Jacqueline Goss’ The Observers chronicles a year in the life of a weather station located at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, beginning in deep winter, everything frosted with snow, rendering the architecture a desolate wedding cake. Teeth are brushed, sit-ups are performed, tricky knots are tied, a recorder is played (badly). There are weather charts that look an awful lot like bowling scorecards. A metal box is found on the mountain during an especially punishing blizzard. It has a combination lock that refuses to be opened, infusing routine and solitude with the subtlest promise of mystery. In one scene the station’s sole climatologist is found doing some leisurely sketching outdoors in mega-mittens and goggles that cover half her face, which may be an example of Goss’ deadest of deadpan comic sensibility, which meshes nicely with The Observers rigorously, well, observational MO.
The Observers screened as part of Images 2012 last Saturday night, just two nights after John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, which also features a lot of parka and snow and unpeopled vastness. But Goss’ film is as mercilessly spare as Akomfrah’s is dizzyingly baroque. It seems driven by the director’s fascination with the impulse to accumulate data, perhaps for its own sake, the trust that data will always be inherently important. It made me think of my 92-year-old grandmother, who some years back started writing down the exact times of the sunrises and sunsets every single day, without ever explaining to anyone why. She shows me her figures when I come to visit, that scrawled handwriting that somehow touches me. She never expects a big reaction, but she seems to want me to know.
More minimalist still is James Benning’s Two Cabins, which screened on Tuesday night, and which might just as accurately be called Two Windows for all we’re able to see of Benning’s reconstructions of dwellings inhabited by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, respectively. Thoreau’s window is vertical, extended beyond the upper and lower borders of Benning’s fixed frame, the view of a knoll and jumble of grass, leaves and tree, broken up by horizontal lines, the whole composition recalling certain Rothkos. As far as sound goes, the general buzz of forest pervades. Somewhere a dog barks, but only once. A large vehicle lumbers past—we’re close to a highway? Really? The scene goes on and on and on and so we watch and watch and watch and soon become aware of the peculiar coexistence of these feelings: you’re looking out the eye-level window of a cabin in a sunny wood, alone, at peace, perhaps after a long trip; you’re in the middle of a city, looking at a raised glowing screen in a big dark room with people in it. This is a way of being alone with one’s self while sitting amid a crowd of silent strangers.
Kaczynski’s window is, by contrast, claustrophobic, a square contained easily by the parallel framing, the woods beyond resembling a miniature impressionist painting. I kept thinking of this window as a sphincter—was it because of the darkened knots in the wooden walls? Thoreau’s cabin feels like freedom and perspective; Kaczynski’s like entrapment and paranoia. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, a space for dreaming of civil disobedience and a space for planning attacks on civilization, and its duration, 30 minutes in total, feel just about right to absorb what it has to offer, to slip off into reverie and then slip right back in, drawn to details, and to that weird effect of stasis slowly becoming something alive and nearly mobile. A deeply inspired, immersive work.