The man who could not see far enough, directed by Peter Rose
Program 3: April 23 at 1pm
I Blink, Therefore I Am
Halfway up the suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge, we discover a few undeniable truths. The first is that, through the use of a first-person shot of a climb at incredible heights, the moving image has the power to bring visceral, physiological experiences to its viewers. No fear of heights is necessary to feel the dreadful, stomach-sinking weight of each rising step. The second discovery is that perception is physical and active. Perception is more than the mere coexistence of eyeballs and world; it is recognition, identification, knowing. Third, we learn that our experience of the physicality of vision is a unique quality of cinema. The thoughts running through our heads are that of spectator, not climber— which is not to say we are not participants in the climb in a different way.
We are honored that WOEFF is able to share The man who could not see far enough, directed by Peter Rose (1981), which concludes with a sequence of the filmmaker walking up and down the Golden Gate Bridge’s cables. Throughout its prologue and five sections, this celebrated film creates cinematic experiences for its audience that are possible only through the careful machinations of the film medium. In an interview for the podcast “How To Enjoy Experimental Film,” Peter Rose describes much of his film practice as “trying to find some other dimension of vision,” a dimension that strives to make time tangible through the blending of structuralist film techniques and lyricism.*
The man who… treats time as something to be actively manipulated. Several of the film’s sections contain split screen depictions of repeated and re-timed images, to varying optical and emotional effects. The surface of the screen, then, is where we are invited to act out new ways of perceiving. We look at the screen not to see our world fully-realized but instead to see presented a fully-realized object of perception. In other words, we know that the images are not false (this is a real-life solar eclipse, these are real-life bridges, beaches, lights, and shadows), but we also know that the film does not replace the world.
Throughout The man who…, we are reminded of the physicality of vision. In the film’s first section, the prologue, a long shadow of a moving car (the camera positioned inside the car that casts the shadow) makes the moment in time physical, irrefutable evidence of the sun’s height in relation to the horizon, the solidness of the car casting the shadow, the relationship of the movements of the sun and car. Like Descartes watching a hat moving along the sidewalk below his window knew that a man was under the hat, the film shows us the world to help us know it.
What, then, do we make of the mathematically-determined patterns of movement, repetition, and rhythm in other sections of the film? As Peter Rose tells Kathryn Ramey in her book Experimental Filmmaking: Break the Machine,
“I construct structural parables that allude to the possibility of there being more to the universe than our smug explanations permit. I try to subvert our tendency to deconstruct everything while, at the same time, self-deconstructing my own efforts. I throw a lot of words and ideas and images around and hope take some of them will stick together, and then I try to take credit for the consequences."**
In seeking the intersection of the tangibility of perception and the unknowable Truth of the universe, Rose’s work grounds us in sensory perception while directing us with the power of forces that can be felt but not directly observed.
The gravity of the film’s final section, for instance, is a force that is felt and known, but cannot be seen. We watch the climb in between short cuts to black, which serve as blinks that both interrupt and reinforce the potency of gravity. This is what makes the sequence so effective— we fear falling, as it would be the confirmation of gravity’s power over us; but perhaps we also fear an unconscious desire to jump so that we might join gravity rather than fight it. The French call this l'appel du vide, the call of the void. The man who… gives us relief from this feeling in its final image, a faraway shot from solid ground of the Golden Gate Bridge, the climber himself barely visible at distance.
Memory is itself another force that is felt and known but not directly observable. In The man who…, Rose explicitly explores memory in part two, as he describes his familiarity with the walk to and view from a pier near his childhood home. The images present repetitions of the trip at different times of day and in different weather.
We come to realize that this sequence and the entire film follow the filmmaker’s impulse to follow strict structuralist obsessions regarding repetition and variation as well as his nostalgia for the past accessible only in his memory. One of the triumphs of The man who could not see far enough is that these impulses not only coexist but enhance each other. The film is a fleeting moment of clarity as it locates perception not in the world or on the screen but in the audience, not as an act of cinema but as an act of humans, maybe the defining act of humanity.
*Episode 35, published February 9, 2023 is quoted here. Peter Rose is also interviewed in Episode 36, published February 16, 2023. How To Enjoy Experimental Film is available on major podcast platforms.
**Ramey, Kathryn. Experimental Filmmaking: Break the Machine. Focal Press: Burlington, MA. 2016.
-Billy Palumbo, Festival Director, Visiting Associate Professor
Oklahoma City University