Shot by Shot: Study of River by Peter Hutton

Shot 1

A large chunk of early evening sky dominates about three quarters of the frame, the Hudson River a vague shimmering body at the bottom spanning the horizon, in the background the late-day silhouette of a line of hills that form a part of the Catskill Mountains. Though the preceding title card informs us that the focus of the film is, nominally at least, the river, in the opening shot it is the grandeur of the sky with its formation of clouds like dark continents stretching out into the impenetrable distance that is the center of attention. The eye is attuned to the nearly imperceptible dream-like drift of the clouds from right to left, which in their movements perform a subtle play that alternates between obscuring and revealing the sun’s rays, reaching a silent crescendo as a perfect sphere of the sun’s outer disk bursts through the darkening shapes, creating a blinding contrast between light and dark, only to disappear moments later behind a sheath of cloud – like the momentary opening and closing of an eye. At the same time, the sun’s light hits the water at a direct angle, illuminating the river’s surface down the middle for the briefest of moments, long enough to suggest the actual breadth of the river, long enough to blink one’s eyes several times and then it’s gone. Meanwhile, the hills in the background remain passive, untouched by the light, as cloaked in shadow as ever. A horizontal band moving from right to left where river merges with hill suggests a passing train as seen from a great distance, the locomotive catching the tips of the sun’s gleam and appearing smaller than a miniature toy in the way it is flung out and shrunken under the wide-eyed immensity of the sky. It is a shot of sheer splendor, full of tiny narrative actions consisting of light, shadow, movement, and stillness, and is imbued with a romanticism and a feel for the sublime that borders on the burlesque.  It is both a beautiful image and an image of beauty.

Shot 2

A nighttime forest road sunk in the coldness of winter. No sign of the river. The angle of the shot is slightly raised so that the road is only partially visible as it curves left around a bend, disappearing into darkness. The road is bounded by tall pine trees coated in ridges and shapeless forms of snow like cake frost, with a streetlamp shining its pale light upon the tops of the branches, while three lines of electric cable wiring lead and get lost in the labyrinthine knot of branches and brush. The shot has a hushed, almost ominous quality that the opening shot did not. Whereas the opening image resembles a complete sentence or a stanza of a poem, Shot 2 has a sense of the unfinished, a sense of waiting for something about to happen, perhaps something or someone emerging from that mysterious bend in the road.

Shot 3

The same nighttime forest road from a wider angle, giving the scene a breadth and scale that the previous shot did not have, like being given extra room to breathe in. The light from the streetlamp shines brightly now on the dirty snow-covered road and, with a squint of the eyes, one can make out the innumerable car tire tracks that have left their traces, no doubt all winter long, upon the road and that have crushed the snow down into a fine slippery surface, like the surface of an ice-skating rink or a river frozen over. A traffic sign to the left of the frame warns of the sudden left turn up ahead – and can it be that there is a hatted figure clad in all black, hands thrust in a long coat, leaning against the signpost, the white of his face an indistinct smudge in the overall blackness? Could this be a man leaning, standing solitary in the cold winter night, waiting for a ride to pick him up and take him back to some small clapboard town? Or is it merely a trick of the eye, a trick of cinema, a human-like shape composed out of the intricate tangle of darkness, light, trees and snow?

Shot 4

A lateral tracking shot of the Hudson as seen from the starboard bow of a boat underway, though there is nothing to suggest the actual size of the vessel. Rather the shot is merely suspended above the water, floating over the small chunks of ice at a steady pace. A small hill like a hump dotted with countless leafless trees slips out of frame as the vessel turns, slowly moving leftward, revealing a bend in the river and further downstream are more substantial looking peaks that form a valley. The reflection of the hills in the water, though vaguely outlined at the beginning of the shot as if drawn on by a child’s unsteady hand, grow indistinct and amorphous as the ship turns left, as if that same child’s hand had wiped away his own drawing. A white bird, the size of a pin prick, emerges seemingly out of nowhere top left of the frame, flying out only to return moments later, tracing a wider arc in the sky over the river against the grey backdrop of the mountain, following the course of the vessel. This is the first mobile shot of the film, a depopulated terrain, although the way the banks of the river merge with the side of the mountain at an upward angle and then plateau to form a kind of manmade path that runs along the entire length of the hill, suggests the presence of railway tracks.

Shot 5

A continuation of Shot 4: a tracking shot of the river as seen from the bow of a vessel, flanked on the right by a row of hills, ice chunks floating motionless in the water, and in the distance the ghostly shape of a wire bridge spanning the banks. (Connecting what towns lost in the fog and the frozen numbness of a Northeast winter?) Suddenly, on the right side of the frame, from the dark indentation formed by where the two hills merge (though this is merely a trick of perspective) emerges a train from a tunnel, whether a passenger or merchant train, it is too hard to tell, though judging by the small number of railroad cars, it would suggest a local commuter Amtrack train. The train speeds along parallel to the river, hugging the side of the mountain as it moves in the opposite direction of the shot, and then it disappears out of sight. Bridges, trains, the railway, man’s inventions in technology that are embedded in the landscape and used to facilitate commerce along the river.

Shot 6

A sudden jolt to perspective as the river appears to have risen up to the sky and the hills hang upside down like strange growths, the ice floes drifting like geometric glass clouds in the liquid firmament. For a moment, it is impossible to tell what is up from down, image from mirror image, a shot of defamiliarization that throws the physical laws of the world off of their measured, ordered tracks. This is the most surreal image of the film thus far, a breaking-up the introspective quality that has characterized the previous five shots, though equally charged with a sense for the poetic. A world runny and confused and as beautiful as gazing through the looking glass.

Shot 7

A large hill as viewed from a tracking shot from a boat sailing downriver, the heaped pile of earth and sandstone and trees and snow silent and as still as a sculpture. The dark rails of the train tracks can be seen running alongside the bottom of the mound right along the shore, with the river-water so close to the tracks it looks like it would only take a light rain to flood them. A manmade path or road appears to traverse the hill at an upward diagonal from right to left, emerging from the side of the hill where the trees are plentiful and the snow barely visible on the ground. The multitudinous shades of blacks, greys and whites, how one tone bleeds into the next transforms this otherwise prosaic shot into a rich surface of interplaying color and texture.

Shot 8

The water looks as black as tea between the large shining ice floes that transform the surface of the river into a system of many little rivulets, rather than a single body. Captured from the bow of the ship with the jack staff dividing the shot right down the middle, creating two plains of action, this is the first time the vessel itself is visible within the frame, providing the shot with a feeling of actually being on a voyage, traveling down an uncharted waterway, the low-lying hills in the distance signifying the beginning of new land.

Shot 9

A still shot from the bank of the Hudson River frozen over white as a sheet with a path of open water cut down the middle of the ice where a ship has broken through and in the distance in the center of the frame stands a two-story white house no larger than a thumbprint set down in a snow-covered clearing surrounded by tall bare trees bunched together like a quilt under a cold grey sky. The peaceful stillness of this Edward Hopper-like scene lasts only long enough for one to exhale a single breath before a large ice cutter enters frame right, its size literally obliterating the surrounding landscape from view as it progresses laterally across the frame at a steady pace, creating three bands of monochromatic colors: the white of the frozen river, the black of the ship’s body, the slate of grey sky. As the cutter moves out of the frame, it’s shown to be pulling a tugboat in its wake, comically small in comparison and further emphasizes the shot’s play with scale. The first shot of the film to show a vessel in its entirety, whale-sized and dominating the waterway, a stark contrast to the tiny postcard idyll of the house in the background and surrounding forest and glade. The ship looks like it moves of its own accord, without any outside or human intervention, a mechanized hunk of metal moving through the landscape. Yet the image refuses to collapse into a set of easily decoded symbols, nor does it take on the mournful air of a commentary on the pitiful battle between nature and industry; it merely shows the two co-existing side by side, juxtaposing the different scales that constitute the forms of nature and industry. It remains an image of exactly what it is: a recording of the duration it takes for an ice cutter tugging a tugboat to sail across the frame.

Shot 10

An image of such oneiric delicacy it’s as if all it would take is a slight gust of air to blow the image away: a large metal structure, like a piece of construction equipment (is it the leftover remnant of an abandoned pier, the skeletal framework of shipbuilding equipment, some other factory machinery whose purpose has been forgotten?) eerily hovers over the water in a fog that enwraps the whole scene like in a Chinese print, while a tugboat enters frame right, sailing smoothly over the water that is the color of milk. In fact, it looks as if the whole world were draped in a cool milky cloth that has reduced the shapes of things to pure silhouettes that balance precariously on the border between being and non-being. One imagines the wind blowing the fog away to reveal perhaps the lights of a small town in the distance or a stretch of forest receding towards the horizon. The shot is also an inverse of the previous one with the enormous ship barreling through the landscape; here the tugboat appears at risk of inadvertently slipping into another realm through a tear in the fog’s silky fabric.

Shot 11

A wider shot of the same view repeating the pattern of shots 2 and 3. The metal structure appears to be the situated at the end of a small narrow strip of land that extends out into the river like a naturally formed jetty. From this angle it almost resembles the backboard of an advertising panel or the backside of a movie screen of a drive-in theater. (But that can’t possibly be true). The river is a cool undulating haze between this and the foreground which consists of a snow-covered mound, a kind of observation point from which one can observe the boat traffic moving up and down the Hudson Valley. Sure enough, another tugboat enters frame right, though this time it is tugging a larg barge behind it, creating yet another inverse of Shot 9, as it slowly drifts across the shot.

Shot 12

An image of haunting stillness – a steel cantilever bridge cloaked in fog spans the banks of the Hudson at an east-west angle, the river a wide motionless artery that merges seamlessly with the sky at the horizon beyond the bridge like a single shroud that has enveloped the world; a beautiful, strange dreamworld depopulated and still like Monet’s paintings of the Thames and the Charing Cross Bridge. On both sides of the bridge, low-lying hills stretch out into the distance, enveloped in a Bleak House-like fog. The structure appears to be the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, a former double tracked railroad bridge completed in 1889, the longest bridge in the world at the time of its completion, which carried both freight and passenger trains to the major cities across the East Coast of the country. When the shot was taken it had been taken out of service since 1974 due to a fire. Though today it is a public walkway and a tourist site within the Hudson Valley, in the shot the bridge looks forlorn and lonely, a piece of scrap outside of time connecting towns as flimsy and as ethereal as itself. The river below is the widest it’s been seen thus far, an impassive hibernating waterway dreaming of summer, of commerce and ships.

Shot 13

Sky and water are a single milky canvas in this early morning shot of rowers who have just launched out onto the water in a racing boat. Two other blurry figures stand on the boat ramp and watch as the rowers paddle the boat at a vertical angle to head out down the river and as the boat turns riverwards the rowers, grown fuzzy by the angle and the morning fog, resemble a gaggle of geese heading out to sea. A white bird (the same one from Shot 4?), possibly a seagull, emerges into the frame bottom right against a tree only to lose form and disappear as it flies over the water. As the first discernable human figures to make an appearance in the film, they are small and almost indistinguishable against the grey-white of the river, whose waters tremble in the morning wind and their tiny boat, compared to the other vessels thus far, looks as if it could easily disappear forever into the vast nothing that lies just beyond the lip of the frame.

Shot 14

A view of the river from high up on a bridge, the shot pointing at such an angle that it includes a section of the railway bridge, a wide strip of river, and an assortment of industrial structures that look like factories and hangars amongst clumps of forest along the shore. Light ripples of water move landwards suggesting wind or the approach of a vessel.  A white ship, dwarfed by the distance and the breadth of the river, enters frame right from underneath the bridge, moving at an impossibly slow pace up the waterway and a single chimney rises out of its top, though no smoke appears to be wafting from its opening into the air.

Shot 15

Another view of the river from high up on a bridge spanning the Hudson, this time from a more oblique angel with a ship loading station floating out in the water like a metal island and a ship passing by. Three cable wires cross the frame, dividing the image into four irregularly shaped plains; in the top right corner, a very small of stretch railroad line. Just as the ship is about to exit the frame bottom right, a cargo train rides by, each container smaller than toy blocks.  The angle of the shot makes these massive constructions – loading station, ship and train – look insignificant in comparison to the cut-out section of the river and the perspective is akin to a great Something looking down at man’s technological innovations.

Shot 16

An aerial shot of the river’s surface, the deep black of the waters filling the image from frame to frame, an image of such abstract, yet disquieting stillness that at first, it’s difficult to recognize what you are seeing; it could just as well be a cross-section of a night sky or of outer space, like Malevich’s Black Square painting, where the longer you look, the longer it feels like you are being launched into an abyss. The way the river is framed suggests being far out at sea with no land in sight. A white bird (possibly the same one?) quickly glides over the water through the air across the right side of the frame and out of sight. Suddenly, a shadow falls upon the surface of the water in the top left of the frame followed by small bursts of white foam as a large ship’s hull slowly emerges into the shot. As the ship moves across the frame, it gradually reveals the full scale of its size, eventually filling the entire diagonal length of the screen. The ship’s deck is a confusing assortment of metal pipes and machinery and a spinning satellite dish at the stern, the wisp of a flag flutters in the wind; other than that, the ship feels unpopulated, operated by no one.  The vessel has barely exited the frame before the shot fades to black, leaving a trail of wavelets and ripples in its wake, its journey across the shot having lasted almost a minute. Looking at the image, you get a feel for the remarkable silence that has accompanied the film thus far. Recorded with sound, this shot would no doubt have been an opera of noise: imagine the sound of water parting as the ship carves its path across its surface, the clang of metal, the whoosh of the wind. Here, the operatic elements are all visual. It is an image that accumulates meaning as it progresses and actually contains a sense of exalted drama; something is actually HAPPENING.

Shot 17

A return to land and pure stillness: nothing appears to move in this beautiful nighttime shot of a road bathed in light from a streetlamp. The road makes a sharp left turn and disappears out of view. At the point where the road begins to curve stands the thick trunk of a tree, framed such that it is placed dead center in the shot, drawing the eye towards it. The branches and clumps of foliage that overhang the top of the shot suggest that the camera too is placed underneath a tree; this would explain the overall darkness of the image. The way the light hits the road makes it glitter like a strip of the Milky Way, while the single dot of light center left of the frame might be a lighted window glimpsed through the forest-dark or maybe another streetlight or perhaps it is just a technical fault within the shot. After the ‘action’ of Shot 16, here is another contemplative image of nighttime melancholy, a road somewhere in the big nowhere of the country, a terrain that recalls the aura of the paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, the name of one which could easily be applied to this shot: Evening on the River.

Shot 18

A close-up of a spherical rain puddle on a road a night, the wet asphalt shining in the streetlight and muddy with tire tracks. The shape of the puddle repeats the shape of the disk of the sun in Shot 1 as it illuminates the world one last time before disappearing behind a cloud. The reflection of the sky in the puddle is full of falling raindrops, which in the light look like shooting stars zigzagging across the firmament or electrical sparks flickering wildly in the dark.

Shot 19

An even tighter close-up of the mudpuddle further accentuating the feeling of staring into the cosmos: the raindrops careen and shoot across the dark water’s surface like tiny atoms, each a planet onto itself shooting around aimlessly in the darkness of space: the micro and the macro contained in a single image. An inverse of Shot 16, which revealed the sheer largeness of the ships and the waterway, here this insignificant puddle of dirty mud-water has been placed under a magnifying glass and blown up. The affect is akin to pressing your fingers against your eyelids and seeing what shapes emerge. A Y-shaped twig (like two paths branching off) floats momentarily over the surface of the puddle and then is lost in the incessant flickers and swirls. Here, a new level of abstraction is reached with the representational world almost completely absent from the image: all that remains is this water the color of oil and ecstatic squiggles of light bouncing off the edge of the visible universe.

Shot 20

The sunlight hits the river in such a way that it glitters like a thousand diamond shapes, brilliant and blinding, as if some kind of special electricity were coursing through it. The shot again is expansive, showing the river as a large dazzling surface of light and shadow, fully abstracted from its commercial use as a ‘highway’. Here, it is a continuously shapeshifting canvas in which no two moments are ever the same. Each instance is teeming with new shapes and forms, an image like music that has freed itself of the constraints of structure. Even after the shot has ended, its afterimage continues to play on the underside of the eyelids; you just keep on looking…

 Shot 21

A shot from the same perspective with the same glittering light effect only from much higher with a wider angle that shows a single cable wire cutting diagonally across the frame, dividing it into two plains. The effect is of someone balancing from a precarious height looking down at the waterway, whose surface is like an electric field alive with ripples and undulations in the afternoon sunlight.

Shot 22

The river looks like those dancing black and white dots that used appear on analogue television screens or the faulty videotapes one would rent years ago. The effect is hypnotic like watching snow falling. There are four shapes of clear water like islands of land on the shimmering surface, a mirage caused by the way the light strikes the water. For a moment, they first look like ships anchored out a sea and it is only after this visual mix-up clears away that you begin to really see the image, in the same way that, after illusions and mistakes give rise to a metaphor, do you really notice what’s in front of you.

Shot 23

Ice floes lazily float diagonally from left to right downriver, transforming the waters of the Hudson River into a something akin to a pre-historic ice sculpture. Never has the river looked so raw and turgid, with the ice looking like shards of broken glass or tectonic plates that have been dumped into the water or like mountain ranges seen from a great distance. (The metaphors pile on.) The way the floes drift together and apart create tiny rivulets and waterways within the river itself, turning it into a kind of puzzle for the eye to get lost in and looking as hushed and mysterious and remote as a river in a dream.

Shot 24

A wide shot of the river littered with ice floes, its surface like a field from another planet; the sight is both beautiful and terrifying to behold for its otherworldly quality. A ship enters from the right, carving a path for itself through this lugubrious terrain, a lonely vessel adrift in the landscape.  It resembles an image from those earlier films from the first few decades of cinema that show the expeditions to the South Pole, hazardous journeys to the ends of world and cutoff from land.

Shot 25

A vertical downward shot through the trestles of a bridge of the ice floes drifting left to right across the frame at an impossibly slow pace like large pieces of shredded rock, as if the water itself had hardened into a single solid mass. The perspective through the bridge construction turns the frame into a dynamic plain of triangular and quadrilateral shapes, an astoundingly rich texture of shifting angles and shapes and colors. An image to daydream oneself into, the river’s lulling current becomes as hypnotic and soothing and pleasurable as watching the wind in the trees or of rain falling.

Shot 26

A vertical downward shot from atop a bridge with the camera placed in such a way that it points directly down the side of a column onto the surface of the river, capturing ice floes as they drift past as if on a conveyor belt and strike and bounce off the sides of the stone structure. The ice floes move as if in slow-motion reminiscent of lava, their sizes ranging from that of a fist to large sheets like floating continents. The perspective gives the image a sense of vertigo and rearranges our way of looking at the world, much like the upside-down view in Shot 6.

Shot 27

Another shot of the ice floes through the trestles of the bridge, the metal constructions like railway lines that cut across the surface of the river with the ice floating from right to left. The film’s fascination with showing the drift of the ice and the river from every possible angle resembles a scientific catalogue wherein every perspective and view has to be documented and logged so as to create a record of the poetry particular to the Hudson.

Shot 28

In the foreground a wide arm of the Hudson as seen from its banks fills about a third of the frame with a blur of trees and a small strip of sky marking the background. The middle ground is defined by a thin band of light that spans the frame, the point where water meets shore. In the top right-hand corner, there is the slight slant of a hill, suggesting the presence of mountains further beyond. The river itself is made up of several strands of various shades of light and dark, the current like a beautiful undulating hum with movements as fine as a piece of black and white silk fluttering in a breeze. A steady wind blows from right to left along the unmoving band of light, sending curls of mist to waft horizontally across the frame: the effect is like sand blowing across a desert. In the background, the trees are as impassive as the mountains in Shot 1, bathed in late afternoon shadow. The air looks clear, like the last day of winter or the first real day of spring. The scene is held for a long 45 seconds, in which the body relaxes and becomes, yet again, nothing but an eye, watching as wavelets rise and sink back underneath the surface, as the wind silently blows across the landscape (though you can image the way it gently whooshes over the water) and the light changes as it hits the water at different points: the duration of the shot turns these miniscule forms of motion into EVENTS. Suddenly from the left side of the frame emerges what looks like a transparent wisp of a small sail and it takes several moments to realize that it is the lighted side of a large ship’s bow. The ship’s massive hull is so dark that it is indistinguishable from the dark trees in the background, making it look all the more like a foreign body that is intruding upon the landscape as it progresses further into the shot. Here, the river is not a ‘highway’ so much as a waterway being invaded. Stasis and motion, light and shadows, nature and industry – the shot, like every image in the film, is made up of a subtle play of these binaries. The ship’s pace is so slow, it feels like it would take a small eternity to complete the frame. But soon the shot fades to black, cutting its journey short.