Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991) and Signal—Germany on the Air (1985) are unlike any other city symphony films. Rather than piercing unknown cubbyholes, diagraming their cities’ webs of connections, or profiling their inhabitants, which characterized earlier examples from this 1920s modernist genre, Shuttle sails over its subject, outlining San Francisco from above, while Signal snatches quick views of Berlin, glancing at people, places, and things, but never approaching them. Strangers who remain aloof and buildings that are never entered populate the cities of these films. A tension exists in Gehr’s films between the situated and the transcendent. On the one hand, we watch documentary fragments of familiar, daily scenes. On the other, these quotidian moments are often presented in such a way that they seem as bizarre and otherworldly as the most outlandish science fiction set.
Side/Walk/Shuttle pairs 24 long takes—shot surreptitiously in a glass elevator at the Fairmont Hotel—with audio of crowded conversations from ten cities around the world, some between people, others between birds. With each new shot, the viewer’s perspective changes, rotating upside-down and canting at impossible angles. The viewer is discombobulated by the edges of buildings and streets geometrically dissecting the frame, the shifting angles at which these lines converge, as caused by the elevator’s movement and the constant tug of a presumed gravity, which often pulls up toward the top of the screen. This film’s use of a simple effect—the rotation of the image in the frame, creating a whole new world with its own forms and physics—places it within a lineage of trick films rather than city portraits. James Williamson’s use of camera placement to build a new sense of spatial orientationin The Big Swallow (1901) might be a better progenitor of Shuttle than Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Gehr’s use of effects continues to resonate in the work of contemporary artists who deftly navigate the vast ocean of possibilities brought about by the digital image. Work like Nicolas Provost’s Storyteller (2010) also uses relatively few drag-and-drop effects to create an expansive world for its viewers, plumbing Final Cut Pro for new affective possibilities. The mysterious pleasures in both Storyteller and Side/Walk/Shuttle is not in questioning how they create their spaces but in inhabiting them.
By contrast, Signal—Germany on the Air’s weirdness is more spectral than spectacular. The film has three primary locations: a Berlin intersection, a set of unused train tracks, and a collection of abandoned Third Reich buildings. The soundtrack begins with a seeming fidelity to the spaces shown—wind, cars, and footsteps—but soon a sudden yodel breaks into this synchronicity. From this point on, the film’s soundtrack departs the city and begins to travel the globe, moving from German commercials to British comedies to French political speeches. This trip is made possible by a cheap radio Gehr brought to Berlin, hoping to avoid feeling isolated. Between each chunk of audio we hear the clicks and whines of dead air and the faint sound of ghostly voices barely received. The radio constantly points to an ethereal absence, not only emanating from other parts of the world, but also from Berlin’s continually haunting past.
Both films imply virtual worlds, some existing in the future, others in the past. Precedence and potential intermingle in a dizzying array of unseen causes and unexpected effects. These short, beautiful films pair to make a world in which everything has a foundation in the recognizable, while simultaneously seeming completely inexplicable. While flipping a camera upside-down or the sounds of a small radio are relatively mundane events on their own, that doesn’t stop Gehr from using them to produce uncanny and wild moments—at times gleefully unbound from the laws of physics, and at others eerily set adrift from linear time.