in Features | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

The Observer

Sharon Lockhart makes rigorously formal films that complicate the boundaries between fact and fiction

in Features | 14 NOV 05

Where are you? The child is yelling.

The almost static image contains a fragment of the winter expanse, hemmed in somewhat by a bluff in the background. Snow is falling on evergreens, gentle but cold and relentless. There is nobody in sight. The child’s voice emerges from this wilderness, echoing from somewhere outside the frame, yet very much from the world of the film, calling out for Ethan with increasing desperation, wailing. A wolf you can’t place howls in the distance. This goes on for exactly ten minutes and then the screen goes black.

Beginning with this opening shot, the question ‘where are you?’ becomes more pressing throughout Sharon Lockhart’s 16mm film Pine Flat (2005). The film is Lockhart’s fifth, following Khalil, Shaun, A Woman under the Influence (1994), Goshogaoka (1997), Teatro Amazonas (1999), and N¯O (2003); with a running time of 135 minutes, it is almost as long as all her previous films combined. While Pine Flat follows from Lockhart’s earlier films in ways that might seem quite obvious at the outset, particularly in terms of ‘signature’ stylistic devices – the long take, the static frame, the posed or choreographed subject – it is also departs from these films in substantial ways. In particular, the film edges decisively towards narrative, though viewers expecting anything conventionally resembling a plot or character development or resolution will be disappointed. One might say that Pine Flat contains a narrative desire, though whether that desire is Lockhart’s or an imposition of the viewer is more difficult to determine.

The subjects of Pine Flat are all children, filmed individually or in small groups, presumably located within geographical proximity to one another and the town that provides the film’s title. Whether or not ‘Pine Flat’ actually exists on any map is somehow less significant than the notion of place constructed by the film. There are no adults in the film, and while we cannot assume the world presented by the film is free of grown-ups and parental authority – like a less quarrelsome, more meditative Lord of the Flies (1963) – this world is vast but indeed isolated, an island of sorts reflecting the collective imaginary of its subjects.

At a particularly crucial moment for the cinematic medium – that is, in the early days of its obsolescence – Lockhart has created a singular, demanding film that proposes more questions than answers about the medium and the way in which it reflects reality. Or doesn’t. I would suggest Pine Flat operates at the imprecise intersection of the index and the imaginary. Theorist Christian Metz proposed that every film image, including the documentary image, is always already imaginary because the index of reality inscribed on the film is always perceived anew as a replica of reality when we watch the film.1 In contradistinction, Jean-Luc Godard has claimed that every film is a document of its actors. That both men are probably correct gets us to the paradoxical nature (or is it artifice?) of the cinema image. Lockhart’s film is imprecise because the distance between index and imaginary – fact and fiction – is simply impossible to measure. This imprecision – a word Lockhart probably hates because she’s a brilliant formalist who, as evidenced by her extant body of work, likes to maintain a substantial amount of control – is, weirdly, the heart of the film.

For viewers familiar with Lockhart’s films – and her significant work in still photography – it will come as no surprise that the camera’s frame plays an extraordinary role in Pine Flat. What may come as a surprise, however, is how effectively Lockhart uses the cinematic frame to open the film to the vast world outside the camera’s confines. The cinematic imaginary makes its presence felt not only beyond the frame but also in the interior of the subjects of Pine Flat. Even within the confines of the image we are confronted with an immense unknown. Although Lockhart’s characteristic control is in evidence throughout the film, the structure of Pine Flat generously allows for many beautiful moments of aleatory escape.

Pine Flat consists of 12 shots – and an intermission – each lasting precisely ten minutes. Each shot comprises a ‘scene’ of sorts (or a vignette, if one considers the antiquated word’s sense of boundedness). With each shot or scene Lockhart records a different exterior location and a different child or group of children with an unmoving camera. Such cinematography is consistent with each of her previous films, although the variety of exterior locations and seasonal changes is new. In Teatro Amazonas and N¯O, respectively, the entire film unfolds within a single take from an unmoving camera. In Goshogaoka there are six shots, yet the camera remains locked in one location for the duration of the film. It almost goes without saying that Lockhart’s adherence to the static frame places extraordinary emphasis on composition, the movement of human subjects within the frame, and duration. At the same time, the diagrammatic and the quantifiable aspects in Lockhart’s films inevitably give way to that which cannot be measured or contained or controlled. The film, as index, captures these fleeting moments even as they defy structure, description and understanding.

Lockhart’s rigorous formalism is not the formalism of earlier avant-garde filmmakers. Although her work is highly structured, it is not ‘structural’. This is not a pejorative argument. Avant-garde film theorist P. Adams Sitney famously defined Structural film, exemplified by the work of Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, Tony Conrad and others, as ‘a cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film. The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline.’2 What’s interesting is the way in which Lockhart’s deterministic structures bump up against the content of her work, and the way in which that content, in turn, threatens the very comfort of structure.

Lockhart has divided Pine Flat into two groups of six shots, strategically separated by a ten-minute interlude marked ‘INTERMISSION’ in white capital letters on a black background. Five of the first six shots frame an individual child (the first shot is visually devoid of subjects), while each the latter six involves two or more children. In the first half of the film we are shown: a girl sitting on a grassy hill reading a book (a sign of the vast imaginary lurking in the frame); a shirtless boy seated on a rock at the bottom of a trickling waterfall, playing the harmonica; a boy sleeping at the edge of a bluff; a boy in camouflage crouching in a clearing covered with autumn leaves, waiting intently, then raising a hunting rifle and taking aim before lowering it again; and a boy pacing slowly while waiting for a bus.

In the second half we are shown: a group of four children crossing a snowy field dotted by barren trees, fences reinforcing the thresholds crossed at the bottom, then the top of the frame; a boy and a girl swimming; two boys and a girl, all teenagers, chasing one another, wrestling, smoking cigarettes, unexpectedly punctuated by rainfall; two girls, perhaps sisters, playing on a swing suspended from a massive oak (a frame within the frame); two young couples laying in a golden field, each pair embracing and gently kissing; and a group of children running through dense fog across the bottom of the frame.

The brief six seconds of black leader that separate each of the shots in Pine Flat implies a yawning gap of time: months, perhaps years, have passed from one shot to the next. The shots in the first half of the film feel longer than those in the second, in which two or more children interact: despite the rigorous structure imposed throughout the film, the viewer’s durational experience does not necessarily match the expectations of mechanical time. Two or more children demand exponentially more attention than one, and our experience of the ten-minute shot accelerates. Duration also becomes a sort of frame: for each shot Lockhart and editor Erika Vogt carefully extract ten-minute lengths of film that render the fixed duration seemingly pliable.
The film’s intermission presents the sound of a boy (Balam Garcia, who recently recorded an album with Lockhart) performing a solo guitar-and-vocal rendition of Blink-182’s ‘Stay Together for the Kids’. The young musician, perhaps performing ‘alone’ in his bedroom, brings a poignant complexity to the otherwise corny pop Punk song (originally performed by a group of overgrown ‘kids’) as he stretches the song into a meandering, slightly dark, ten-minute ballad of the imaginary. Relieved of visual indicators, we can only locate the child in the vast somewhere of his interiority.

Throughout the film sound takes on a powerful presence. Unlike Hollywood films, in which the given environmental sounds are rendered subsidiary to dialogue or, conversely, are heightened to reinforce some significant narrative drive, the sound design of Pine Flat puts the children on the same level as the surrounding environment. At times the ambient sounds overwhelm the subjects. For example, the boy and girl swimming in the eighth shot move around freely in the water yet never break the artificial boundary of the camera’s frame. There is a sense of vastness, as the water appears to continue outside the frame indefinitely, but the sound suggests something quite different: the dense echoing of the children’s voices disrupts our apprehension of their words and further evidences the imposing enclosure of their immediate surroundings.

Throughout the film we hear children talking, but it is often difficult to make out the exact words being spoken. (Abundant laughter, on the other hand, is more easily translated.) Like Khalil, Shaun, A Woman under the Influence – in which the first two segments are totally silent – we are reminded that the filmmaker is very much in control of the access that we, as viewers, have to the subjects in front of the camera. However, Pine Flat is not silent. Here Lockhart uses a complexly constructed sound design to heighten the viewer’s attention to what he or she is seeing. She also uses sound to colour the factuality of the image with the larger presence of the imaginary. The wolf’s howl in the first shot, for example, may or may not be ‘real’.

The frame, as a perceived boundary, is most often challenged – or circumvented – by the presence of sound. In the sixth shot of Pine Flat a boy, dwarfed by his baggy clothes and huge backpack, waits for a school bus. He ambles, ever so slightly, along a short imaginary line. This path is, not coincidentally, bounded on the left and right sides by the camera’s frame. Eventually, a distinct sound emerges. Then, we see it: a school bus moves into sight deep in the frame, across a valley from the boy. The bus moves along a line almost parallel to him and leaves the frame. We still hear it, as it moves closer, still off-screen. It comes to a stop, somewhere behind the camera, and the boy walks towards it. His exit from the frame – a rare occurrence in the film – suggests an almost hyperbolic sense of freedom and presents a moment of true drama, with some sense of narrative relief, if not resolve.

Lockhart’s use of sound suggests an acute awareness of its materiality and its refusal of the frame’s constraints. Working with frequent collaborator Becky Allen, Lockhart ‘stages’ the sound with as much care and precision as she does the visual information that receives the viewer’s primary attention. From the first shot of the film – in which we hear an off-screen voice that never becomes an on-screen voice – Lockhart and Allen construct much of the film’s imaginary from outside the frame. Certainly, much of the sound was recorded on location – defined, appropriately enough, as ‘wild’ sound – yet it also seems that many content-rich sounds in the film were created or added in post-production. How much in Pine Flat is fact and how much is fiction, and how much is structured and how much given over to chance is difficult to answer here.

In one of the most simple, static shots in Pine Flat a young boy horizontally bisects the frame, lying at the edge of a hill, legs bent, sleeping. Or is he pretending to sleep? As the centre of attention in a still frame, it would be impossible not to notice his movements, however subtle. The prone boy shifts around, either uncomfortable while positioned on the ground or lost in the depth of a dream. Here the cinematic medium fails to register difference. Has the boy been directed to sleep by Lockhart, and is he slightly restlessly attempting to do so? Or has he been directed to pretend to sleep? Either way, the subjects in Pine Flat – particularly when filmed in isolation – invariably draw attention to the camera and hence the director located somewhere behind it. The screen itself is, in effect, the fifth side of the frame, and, like the other four sides, it represents a rather complex boundary between the seen and the vaster unseen. Lockhart maintains the tension between index and imaginary because it is difficult for the viewer to know with any precision when her subjects are being themselves or only pretending to.

There is a question of performance lurking here – not only a question of whether or not these children are assuming a persona or playing a ‘character’, but perhaps a more pointed question of to what extent are these children performing for a camera while attempting to please the director. In Teatro Amazonas the camera frames a crowd at the theatre and for its 30-minute duration captures the unscripted, and generally unexpected, activities of individuals emerging from the mass audience. Lockhart’s presence is seemingly invisible: she could easily have started the camera and left the scene. Her presence is similarly negligible in N¯O, as the Japanese farmers complete a predetermined – choreographed – task. However, in her films occupied by children, including the basketball-playing girls in Goshogaoka, her position as director evolves into a more complex role as authority figure, or perhaps a surrogate parent. When a girl in Goshogaoka drops the ball or flubs a dribble, one wonders if the look of disappointment is intended for Lockhart or merely a natural response.

This dynamic becomes more ambiguous in Pine Flat, as the children are not performing objective tasks so much as just being ‘themselves’. Lockhart ingrained herself in a small community and placed a number of children she met there in front of the camera. She is not exactly telling their respective stories so much as finding – and constructing – a meeting place between her subjects and the imaginary their filmed presence generates. How much of Pine Flat is random, and how much is directed by Lockhart – or rather, performed by her subjects – is unclear, but the ambiguity is potent, and hovers insistently at the surface. There is seemingly an implicit contract between Lockhart and the children in the film: her camera’s frame is a boundary that contains their physical presence, but, in exchange, the children are free to keep their interior worlds ‘off-screen’. Another contract – between filmmaker and viewer – also emerges: without access to that vast interiority we are asked to use our imaginations and draw our own map of Pine Flat.

1 Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982
2 P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2001, p. 348