The filmmaker Michael Snow, himself a master of the art, put it more simply: “At last, the first film!”
“History” is one of nearly a dozen short works that are being presented Monday and Tuesday in the Los Angeles show “Two Nights With Ernie Gehr: Early Films and New Digital Works” at Redcat, the experimental theater in Disney Hall. It’s an eye- and mind-expanding lineup, a must-see for those open to outside-the-multiplex-box cinematic experiences as well as an introduction to this important filmmaker. It also provides a condensed primer to some of the issues at stake in American avant-garde cinema, which, partly because of its historical opposition to the dictates of commercial mainstream moviemaking and partly because it resists commodification (unlike, say, abstract painting, oppositional cinema doesn’t rack up big sales at Sotheby’s), has been relegated to the status of museum pieces and festival marginalia.
Mr. Gehr elaborated on his filmmaking ethos in the program notes for a 1971 show at the Museum of Modern Art. “When I began to make films,” he wrote, “I believed pictures of things must go into films if anything was to mean anything.” He changed his mind after he started shooting, realizing that what film usually did was function as a vehicle to record events. “Traditional and established avant-garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing.” But for Mr. Gehr film was a thing and not an imitation and didn’t reflect on life, but rather embodied the life of the mind. “It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea,” he continued. “Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.”
In his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting” the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that “each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” Almost from the start of his filmmaking career Mr. Gehr embraced this Modernist cry, shunning mainstream narrative to make films in which bubbling grain, streaks of color and pulses of light are the main attraction. Even when he features people in his films, as he does in the black-and-white “Reverberation” (1969), which shows a couple standing and then seated on a city street in swirls of grain and light, the emphasis isn’t on humans and their stories, but on bodies and their spaces.
Born in 1941, he began making eight-millimeter films in the mid-’60s. The precipitating event, he told the writer Scott MacDonald in a 2002-3 interview, was a program of Stan Brakhage films that Mr. Gehr caught in New York on a rainy night. The works excited him partly because in their abstraction and attention to color, texture and rhythm they were closer to his experience of 20th-century painting than of movies, and he continued to seek out more of the same. He eventually ended up at the Millennium Film Workshop and borrowing a light meter from the filmmaker Ken Jacobs (with whom Mr. Gehr shares an interest in early cinema). As he walked around New York reading light, as it were, Mr. Gehr discovered “the character of light” and learned about “cinema’s dependency on light.”
This poignant, almost naïvely romantic interlude led Mr. Gehr to make “Morning” (1968), a 16-millimeter, washed-out color film that is routinely called his first and kicks off the Tuesday show. It’s a blissfully simple, lovely work that — as in innumerable paintings — takes as its subject the domestic space of the artist, specifically as the dawning light streams through a large window into the loft that Mr. Gehr was sharing with friends. Throughout the five-minute work the light pulsates nearly on and off, by turns flooding the room with dazzlingly bright light and throwing the space into near-darkness. Again and again the room and its objects — a chair, a sofa, a roaming cat — become visible, hover at the edge of discernibility or are nearly swallowed in black.
Like another 1968 film, “Wait,” which shows two people seated at a table in a room, the light throbbing around them, “Morning” explores both human perception and the materiality of film. Mr. Gehr achieved his effects by playing with the amount of time each film frame was exposed to light, which underscores that you’re watching individual frames. (This individual quality is helped by the fact that his films are sometimes projected at slower speeds than the usual 24 frames per second.) In a widely hailed early masterpiece, “Serene Velocity” (1970), he transformed a long institutional corridor into a propulsive, metaphorically resonant landscape by increasing and decreasing the depth of field, which alternatively brings you closer to and further from the doorway (and exit) at the end of the hall.
Since 2004 Mr. Gehr has been working exclusively in digital, a counterintuitive development given his longtime preoccupations. Yet, like other avant-garde filmmakers, Mr. Gehr has moved into digital gracefully and is exploiting its plasticity to investigate some of the same issues that long animated his film work. In “Crystal Palace” (2002, revised 2011), in what he calls an ode to “digital interlace,” he disassembles a landscape of majestic snow-wreathed conifers at Lake Tahoe (and, briefly, a red house) into sharply differentiated parts and visual planes, isolating these elements in a way that brings to mind the individual layers of a paper diorama. By isolating parts of the image he draws your eyes to individual trees and snowflakes that appear suspended in time and space.
In the wonderful “Abracadabra” (2009) Mr. Gehr digitally reconfigures four early silent films into bursts of kaleidoscopic color and strange movement. In one section he loops and layers semi-transparent images of boys frolicking outside a clothing store, turning them into so many cinematic ghosts. In the other sections he divides the image — of a docking ship, a train ride, dancing girls — that turns one side into a mirrored reflection of the other, and then he sets the two sides into kinetic play. The overall effect evokes that of proto-cinematic devices like the stereoscope (in which two images are viewed together to create an illusion of depth), but one brought into the digital age. Even as film goes the way of all flesh and is supplanted by digital, Mr. Gehr’s work affirms the persistence of cinema.

Ernie Gehr, Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, 16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.

ERNIE GEHR’S CINEMA GROUNDS ITSELF IN DISJUNCTURE. Best known for his 1970 film Serene Velocity, a convulsive portrait of a hallway lit by citrine fluorescents, Gehr mounts an exploration of the camera as an apparatus, its effects arising through a conjunction of framing and focal length. Seamlessness and suture are here terms of abuse. If cinema has traditionally aspired to a certain invisibility—an eclipse of the machine in a vague shroud of artificial darkness—Gehr’s four-decade-long project has been to make the camera and its conventions emphatically, even aggressively, visible.
Showing Tuesday, October 7 at Light Industry are two of Gehr’s late films: Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, and Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1991, both shot on 16 mm. Each centers on a specific site: the first, West Berlin in its halting final decade; the second, the exposed glass elevator of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Gehr settled after sweating out the 1970s and ’80s in New York. For those who know Gehr only for his staccato hallway, the pairing is revelatory, and unlikely to be screened again on film for some time.
Funded by a DAAD grant, Gehr’s Signal broaches autobiography by way of cityscape. The son of German Jewish émigrés, Gehr might have called Berlin home, had fascism not tragically intervened. The film takes its title from the Wehrmacht propaganda magazine of the same name, its opening shot backgrounded by a cropped view of the glossy’s cover. The explicitness of this reference comes as somewhat of a feint, as Gehr’s approach to history is otherwise oblique. Signal unfolds in a site of little dramatic consequence: an anonymous intersection, somewhere, we glean from interspersed street signs, on the Rheinstraße. Creamsicle trash cans, touting the slogan “Berlin…ICH MACHE MIT” (“Berlin…COUNT ME IN”), locate us in Germany’s capital. Yet Gehr withholds further orientation, the intersection’s nondescriptness repelling attempts to impute significance. Traffic signs pictographically proclaim “No Entry” or “Stop, Give Way,” less directing movement than obstructing it. Affectless and absent remark, this space seems not sited but suspended: an industrialized anywhere.
Signal’s advance is rigidly stylized, its adoption of structuralist techniques—fixed, frontal framing and the perpendicular, deep-focus long shot—marking it as properly avant-garde. Selected by Gehr’s Bolex, space spreads into an allover plane: One apprehends the images without knowing where, exactly, to look. Cuts are frequent and obtrusive, lending the film a stutterer’s cadence. Accumulating yet failing to cohere, their progression hews to a paratactic logic that loosens sequence from causality. Views recur in quick succession with slight differences, whether assayed from a novel vantage or figured elsewhere in time. Gehr couples this montage with segments clipped from a cheap German radio and street sounds that could, plausibly, emanate from inside the film, yet never quite align with what we see. Heels clack, buses stall, and conversations transpire over scenes emptied of all but asphalt and low-rises. The audio’s space-agey static and linguistic eclecticism—German tousled with English, Italian, and French—compounds our sense of dislocation. Human presence (in Gehr’s filmic universe, always incidental) yields to a concern with place.
Take Signal’s opening sequence: Gehr trains on an unpeopled curb; four cuts later, the curb returns, attended by a grizzled man in pastel blue. Several cuts intervene before a yellow phone booth appears, which goes on to feature six times in a minute-long stretch, its final cameo all but obscured by a black post. Other objects of Gehr’s recursive gaze include a red-awninged store, a windowless, white-tiled building, and a shuttered shop beetled by the word REAL in black sans serif. Such iterations produce a dual effect of familiarity and strangeness, furnishing views that are the same, though not quite. Coherent space, that fallacy of continuity editing, crumbles into a slew of dissonant perspectives.
Gehr’s banal is marked by a pressure for signification, his everyday all the more evocative for its seeming neutrality. Three minutes in, the camera cuts to a long shot of a tumbledown compound which, a peeling sign proclaims, was once a torture chamber of the Gestapo. Read against this concrete horror, a lone loudspeaker, a lamppost-flanked street, and two signless posts askew in the sand suggest something sinister. Gehr’s attention reverts intermittently to the compound, now rendered on a bias, now seen straight on. Static shots flank rapid pans which abstract landscape into blur. Sound, at first continuous with the preceding street view, periodically fades. The past becomes both bracketed and mobile, its matter-of-fact monumentality (the sign’s impassive “this happened here”) leaching into the present.
Later, in Signal’s most direct sequence, Gehr layers shots of stilled train cars with a found excerpt from a German-to-English language-learning program. A woman and man exchange phrases of rebuke—“It’s all your fault,” “You got us into this mess,” “Yes, I admit that,” “You can’t accuse me of that”—as the camera frames an overgrown stretch of rail. Absence is made palpable, history figured as at once irretrievable and open-ended. (Tellingly, though by no pretense of causality, West Germany’s historians’ controversy, or Historikerstreit, erupted just one year after Signal’s release.) Yet, for all of the rail’s muted melancholy, Signal’s enduring image is that of an analog clock poised atop a graphic of a free-floating eye: a readymade nod, together with the “Real” signage, to Buñuel. Whether advertent or not, there’s an element of the surreal to the clock’s entropic temporality: 3:45 PM becomes, in the next shot, 3:50 PM; three cuts later, it’s 2:55 PM. Time, like space, is troubled, advanced and rewound without motive, or halted by lacuna for which Gehr cannot account.
Side/Walk/Shuttle traffics in dislocation of a different sort. Its conceit is simple and, in a sense, brilliantly obvious: twenty-five takes, each just shy of two minutes, shot at various angles out of the Fairmont Hotel’s glass elevator. More than San Francisco’s vectored topography, the film’s subject is the camera’s frame, whose orientation Gehr playfully permutes, turning it upside-down or canting it toward either side. As in Signal, Gehr is fascinated by the number of ways in which a site can present itself to his lens, its monocular view proving anything but an analog for everyday vision. Seeing, Gehr’s films reveal, is the sum of so many fragments, the camera less a nimble tool than an awkward prosthesis, everywhere announcing its presence.— Courtney Fiske