By Dustin Zemel
A Tibetan Lama. His disciple. The disciple’s wife, young boy and terrier. An old tugboat crossing the Mississippi River. A man in his seventh month of solitude. His hermitage built by his own hands. The man’s bloodhound; his cat. Clouds crossing the Continental Divide. A mountain stream. A girl. The sun.
(Description for Starlight, Canyon Cinema catalog)
If you find yourself asking what a particular Robert Fulton film is “about,” you may be asking the wrong question—or at least setting yourself up for an unsatisfactory answer. Like other experimental filmmakers, Fulton challenges narrative and expositional conventions established by popular modes of film practice, opting instead to test the medium’s capacity for new modes of thought and expression. This is clear enough from the absence of any clear storyline or subject matter in his films, though understanding Fulton’s intentions with these cinematic experiments is not so easy.
Fulton, who died prematurely in a 2002 plane crash, left behind few documents to provide guidance on how to interpret his works. The few such items available, like the catalog description above, carry their own enigmas and idiosyncrasies. Currently, the best way to hear Fulton’s thoughts on his films are the Screening Room interviews included on a DVD collection released by Documentary Education Resources. Taped in 1973 and 1979, these shows feature Fulton conversing casually with his friend, mentor, and collaborator, Robert Gardner. Listening to Fulton speak in these episodes, however, can be wearisome. Those encountering Fulton for the first time might be inclined to read his long-winded explications as the heady ramblings of an overenthusiastic participant in 1960s psychedelic subculture. You see hints of puzzlement and incredulity in the faces of Gardner and Rudolf Arnheim (who appears alongside Fulton as a fellow guest during his first Screening Room appearance) as they gaze upon Fulton lost in his own bizarre Tai Chi-esque movement exercise illustrating how the natural movements of one’s body—twisting, turning, swinging, stepping, falling—can be harnessed for purposes of cinematography.
It would be easier to dismiss Fulton and his eccentric behavior had Screening Room not already demonstrated how these movements translate in the resulting films. However, from the opening seconds of Machu Pichu (1972, screened in full at the beginning of Fulton’s 1973 appearance on Screening Room), Fulton’s craft is already richly apparent. The film pummels the audience with unceasing hand-held camera movements, single frame edits, jump-cuts, and superimpositions to create a cinematic portrait of Fulton’s encounters with the people, animals, plants and architecture in and around the historical site in the highlands of Peru. These brief, fragmented images are both stabilized and complicated by a cacophonous free jazz soundtrack, which unifies the images without undermining the intensity of their disarray.
Despite this heavy-handed play with form, Fulton’s films also vividly convey the filmmaker’s own real-world encounters with his subjects. While many experimental documentary filmmakers were abandoning techniques (and corresponding ideologies) of Direct Cinema whole cloth in this same period, Fulton’s production techniques embrace many of the on-the-ground, direct-encounter shooting principles practiced by Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and the Maysles. Unlike these filmmakers, though, Fulton was not preoccupied with notions of the pristine observational image (seemingly) free from the biased stylings of the artist. The films he crafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s employ the same formal intercedings as Machu Pichu and, thanks to Fulton’s plane and pilot’s license, often cover vast distances over short stretches of screentime. Often these geographical and institutional environments are layered through in-camera multiple exposures. These stylistic choices would have been unthinkable to the Direct Cinema proponents who insisted that such stylistic flourishes sullied the purity of observational filmmaking and corresponding notions of truth such austere presentational models enabled.
Like Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Fulton’s films put on display exuberant and playful camerawork—but without the overt impetus to highlight the technological apparatus itself. What is apparent, and emphasized, in each shot is the filmmaker’s deep connection and attunement to the rhythms of the living environments he simultaneously captures and inhabits. When Fulton brings his camera onto the field of a touch football game in Kata (1968), the POV shot does not simply highlight the action through a novel vantage point, nor does it reflexively disrupt our engagement with the activity by drawing attention to the camera’s disingenuous existence in the middle of a game. What shines through are the real-time processes of assessment and response enacted by run-and-gun documentary filmmakers instinctively making decisions on the fly.
Whether filming, screening, or reflecting on his works, Fulton was devoted to the present moment. Without seeking to gain external validation from film festivals, critics or even his fellow experimental filmmakers, he mostly shared his work with those close to him: family, friends, and students.1 When he did show his works publicly, he would project multiple films simultaneously and sometimes accompany the visuals with an improvised saxophone music. Fulton explains to Gardner his second time on Screening Room, “I feel that the film screening is a performance, and…I feel inspired at times to play…to create a sound appropriate to the image.” This performative approach emphasizes Fulton’s dedication to extending the life of his films—not as commodities but as artworks with their own responsive capacity. Similarly, Fulton was reluctant to finalize his films such that segments from many shorter works like Machu Pichu, Kata and Swimming Stone (1983) would eventually find their way as constituent pieces folded into longer feature length films in the 1980s.
As such, there is perhaps no better setup than a list—like the one Fulton provides for Starlight—to characterize the filmmaker’s unique artistic endeavor. As Umberto Eco expresses, a list simultaneously discloses a semblance of finitude while at the same time its own infinite expansion through its implicit inclusion of an “etcetera” clause. Rather than using his images as tools for explanation or elements of a story, Fulton collects his footage in the moment without regard to any preconceived film—thereby privileging what he called the “zero state” of images. Liberated from the finalized form allows him to respond to the present moment, camera in hand.
Images upon images. Movements upon movements. The real magic of Fulton’s films lies in his uncanny ability to translate the synergy of his shooting style through an equally tenacious use of single-frame shots and multiple exposures in a way that maintains image discreteness while resisting rarefication. His accretion of images certainly “talk” to one another, but not for reasons related to continuity or Eisensteinian montage. “The editing is done in the moment,” Fulton reflected. “I shoot only when I feel it, and if I don’t feel it, I don’t shoot. I never have a feeling that anything has to be filmed, or should get a shot.” The modal force that holds Fulton’s films together is the prevailing sense of present moment negotiation faced by every filmmaker in the moment of shooting: a series of moments that naturally resist the stabilizing forces of predetermined form or meaning. Fulton instead risks doubling and sometimes tripling down on the contingent encounter developing unique ways to incorporate it into the form, content, and presentation of his films.
In this way, Fulton’s films operate as a moving-image analog to free jazz and other improvisational schools of music making waves around the same time. Some of the non-answers Fulton gives Gardner during his appearances on Screening Room echo sentiments voiced by improvisational musicians asked to defend an artform defined through its refusal to abide by established conceits regarding form and structure. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman once wrote, “Many people apparently don’t trust their reactions to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not. You can’t intellectualize music.” Like Fulton, these improvisational musicians perform extemporaneously, hyper-attuned to the living world around them. Taking a cue from Coleman, I think we need to feel Fulton’s connection to the world before we can hope to understand his films.
Dustin Zemel is an award-winning video artist and scholar interested in exploring intersections between documentary and experimental media. His experimental films and multi-channel video installations have been shown and screened in galleries and film festivals around the world. He is the founder and former co-director of Grand Detour, a microcinema, curatorial group, and educational hub for experimental filmmakers and new media artists in Portland, OR. He hopes that his interest and writing on the films of Robert Fulton can play a small part in creating a newfound appreciation for this tragically overlooked filmmaker.
- 1. It should be noted that both the Harvard Film Archive and Canyon Cinema were able to procure 16mm copies of Fulton’s works because of Fulton’s close ties to administrative heads: Robert Gardner at Harvard and Dominic Angerame, a former student of Fulton at the San Francisco Art Institute, at Canyon.