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By Phil Hall | May 28, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 325: “Serene Velocity” (1970 experimental short directed by Ernie Gehr).

LAST SEEN: Available online at several video web sites.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film’s strong reputation makes it a logical choice for unauthorized duplication.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe as part of a DVD anthology of Ernie Gehr’s work.

Within the film world, experimental cinema is the ultimate dangerous territory. What might be considered as avant-garde and daring to some people might be seen as dull and self-indulgent to others. Complicating matters is the insistence of some film critics and scholars on the genius of the experimental productions – people who pride themselves with being intelligent and sophisticated can often feel dumb when not comprehending why an experimental work has been praised for its daring and imagination.

I found myself in this type of dilemma when I was introduced to Ernie Gehr’s 1970 experimental short film “Serene Velocity.” The film has been the subject of lavish praise, and even the Library of Congress voiced its support by including it on the National Film Registry. And yet when I watched the film, my initial reaction was one of bafflement and boredom. But I suspect the problem is not with me – this is the wrong film to watch as a bootleg.

“Serene Velocity” has no soundtrack, no cast and no plot – but it has plenty of movement, of sorts. Gehr’s camera is placed in the middle of an empty, austere hallway.  For the course of the film’s 23-minute running time, the image of the hallway pulsates in a manner that suggests the viewer is moving backwards and forwards down the corridor. In fact, Gehr’s camera never moved during his filming. Instead, he changed the focal lengths of his camera lens and cut the film in sequences running four frames each.  At first, the focal length changes were minimal (50mm to 55mm and then back), but as the film progressed the changes were greater.

It is a bizarre concept, to be certain, and one that came about somewhat accidentally. Gehr, a self-trained filmmaker who had already helmed a number of experimental shorts, was teaching a summer course at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1970 when he conceived the idea for “Serene Velocity.” In an interview with Scott MacDonald for the 2006 book “A Critical Cinema,” Gehr recalled his inspiration for this work:

“I became increasingly interested in an exploration of the intervals between frames,” Gehr said, “in activating the screen plane from frame to frame more dynamically than I had done previously, as well as the idea of a composition taking place in time.”

As luck would have it, Gehr felt that the hallway for the university’s film studies department was the right place to create this film. Working by himself, he shot a test reel and experimented on projection speeds. The finished film was shot in one night, and Gehr to run the film at the silent film speed of 16 fps, which was still available 40 years ago on film projectors.

When it first appeared in programs devoted to contemporary experimental works, several major critics rapturously greeted the film. The Village Voice’s celebrated J. Hoberman was the loudest cheerleader, exclaiming that “Gehr creates a stunning head-on motion by systematically shifting focal lengths on a static zoom lens as it stares down the center of an empty, modernistic hallway…[playing] off the contradictions generated by the frame’s heightened flatness and severe Renaissance perspective. Without ever having to move the camera, Gehr turns the fluorescent geometry of his institutional corridor into a sort of piston-powered mandala. If Giotto had made action films, they would have been these.”

Scott MacDonald, however, was no slacker in singing his praises. “As violent as the successive changes in image can feel, they can be instantly transformed by the eye/mind into a very different visual experience,” he wrote. “If one does not attempt to see the successive images of the hallway as individual three-dimensional spaces revealed in Renaissance perspective, if one doesn’t rigorously focus in on the successive images, ‘Serene Velocity’ can seem to be a fiat, graphically distinct, nearly abstract image which regularly flashes between two states, like a neon sign. In fact, if the viewer sees the image as the two-dimensional space it really is, rather than as the three-dimensional space of which it is an illusion, the film can seem quite meditative: The square-within-square organization created by the lines of the doorways and light fixtures is reminiscent of classic mandalas. In other words, the film is simultaneously violent and meditative, depending on the nature of the visual experience the viewer decides to participate in at any given moment.”

Yowza!  Based on those write-ups, I figured that I would expand my film history knowledge by tracking this film down. I found copies available for viewing on several web sites, and I sat at my computer to watch the film –but I did not agree with Hoberman or MacDonald.  What I found was dreary, repetitive and none-too-engaging. Thinking that I missed something, I watched the film again – and then switched between web sites to see if one location had a superior copy versus another.

I can understand what Gehr is aiming for. The pulsating imagery in “Serene Velocity” creates the illusion of movement, as shadows from the hallway’s fluorescent lighting cast asymmetrical curves across the square and rectangular geometry of the hallway.  The disconcerting effect makes the viewer stare intensely – is Gehr presenting same shots endlessly, or is there actual movement down the hallway?

Yet I could not echo Hoberman and MacDonald with their generous comments. But I realized the problem is not with me, nor is it with Gehr’s film. The problem involves how I saw the film.

“Serene Velocity” was never intended to be viewed on a computer’s small screen – it was supposed to be projected in an auditorium, where the viewer is looking up through the darkness at a large, enveloping screen. Also, it appears that the copies available online are not at the proper speed.  (The film’s original running time is 23 minutes, but the online versions clock in at a quicker pace.)  No one runs films at 16 fps anymore, and Gehr has acknowledged that the film is “a little more frantic” when shown at 24 fps.

“Serene Velocity” occasionally turns up in proper large screen presentations, often with Gehr in attendance; the film was last seen in Pittsburgh in March at a Carnegie Mellon University event. Someday, with luck, I’ll be able to be part of a presentation where this film is being shown properly.  I suspect that there is something of great artistic value in this work, but I am unable to decipher its value by watching it in its current bootleg format.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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