The Matter Propounded, of its Possibility or Impossibility, Treated in Four Parts

Rental Format(s): 16mm film

Because life is short
We must remember to keep asking it the same question
Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer
In words broken open and pressed to the mouth
And the last silence reveal the lining
Until at last this thing exist separately
At all levels of the landscape and in the sky
And in the people who timidly inhabit it
The locked name for which is open, to dust and to no thoughts
Even of dying, the fuzzy first thought that gets started in you and then there's no stopping it.
It is so much debris of living, and as such cannot be transmitted
Into another, usable substance, but is irreducible
From these glares and stony silences and sharp-elbowed protests.
But it is your landscape, the proof that you are there,
To deal with or be lost in
In which the silent changes might occur.

- John Ashbery, from Three Poems

"THE MATTER PROPOUNDED, OF ITS POSSIBILITY OR IMPOSSIBILITY, TREATED IN FOUR PARTS (David Gatten) Looking back at the Cinema Scope piece I wrote about Gatten's films several months ago, I'm disappointed but not entirely surprised to find that I did not go very much in depth at all regarding his 2011 film. I found myself in the strange and quite wonderful position of trying to take in as many of Gatten's films in a three-day period as I could. (The results are here: A relatively short film (13 minutes), and somewhat unique in its "straightforward" presentation of text (I'll explain in a minute), The Matter Propounded strikes me in retrospect as either a transitional film, indicating a possible new path for Gatten (somewhat unlikely, given that he has already announced several more years of continued work on the Byrd series) or (to my mind a much more likely explanation) one of a number of deliberately small, personally oriented works that Gatten periodically generates, which have very direct relationships to his oeuvre and his broader intellectual and aesthetic project, but are "single" and "complete" unto themselves. (How to Conduct a Love Affair is another such film.) The Matter Propounded is dedicated to Gatten's dear friend, filmmaker Phil Solomon, and what is most interesting about the film on a formal level is the fact that, while it consists of an arrangement of time-based text -- in this case, a 19th century tome detailing a fortune-telling system -- that materializes and dissipates, there is none of the tape-lifting, soaking, blurring or worrying of the text that we see in Gatten's other films (particularly the Byrd films). In fact, the presentation of the phrases from the book are crystal clear, white serif letters floating in a sea of black. (Four such phrases can be seen here: If Gatten's films are typically far rougher, denser and more tactile than this, Solomon, to whom The Matter Propounded is dedicated, makes films (and videos) whose images are even more given to impasto and superimposition. So one could hardly be faulted for detecting a slight irony at work here. As for the text itself, Gatten breaks it apart into the four constituent parts of his full title: Instructions, Questions, Answers, and Conclusions. If we are to presume that these four elements bore some degree of unity, or at least proximity, within the original text, we can further presume to understand The Matter Propounded (and, by extension, "luck" and "fortune," and certainly any attempted logic thereof) to be a broken taxonomy, a "system without a code" in Roland Barthes's words. However, what Gatten's dispersal of the former taxonomy provides us is not chaos of gibberish, but poetry, and temporalized poetry at that. The unpredictable tenor of the statements in isolation - sometimes forlorn, sometimes comic, often poignant - can actually allow them to serve as micro-talismans gesturing toward a future, perhaps not the future, in the sense of the grand questions (will I find love, when will I die, why are we here), but the as-yet-undiscovered, to-be-cherished moments that scoot us along, frame by frame and day by day.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know: the perils of "bulk viewing" rear their ugly head, resulting not only in a grievous error (present, sadly, in my printed Cinema Scope article as well, jeopardizing whatever long-term value it might've otherwise had) but in the above interpretation as well. I made a mistake in my notes from that long weekend of viewing. It is FILM FOR INVISIBLE INK: ABBREVIATION FOR DEAD WINTER that is dedicated to Solomon; THE MATTER PROPOUNDED is actually dedicated to Mark McElhatten and the late Mark LaPore. (I owe a great deal of thanks to my friend Chris Stults for catching the mistake almost immediately. Having organized the first traveling retrospective of Gatten's films, he has spent a great deal of time in their company.) So although the above interpretation does not rely all that much on the film's connection to Solomon, it certainly recasts Gatten's work when, with Chris's help, I make the proper attribution. (I hate being wrong, by the way. It's embarrassing. But there's not much more I can do about it than try to turn it into a productive opportunity for [re]thinking.) The two Marks, just like Phil, are very dear people in David's life; there's obviously a straightforward element in the dedication of a work of such plainspoken beauty as The Matter Propounded. And yet, taking my previous feelings for / about the film in somewhat tangential directions prompted by the possibly more direct relationship to Marks M. and L., one can identify other reverberations. The question of taxonomies, organizations and the like - those which both break down from the systematized to the porous and semi-subjective, or which (as pertaining to an intangible, like luck) possessed only a phantom objectivity in the first place - could be a very poeticized, even humorous way of considering the work of the dedicated film programmer. McElhatten is the rare individual whose curation, his ability to deeply think and position the work of others, takes on the qualities of art. It is an irony of this process that his art must contend with scheduling, print traffic, electric bills, and in some ways the perception of objective periodization, yoking and trending. It's a "system" that unmakes itself in the very making. By contrast, to say too much about LaPore's place in this constellation would be to dabble in rank speculation. However, there are fairly clear implications within a film like The Matter Propounded, which is at least overtly about the futility of mastering the future through speculation, that a man gone too young is a future unwritten, and for those left behind, each day is a new manifestation of inscribed loss." - Michael Sicinski, "Reviews Of New Releases Seen, November 2011"

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