Christopher Pavsek: Scenes from Deseret
March 10 – 25, 2022 | Lobby Screens – SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 W. Hastings St., Vancouver | Free
"Scenes from Deseret" was initially inspired by two sources: the ever-changing landscape of the state of Utah in the US, and James Benning's film about the state, Deseret (1992).The history of Utah recounted in Benning's film ended in 1992. A lot has happened since then, and I wanted to capture some of the changes in the landscape in the intervening 30 years and the changes in image-making technology. Benning worked at the time in 16mm and recorded mono sound with a Nagra; my film is shot in 4k (though presented here only in HD) and recorded digitally with 32-bit floating point technology. The current film is a short formal experiment created to accompany a longer film, currently in post production, by the same title.
I've been asked about the formal method behind this film. Here's a brief explainer: I've retained some of Benning's "structural" rigour as a bit of a homage to his work. The left image (shot at my favourite place in Utah, Hatch Point) increases in brightness over 15 minutes and 30 seconds. The 29 images on the right are arranged in order of descending average luminance, with the image in the middle of this sequence—the sign that says "Welcome to Utah”—exposed to the mean average luminance of the other 28 shots. Its average luminance is also the same, roughly, as the middle minute of the left image. Each of the right images—except the middle image—lasts 30 seconds. The middle image lasts a minute. It is, incidentally, shot at the exact same place as (to within a few feet, I believe) and framed nearly identically to the closing shot of Benning’s Deseret.
The audio track follows a similarly arbitrary "mathematical" progression, combining ascending and descending and descending and ascending F Major and D Minor scales played simultaneously. Each note's duration (except at the beginning and end) is 30 seconds. One track plays a MIDI cello; the other plays a MIDI clarinet.
What does it all mean?
I've been asked this even before the film was shown publicly. It's never a good sign to get this question before the film has unspooled even once.
All I can do is quote Jean-Luc Godard, who once said about the difficulty of his late films: "In films, we are trained by the American way of moviemaking to think we must understand and 'get' everything right away. But this is not possible. When you eat a potato, you don't understand each atom of the potato!''
This film is part of a project funded by the Office of Research Services at SFU and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. My thanks, as well, to the patience and endurance of the security guards who listen to this film approximately 32 times during an 8-hour shift. I hope that the soundtrack does not haunt your sleep.