by David Tasman
18 October 2017
Gray House (2017), the experimental documentary and debut feature film by Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth, is a visual poem told in five seemingly unrelated parts. The first closes with a man going through a door into a small fishing shack, and the last concludes with a woman getting dressed, leaving her modernist villa and locking the door behind her. What happens between the door of the grey fishing shack and the door of the house make up the psychological interior of the film, a cinematic cocoon where dream-like meditations on intentional ways of living are told through the stories of a solitary fisherman in rural Chinquapin, Texas; a men’s work camp in the remote Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota; a mixed-gender commune in Virginia; a women’s federal penitentiary in Oregon, and a middle aged woman in her Los Angeles home. What ties together the film’s disparate parts is initially unclear, but the search for connections in the structure ultimately begins to reveal meaning.
As its starting point is the life of American artist and pseudo-hermaphrodite Forrest Bess (1911–77), and his interest in aboriginal rites that sought to unite the masculine and feminine provides a cipher to the order in which the film unfolds. While Gray House – which was screened in the documentary competition of the recent BFI London Film Festival – is not a biography in any ordinary sense, Bess’ obsession with duality makes its way through the film structurally: the first two chapters depict only male characters, the central chapter depicts both males and females, while the last two chapters depict only female characters. Contemplating the film in this light, other dialectics emerge including exterior and interior, day and night, the natural and the constructed; the latter not only appears as landscape and architecture (consider both as characters in the film) but also in Gray House’s deployment of documentary and fiction.
The first, third, and fifth chapters all portray actors introduced into a natural environment. Impeccably cast, these segments star Denis Lavant, artist Dianna Molzan, and Aurore Clément respectively. The second and fourth segments are comprised of straight documentary footage in the form of interviews with men working at an isolated fracking compound and with women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Intake Center. In the first segment, the fisherman (likely modelled on Bess who fished to support his painting), pilots a shrimp boat at dawn and is seen labouring alone, operating the winch that reels in the nets, sorting and finally storing his catch in a temporary holding tank in front of his corrugated steel hut, one of several set pieces made by the artist Joe Graham-Felsen.
Gray House is a majestic and powerful work and within its structure and imagery, rather than plot or narrative, is where meaning is found. As the camera holds steadily on the wake of turbulent water behind a fishing boat, it transforms the frame into the portrait of a machine disturbing nature, or a statement; machines disturb nature. When on the oil field in Williston, North Dakota, a workman observes that, ‘when you are with 27 pieces of equipment – all with one purpose – to create pressure to go into the earth, the pressure, the atmosphere, you actually feel it in your whole body,’ I have the impression that he could be reflecting on the process of filmmaking. At times in Gray House the camera seems to penetrate America with the blind and relentless patience of a drill head, extracting images to be sorted and graded.
Gray House rejuvenates the shomin-geki or shōshimin-eiga style of filming, a realist style exemplified by Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). While in Late Spring still frames are inserted between action shots to create pause and a sense of time passing, a device which Gilles Deleuze calls ‘still-lives’ and what Noël Burch calls ‘pillow shots’, in Gray House the proportion is inverted to the effect that action shots are the short concentrated scenes bracketed by lingering meditative ones that hold for a longer duration before or after what little action may occur. ‘These moments of real stillness, of potency, come out of photography, they keep working on you as you look at it,’ director of photography Matthew Booth says.
Shot in Arriraw on an Arri Alexa and painstakingly colour corrected at FotoKem in Los Angeles, the film is rendered in excruciatingly high resolution which lends an element of tension to the frozen images. Still images throughout the movie are masterfully deployed and tend to elaborate on the motif of duality. Some frames portraying nature appear bisected: one half of the screen dry land and the other half gently moving water. In other scenes shot at dusk or dawn electric lights, like fallen stars, perforate the horizon. Sometimes the stillness can be startling, such as when a figure appears completely frozen until they minutely stir. Action is often absent, but the tension is palpable, at times accentuated by the film’s unnerving sound design by Joel Dougherty and Philip Nicolai Flindt. The music of experimental composer Alvin Lucier floats over images of stationary fracking machinery or the uninhabited corridors of the penitentiary; growing in a crescendo from a nearly inaudible hum, its noise recasts banal imagery as distressing and uncanny, standing in for forces unseen.
For director Austin Lynch Gray House is an experiment about, ‘how to structure a film on something other than a plot line, to create a focus on every action and how they can become profound through filmmaking.’ Camera movement happens infrequently and when it does occur, zoom and dolly shots become like brushstrokes on a canvas, a type of mark-making that makes subtle connections between scenes. Movement appears to signify moments of transition such as in the middle of the film when the frame moves ever closer to an imposing boulder in a fictionalized segment focusing on a bucolic commune shortly before cutting away to the next chapter, a documentary segment on incarceration, as if we had moved inside the stone itself. In this way, Gray House shares something with Jean-Luc Godard, not only his mingling of fiction and reality, but the way in which the tension in his films becomes secondary to the film itself. Take for example Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014) where the method of production becomes its own character in the experience, loaded with meaning. ‘Gray House is a film deeply about its own making.’ Lynch said to me during a recent conversation. ‘Prison,’ he continued cryptically, ‘like the film, is a structure, with individual cells inhabited by the people that live there.’
Lynch and Booth lead the audience to strange and terrific places, but they go only so far as to clear away the top soil. In the end the shovel is in the hands of the audience who, should they so choose, must themselves do the digging.