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October 4, 2005

Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account in Nine Parts, 1999-2005

dividing.gifDavid Gatten's largely text-based impressionist work-in-progress omnibus, Secret History of the Dividing Line: A True Account in Nine Parts is, at once, a mind-numbing, transfixing, frustrating, poignant, and narcoleptic grand unified theory into the figurative separation between word and image, film and narrative, presence and absence, empire and colony, mortality and legacy. Weaving inexorably throughout Gatten's ambitiously conceived magnum opus are the themes of information tranference beyond a physical medium, the art of penmanship and mechanical printing, and the materiality of written language.

In the first installment, Secret History of the Dividing Line, the visibility of the physical line (as image) initially appears ordered: demarcating the on-screen textual chronology between year and cited history, as biographical text is presented on the life of William Byrd II of Westover, an eighteenth century colonist, author of the survey literature The History of the Dividing Line, A Journey to the Land of Eden that defined the border between North Carolina and Virginia (as well as a second publication that detailed the "secret history" of this demarcation), and one of the founding fathers of the state of Virginia who amassed one of the largest libraries - and perhaps the largest collection in the South - in the new land. The text is then abruptly truncated: the line between narrative and (film) image made palpably visible as magnified images of cement film splices create an equally alien, secondary landscape - like the constantly transforming text in the first half of the film - of pure abstraction.

In the second installment, The Great Art of Knowing, taken from the title of Athanasius Kircher's seventeenth century encyclopedia, the line becomes increasingly disrupted and fragmented, as biographical excerpts appear on Byrd's daughter, Evelyn, a pensive and beautiful socialite who was once presented before the king of England, reflecting the emotional violence of her separation from her one true love, a Catholic English gentleman named Charles Mordaunt at the hands of her overprotective, devoutly Protestant father, who forcibly sent her back to Virginia. This sense of turbulent rupture is also reflected in the "separation" of the collected books of the vast Byrd library through an auction that is undertaken by heirs of the Byrd estate in order to settle a family debt. As in the first installment, Gatten explores the interrelationship of text as conveyer of ideas and image object through connotative, visual manipulations of text, presenting the ill-fated affair between Evelyn and Mordaunt as a series of increasingly disordered, decontextualized, and fractured textual images that begin to lose coherence and approach the point of information saturation.

The third installment, Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, represents a conceptual shift from the visibly defined demarcation between text and film image (through the anatomy of cement splices) to a more integrated abstraction between words and images, emptiness and physical spaces. Linked together by the texturality of forgotten objects and frayed (or physically manipulated) imprinted text images, the film represents a thematic collapsing of distinct objects that further erases the bounds between image (and text) from meaning, where recursive shifting of once seemingly separate entities become alternate presentations of a visible (and invisible) continuum - a decontextualized mood piece where absence and emptiness become increasingly tactile - an impression.

The fourth installment The Enjoyment of Reading, Lost and Found, is an even more dissociated film from the previous installment that further shifts the thematic focus of the abstract narrative from William Byrd II to his daughter, Evelyn, as entries from her personal diary and passages from her favorite books are projected onto the screen, reflecting her thoughtfulness, romanticism, fragility, profound longing, and ultimately despair for her lost love: the tragic resolution of her star-crossed affair often romanticized in the annals of history as a death from a broken heart. Innate in the fragmented passages is a sense of solitude and a poetic heart - exhausted and adrift - a wandering soul trapped within the walls of a stately, but oppressive man-made sanctuary. It is within this image of torment that color appears for the first time in the series - perhaps a metaphoric respite from the monochromatic ache of despair that suffuses the film - a visual (and spiritual) transcendence through the act of reading.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Views from the Avant-Garde


Sorry to be picky again: but "The Enjoyment of Reading" was not the last completed work - it was the second, after "Moxon" and before "Secret History" and "Great Art" (the newest). Gatten did mention afterwards that one can't ignore that he's developing his ideas and aesthetic as the project progresses, even though he isn't finishing the films chronologically. Personally this rings true - if I was to do something silly like rank the four completed films (which he intends to stand on their own to an extent), I'd say that each new one is better than the last... which bodes quite well for the rest of the series.

Posted by: Sam Engel on Oct 04, 2005 8:47 PM | Permalink

Good point about the out of order completion, I was trying to say that it was the last numerically completed film in the program (or final installment in the program, i.e. #5-9 don't exist yet), but I had a hard time wordsmithing the thought so that it didn't sound as though it was #9 in the series. I guess I'll just take out the "last completed" parenthetical.

So did you see Program #2 and Programs #4 & 5 as well? I decided to pass on writing about those. The Ken Jacobs 34 minute strobing piece Krypton Is Doomed gave me a massive headache.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 04, 2005 9:02 PM | Permalink

Ah, I get what you're saying... that is a tricky bit of exposition. It'll be curious to see how long it takes Gatten to complete the whole thing.

I did see program #2 (skipped #4 in order to see "Tale of Cinema"; didn't catch "Blue Movie", either). I felt that the first film, "The Space Between" (Karen Mirza & Brad Butler), was the best, firmly in the tradition of Snow or Kren, and more than worthy of it... but also with a strong sense of subjectivity, due perhaps paradoxically both to sense of physical space (a tourist stuck in a foreign hotel room?), and to the ebb and flow of abstraction. Another favorite was Stephanie Barber's "Total Power - Dead Dead Dead", which struck a great balance between the bizarre and the miraculous/mystical. Jeanne Liotta's "Eclipse" was also a great miniature.

And then, of course, there's "Krypton Is Doomed". I'm still confounded as to what the images actually were, or how they were achieved... strange effects applied to photographs, film footage... I remember a ghostly face almost imperceptibly showing through the blurry outer area... some of it almost looked three-dimensional (I'd read about this with regards to his Nervous Magic Lantern shows, which I've never seen).

Most surprising for me was that despite the eyeball-straining strobing, and campy humor of the radio program, it turned into a genuinely moving drama; the gaps in sound simultaneously heightened the comedy while lending the story some comtemplative space, and also (with the strobing) evoked the sense of time slowing down to a stop. The use of radio, and the cosmic vision of an exploding planet, made me recall that the very signal from the original program is still bounding through the cold universe to who-knows-where (at least metaphorically): it'll be out there after we've blown ourselves up. Lost planets, phantom voices.

Politically, the notion of a government ignorantly dealing with a catastrophic natural disaster rings especially true now. (In other current events, I'm not sure what to make of Nicholas Cage and his wife naming their son Kal-el!) Anyway, I was obviously quite taken by it. Certainly one of the most physically demanding movies I've seen.

Posted by: Sam Engel on Oct 12, 2005 10:29 PM | Permalink

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