Daily | Robert Gardner, 1925 – 2014

Robert Gardner

Robert Gardner

I’ve only just now learned, via Patrick Friel, that the great ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner died this past weekend at the age of 88. “The nonfiction films of Robert Gardner embody profound and significant contradictions,” wrote Ed Halter in 2009: “they are at once beautiful and unsettling, instructive and mysterious, brutally true and mythically transcendent. In 29 completed works, many surveying the daily life and rituals of societies from every inhabited continent, Gardner probes acutely at the delicate borders that have always defined documentary—the porous and slippery boundaries between objective facts and their subjective telling. In Gardner’s work, this dynamic is inextricably entwined with the relationships forged between the inhabitants of indigenous cultures and their Western visitors. He approaches the métier of ethnographic cinema through a poetic framework, bridging the fissures between science and art in anthropology, continuing and expanding the humanist tradition originated by Robert Flaherty.”

The occasion of this piece for Independencia was a weekend of events honoring Gardner at Bard College in October of that year. Ian Buruma moderated a discussion with Gardner that included Stanely Cavell, Susan Meiselas, Luc Sante and Charles Warren, and we can thank Independencia recording and posting it:

Robert Gardner à Bard College from Independencia.

In 2011, when Film Forum screened nine works, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that “Gardner’s films, including early and later masterworks like Dead Birds (1964) and Forest of Bliss (1986), are about people whose realities and stories belong to them. He shares in those realities rather than trying to possess them. (Howefarmstn) Born in 1925, he began making films and studying anthropology in the 1950s, becoming the founding director of the Harvard Film Study Center in 1957. (He left the post in 1997.) By the 1960s, his work began inspiring critical superlatives, and it has added to the discourse on ethnographic film and visual anthropology.”

The Film Study Center offers a sampling of those “critical superlatives”: “Octavio Paz has written in an essay on Rivers of Sand [1974], ‘Gardner’s camera scans with precision and feels with sympathy-the objectivity of an anthropologist, the fraternity of a poet.’ About Dead Birds Robert Lowell wrote, ‘When I walked away from watching Dead Birds I almost seemed to stagger inside myself. Today I am still jarred by it and still trying to understand the guilty significance of what it tells us about ourselves.’ On Forest of Bliss, Seamus Heaney has written that ‘When Ezra Pound commended the natural object as the adequate symbol, he might have been thinking about Forest of Bliss. It is hard to distinguish the beauty of this film’s technical means from the strength of its subject matter, which is always a sure sign of achieved artistic purpose. Robert Gardner transmits the sensation of the deep and literate gaze, and does so with an intensity that passes from the documentary into the visionary.’”

“In one of those rare instances of television acknowledging a cinema existing beyond the mainstream,” wrote Ray Young in 2006, “Screening Room was a series uniquely devoted to the avant-garde and (very) independent. Hosted by filmmaker Robert Gardner, his relaxed manner eased a wide range of guests who were beginning to gain notoriety in the pages of the burgeoning market of film and arts magazines—Take One, Film Culture, Film Quarterly and Evergreen, to name a small handful. Once an unlikely scenario, Ricky Leacock, Hollis Frampton, Jean Rouch, Yvonne Rainer, Les Blank, Robert Breer and others had finally made their way from the so-called ‘underground’ into the nation’s living rooms.”

Screening Room: Robert Gardner in conversation with Stan Brakhage in 1973

In “The Moral Nature of Film,” an essay published in the Spring 2007 issue of Media Ethics, Gardner wrote: “In linking the idea of being moral with the phenomenon of film, I am trying to draw attention to something that has, for me, a kind of inevitability. Just as behavior encountered in terms of its own actuality evokes valuation on the part of those who experience it, behavior manifested—literally made visible and evident—in the language of film has the capacity, the inevitability, of eliciting the same response. To the extent this happens, life and film are analogous, they share properties in a way that permits one to say film has a moral dimension. It appeals to our moral faculties by requiring us to judge what we see.”

Update, 6/29: In the New York Times, Bruce Weber sketches a biography and notes that “Gardner’s books include Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age, written with Karl G. Heider, and Making Forest of Bliss: Intention, Circumstance and Chance in Nonfiction Film, with Akos Ostor.”

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