David 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.
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