A fortnight ago I was at the Wellcome Trust for an event curated by Amy Cutler in which artists, musicians and academics re-soundtracked nature documentaries by performing texts, improvising music and creating alternative soundscapes. The ways in which animals are filmed and presented to viewers are continually changing (demonstrated vividly last year in the BBC's Zoo Quest in Colour) and this event included footage made with very different purposes in mind, from the scientific (Julian Huxley) to the surreal (Jean Painlevé). As someone who grew up with Animal Magic and Johnny Morris doing amusing voiceovers to the 'antics' of zoo creatures, I've always viewed nature programmes with some suspicion and they clearly offer a rich field for academic enquiry, raising many more questions than the obvious ones around anthropomorphism. The reason for mentioning the Wellcome Trust event here is that two of the performers, Justin Hopper and Sterling MacKinnon, chose not to soundtrack a nature documentary, performing instead to Larry Gottheim's seminal landscape film, Fog Line (1970).
In introducing this performance Amy said that her students hate it when she makes them sit through Fog Line. If this seems hard to believe, check out the hostility of the film's lone reviewer on IMDB. In The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, Scott MacDonald describes a kind of blindness in people who are asked to watch it. 'When I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!"' Many are unaware that there are horses in the film, shadowy forms that become visible about two thirds of the way through. It is as if the static camera, slow silence and gradual evaporation of the fog condition the viewer into thinking nothing at all will happen. MacDonald suggests that an inability to notice the horses also reflects a refusal to see the filmmaker 'as the designer of the image'; in fact Gottheim chose his location partly because he had observed horses moving in and out of the space.
In his discussion of the film, MacDonald suggests that it presents the viewer with three conundrums: why did Gottheim include the wires, how is it that the horses appear so small compared to the trees, and what is that blurry grey disc, like a dark sun, that appears above the trees? The answers illustrate Gottheim's interest in the way landscape vision is mediated through technology. Those power lines offer a frame to measure the change in our field of vision, from blankness to a flat grey pattern and finally a three-dimensional space. The depth of field that seems to distort what would naturally be seen by someone on the spot is the result of using a telephoto lens. And that mysterious disc in the sky is simply a smudge on the camera that Gottheim did not remove - even if the film lasted longer than the last of the fog, we would never see the landscape perfectly.
I had only ever seen Fog Line in silence, though never of course in absolute silence, and as I watch it now the lifting fog is accompanied by the hum of my computer, a distant intermittent drill and the slow rumble of an aeroplane. Nevertheless, the film itself projects a sense of quiet, and it is easy to imagine the fog muting any ambient sound. At the Wellcome Trust, Fog Line was accompanied by a gradual amplification, with the emergence of recognisable landscape features echoed in the way a spoken fragment - 'Fogs also vary' - was repeated with more and more words until it became William Gilpin's complete sentence: 'Fogs also vary a distant country as much as light, soften the harsh features of landscape and spreading over them a beautiful, grey, harmonising tint.'
In preparing his piece, Justin discovered that Fog Line was filmed near the small town (Binghamton, New York) where he grew up. So, after the Gilpin quote, he included words to evoke the 'physical and psychic landscape of small-town America: William S Burroughs, Walt Whitman and others. This telephone-wired and neon-lit landscape that dramatically appears from behind the fog's gauze, coming into focus just in time to snap back out again.' It's strange, because to me those mist-covered trees and fields don't seem particularly American at all. Instead they bring to mind the Sussex of my own childhood, although as I try now to recall that 'distant country' it slips slowly back into the fog.