Watching Jerome Hiler’s recent works In the Stone House and New Shores, I am struck by the fact that films so intimately attuned to the here and now of emulsion passing before the projector’s bulb should also, essentially, be of the past. Hiler’s broadest accomplishment with these films—revisiting decades-old footage with the same spirit of discovery that animated the initial filming—is particularly notable in light of In the Stone House’s proximity to any number of ideals associated with the 1960s, an era all too often smothered by myth. The film details the brief yet formative period during which Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky shared a house in rural New Jersey (Dorsky’s Hours for Jerome derives from these same years), a place that afforded them time and space to live close to the seasons and their art. In the Stone House’s footage was projected many times over the years in its raw-camera original: cinema closest to the flame, open to tinkering and subject to irremediable losses. Hiler recently struck a print of the film, thus finalizing its structure, and yet one still senses the fragility of the enterprise in the fragmentary nature of its mosaic.
New Shores is in every way the more open work—in its landscape, its wide arc of life, the variety of its subjects, and the musical cadence of its montage. The film traces Hiler and Dorsky’s slow settling in San Francisco, the city they still call home. Where In the Stone House clamors for beauty, New Shores suggests a fresh attentiveness to the unexpected gift. I think of the documentary-like passage of Hiler preparing to film a solar eclipse in In the Stone House: a ritual of seeing that is exuberant, but not without anxiety. Compare this to the incidental close-ups of ballet souvenirs strewn across a mantle in New Shores. Hiler, who worked as a carpenter for many years, pinched these images on a renovation job (a camera flourish reveals the entire scene). Such fluke illuminations may seem small next to the great drama of the eclipse, but they are more precise as to the angle between art and life.
New Shores opens with a wintry view from a train, the black-and-white composition suggesting a classic Western. California does not immediately reveal itself to Hiler’s camera: on the contrary, our first impressions are of walls. The camera scrambles across metal and stucco; when the great Pacific appears, it is glimpsed through a small circle cut into a metal façade. And yet while these walls undoubtedly figure as obstructions, their mottled surfaces and riotous golden scratches also evoke the tangible vision of abstract painting. These images teach us how to see the film along the lines described in John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:”
“But your eyes proclaim/That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/And nothing can exist except what’s there.” And furthermore that, “[…]there are no words for the surface, that is/No words to say what it really is, that is not/Superficial but a visible core […]”
The luminous quality of Hiler’s imagery is such that it would be easy to overlook New Shores’s range of styles: from nervy abstractions to intimate home movies (a buttery-yellow shot taken in the shower), jangled walks (a frame-by-frame rush along the edge of a steep oceanside cliff) to serene portraiture (as in In the Stone House, the faces of Dorsky and the poet Anne Waldman provide the film’s familiar “you”). And then there are those stand-alone mysteries: the camera ascending from a broken factory floor, for instance, or plumes of smoke rising from a ship—establishing shots suspended from narrative obligation, each striking a direct line to the heart of the film. Always, New Shores aims for a fine balance of description and lyricism, such that a bravura sequence of shots of bed sheets is simultaneously an intimate record of the days and a formal wonder of texture and light.
During a discussion following a recent screening of In the Stone House and New Shores at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), Hiler modestly credited his ravishing colors to Kodak. One takes his point, though it’s worth wondering if artisans aren’t in shorter supply than visionaries in today’s avant-garde. In any case, the vitality of Hiler’s imagery owes much to his dynamic form of montage. One thinks here of the recurring figure of blue glass—a motif reaching back to the shot in In the Stone House in which the camera draws close to examine the cloudy view through a large piece held by Dorsky and Waldman. In New Shores, there is an image of Dorsky and another friend picking through blue pebbles followed by an astonishing pan from the ocean to a woman’s blue eyes in close-up (the very same shade of blue, one thinks, with a shock of color typically reserved for painting). Later in the film we follow a young man striding left to right on the beach, the camera drawn to his handling of a small piece of blue glass that he eventually casts into the sea (a gesture recalling an earlier cluster of shots of ancient men flicking away cigarettes as if each was the last). I feel that I have barely started to pick up on these delicate threads, just enough to begin to perceive the glint of my own attention.
The moral is finally a simple one: take care of the past, handle it gently, and it may be returned to you. Throughout both In the Stone House and New Shores, I found myself thinking how to preserve is not only to keep a thing but to intensify its flavor. Shorn of sound, each shot seems to renew the “visible core” of an earlier moment—and yet here we might linger upon the crucial intervals of black leader partitioning each image unit. As the image drains away, it is as if the film were remembering itself after momentarily surrendering to the dream of time regained. We are reminded of the artistic work being done, of life folded into lyric. As Hiler himself remarked at BAM/PFA, the momentary shadow creates a rhythm as well as a space in which discrete images can “echo,” a word that implies that the images unfold in a space larger than themselves: the passing years, the viewer’s perceptions.
This tidal movement in and out of the past is doubled in New Shores’s poignant epilogue. A swift cut quits sun-bleached California for the familiar deep shade of New Jersey woods. We watch Dorsky approaching the same Stone House, exchanging words with its current caretaker, an elderly man. At BAM/PFA Hiler explained how he and Dorsky were astonished to find everything as they left it, right down to a tortoise shell left on a windowsill. As with Proust’s madeleine, it is precisely in the small detail that the past fully overtakes the present. The film follows suit, discharging us back into the sixties via a spectacular flood of imagery from an earlier Halloween. From inside the house, the camera peers down at a bird in the window frame and then tilts up to find Dorsky young again.
Moments after this dizzying return, the film once again picks up with the “present” of Hiler and Dorsky’s trip as they take a canoe out on the lake that appeared frozen in In the Stone House. Dorsky steers and then takes the camera for a shot of Hiler paddling into deep water: an image of assurance that finds figurative expression in the final image of a great blue heron’s low glide across the water. The camera follows along, breathlessly detailing and then itself becoming flight. Perhaps we think back to the bird on the Stone House’s windowsill that draws us deeper into the past, or earlier to the awesome image of two vultures spreading their wings on a rock. “It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again,” Emerson wrote. Hiler traces this same arc, his every image developing a larger sense of life as its gifts.
In The Stone House and New Shores will screen as part of “Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler,” a complete dual retrospective, during the 53rd New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11).
MAX GOLDBERG is a writer and archivist based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in Cinema Scope and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications.