The Changing Light at Craneway
Craneway Event is pure Dean in style: widescreen (like most of her longer pieces, such as Boots, though not short ones like STILLNESS), static camera, no voiceover or music, a soundtrack that gives equal rights to seemingly random background sounds and human speech, an exquisite sensitivity to the changing qualities of light. It shows Cunningham rehearsing his company for a performance to be given in Craneway Pavilion, a former industrial building on San Francisco Bay, built in 1930 as a Ford assembly plant, from which cars could be craned directly onto waiting freighters. Its windows are so massive, the place could almost be a giant greenhouse. The linear architectural skeleton functions as an abstract container for the light that permeates it and the people who pass through it. The weather must have been extraordinarily changeable over the three days in which Dean filmed (beginning on election day 2008), because the constant variations in light from bright to dark and back again could give the impression that the work covers a longer stretch of time.
And just as it seems to span more time than it really does, Craneway Event seems to encompass vast space. The double-width format Dean often uses lends itself to this effect, in any case, but I've never seen another work of hers exploit it so fully. So much is going on at any one time. The image has no stable center; any point within this long rectangle might be at the corner of your eye. Even as Cunningham might be working with one group of dancers, others are warming up or practicing moves alone or in pairs or trios. Things happen in flurries here and there—all this small, sudden, fluid, fluttering activity—while elsewhere there is near-stasis. Simultaneities occur that are random and yet filled with intentionality—a quintessence of the Cunningham/Cage aesthetic. I kept thinking of Pie, Dean's brief 2003 film of magpies flocking around some trees at dusk, and of the sense I had that there is a pattern to their unpredictable movements but one that could never be reconstructed. At stake, as the art historian and critic Briony Fer put it, is not the patterns of the birds' movements "so much as the patterns of our viewing habits"—how we make sense of coincidence.
Cunningham must have had a superbly developed sense of how to perceive separate movements both simultaneously and as a constellation. He is very much the witness within the film. He never dominates—or rather, he dominates in the most understated possible way. Clearly, the dancers already have a deep implicit understanding of what it is they are supposed to do. He has no need to remind them why. I couldn't help but think, by contrast, of the tension Calvin Tomkins witnessed while following the preparation of a new Cunningham piece in the '60s: there were scenes of dancers breaking down in tears at their inability to execute difficult new moves. There's nothing like that in Craneway Event. Sitting in his wheelchair instructing his company, Cunningham speaks in brief, economical phrases, never philosophizing, never waxing lyrical. His observations are technical and mostly mean no more to a layman like me than, say, a mechanic's advice to a colleague about why an engine is running badly would to someone who doesn't drive. Yet over the course of 108 minutes, something seems gradually to cohere. Not that the dance takes on an overt and final shape on which the viewer can get an overview, but this multiplicity of movements grows more and more concerted.
At heart, Cage's aesthetic constitutes a plea that we pay more attention with greater equanimity to things as they occur—to sound, for example—without our habitual urge to form or transform them in the image of our will or desire. What Germaine Greer once wrote of Boots seems to be an apt observation of all of Dean's work: "The artist is on one level demanding and directing an extraordinary degree of attention and on another absenting herself altogether." Cage would have approved. But Cunningham, as steeped in this aesthetic as he was, also saw its limitations. He told Tomkins he could not employ chance in performance because, for one thing, the dancers might crash into one another and injure themselves. We can never be as laissez-faire with living bodies as we can with things like sounds. Our care for one another precludes the suspension of will and desire.
For Dean the camera may be an instrument of detachment, but its impassivity in the face of life is poignant because time witnesses the wreckage of human projects (many of her films center on disused or abandoned buildings) and the failure of human bodies. "All the things I am attracted to are just about to disappear, more or less," Dean once told the writer Marina Warner. I admit it gives me the willies, a bit, when I think about how all these old men disappeared so soon after Dean filmed them—Cunningham, Merz, Hamburger and the old family friend nicknamed Boots. Their fragility must have been part of what fascinated her, yet in the films she never sets out to expose their weakness, their weariness, their pain. Her camera never pries below the surface of things: the surface is enough. In looking at Cunningham and the rest, she is not looking for signs of their mortality. Mortality is implicit in time itself—in the shivering of a branch when a bird alights on it, in the ripening of an apple, in the stillness or motion of a dancer's limbs, in the changing quality of light.