in the avant-garde such as Jonas Mekas and Larry Gottheim has kept his name as a point of interest for film scholars and cinephiles, and the small number of his films that have thankfully remained publicly available at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts have resulted in the desire to see a larger sample of his work for the area’s in-the-know cinephiles. With the recent donation of his entire body of work to Anthology Film Archives, Gerson’s publication of his book Elixir of Light: Intuition, LED Lights and Healing Oneself Through the Super Brain, and his upcoming autobiographical starring role in a film by Paul Smart entitled Don Barry, a long overdue retrospective at Anthology entitled Windowed Worlds: The Films of Barry Gerson brings 23 of his films from multiple periods of his career to a new generation, with two more being available and easily accessible at NYPL as supplementation.

Following the misleading start of the early sound featurette The Neon Rose (1964), a narrative film with experimental moments that aimed to bridge the two approaches, Gerson burst onto the experimental film scene proper with the silent Automatic Free Form Film (1968), following a break of several years during which he accumulated ideas for what he wanted to achieve in film form. Several of his recurring visual interests emerged fully formed and predated better-known experiments in visual murkiness from filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Peter Gidal, with his drifting and out-of-focus camera transfiguring a barely-recognizable library into ever-shifting shapes of light and shadow. His recurring focus on geometry, windows, makeshift mattes, distinctively shapely objects, and images of water can all be seen in this early work, and his most prolific period began as he began finding infinite variations on his visual interests up until 1982, where rising celluloid costs spurred him to take a two-decade hiatus to focus on other endeavors such as sculpture, painting, throat singing, and poetry. His final film before the hiatus, Episodes From the Secret Life (1982), is one of his own personal favorites and one of the most visually exciting: masking and superimpositions result in something like a more angular Jerome Hiler reverie, with separate shots of papers being swept off a desk and a roving shot of the floor resulting in an uncanny sensuality that Gerson calls attention to via a magnifying glass that magnifies the impossible borders of the effect.

He eventually returned to filmmaking with Rolling In My Ears (2002), a study in the geometry of colored pipes, before making the transition to digital cinema circa 2008 and creating a number of recent works in that format. Nine of these titles, ranging from 2009 to 2023, were shown at the retrospective. The Universe (2009) and Mexico (2023) find him returning to sound for the first time since The Neon Rose: the former is a vertically-shot mirroring effect applied to a stream so that it turns into a roaring waterfall, while the latter finds Gerson utilizing his throat singing as crumpled-up fabrics appear to be breathing. Most of the other recent titles operate under similar principles to Episodes From the Secret Life, but digital renders the borders of the divided images crisp and perfect, and easier to notice. Highlights in this style include his brightly-colored collection of porch superimpositions, Late Summer (2013), and the intense color saturation of the hard-to-identify objects in Blue Follies (2012) and Stretch and Pull (2014). Shorter works such as Crystal Canyons (2016), Leaves of Light (2022), and Snows of Reduction (2012) provide brief Gersonian glimpses of clouds, a plant-filled window, and snowy rooftops. The longest of the digital titles, Fogged Windows (2013), showcases the titular objects as the pristine detail of the water vapor on the windows results in the glass of the camera and the window itself being unable to fully capture what is on the outside of his house.

Credit: Anthology Film Archives/Barry Gerson

Some of the titles from Gerson’s celluloid period that were included in the retrospective were already beloved by users of the NYPL checkout system. The pristine The Secret Abyss (1979) turns images of water into a mysterious black dance of bubbles with red highlights. Translucent Appearances (1975) uses a series of mattes to transfigure a variety of images of Niagara Falls, with some shots resembling water flowing off the edges of a flat Earth. Other titles that were not as well-known demonstrated that despite Gerson not considering himself a structuralist filmmaker (to the point of actively averting the label), he could demonstrate a similar formal rigor. Shadow Space (1973) uses timelapse shifts to slowly move a camera and the light it captures within a room. Celluloid Illuminations (1975) transfigures the angles of rooftops against the sky via blocking tricks and carefully reorienting edits, with every appearance of a bird adding something unexpected to the design. Luminous Zone (1973) takes his interest in mattes to the extreme, with black frames intermittently removing chunks of an image that remains in motion — one of the most visually witty moments in his filmography is when moving the lift of a window becomes part of the matte effect in its own right.

With the exception of the early Generations (1969), which turns a building with a subway passing by into blocks of blue, most of Gerson’s work from 1969 to 1972 would later be compiled into numbered compilations called Groups, functioning as both something like short story collections and to avoid pick-and-choose approaches to selecting his films. They arguably remain his best-known works today, and Anthology showed five of the eight (a sixth is viewable at NYPL). While their groupings are largely chronological, they also have common thematics. One of the easiest Gersons to see thanks to the NYPL collection is Group II: Water/Contemplating (1969). Water is four shots long and consists of found footage from Gerson’s time working at a stock footage library: the simple beauty of its geometry arguably makes it Gerson’s most accessible work. Contemplating shifts its aquatic focus to Gerson filming the waves at the beach and using railings and fencing as one of the makeshift mattes that crop up throughout his filmography.

Group I: Grass/Ice/Snow/Vibrating (1969) is more preoccupied with variations on fields of light, and most of the films included are so brief as to benefit from the compilation leading to juxtaposition: a sea of grass turns into a blindingly white water expanse, a solitary icicle glimmers into the camera, a snowy day obscures everything, and a camera drifts back and forth over a river in winter. Group IV: Beaded Light/Dissolving/Beyond (1970) turns beads hanging on a door, a cloudy mountain horizon, and the shoulder of a red-headed woman on the beach into tableaux vivants. Group VII: Portrait of Diana/Portrait of Andrew Noren (1972) features two “personal light portrait” films. The former has Gerson’s then-girlfriend Diana standing by a window while a curtain undulates in the light and wind, with her sole gesture concluding the film, while the latter showcases the experimental filmmaker looking into a tinted mirror while candles gently burn smoke. (Noren’s own focus on light itself and the similar withdrawal of his works from circulation adds an intriguing metatextual layer.) Not included in the retrospective but available at NYPL are the three window films that constitute Group V: Endurance/Remembrance/Metamorphosis (1970), with Endurance featuring Portrait of Diana’s curtain shifting the appearance of an orange light beam on the floor, Remembrance looking out a window at both trees and the interior decoration that it reflects, and the aptly titled Metamorphosis going from a window of murky plants and fog to detailed greenery as the fog lifts.

Maybe the apex of the Groups is Group III: Sunlight/Floating/Afternoon (1970), three studies of light and camera shifts that feel like the purest form of Gerson’s interests. Sunlight captures light shining through an emergency stairway and onto a window, with the patterns seeming to play off each other as one of Gerson’s typically angular framings subtly shifts with the light. Floating gently dollies from left to right while looking at a church rooftop, with the changes in how much of the building is shown in the frame, chance elements like clouds and birds, and the light’s color temperature shifting through time turning the experience into something like a more dynamic compression of Andy Warhol’s Empire. Afternoon’s use of gentle zooms in and out, focusing on a red curtain that tints the light coming through a window in a sparse apartment, is sensual to the point of borderline carnality: a great testament to Gerson’s command of light and the windowed worlds that inspired the title of this overdue showcase.