Last night at the stunningly gorgeous Detroit Film Theater, inside the equally stunning Detroit Institute of Art, I attended the opening of the Windsor-based Media City Film Festival. The festival is devoted to local and international experimental work, and its guest of honor for the opening was the Dutch filmmaker Jaap Pieters. Over the last 20 years or so, Pieters has developed a distinctive and humanizing body of work in what festival director Jeremy Rigsby pointed out is very much an amateur aesthetic in the original Greek sense—doing something out of love for it. Pieters works exclusively on Super 8, and limits himself largely to the 3-minute-20 second duration of one role of that medium. His early films sometimes feature in-camera jump cuts, or multiple reels edited together to form longer films, but the vast majority are unedited, single point-of-view or even static shots, very simple and direct in form.
The films themselves are made up of subtle but unmistakable moments of beauty, often private or easily missed in the streetly bustle of Amsterdam, Zurich, or Istanbul. Some of them are quite abstract. In one film, a curtain moves slowly in a window, changing the shapes of shadows of plants. In another, droplets of condensation from a window slide down behind a hanging suit coat, making it seem as if the coat itself is crying. In a third, a static shot frames a sheet rippling gorgeously in the wind like a white sea (in fact, the name of the film).
However, others are more like street portraits, often drawn from Pieters’ own neighborhood or even the front window of his apartment—a man absently strumming an unstringed ukulele; an animated self-appointed traffic choreographer; a raving drunk asking people for money; and the most accessible of his subjects, a man with holes in his coat pockets picking up tin cans in the street. Whenever he picks one up, all the others fall out of his coat and he continues picking them up as if seeing them for the first time, slowly cycling his way down the road (Pieters matter-of-factly saying that he filmed this man because he “couldn’t believe what [he] saw”).
Especially in the human portraits, Pieters’ films bear an unmistakable resemblance to the early films of Andy Warhol. He has a similar patience and even determination to allow his subject to unfold, avoiding cuts or other interference and letting the subject do most of the work. The filmmakers share a voyeuristic aspect as well, as the viewer gets a window into unusual behavior—in Warhol’s case, a blow job, drinking, or a long portrait, while Pieters focuses on the homeless, the insane, and the eccentric. Even the rigid parameters of duration have a definite parallel—especially in his early filmmaking, Warhol usually shot entire reels of film, whether on a 100-foot reel lasting 3-odd minutes or on a 33-minute reel, and processed them unedited.
Although the formal limitations, static composition, and focus on small events may seem similar, it is clear that Pieters is coming at his subjects from the opposite direction of Warhol. Warhol did seek to humanize his subjects; however, his was a cinema of manipulation, breaking subjects down using extreme situations—very long duration, an impossible-to-fulfill stage direction—to force them to reveal something of themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise show. Pieters, on the other hand, chooses subjects whose humanity and even beatific nature he sees already and captures it unobtrusively. While Warhol wanted to strip his subjects of the impulse to act for the camera, Pieters recognizes that this acting is what we’re attracted to in the first place. In this way, he finds a true dignity in his subjects that runs directly counter to Warhol’s moving but sometimes ugly early portraiture, and this can only reflect the love of an amateur determined to capture the bizarre beauty around him.