Bipolar Ecocinema: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Matter Out Of Place” and Michael Gitlin’s “The Night Visitors”

by | Jun 26, 2023 | Commentary, Featured

These days, most of us are torn between eco-terror of the future and a persistent hope that what seems inevitable can somehow be redirected (earlier eras have often seen the world coming to an end). It’s hardly surprising that inventive filmmakers are finding new ways of expressing this tension between dread and hope. In “Matter Out Of Place” (2022), Nikolaus Geyrhalter offers a macrocosmic braiding of eco-dread with hints of eco-appreciation and eco-hope; and in “The Night Visitors” (2023) Michael Gitlin provides a microcosmic version.

Much of Geyrhalter’s filmmaking has been dedicated to revealing the global realities and/or the immense technological systems within which we make our lives. His “Elsewhere” (2001) was recorded, month-by-month during the year 2000. Each section is focused on one of 12 areas of the planet where people live at the distant edge of modern civilization — Geyrhalter’s attempt to take account of where the planet was as the new millennium began. “Our Daily Bread” (2005), probably his most widely known film, at least in the U.S., is a panoramic revelation of the complex systems that power European mass food production.

Geyrhalter’s most recent films — “Homo Sapiens” (2016), “Earth” (2019), and “Matter Out Of Place” — are global panoramas, respectively, of locations where modern experiences (industrial, wartime, weather-related…) have left wastelands in their wake; of the most massive, earth-moving activities on the planet; and in his newest film, of the realities of global debris and attempts to come to terms with it (an opening text defines the title: “‘Matter Out Of Place’ refers to any object or impact not native to the immediate environment”).

Beginning with plastic refuse clogging the Drina River in an otherwise stunning mountain-scape in Hercegovina, “Matter Out Of Place” asks us to look at elements of modern culture that most of us can’t bear to see, indeed have worked consciously not to see. Geyrhalter demands that we face both the mountains of garbage that modern life produces and that we be more aware of the various systems designed to hide and/or transform the physical residues of global day-to-day human experience.

“Matter” was recorded in locations from Austria to Kathmandu, Nepal; from the Swiss Alps to the Maldives; and from the Tirana Region of Albania to the Nevada desert. In each location Geyrhalter explores dimensions of the ever-expanding accumulation of waste: where it comes from, how it is collected and by whom, where it goes, and what, in the end (or at least for the present), is being done with it.

Geyrhalter is fascinated with large-scale technologies and operations, and with the implicit irony of how oblivious we can be to them. In a popular skiing resort in Bettmeralp, Switzerland, individuals and local garbage collectors amass bags of refuse, which are loaded into a large compressor truck that, when full, hangs beneath a huge cable car as it descends and ascends to the resort — though one can see the apparatus without actually comprehending it.

 

In Nepal an endless line of garbage trucks struggle along a single-lane muddy road to empty loads of trash into a mountainside landfill. And in Dürnrohr, Austria, Geyrhalter’s camera is positioned to look vertically down into a terrifyingly powerful machine that chews up everything from paper cups and plastic containers to mattresses and chunks of wood from old furniture, preparing it all for incineration.

As sobering as the realities of accumulating refuse are, the systemic responses are often inventive, and there are pleasant surprises. Off the coast of Andros, Greece, a phalanx of scuba divers collects refuse from the ocean floor in a kind of underwater ballet; and the concluding episode of “Matter Out Of Place” provides an exhilarating and hopeful metaphor. Part of the power of this moment in the film, which I do not want to spoil, is discovering what we’re actually seeing. At first, we seem to be a fog, both conceptually and literally; and those familiar with “Fog Line” (1970), Larry Gottheim’s canonical cine-haiku, might wonder if Geyrhalter is alluding to that film. But even once one recognizes what the subject of the sequence is, the episode’s conclusion reveals something that we might never have imagined.

Geyrhalter’s films have often reflected a fascination with grand vistas, epic views of crucial dimensions of modern life in a population-expanding world, but in fact while the films require much advance organization and extended travel, they tend to be products of a few crucial contributors. After the opening Drina River sequence, the credits list only the film’s title, Geyrhalter himself (who filmed everything in “Matter Out Of Place,” other than the underwater clean-up) and the editor Samira Ghahremani, who belongs on Su Friedrich’s Edited By website, which confronts cinema’s long history of under-celebrating the contributions of women film editors.

The locations of various sequences are not identified until the final credits, and the film is edited so that in some cases we cannot be sure whether we’ve changed locations —  Geyrhalter’s and Ghahremani’s way of seeing refuse as an interconnected global challenge.

In general, Geyrhalter’s epic vistas allow us to take in the immensities of the modern world’s waste with its concerning dimensions for humanity and all other lifeforms on the planet. But the rigorous formal design of these vistas, as obvious as their scope, remind me of Stan Brakhage’s saying that he could not have recorded the birth of his child in “Window Water Baby Moving” (1959) or the corpses in “The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes” (1971) had he not been looking through a camera. Geyrhalter’s visual rigor is both a stabilizing element for his own engagement with the often-troubling dimensions of what he films, and a means for helping his audiences see the world within a visual regime that simultaneously allows for clarity about these realities while implicitly suggesting humanity’s ability to take measured control of them.

Like “Matter Out Of Place,” Michael Gitlin’s “The Night Visitors” asks us to take account of an environmental reality that, despite its pervasiveness, we tend to be blind to: the world of moths, which are the second-most-prolific species on the planet (after beetles). Some readers may remember Gitlin’s “The Birdpeople” (2004), a fascinating exploration of birds, of birders collecting “looks” at birds, and of the looking of documentary cinema itself, all within the implicit recognition of the ongoing disappearance of bird species. A crucial episode in that film is the search for an ivory-billed woodpecker in one of its traditional terrains — a search that in the end yields no looks at all.

The meta quality of “The Birdpeople” — where those studying birds are as much the subject as the birds themselves, and where Gitlin implicitly references his own filmmaking — is true in “The Night Visitors” as well. Moths are the obvious night visitors, but the film begins with moonlit nighttime scenes within which a group of people are visiting a moth-attracting installation. The lovely nocturnal imagery is accompanied by audio/textual montages of the visitors’ surprise at the beauty and variety (and at times, the creepiness) of the moths they’re seeing.

Like “The Birdpeople,” “Visitors” is self-reflexive. Like the moths, Gitlin (and presumably his audiences in darkened theaters) are night visitors. Further, “Visitors” includes a motif of contemplative visual texts that appear to express Gitlin’s personal thoughts, including in the first of these (at 4:31), concerns about the future: “IT’S 2:30 IN THE MORNING. NO ONE ELSE IS AWAKE. I DON’T KNOW IF I’M TALKING TO MYSELF OR TO THE MOTHS. I’M GETTING OLD AND STRANGE AND I WORRY THAT MOTHS ARE PART OF MY RETREAT FROM PEOPLE.”

In “Matter Out Of Place,” Geyrhalter documents a wide variety of places within a single, expansive cinematic mode. “The Night Visitors” combines a wide variety of modes, including documentations of students and academics studying moths outdoors and in a lab, along with information about moth species in New York State (Gitlin’s home) and beyond, sometimes presented using various forms of animation. There is much in-close imaging and scientific identification of a considerable range of often stunning moths — Gitlin’s extreme close-ups frequently seem to be photographs, but tiny movements make clear they’re filmed images. There’s even an elaborate allusion to “The Sphinx,” among Edgar Allen Poe’s silliest short stories, where the narrator mistakes a moth seen near his face for a distant monster.

While “Matter Out Of Place” develops into a geographic survey, “The Night Visitors” moves from the present into the past. Gitlin’s comments on the Russian artist/entomologist Nikolai Kusnezov’s fascination with moths are introduced by this strange and lovely animation of Baltic amber crystals:

 

Kusnezov’s precise drawings of moths embedded in 40-million-year-old amber, “ambassadors from deep time,” were made during 1941. Gitlin conjectures that perhaps it wasn’t the scientific urgency of the task that drove Kusnezov’s efforts. As the Nazi German army besieged Russian cities “the heady effect of knowing and naming” may have provided at least the illusion of clarity and control “during those dark days.” Gitlin’s own urgency in creating “Visitors” seems an analogous response “during our own as well.”

Then there’s the nineteenth-century French artist/astronomer and amateur entomologist Etienne Leopold Trouvelot, whose attempt to breed a new kind of silkworm went wildly wrong, releasing gypsy moths (now called “spongy moths”) into the Massachusetts environment. The spongy moths gradually spread west across the Northeast, causing considerable damage. The introduction of a non-native European fly in the hope that it would eat spongy-moth larvae merely compounded the failure, and in the end was responsible for the destruction of 80-90% of the region’s most beautiful and admired moths, including species Polyphemus, Luna, and Cecropia.

Image of young man with a Polyphemus moth (named after the cyclops in “The Odyssey”)

A very different moth-related impact was an effect of Edison’s success in inventing electric light, making way for the electrification of cities as well as for cinema (a clip of the first film devoted to moths, produced at the Edison studio, is included in “Visitors”). For a time, the electrification of New York City and its Great White Way attracted waves of moth infestation. Gitlin documents these, using early film footage of New York streets and New York Times stories.

“The Night Visitors” concludes with Gitlin’s conjectures about why moths are entranced by light — a mystery poignant for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who, in his poem “To ––––” (“One Word Is Too Often Profaned”), wonders if his lover will accept a divine form of love:

The desire of the moth for the star,

 

Of the night for the morrow,

 

The devotion to something afar

 

From the sphere of our sorrow?

“Mothlight” (1963), probably Stan Brakhage’s most-rented film, is presumably an allusion to the Shelley poem. It evokes Brakhage himself as a filmmaker drawn (as Gitlin is) both to the literal light of the projector and the reflected image on the screen, and to Light in spiritual senses as well.

Gitlin explains that studies have shown that moths prefer moonlight to the overwhelming artificial light of the modern world; he can’t help but wonder if the “moth apocalypse,” currently underway, is part of the larger crisis of crashing insect populations across the planet.

In “Matter Out Of Place” and “The Night Visitors,” Geyrhalter and Gitlin take two very different cinematic approaches to representing the environmental transition we’re in the midst of. Geyrhalter explores its current geography; Gitlin, some of its historical premonitions. Geyrhalter’s perspective is global; Gitlin’s comparatively local. Geyrhalter’s objective; Gitlin’s self-reflexive. Geyrhalter uses only sync sound; Gitlin a complex mixture of poly-narration, sound montages, and music.

Both Geyrhalter and Gitlin produce/direct their films, and both films are visually stunning and stylistically inventive — simultaneously as different as can be, but fundamentally aligned. Both filmmakers offer a powerful mixtures of appreciation for the world we have, an awareness of what we may not know about it, and a deep concern for its/our future.

“Matter Out Of Place” is distributed in the U.S. by Icarus; watch the official trailer here.

“The Night Visitors” is distributed in the U.S. by Video Data Bank; watch the official trailer here.

 

 

Scott MacDonald is author of “A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers” (5 volumes, California), “The Garden in the Machine” (California, 2001), and 14 other books, most recently “Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema” (Oxford, 2015) “The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama (Avant-Doc 2)” (Oxford, 2019); “William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission” (Columbia, 2020) and “Comprehending Cinema (Avant-Doc 3)” (forthcoming). He teaches film history and programs F.I.L.M. at Hamilton College.

Header image screenshot from “Matter Out Of Place” (2022), Nikolaus Geyrhalter.

 

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