Serene Velocity

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jan 12, 2015

There’s a Terry Riley-like patterning to Ernie Gehr’s pioneering structuralist work, a sense of almost outlandishly extensive repetition. It’s a very challenging film, but it’s very rich too: attentive viewers may soon mark an awakening, even exhilarating realization of the almost inexhaustible incremental change occurring within these repeated patterns.

Gehr placed a camera in a hallway, at the State University of New York, in Binghamton. He shot that hallway four frames at a time, all along the focal length of his zoom lens. These focal lengths are alternated in a rational pattern, that may nevertheless be difficult for the viewer to keep track of. Perhaps it’s that aural rhythms are easier to keep track of than visual rhythms.

The viewer must find a foothold, and her experiences with conventional narratives certainly won’t provide it. So it is that Serene Velocity will be either hypnotic or maddening, depending on one’s mood or inclination. Or, it really is both, at the same time. Relentlessness and ambiguity abound, simultaneously. Is that a reflection back there, or a door? Concentrating on the seeming sameness leads to all sorts of interesting illusions, or maybe sends the viewer seeking for similarities, or similes: a train in a tunnel, a subway car on a track; an elevator shaft from the bottom, a mine shaft from the top. Gehr’s alternations suggest walls rising, or turning into rows of lit fountains, or the settings for some glimmering festivity.

The fact that the viewer—or, I should confess, this viewer—finds such similes suggests that Freud’s secondary revision is still alive and well, in the art-interpretive realm. It could even be the dire impulse to domesticate wild and intractable things (an impulse soundly condemned, for instance, in Susan Sontag’s seminal 1966 essay, “Against Interpretation,”). How bourgeois. How totalitarian!

Or, more happily, perhaps every cool thing really is like some other cool thing.

Here’s Gehr’s invaluable film, framed by several invaluable perspectives thereupon, and housed at this invaluable website that features innumerable rigourously and theoretically alternative things: